AKIRA was a gateway-drug manga and anime to many in my generation, those who entered anime in the latter half of the 1980s or the first half of the 1990s. The original manga is 35 years old this year, a fact only slightly less startling to me than Soundgarden now being considered "classic rock". But one of the people who isn't all that interested in an AKIRA anniversary is AKIRA creator Katsuhiro Ōtomo himself. And I empathize, in big part because of my own work as a creator, and not because of my own work as a critic or my experiences as a fan.
Ōtomo recently gave a detailed interview at Forbes where he revealed his feelings about his best-known work. Some of what he has to say about the industry today is predictable—"I don't really like the art style of most anime these days, the ones that appeal to otaku tastes"—but the most striking thing is the degree of distance he has put between himself and AKIRA as a whole:
... when it comes to Akira I have already finished the original manga and my own anime version too. So in that sense, I am basically done with Akira. If someone wants to do something new with Akira then I am mostly okay with that. As I accepted the offer for a live-action Akira to be made, so I am generally okay with whatever they want to do with it. However, I did give one major condition to a live-action version and that is that I had to check and approve the scenario. ... I think being entirely bound to the original manga of something like Akira would not make any sense as a movie. As for what I would do in terms of adapting Akira into my own live-action movie, I really don't want to do that. I would much rather do something entirely new and separate.
Some of Ōtomo's feeling distant from AKIRA as a movie are not hard to suss out. He was unhappy with the finished result — mostly in technical terms — but did in time feel a little less less alienated from it. But he doesn't seem interested in trying to milk this franchise — he's leaving that to the marketers of the original manga (reappearing in English later this year in a lavish new edition) and the film. He has, in short, moved on.
This might seem inexplicable to people looking in from the outside. Why would someone responsible for something that seminal and iconic feel relatively indifferent to it? To answer that, I had to dig into my own experiences not as a fan or as a critic, but as a creator.
I've written several novels — fantasy and SF, nothing I would dare to compare with AKIRA, but enough, I think, to have some idea of what an extended creative process is like. One thing I've found is that if you sit with any creative work of yours for a year, or two, or three, you grow tired of it. You love it, yes, but you also just want to put this thing out into the world, be done with it, and find something new to do. It's what a creator will work on that is always more potentially fascinating than anything they have already done, even to the creator himself, because the possibilities remain far more unbounded. Finished work is frozen in time, and no longer part of the creators' own sphere of influence; he's given it to the world, and now the world does with it as it will. Best not to get too attached to something that isn't really yours anymore.
I suspect Ōtomo feels the same way. He's shed so many skins over the course of his career than I would have been more surprised if AKIRA had in fact been something he wanted to resurrect. If someone else wants to spearhead a live-action version, they're welcome to do so as long as he gets to sign off on the finished product, but he's not interested in such an undertaking on his own. That's not because he doesn't have experience or skill in that regard, though. He's had an entire second career as a director of commercials, and in fact directed an excellent live-action adaptation of Mushi-shi. It's just that if he has the choice, he'd rather find greener pastures.
The whole interview is worth reading, not just for Ōtomo's own words, but for all the sidelong tidbits, like details about the notoriously mysterious musical collective Geinoh Yamashirogumi. (They provided the score for the AKIRA anime, arguably one of the best of its kind.) Or the way Steamboy's production delays guaranteed the end result wouldn't be as cutting-edge as everyone had hoped. Or how Freedom was really not his project at all, something I'd always suspected given the schizoid nature of the finished work. Or how the iconic motorcycle was inspired by Syd Mead's work, something I'd long suspected but was never certain of.
The most valuable insight, though, is that Ōtomo is not interested in being synonymous with AKIRA, and for that I don't blame him in the slightest. Someone as creative as him shouldn't be trying to live off former glories anyway.