Akira, by Katsuhiro Ôtomo (1982-1990).
Score: Very good, cult classic.
Back in 2008 or so I started reading this in black and white and got confused and tired halfway through tome 5 of 6. It was one of those times when you lose the thread and go back but realise you have already read that part and then skip forward and see that you have no idea what’s going on.
I was recently reproached for not having finished it, since it’s a cult classic and a landmark in cyberpunk, so I decided to give it another try, this time in its colour version. It actually worked because it took me just a bit over 48 hours to finish it and I didn’t find it confusing at all, in fact I feel even though manga is in black and white and will always be, this one does need colour. There are so many characters, scenery and scenes happening simultaneously, and the drawing is so detailed that colour is just what makes it a great read.
Akira takes place in a Tokyo that was destroyed by a nuclear explosion in 1982. Jump to 2019, to a dystopian future run by a militarised government and juvenile delinquency. Tetsuo, a biker gangster, develops psychic powers after nearly running over Takashi, a boy who is part of a governmental experiment.
Everything about it is excessive and convoluted, for better and worse. From page one there are at least three opposed sides at any given time, so many fights, chases, mexican standoffs, treasons, exploding heads and utter chaos that sometimes two things happen, one is that you get bored (it’s surprising but you do because it ends up getting repetitive) and the other is that you have to stop and think: ‘what do all these people even want? Why are they doing what they are doing?’ That’s dangerous. I loved Kaneda as a comic relief but he gets out unscathed of so many dangerous situations and sneaks into so many top secret facilities that it’s really hard to maintain suspension of disbelief. Not only with Kaneda, it’s mostly everything, but if you accepted that a bunch of kids got their brains shocked and ended up developing superpowers along with progeria, then you’re going to accept that Kaneda can ride a tank about a neighbourhood like nothing’s wrong with it and Tetsuo can teletransport himself to the moon and stay there with no spacesuit or anything, because who are you to question this after so many pages?
But at the same time that’s part of what’s so fascinating about it. It’s got an eerie feeling about it from beginning to end, and it’s got that special feel that so many works that predate the fall of the Berlin Wall have, you know, because people were actually scared that someone would press the red button and boom goes the dynamite. The parallelism of project Akira with nuclear technology is so obvious but at the same time so enriching: both deal with incommensurable forces of nature, strip our innocence from us, can lead to mutually assured destruction if handled by the wrong hands and to the total transformation of humankind into something else if handled responsibly (well, in the case of nuclear power let’s leave it at super cheap electricity bills and forget transcendence). And yes, one of the classic themes of science-fiction, the transcendence of humankind into something brand new by the hand of technology is there, crude, mesmerising, and the only thing that really makes an otherwise confusing and empty ending work. Why does Kaneda choose to be the new chieftain of the Empire of New Tokyo? Because as scary as it may be, he has accepted what Akira and Tetsuo became as the future of humanity, or at least a desirable destiny for an individual, I’m guessing. That’s why the progeria and general creepiness of everything work so well: changing into something new and better is not easy, it’s scary as fuck and has its downsides as well, in this case looking like an old child and killing millions of people every time you get a wee bit upset.
So all in all, cult classic, awkward experience, must read, but probably not for everyone and definitely the execution is far from perfect.