Thirty years ago AKIRA by Otomo Katushiro revolutionized western perceptions on what mature animation could be and placed, for a while, Anime’s more artistic and still commercial possibilities at the forefront. AKIRA showed many Americans that “cartoons” were not just an electronic babysitter to accompany sugary bowls of cereal on Saturday mornings. With each waning decade, the Anime landscape has changed with the times, consumer tastes, and marketing teams eager to exploit the saturated environment. While it is fair to say most Anime widely consumed cannot compare to the quality of AKIRA the film’s impact on the global market can still be felt. Instead of grumbling about those changing tastes and return to heavy juvenile themed Anime, I want to focus on the perfection of Otomo’s adaptation of his landmark Manga series of the same name. Specifically, I will analyze four frames from the film, a flashback of sorts, that achieves herculean results in both emotion and narrative with a short series of frames.
Rather than detailing the plot, which is ably covered by other fans here, I want to focus on the above scene. I have laid them out on the page to mimic the revelatory movement of the camera point-of-view used by Otomo in the film. When I first saw the film it was, like many other Anime films of the time, bootlegged onto VHS. Seen before the domestic release, I can remember loving the mecha and character designs, the lifelike flow of action and a “really cool” science fiction story. As I aged and the movie became destination watching, the more I appreciated the beauty of the post-apocalyptic Neo-Tokyo story. More recently still, I found a revelation in four frames that absolutely floored and gutted me.
Kaneda (left) and Tetsuo (right) are childhood friends who grew up in a post-nuclear Tokyo. As the city rose from the rubble, teens like Kaneda and Tetsuo roam the streets in loose biker gangs battling it out over stakes in turf and machismo. Unlike most western narratives, rather than Kaneda being the thrust of the plot (as he is the prototypical rebellious lead) it is his timid lifelong friend that snatched by the powers of science run amok.
Tetsuo is the teen with the good, but not cool bike, he has a girl who likes him but he isn’t pursued by a gaggle of young ladies like Kaneda. Tetsuo is always coming in second, until fate intervenes and he becomes not just number one, but prime destroyer of the world being rebuilt. Transformed into something physically and psychologically monstrous, Kaneda does not become a monster. Rather, Otomo skillfully shows how the boy with the gifts of gods, is driven mad by those powers but is still rooted by the naive, introspective little boy who first met his best friend on the playground. It is that playground, that place, that lifts the characters beyond one-dimensional clichés, into something transcendent and beautiful narratively.
In a glimpse into memory, Kaneda and Tetsuo share a moment of recollection of times long past. When they were both boys, content with chalk and macadam, rather than motorcycles and violence. The above frames perfectly capture the essence of both characters. How they retain those boyhood components into adulthood, yet how they are expressed within the story leads to dramatically different outcomes.
The beauty of what Otomo did in those four frames, panning down over the chalkboard art, is tell a story about two boys which magnifies the tragedy of their situation in the present. Kaneda, with the cool leather jacket and motorcycle, is consumed by sword-wielding giant robots, kaiju, tanks, bullet-trains, toppling buildings, and all manner of flame and action. Kaneda’s drawings exude a personality type that as an adult is chalked up to machismo and testosterone. Tetsuo, however, is so very different from his friend. His world of chalk is of families, meandering paths, floating math equations, bucolic homes by seas populated by cetaceans, and punctuations of trees and flowers. Kaneda is primed for future action, while Tetsuo pines for a family lost.
Rather than a bloated rehash or prequelic meander within the AKIRA framework, Otomo and his team perfectly capture of what is possible with visual storytelling. This is a form of exposition, looking back and filling in the blanks, but is no mere info-dump. It is a tour of the boys psyches, their dreams and fantasies. Kaneda, the man of action and hero in short pants. Kaneda is a dreamer, wistful in a world of flowers and family. They both end up in a gang together, but as displayed in the four frames they should never be remotely considered the same. Neither is a lost cause. Both dream. What Otomo does in those four frames is capture childhood by showing its simplicity as not inherent, but as contrast to the dangerous, ugly world which Kaneda and Tetsuo inhabit. For those reasons, I contend, Otomo finds storytelling perfection in four frames.