If you’re a comic fan you’re guaranteed to have one. Whether you have a literal stack of comics in the corner of the room, or like me more of a fantasy list in your head, there are always those comics that, for one reason or another, you’ve never got around to reading no matter how much you want to, or even should, read them.
So this is My Comic Book Bucket List (or CBBL for short!) – each time I’ll be reading and reviewing, in-depth, the series or volumes that have eluded my gaze for far too long and now demand my attention, and one by one I’ll get them crossed off that never-ending list.
For this, my inaugural CBBL, I’ve chosen the seminal Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo. This was a no-brainer. I’ve loved the 1988 movie ever since I was first introduced to it many years ago, and repeated viewings have only made me love it more. I generally think that my favourite genre of movie (or sub-genre if you’re being pedantic) would be ‘80’s Sci-Fi movies’. Seriously, type that into Google and see how many amazing films are included in that group. For some reason I’ve never gotten around to reading the original Akira Manga, however it’s been on my bucket list since the very first viewing of that film.
First published in Japan’s ‘Young’ Magazine in 1982 through to 1990 (totalling over 2000 pages), Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira was translated into English by Mary Jo Duffy for Marvel’s Epic Comics line in 1988, the same year the film was released in Japan (it would take another 2-3 years for the movie to make it to western audiences). Otomo remained closely tied to his work throughout this time: he retained creative control over the animated production which was being produced concurrently with the Manga, and when it was serialised by Marvel for the West, Akira was fully colourised for the entire 38 issue run by Steve Oliff – an artist Hand-picked by Otomo himself. Thanks to Oliff, Marvel were persuaded to use computer colouring for the run, and it became the first ongoing comic book to do so, revolutionising the way comics were coloured. Generally credited with having introduced both manga and anime to Western audiences, Akira’s distinct dystopian style greatly influenced those around it (Anime such as Ghost in the Shell a prime example) and is a masterful piece of work.
I’ll be reviewing the first volume of Dark Horse’s release, currently the only version available that’s translated into English language.
Akira is an epic in every sense of the word, and as you read through this already pretty hefty first volume and realise that you have another 5 like this to go, you can really appreciate the scale of this saga. As the original was published in serialised form you’d expect the structure of the narrative to almost suffer when collected like this, but thankfully it all flows nicely together, and I suspect it could have continued flowing had it not been interrupted by the back of the book.
This first chapter then introduces us to Neo Tokyo in 2030, 38 years after World War III. If the devastation of that conflict is not felt directly in the first view pages (the reader getting a first hand look at the ‘new type of bomb’ exploding in Japan) then it is most certainly felt throughout the landscape of the Post-War city, both literally (as the characters at one point stumble upon the open maw of Ground Zero) and figuratively; the shock waves of that explosion still reverberate through the society and people, instilling cynicism and anarchic apathy in the following generation.
It’s this new generation we follow (Neo-Generation?) in the form of Shotaro Kaneda, leader of the motorcycle Capsule Gang – also known as Bosozoku in Japanese subculture. One of many gangs which have taken over the streets, this stereotypical group of no good punk kids ride around the restricted districts of Old Town (almost riding straight into the aforementioned Ground Zero) without a plan or a care, when one of their own – Tetsuo Shima – narrowly avoids colliding with a mysterious child in the middle of the road who then promptly vanishes.
This incident sets off all manner of plot threads that weave around not only each other but protagonist Kaneda as he comes into contact with numerous groups; a secret Government project seemingly exploiting special children like Takashi (the boy in the road); the terrorist resistance out to fight against the government and later uncover the plans of this secret project, not to mention its ties to the mysterious Akira; a violent turf war with rival bosozoku the Clown Gang; and most importantly his best friend Tetsuo who, following his accident, starts taking on powerful, disturbing new traits such as Psychokinesis and who soon enough starts attracting everyone’s attention.
It’s important to note here that Kaneda – loosely considered the main character and certainly the focus through at least this first volume – is, to put it bluntly, a douchebag. He’s a rebellious teen yes, and he’s definitely charming to those around him, but he’s also selfish, arrogant, uncaring and rude to pretty much anyone. You’re not meant to like him; there’s a scene where we see the closest thing to a girlfriend he has – a young nurse at his school – kiss him and tell him she’s pregnant, only for him to react like she’s a circus freak (“Hey, great! Can I watch you have it?”) then immediately move on to what he wants from her. It’s not that he is awkwardly changing the subject, he just doesn’t care – he’s using her to get drugs for him and his friends. Add to that the moment later on where he attempts to force himself onto Kei (prominent member of the Resistance and apparent sister to the group’s leader) and it’s clear that no, you’re really not meant to like him here.
Kei however is the exact opposite. Along with her ‘brother’ Ryu, she is focused, driven; seemingly idealistic in her goals but realistic in her methods, she’s not afraid to kill a man but fights for what she believes in. The only selfless people in an increasingly selfish world, this immediately makes you root for the Resistance upon their introduction. Well, this and the incredibly dubious actions of Colonel Shikishima and the government he represents. It’s through the Colonel that we uncover more about the bomb at the beginning of the story, about its ties to Akira (an unknown entity at this point in the story, although we get a terrifying double page glimpse of where ‘it’ is contained, deep beneath a proposed Olympic site at Ground Zero) and how it all links in to Tetsuo and his burgeoning psychic powers.
Tetsuo is a hard character to crack this early on. As a fan of the film I was expecting more of a set up of his character before his transformation, but the pace at which his powers develop is frenetic, with not much time to establish just who he is. We get a glimpse later in the story when he faces off against Kaneda for the first time, telling him “I don’t take orders from you”. There’s a definite inferiority complex there, and one I can’t help but feel will be explored more fully in later volumes through the use of flashbacks or maybe just exposition. The point is there’s enough there to drag you in, and his pain is believable – you can’t help but feel for him and even side with him at first. This is just a kid, and he is lashing out just like any scared teenager would, except in this case when he lashes out, people’s heads tend to implode.
The plot, much like Tetsuo’s plight, moves at a breakneck speed. There are some set pieces early on showcasing young Takashi’s powers (a collapsing water tower and a canal bed near decimated by him, both of which dragging innocent bystanders, rebels and government soldiers into the chaos) that are laid out on the page perfectly. Other key moments include an invasion of soldiers in the rebel hideout and subsequent escape; a gory beginning to Tetsuo’s increasingly disturbing abilities; a warehouse collapse and oh so many chase scenes.
Whether on foot or on bike; in the underground labyrinthine sewer system or on the overcrowded city streets; whether clashing with government grunts on hover-bikes or rival gangs on motorcycles, it’s when the speed increases that the story takes on a life of its own. The art and choreography combine beautifully to ensure that no matter how fast the action, you always know exactly what’s going on. It’s a feat no short of amazing, as there is a lot going on within each panel sometimes that under less talented hands the details of movement would be lost in a blur.
There are of course, quieter character moments that help develop the individuals involved. During the collapse of both the water tower and the canal basin, Kaneda shows just how street smart he is – he’s fast on his feet both literally and figuratively. I think of all the characters, he’s the one that will evolve the most as the story progresses. Much like Tetsuo in fact; although his physical transformation is more immediate, there are signs of his personality taking on more subtle changes too. One of my favourite scenes and in fact a crucial scene in this lengthy chapter is the first conflict between the two leads. More of an emotional battle than the physical conflicts of later on, Kaneda’s admonishment of Tetsuo for nearly beating a man to death brings them both close to the edge while at the same time pushing them farther away from the friends they once were. It’s a relatively quiet scene compared to what follows but it’s charged with emotional power. It packs even more of a punch when re-read after the closing scenes of the book.
A mention should be given also to the psychic children – Takashi, Masaru and Kiyoko. They occupy the quieter scenes at this early stage, but nevertheless they’re vital to the plot moving forward. We only get one scene of them in their ‘habitat’, but already there’s foreboding; Kiyoko’s dream of Akira sends Colonel Shikishima into a frantic rage, and Masaru’s moments out in the field attempting to reel in Takashi only add to the sense that these three will become ever more crucial as time goes on.
From seeing the bomb goes off to seeing the vast nothingness it leaves behind, Katsuhiro Otomo’s art is never short on scope. There are a number of occasions where the characters are nothing more than ants compared to the size of the landscape; Ground Zero being a perfect example, but there’s also the moment that Kaneda reaches a dead end in the sewer only to look out on a vast underground chasm in front of him; or the moment the Colonel’s helicopter lands and the reader is treated to a detailed two page spread; or the most frightening of all – the Akira containment facility. Yet for all these moments, it’s when the focus is drawn to Neo-Tokyo itself that the art really shines. Don’t get me wrong – Neo-Tokyo is a dump. It is a grimy, chaotic, disgarded mess of urban sprawl. I wouldn’t want to live there, but boy does it sing on the page. There are wide shots of the skyline which draw your gaze for longer than the story requires, followed by tighter shots of the city streets as they fly past in a blur of blood and motorcycles. Close ups of decaying, lived in buildings like the bowling alley that serves as a home to the Clown Gang all tell their own story through the smallest, most intricate of details. This becomes a believably realistic world. It’s a lived-in world; you get a true sense that you’ve entered a city that has been around for so much longer than merely the start of the page count. It all adds up to make the surroundings instantly relatable, yet oh so prone to imitation – I would however like to stress that there are whole epic sci-fi sagas set in less immersive environments than this one story. I would love to read this again with Steve Oliff’s computer painted colours throughout, but the fact that nearly all of the book (apart from the first few pages) is in black and white is wholly unnoticeable once you’re fully immersed.
A lot of new readers to the Manga will be, like myself, fans of the anime movie, and as such might be expecting a certain sense of decompression – this is after all over 2000 pages of plot compared to just over 2 hours of film. What you get however is a tight, fast paced narrative that flows naturally from one thing to the next and at no point feels like bare bones being fleshed or stretched out. If anything I imagine I’ll return to the film and that it will perhaps feel cramped and hurried. Time will tell, but either way as someone who has seen the film first, I think I can more appreciate how epic in scope this story is having come into it with a general knowledge of where the plot is headed, as well as knowing whereabouts we are in the overall structure by the time we get to the end of this first volume.
I can’t imagine how it felt experiencing this world for the first time in a serialised form. Taking over eight years to complete, it must have really added to the scale of this saga, and make no mistake – whether new fan or old there’s no avoiding the feeling that this is the start to an epic masterpiece, one that deserves to be added to anyone’s bucket list.
All pictures © MASH-ROOM Co. Ltd. and Kodansha Ltd, Tokyo. Graphics adaptation © 1999 Éditions Glénat. All other material © 2000 Dark Horse comics.