It's impossible not to be intimidated. Not just by the sheer physical size of the thing — a chipboard box big enough to hold one of my cats and about twice as heavy — but by the legacy. AKIRA is as foundational as it gets for manga in the modern age. And yet for the longest time I never engaged with it directly, always putting it off. Then came a weekend, many months after this artifact arrived at my house, when I just flipped open the top of the box and pulled out the first volume. Almost immediately, I felt resistance: a work this sprawling, mean, flat-out nihilistic is hard to take in these precarious times. But maybe there is never a "good" time to deal with any creative work, just whatever time on earth we have to spare, and my regret was quickly replaced with, as I had anticipated, both awe and ambivalence.
From 1988 to 2018
You ought to know the story by now. Or, rather, if you know the story, it's by way of AKIRA's animated adaptation, which throws out something like three-fifths of the original. All the more reason to experience it in its original, completist incarnation: much of what went missing from the original was not just happenstance, but the kind of detail that kept the bleakness of the story from shading over into the outright nihilism we saw in the movie.
For those who don't know it, AKIRA opens with, and functions throughout to some degree as, an allegory about Japan's death and rebirth at the end of WWII. A "new type of bomb" exploded over Tokyo in 1988, leaving most of it in ruins. In the decades since, the city has rebuilt and restored itself, but — as many in Japan, not all reactionaries, also said about the country's recreated material prosperity — at the cost of its spirit. Its towers are sterile and soulless; its streets filthy and crime-ridden.
At the street level, "Neo-Tokyo" is raked by teenaged biker gangs that collide in rumbles and stake out abandoned buildings as their headquarters. One such delinquent gang comes into focus immediately — the one featuring teen biker hotshot Kaneda and his more runtlike sidekick Tetsuo. They have no ambitions greater than to tear up the avenues, sample highs, chase skirt, and bunk off from the prison-like reform school where they're currently doing time. Then one night Tetsuo gets into an accident when a strange, wizened-looking little boy appears in front of them while they're driving, and is almost immediately whisked away by what look like military authorities.
Kaneda learns his buddy has not simply been busted. The wizened figure was one of a number of experimental test subjects the government has been keeping on ice for decades, part of a failed and now-terminated project to enhance human psychic abilities. Tetsuo, as it turns out, has had similar abilities — latent but now being teased out of him by both the other test subjects and a shadowy government figure, the "Colonel", that want to harness such power for its own ends.
Kaneda and his buddies end up in the middle of all this — the government on one side, and a gang of revolutionaries with roots deep in the existing power structure on the other. It's a measure of Kaneda's callowness (and shallowness) that he's not motivated by anything more complex than his contempt for authority in all forms, his being hot for female revolutionary Kei, and his conflicting feelings about his friend. But, in true "purity of youth" fashion, Kaneda's lack of sophistication — his urge to just do what has to be done — may be his saving grace, even if he is kind of a jerk.
And now you'll know the rest of the story
This is where manga and film begin to diverge, both in plot details and in intentions. Once Tetsuo's powers begin to manifest in earnest, he's drawn to the massive underground cryogenic vault wherein slumbers Akira, the most powerful of the psychic children. Akira's power was what caused the 1988 disaster, and Tetsuo has picked up enough clues about how his power and Akira's are complementary to want to find out for himself what's happening to him.
In the movie, all that remained of Akira were a few frozen samples on a slide, although it was implied that his power transcended any particular body or even moment in time. Here, Akira himself — a boy only a few years old — rises from the cryochamber like Jesus from behind the rock, and the re-triggering of his power causes most of Neo-Tokyo to be leveled in another cataclysm like the one from forty years back.
The devastated city becomes an arena for a new conflict, one with more parties on all sides and a great deal of complex and shifting loyalties. Some of the survivors have banded together under Tetsuo and Akira to create what they call the "Great Akira Empire," a dictatorship powered by their psionic miracle-working. Against them are the other test subjects, now under the stewardship of one of their own: Lady Miyako, a priestess/shaman with an intuitive understanding of how Akira's power works, and how Tetsuo's own growing power can only be tamed from within, not without. Kaneda and Kei scrape together what allies they can, both to protect themselves against the likes of the Colonel (now armed with an orbital laser weapon), and perhaps to bring the fight to Tetsuo as a way to keep his power from raving entirely out of control. And the military forces of other nations mass offshore and prepare their own assaults, although they find out all too late how badly they've underestimated Tetsuo's development.
A piece of its soul was missing
Again, the movie left out far more than just a significant chunk of the middle of the story. Some of that is among the most eye-popping set-pieces ever put to paper, as when Tetsuo finds he's powerful enough to deorbit a satellite and smash it into an aircraft carrier. But most of the deletions were about character and theme. Lady Miyako, for instance, is a major and pivotal character in the manga, a vehicle through which Kaneda (and Kei in particular) are able to match Tetsuo's power, even if at first they refuse to trust her. All of that is reduced to marginalia or footnotes in the film, or omitted entirely.
What I found the manga provides most that the film does not is some sense of the meaning of all this. We learn in the film of the way the power Akira and Tetsuo command are not from them but through them, and that control of the power is an evolutionary test for man's development. But the manga goes into more detail about this — again, by way of Lady Miyako — and makes it all the clearer how compassion and companionship, the fraternity of humans, is what gives mankind mastery of such things. It was the brotherhood of suffering between the experimented-on children that allow them to support each other. Tetsuo has only ever known such a thing from Kaneda, and only then as a child — and where is that feeling now that both of them are hotheaded teenagers? Is there enough of it left to draw on to save them?
The other major difference in meaning provided by the manga comes at the end. (Warning: spoilers.) After a climactic fight in what's left of the 2020 Olympic arena (the movie preserves most of this part), rather than allow international peacekeeping forces into the city, Kaneda and his other cronies decide to make the "Great Akira Empire" their own. Instead of just driving off into the sunset as survivors, as they do in the film, they ride home here as conquerors. We're not offered any insight into whether or not they will succeed — whether Neo-Tokyo will remain a crumbling Mad Max landscape, or whether Kaneda and the others will in fact build something new out of those ashes, or how Akira's power would help them do it. But it's not hard to see what they think: Surely they can't do any worse a job with this place than the adults did. After all, look how they left it.
The manga at the end of the world
Turn to most any page in these six volumes, and you'll see why every discussion about AKIRA's story eventually falls away. Decades on, it is still among the most spectacular of comics ever made. I say "spectacular" not just as generic praise that it fills the eyes, but to describe the specific way it does that. The scope of the action, the level of the devastation, the depth of the detail, it's all still worth taking in at least once for its own sake. Like Apocalypse Now, 2001, Dunkirk, or Koyaanisqatsi, it works best as an experience first and a story second. That said, sometimes the experience seems to prolong itself for its own sake — much of the violence gets monolithic and repetitive, even when I admired every impeccably illustrated panel of it. It's fascinating to see Tetsuo devolve into a massive cancer-baby creature (a nod to 2001?), but not when it feels like it's being done as a holding action instead of a story advancement technique.
No digital edition of the manga exists Stateside, but maybe that's for the best; you need something like this to be splayed out across your lap on the largest trim size possible, the better to see every lovingly etched line and intimately inked surface. And only now are Western audiences able to obtain the full effect: for a long time we had to make do with a version that was optically flopped and re-lettered in the old analog style.
I've written before about how a re-adaptation of the source material in its complete form could work — not as another animated film, and not as a live-action film (a redder herring is hard to find), but as a TV series. Digital production techniques, even for a TV budget, make it far easier to create the kind of detailed, immersive environments that used to only be possible by manual labor. But it's TV as a storytelling medium — an episodic, long-form system akin to manga itself — that I think makes it the best fit for something of AKIRA's scope. It wouldn't be cheap, even with all the cost-saving techniques I just mentioned, but there's enough money sloshing around in enough of the right venues (hello, Netflix) to offset that.
AKIRA first hit the stands in 1982, right when Japan was enjoying economic boom times. It ended in 1990, right as the bubble was preparing to burst, but even after that the sense of cataclysm it depicted must still have felt remote enough to fantasize safely about. But reading AKIRA in 2018 is unnerving, to say the least. Not just because of it being set only a year out from the moment we're actually in; not just because the 2020 Olympics are in fact being hosted in Tokyo. But because the sense of cataclysm in the story's pages feel closer to our moment in time than, say, any of its technology (none of which is all that advanced, anyway).
Perhaps the good times as we knew them, the times that made it possible for something like AKIRA to be created and also savored, were only what they were by dint of not having their veneer shattered. And now we are now moving into an era where more of us will not need to experience calamity vicariously, because we won't have a choice — calamity will come and stand at every door. But maybe that makes the underlying message of this story, one buried both by inaccessibility and maladaptation, all the more urgent. We are not as gods; we only think we are. We're kids playing with toys. If it's real godhood we want, that will only come by way of solidarity with others we mistakenly think godhood will let us do without.