Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Akira and Its Existence in Japanese Cinema

The following is an aesthetic analysis of Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira. It focuses on Japanese cinema and culture, particularly emphasizing Japan's historic past of being the first true, post-apocalyptic society.

Cinema has been in existence for over a century and it doesn’t seem as if it will be leaving us anytime soon. Starting with simple photographs put in order of succession to tell a story, the revolutionary concept of rapidly spewing these images one after another was born. With the help of technology, people, objects, themes, etc. were able to grace the screen in real time, thus providing an avenue for artistic creation and original direction. Today, seemingly anyone can pick up a digital or film camera and make a film of some sort, leading to the fact that “film can speak in a universal language” (Asian Cinema VII). As Tom Vick points out, cinema has the ability to create “windows into culture” by different filmmakers who pull from a “global web of influences”, thus creating both “artistic achievement” and “pure entertainment” (VII, XII). So what does this mean in overall terms of art? It means that cinema is yet another avenue for any single individual to create their own, personal work of art. Whether this is represented in capturing the most simplistic elements of human nature in engaging realism, or teleporting a viewer to the most surreal and fantastic world imaginable, Cinema is the creation of “the separate parts of a film that join together to create a higher level of visual meaning” (Buckland 4).

In this evaluation of the artistic purposes and functions of cinema, I have chosen Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira to be essential in providing a closer look into Asian cinema and Japanese culture in particular. Akira, adapted from a series of graphic novels spanning over 2,100 pages, was both written and directed by Otomo and released in Japanese theaters in 1988. This condensed, two-hour long animated epic relates the tale of a “disjointed, almost incoherent narrative” that is multi-genre in nature (Broderick, Freiberg 95). It is an anime film that contains elements of science fiction, horror, surrealism, action, disaster, drama in teen romance and rebellion, suspense, spiritualism, and social criticism. It follows main characters Kaneda and Tetsuo and the experiences they encounter throughout the film. Tetsuo comes in contact with a scientifically mutated child who has psychic powers, which then leads to Tetsuo’s eventual realization of his own powers. He becomes infatuated with learning what or who Akira is, and in the meantime uses his powers for destruction. On the other hand, Kaneda is Tetsuo’s opposite. Even though they have been close friends since childhood, Kaneda believes that he must put a stop to Tetsuo’s reign of unnecessary destruction and tries to kill him in doing so.

“Tokyo and Japan have been endlessly subjected to a historical process of scrap and rebuild” (Grenville 169). In peering into Japan’s culture, this seems to be true in terms of it’s layered past and representations of new media. One fact that we all know and understand is that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were both leveled by nuclear bombs in 1945 near the end of World War II. With thousands and thousands of casualties, losing the war and being occupied by America changed and shaped the nation over time. Japan has not simply forgotten its past, but the dropping of the atomic bombs seem to have taken some sort of new meaning with the newer generations of today. The closest similarity I can think of in relation to this sensitive representation of the past is how the American youth of today does not know of a time called World War II. This doesn’t stop filmmakers or game developers from creating their own versions of history for entertainment purposes, but one must question: Do these producers of art actually understand what World War II was like?

This is why, in terms of Japanese animation, the concept of “second death” is a common theme (Grenville 169). It’s so common and used throughout that one would believe it’s part of Japan’s acknowledgement and handling of the tragedies at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the bombs dropped the nation changed forever, and Japan is and always will be marked by such events. With a culture imbued with such a past, creative forces are surely going to create their own representations of familiarity. In a number of countless anime that I have seen, cities, planets, and people have all been destroyed but this doesn’t stop human beings from giving up. People are reborn and societies rebuilt. In these essences, Japanese cinema provides an avenue for looking into the past and sifting through the pieces of anxiety on a postnuclear, national scale.

Japanese animation usually includes imagery of an “ecological rebirth” in a post-nuclear wasteland (Broderick 7), but this is simply not the case in Otomo’s Akira. Akira takes place 31 years after World War III, with the event of Tokyo being destroyed by Akira’s incredible force as the opening scene of the film. In 2019, Tokyo has been rebuilt into “Neo-Tokyo” where the city went through a period of vibrant reconstruction and a boosting economy. Otomo leads us to believe that people had a purpose in working and going to their jobs everyday: To create a new society and rebuild from the ashes. Neo-Tokyo is presented to us as a glowing city of neon lights bursting with technology. One may argue that Akira is in the genre of tech noir, which according to John Treat, is a “paradoxical genre that excoriates technology at the same times as its sophisticated special effects are implicit celebrations of technological achievement” (Contemporary Japan and Popular Culture 245). This theory is related to Akira in that technology sure can look pretty but it also makes society lazier in certain aspects. Scenes of Neo-Tokyo are very similar to what Tokyo looks like in modern day Japan. It’s a noisy, neon-lit high-rise metropolis with video screens everywhere (Broderick, Freiberg 96). Was this intentional on Katsuhiro Otomo’s part? I do believe so.

Otomo purposefully highlights some of the most obvious problems of contemporary Japan in Akira. The aimlessness of youth and repression of resistance in schools and the work place display themselves throughout the film (Contemporary Japan and Popular Culture 246). This is true in that students don’t pay attention in class and schools are trashed. Teenagers walk the streets doing whatever they want, and characters such as Kaneda and Tetsuo recklessly ride in a bike gang. As Freda Freiberg points out, Akira is a piece of social criticism in that “all figures of authority – teachers, policemen, military men, and politicians are represented as oppressive tyrants” (Akira and the Postnuclear Sublime, Hibakusha Cinema 97). This is certainly true as Otomo shows us an education system that is boring and brutal. In one instance, Kaneda and his classmates skipped school and the principle allowed for a teacher to slap them all in punishment. Doesn’t violence just encourage more violence? Social control seems to occur without input from citizens, and people are in an uproar of political rebellion. The state responds with military force and firing upon its own citizens while people either run for their lives or fight back.

As pointed out by Freiberg, Kaneda and Tetsuo are both orphans who don’t have a home structure. Naturally being boys, they take on adult roles and fight for power and leadership. “Akira is a postnuclear, post modern fantasy of liberation and empowerment for Japanese youth” (Broderick, Freiberg 7). Tetsuo’s condition can be read as an allegory of Japanese youth:

“…caught between impotent rage at the social straitjacket imposed on their lives and powerful feelings of aggression unleashed by liberal access to the toys and games of technology and consumerism, between masochistic feelings of victimhood and sadistic urges to dominate and destroy…” (Hibakusha Cinema 100).

How does Otomo use Akira as a way to handle the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? In a way he doesn’t quite show the immediate effects, but rather the long-term effects are theorized and presented. With Otomo’s guidance, we need to understand that he is crafting a statement on society and its youth in contemporary Japan. In this understanding, a particular word has formed for those affected by the atomic bombs, “Hibakusha”. Technically, Hibakusha means to be directly affected by the bombings, meaning being in Hiroshima or Nagasaki when the bombs went off or getting radiation sickness over time. I personally believe anyone can be a Hibakusha in mental concept, but Japan specifically holds the right to declare themselves as such.

Regarding Japanese cinema, Broderick questions if there has ever been “adequate and appropriate responses” in result of the atomic bombings (Hibakusha Cinema 1). In what has been provided, “the films provide a reinterpretation of the past that allows Japan to examine repressed anxieties within a historical context” (7). He goes further to state that “the monster surfaces only when – as in the case of the rapid postwar industrialization and the new cold war – the lessons of the past are overlooked in writing the future” (7). This statement can be directly related to Akira. Only when major political leaders of Neo-Tokyo decide that Akira is no longer a threat, does the threat come back and the city is partially destroyed once more.

According to author Roland Kelts, anime with atomic bomb themes is something Americans will not understand because we tend to view the event as a positive thing (Japanamerica 84). What Kelts means is how dropping the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki aided in concluding World War II… and the Americans won the war. Taking a look into this even further, Donald Richie states that Hiroshima and Nagasaki have become symbols for the Japanese (Hibakusha 20). If we were to bring this into communication theory and the structuralist critical perspective, we would note how language is built of codes encompassing signs, signified and signifiers. So for America, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are symbols of winning and defeating the Japanese, but for Japan symbols of rebirth and reconstruction.

Akira is a symbol in Otomo’s Neo-Tokyo. For most of the film Otomo does not reveal exactly what Akira is. I found myself questioning “Is he human? Is he still a boy? Is he power? A bomb? Destruction?” My belief is that Otomo has taken Akira and crafted him into a symbol that has been created to represent the change in youth’s perception of rebirth and forgetting one’s past within the film’s world. As one of the psychic girls who had similar testing done to her in relation to Akira’s testing, she states that “Akira’s power exists within everyone” and “Akira is absolute energy”. These two lines, directly from the film, help to define Otomo’s intention of creating a statement of Japanese society. They are all a part of the Hibakusha, as the atomic bombs in one way or another have affected everyone in Japan. How the bombings have been perceived and brought to the status of symbols over the years are the sole responsibilities of Japanese society.

It’s almost as if Otomo is trying to say “do not forget what happened to us in the past”, but he certainly wouldn’t be the first to try and do so. Back in the 1950’s the first Godzilla movie came out in Japan. Godzilla is one of the first symbols to come from Japan in representation of the bombs. A large, lizard-like beast tramples through Tokyo and leaves a path of destruction in its wake. In relation to Akira, who is to say that Godzilla is not the same concept as Akira? What helped bring Akira into the “art-house cinema circuit” and to “rental shops in dubbed English” with “enormous popular success with young people around the world” (Hibakusha 79, 92) is Otomo’s concept that Akira is within everyone instead of just one villainous entity. This is what separates Akira from Godzilla, thus creating an audience for people who want to know what Akira is on a more human level.

In searching for a possible answer as to why Japan revels in its reborn past, it may be because “Japan is nation prohibited by Article IX of its Constitution from possession or deployment of any military force” (Hibakusha 80). So what does this imply? Considering that nuclear arms are banned and the Japanese can’t maintain a military, there is no law prohibiting works that reflect upon fantasizing for such realities is there? It’s almost as if Japan has a romanticized image of war (Hibakusha 80). These themes can be seen throughout not only Japanese cinema, but in Japanese television, animation, consumer products, etc. Giant robots are almost a staple to the anime genre, specializing in large and destructive mechanical machines with the power to destroy cities and fight wars. It’s always interesting to see Japan produce a film or animated feature that has a “modern day Japanese military” built into it. Akira does the same thing, as the Japanese military does its best to put out the fires of rebellion throughout Neo-Tokyo. Their objectives shift to putting a stop to Tetsuo’s new rain of destruction, but their efforts prove futile against a power that represents a society’s culmination of forgetting their own past.

“Japan became the first truly post apocalyptic society” (Kelts 26) where “Akira is a product of the apocalyptic imagination, a particularly interesting version because, being made in Japan, it is a post nuclear version of the apocalypse rather than a prefigurement of the End of the World” (Broderick, Freiberg 95). Katsuhiro Otomo may not technically be a Hibakusha but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have the right to express his opinions on a society that has been formed by the Hibakusha. One thing to keep in mind is how Akira was finished in 1988 “by and for a generation of Japanese who have no personal memory of Hiroshima or Nagasaki” (Broderick, Freiberg 92). In these ways, Akira lends itself to a prime example of what defines the most essential purposes of filmmaking. Otomo, and all of the people he worked with on Akira, came together to create a window into Japanese culture for the world to see. Expressing elements of human nature, Akira was able to speak a universal language that anyone could understand, thus perpetuating it to a level in which a succession of images become something more grand than just that, cinema.

Works Cited

Broderick, Mick, Donald Richie, Freda Freiberg, and Ben Crawford. Hibakusha Cinema: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Nuclear Image in Japanese Film. London: Kegan Paul International, 1996. Print.

Buckland, Warren. Teach Yourself: Film Studies. London: Hodder & Stoughton Educational, 2003. Print.

Grenville, Bruce, Tim Johnson, and Will Wright. KRAZY!: the Delirious World of Anime Comics Video Games Art. Berkeley: University of California, 2008. Print.

Kelts, Roland. Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print.

Treat, John Whittier., and Susan J. Napier. Contemporary Japan and Popular Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1996. Print.

Vick, Tom. Asian Cinema: a Field Guide. New York: Collins, 2007. Print.

Originally completed on 12/16/2010 for an Undergraduate level course titled "Asian Cinema Studies" at Fitchburg State University.

- Jared C.

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