Cult and inspiring works, of a quality rarely equalled
Created in 1982 and finished in 1990, Akira is a manga written and drawn by Katsuhiro Otomo, an author who is passionate about comics and cinema, from which he will borrow codes in his work. His work was a real success, with at least 700 000 copies sold for each volume of Akira, and the success of this manga in both Japan and the West greatly contributed to giving the genre its letters of nobility, at a time when its detractors considered japanimation to be violent, mediocre, and low-end.
Ōtomo has always been a pessimist and a claimed revolutionary. In 2016, he explained to France Inter, that :
My work is anti-system. For example, I don’t agree with the government’s nuclear policy, or on the preparation of the Olympic Games in Tokyo. This opposition is the source of the darkness of my works. My vision of the world has not changed. I have an anxiety about the world, the same as when I created Akira.
If Steven Spielberg and Georges Lucas were offered the chance to adapt Akira in the United States in 1987, and did not seize it, arguing that it would not be suitable for the Western audience, it must be noted that this did not in any way detract from the monumental status of Japanese animation, to which our current works still refer today.
Concerning Evangelion, it is an animated series that arrived shortly after the end of the Akira manga, broadcasted in Japan between October 1995 and March 1996, and created by Hideaki Anno, one of the former key animators of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, from the Ghibli studios, and director of “Nadia, the secret of the blue water”. Like Akira, the work has a cult following, and has been referenced countless times in a variety of works. Among those echoing the genre, we find Japanese animation, with RahXephon, Darling in the FranXX, or the very famous Promare , but also American comics: In the SpiderVerse, Peni Parker is represented in a classroom, surrounded by the main protagonists of Evangelion: Rei, Asuka, Kaworu or Shinji. Western films and anime works are not left out either, with multiple references: in Pacific Rim, the blood of the Kaiju, these gigantic monsters, has a toxic effect like Adam’s blood, a reference to radioactivity, which has contaminated the seas in Evangelion, giving them the colour of blood. Moreover, the voice actress of Mako in the Japanese version is also Rei’s, one of the heroines and pilots in Evangelion.
Numerous references and tributes in Western works
The work, like other equally cult works such as Cowboy Bebop or Evangelion, has thus been able to enjoy numerous references, sometimes very recent ones: In CyberPunk 2077, a video game by Red Projekt released in 2020, the player can own the famous motorbike of the main protagonist, Kaneda, known as Yaiba Kusanagi CT-3X, or Stranger Things, where Eleven is a child with telekinetic powers like Tetsuo and is used as a laboratory rat by the government that holds her, before she too can escape. Other older references also exist in a variety of media ranging from Japanese art and animation to French animation, with references in the children’s cartoon Code Lyoko, where in the first episode Ulrich is chased by a giant teddy bear, like Tetsuo in his dream.
Katsuhiro Otomo’s work deals with subjects dear to the science fiction of the time, such as dystopia, or a post-apocalyptic world that will inspire the greatest cyberpunk universes, and can also be seen under the prism of a criticism of Japanese society.
Two monsters of Japanese animation serving strong ideas
In Akira, it is, somewhat like in Evangelion, a destroyed Neo Tokyo that struggles every day against the difficulties it may encounter in everyday life, a true reflection of a Japan trying to rebuild itself after the Second World War: If in Evangelion, it was the Angels, a kind of extraterrestrial entities that came to try to penetrate the most secret part of the NERV organization’s HQ. In Akira, it is initially against petty crime and gangs that the city fights.
Once again, the storyboard is based on youth: young people, too young to understand much about politics and the powerful, deceived, exploited and disillusioned by the latter, try their best to find and take their place in this world with all the difficulties that this entails. This disillusioned youth, who no longer believe in anything and who no longer understand themselves, is defined in Japan by various movements and events: i.e herbivorous men, or 草食男子, soshoku danshi, because they are totally uninterested in relationships, whether sexual or not.
This is not new, as the phenomenon dates back to the early 2000s. And it is not getting any better. In 2020, an article in Nippon.com announced that a study conducted by the Nippon Foundation among 9,000 18-year-olds from nine different countries paints a pessimistic picture of the young Japanese generation. Less than 10% of Japanese respondents believe their country will improve in the future, and less than 20% feel capable of changing the country or the society they live in. This resonates with Anno’s and Otomo’s works mentioned above: Japan may be extremely modern, and the third largest economy in the world,
but its youth is disillusioned, and do not feel the strength to make changes to the society in which they live.
In Evangelion, this quest for identity is central: between the identity of each character (what they wish to do, what they are destined to do), and the constructed identity, which corresponds to what society expects of them, the children are lost, with the difference that if in Evangelion, our heroes are more or less forced to do what the adults have planned for them, in Akira, they refuse to comply and fight to get out. Tetsuo, used as a lab rat by the government, runs away and tries as best he can to survive his new powers, to control them, and Kaneda, initially his childhood friend, will also outwit the institutions that stand in his way, initially to save his friend, then when he becomes totally uncontrollable, to try to stop him. In Evangelion, Rei, who is a cloned child used by her father for his own purposes, tries to prove that she is nota mere tool but a human being with feelings. Asuka tries to prove to herself that she can manage without anyone’s help and that she can become an excellent pilot. Shinji is confronted with his panic fear of accomplishing his mission, and is torn between the fear of being like his father, and the need for him to create his own identity while almost craving to be liked by his other comrades and pilots. The quest for identity is what motivates the entire work of Anno, and and to a lesser extent Otomo’s.
“I still don’t know where to find happiness. But I’ll continue to think about whether it’s good to be here…whether it was good to have been born. But in the end, it’s just realizing the obvious over and over again. Because I am myself.” – Shinji Ikari (Evangelion)
In both works, there is an obsession with the lack of military means, which reflects a real trauma: after the Second World War, Japan is like Germany, defeated and demilitarised, and its Constitution directly enshrines pacifism within its Article 9. This does not prevent Japan from remembering with emotion the two nuclear attacks following Pearl Harbor: in Evangelion as in Akira, the spectre of the nuclear bomb (or its equivalent, the Second Impact, caused by a meteorite) destroys everything in its path and forces Japan to over-militarise itself to contain the catastrophes that will follow, without succeeding: It is a society both fantasised of a Japan that wishes to regain its former power, but also ruined by the corruption of its elites and an overrepresented police state that is thus drawn before our eyes. This echoes a case from the 2000s, in which a 19-year-old girl was freed by nurses at the end of January 2000, after having been held for nine years by her attacker, who had abducted her in 1990 while she was attending school. The man was already known to the police for other kidnapping attempts but the police did nothing. In all, more than twenty cases involving the probity of the Japanese police have broken out in the 2000s.
In Akira, the opening scenes show the destruction of Tokyo in 1988 by an explosion reminiscent of a nuclear bomb, and near the end of the film a psychic blast from the titular character levels Neo-Tokyo in 2019 in a manner also highly suggestive of a nuclear detonation. At first, Tokyo is destroyed by its own government. But in the end, it’s a Japanese citizen who does it. This shows that trauma and horror can come from an enemy country as well as from the horrors that members of one’s own country might commit. While breaking the taboo of nuclear power, Akira also highlights its dangers. It is extremely rare that Japanese works deal with the nuclear bomb, and documents referencing books or mangas on the subject are very uncommon, but some exists. Famous works in Europe include Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Evangelion, Akira, Gen of Hiroshima (written by Keiji Nakazawa, a survivor), Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms…
In Evangelion, the heroes are also confronted with this ambiguity: Forced enlistment is explored in detail, with 14-year-olds struggling between their hatred of piloting the robots they are ordered to control, and their sense of duty to their country. To the end, they will be sent, sacrificed for ideals that ultimately do not concern them. As we learn later, in the main arc, they only serve the interests of one man.
In both works, neither world lives in safety: the fear of war, the compulsion to go and fight, the need for survival, whether physical in Akira, or mental in Evangelion, acts as a real repellent for this type of world, and at the same time, allows for inspiring figures of heroism that could push one to desire a world of this type. Both works have the merit of questioning the value of life, and that of sacrifice, a notion dear to the history of the Japanese people which is also denounced in these works. The youth of the protagonists in both works, who sacrifice themselves in their own way, echoes the kamikaze. According to their superiors, they were all volunteers and the propaganda helped to fuel the idea of a certain patriotism. In fact, they were at most 17 or 18 years old, and in all, the kamikazes sank only three small aircraft carriers, counting the St. Lô. During the Battle of Okinawa, they did not manage to sink any large ships. But they also highlight something else: is power, desire to win and to rearm, really worth all these sacrifices? It is striking to imagine a martial system that does not hesitate to knowingly send its soldiers to their deaths. And this is what Evangelion emphasises.
The position of these two works is as ambiguous as that of Japan itself: for years, Shinzo Abe has campaigned for the revocation of the pacifist clause in the Japanese Constitution that prevents the country from rearming via its Article 9:
Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.
In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.
Indeed, if the political parties are keen to see this article modified, the point of view of Japanese citizens is more nuanced. Indeed, 69% of Japanese citizens say they are against a modification of this article, and when asked why, 76.2% explain that this article has strongly contributed to maintain peace and stability after the end of the Second World War. Proof, if any were needed, that war is fantasised more than experienced.
“Enough! Open up your eyes and look at the big picture; You’re all puppets of corrupt politicians and capitalists. Don’t you understand, it’s utterly pointless to fight each other ?”
-Colonel Shikishima (Akira)