Akira: graphic novel vs. film

Akira film poster
I’m reading Akira now after only knowing it as a film, at the encouragement of a thesis student of mine who told me how it differs significantly as a graphic novel. Apparently the film was made before the series of books were done, and Otomo takes the story to a different place, a place he couldn’t inside the constraints of a feature film.

The books are 300 pages each and there’s 6 of them. So far, after just 2 volumes, I can go out on a limb and say the story is ‘better’ in the graphic novels. While I’ve always loved the film, the story struck me as emotionally barren and this last time, as I watched it, I even got a little angry. The story makes some sort of claim on the viewer as being about lost innocence reclaimed, and people who are too pure for the world, but these people are violent psychic child mutants, whose tantrums level city blocks and take thousands of lives. So they aren’t too pure for the world. They’re the psychic versions of school shooters.

One of the ideas that came forward in my graphic novel class this spring was about how there’s a lot of pressure on you to like Japanese science fiction and manga when you’re growing up Asian American in the US. This is more than a little problematic if you’re Korean. The Japanese science fiction always seemed to me a little like watching a violent cousin do something in public that I couldn’t explain to people who. . .did expect me to be able to explain it. And to like it. Because the violent cousin was really, really popular with Americans who otherwise considered me a little or a lot subhuman.

I.e., Akira is Asian, you’re Asian, Akira is cool, you. . .could also be cool. If you liked Akira. So I realized this semester that I’ve always been a little uncritical of Akira, when in fact, I have some basic critiques of it.

The main characters of Akira are all basically terrible but somewhat ordinarily terrible people. Tetsuo and Kaneda are childhood friends from an orphanage, and Tetsuo has always been protected by Kaneda, and has always resented him for needing his protection–Tetsuo is violent but weakly so, parasitic and pathetic. Kaneda is the one approaching the bike in the poster, above. Kaneda’s a bit of a problem, if not a lot of one: violent, sadistic at times, and pathologically certain of his rightness, he’s a daredevil who’s waiting for the world to smack him down. When Tetsuo becomes a psychic giant as a result of government experiments on his mind, and begins a rampage, Kaneda decides it’s his responsibility to kill him, since he’s the one who protected him all this time. He’s aided by the previous government test subject psychic children, who are afraid of the rage and power Tetsuo wields.

So, in other words, Tetsuo, bullied his whole life, suddenly has the power to strike back at the world, and takes his chance. Thus, he must die. He goes from pathetic to monstrous, quickly, with no ability for us to feel compassion for him. When we’re confronted with images of him as a child, it seems a last-gasp manipulation of our compassion, awkward and impossible to allow in given how much death he’s caused.

The film asks us to believe in their friendship’s power at the end. It asks us to care that Kaneda manages to survive the devastation when so many did not, and Tetsuo becomes basically a creature of pure energy who vanishes down into a tiny white pearl of light that Kaneda grips in his hand, as it presumably dissipates into nothing, or into Kaneda. And watching it, watching Kaneda’s grief and compassion, it felt meaningless. I didn’t care. I couldn’t care.

The entire narrative basically says that enormous devastation and loss of life is an acceptable price for the maintaining of a status quo for a very few. At the same time, the narrative does give the viewer the feel of being a rebel, of overthrowing repression and being on the side of the right against the evil that turns children into weapons. And so it is, actually, something perfect for those who make war: the narrative leaves a path in the viewer, leaves them unconsciously familiar with the shape of this narrative, familiar with how to do the things necessary to protect the status quo and continue the oppression the film ostensibly rebels against.

The graphic novel appears to be different, for now. I’ll talk about the difference again after I’m done with the next four volumes.


  1. Although I agree that in general, the graphic novel version of Akira is ‘better’ than the film, ultimately, I have to say that my experience understanding the characters is fundamentally different from your own. I don’t particularly have a difficult time caring about the characters, mainly because I know that who they are is a result of a lack of good upbringing, and I felt that that information was present early in the film. Consider the scenes when the biker gang is in school and how poorly the teachers attempt to discipline them – they are handed to the Coach, whose reaction is mere violence, while the man behind the desk looks on with boredom. In the classroom, their teacher is absent and no substitute is provided for them. It’s hard for many viewers not to care for them when it’s so obvious that they have needed it for a long time and never got it. In that sense, the flashback sequence that appears at the end is not providing new biographical information designed to make you like the characters. It merely takes what you already know and goes more in depth. I read it as Kaneda remembering his friendship with Tetsuo back before it went sour, back before Tetsuo considered Kaneda’s older brother/gang leader-subordinate treatment of him to be a threat to his own masculinity.

    It’s interesting that you describe Tetsuo as the psychic version of a school shooter, which is an apt description in many ways. But when you take that, and combine it with the poor upbringing, there is something that many American audiences can relate to. You know me, Alex, so you know a little more about how I grew up. Predominantly black, low-to-middle class neighborhood. When my middle school heard about Columbine, our main reaction was ‘This kind of violence has been happening in the inner city for years and no one cared.’ I think of Tetsuo as an inner city gangsta (classic case of the father who ran out on the family) and the school shooter as you would describe it, combined. The Columbine school shooters had parents. Tetsuo didn’t. Even though you never hear about the inner city gangstas shooting up the school in the news, for many people, the person in that situation might be easier to relate to than the school shooters at more affluent communities. But I still contend that you don’t need to grow up in the inner city to sympathize with Kaneda and Tetsuo.

    You say, “The entire narrative basically says that enormous devastation and loss of life is an acceptable price for the maintaining of a status quo for a very few.” Exactly what status quo is maintained here? The main character loses his best friend and is forced to grow up. In essence, the tragic destruction of Tokyo is a consequence of a government that wants to experiment with children to create a weapon of mass destruction to go to war with. If there is anything the film says to me, it’s “Don’t treat children like crap either through negligence or maltreatment, whether you’re a parent, a government, a cop, or a member of society.” That does not continue the oppression the film rebels against in any way. A very simple message told in a very complex way. Perhaps the message itself is not the stuff of great literature, but I think to ignore that message entirely is an injustice to the work.

  2. The status quo is, I should have said, a new status quo—those with the abilities of the children who destroy the city. If you watch the film again you’ll find that the film says all of this destruction is okay because humanity is closer to something important. So I should have said, “A new status quo.” It’s a social Darwinist message which cannot go by without a critical mention. And it remains something that undoes any potential radical message in the film, because it condones mass violence on a massive scale.

    I didn’t find the connection you found with Tetsuo in the story. The point you make about Columbine is an excellent one. But I maintain Tetsuo is not of an ethnic minority—he, like all of the characters, is Japanese. He’s an orphan, which is another thing, but it’s why I didn’t think of him that way. There are ethnic minorities in Tokyo, Korean, for example, who, if represented, would be more like the inner city scene you describe. Tetsuo’s American equivalent would be lower class to working class white.

  3. just wanted to say that u dont need 2 b a minority or orphan in order 2 relate to tetsuo and kaneda. anyone whos been punked by the world around them enuff can relate 2 them. my life was pretty shitty being white AND BROKE from LA. I KNO WHAT ITS LIKE TO BE DICKED AROUND. i also kno what its like to grow up next to good ppl who become totally corrupt due to the environment that they grew up in. i dont kno many ppl who cant relate. i’ve yet to read the graphic novels, but akira is my favourite movie of all time and i cant w8 4 the live action. the only reason the original was in cartoon was becuz they couldnt have made it live action back then and give it the justice it deserved. now we can thnx 2 special fx and i cant w8. hollywood doesnt usually make movies this good.

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