Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Akira, by Katsuhiro Otomo

Akira, in six volumes, by Katsuhiro Otomo
It's 30-odd years since I first read Akira, borrowing each instalment of the beautiful, full-colour run produced by Epic Comics that a schoolfriend's dad was collecting. The six-volume set now available is mostly in black and white (with a few colour pages at the start of each) which, though I know is more authentic, left me a little sad. Yet what a wondrous thing to return to.

The story is set in Neo-Tokyo in the year 2030, the city rebuilt after World War III. Young, rebellious Kaneda leads a pill-popping biker gang charging through the streets, until his impetuous friend Tetsuo has an accident - crashing his bike rather than colliding with a strange, ancient child who appears from nowhere. The child is Takashi, and he's just one of a number of strange not-quite kids with awesome psychic abilities. When Tetsuo starts to exhibit his own terrifying power, it seems he has a connection to the most powerful not-child of them all, a quiet little boy called Akira...

As well as Kaneda and members of his gang, we follow the stories of various rebels, soldiers, scientists and gurus. There are a lot of characters, and it's a mark of Otomo's skill that they're each so distinct. We can easily recognise characters we last saw more than a hundred pages previously. Oh yes, because this is quite the epic, spanning more than 2,000 pages. It starts big - with the devastation of the war - and then builds and builds and builds. 

What struck me reading it again after such a long interval is how much the startling visuals had imbedded in my head - the huge elevator system that descends to the cryogenic storage facility, the ruin of the Olympic stadium, the destruction of the city where skyscrapers rain down from above, and then the ruins emerging from the sea. I've seen the Akira movie several times - recently on Netflix, which prompted this reread. The film is visually amazing and yet it's the comic version that has lodged, for all I only read it once.

I wonder if that's as much to do with the way the images are conveyed as well as what they are. The storytelling is often very visual. Individual panels are full of speed lines and dynamism, but whole spreads can also pass with barely a word spoken, sometimes even no sound effects. What's more, it's all told in dialogue - there is no narration, as in many other comics. Yes, there are some long sequences where information is dumped on us, but on the whole it's concise and immediate. The effect is to not so much read it but soak it in through the eyeballs. 

Otomo's clean lines, with slightly cartoony characters in realistic settings, reminds me a lot of Tintin (the look of which was inspired by Japanese comics), and there's a similar mix of serious world politics as setting and daft antics from the lead characters. But this is much more adult - or at least adolescent - stuff. It even steps up in volume 4, with heads exploding, boobs and a willy on show, and a fair amount of swearing. Some of the violence still shocked this world-weary old reader, and the nudity is telling of the way the story is framed. For all Kei is a forthright and able leading character in her own right, we linger on a bathing scene just before she goes to what might be her death, an oddly inappropriate moment for titillation, yet when there's a provident moment to have sex with someone she's really into, there's only a coy kiss. By contrast, the exposed willies are blink-and-you'll-miss-them streaking by random street riff-raff - a willy is for waggling rather than anything else.

Teens reading now will be more struck by the absence of mobile phones and the clunkiness of technology: here, linking to a satellite in orbit takes an amount of time, and the satellite then needs a few moments to track someone's position on Earth. The psychic kids would be astounded by our satnav. But we can hardly blame Otomo for not predicting such things. What's stranger is the technology of his own time not putting in an appearance - the street gang apparently have no interest in TV or music, their lives devoid of screens or headphones. I think that's because of the emphasis on them constantly moving

At the heart of the story are too strong emotions. First, there's the punky defiance of the street gang, battling authority as well as one another. Part of the story is the way that defiance is shaped and focused, to become a force of virtue - and it's quite a feat that we completely get why Kei ends up falling for Kaneda despite him being such a prick. (I don't think we ever learn the fate of the poor girl in volume one who Kaneda has got pregnant and then abandons...)

Second, Akira packs an emotional punch because we understand the strong bonds between the myriad characters. Kei is in love with someone else when she meets Kaneda. Tetsuo battles with Kaneda but craves his friendship. The psychic kids share a strange connection that might just save the world - or end it. When a number of minor characters appear in the closing pages, we understand their allegiances and prospects without having to be told. And then the remaining members of the bike gang mount what remains of their bikes and streak away into the night. I felt a pang at that. How strange, after all the years, to still feel such a connection.

No comments: