We’re talking the Late Cretaceous, because I’m old enough that I saw アキラ / Akira in a theater back when we still called this stuff “Japanimation,” because the word “anime” had not yet been borrowed into English.
Seriously, it was the dawn of time itself.
Yet, somehow, despite having seen the movie in 1991, it took me until 2020 to read the manga–ironically, one year after the beginning of the end for the movie version of Neo-Tokyo. (We still have anywhere from ten to eighteen years before the English-language manga begins.)
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I think the manga of アキラ / Akira makes a lot more sense than the movie ever did… and that’s still not saying a lot, because they’re both kind of trippy in their own separate ways.
If you are completely unfamiliar with this classic, let me give you the official synopsis:
“Akira is set in the post-apocalypse Neo-Tokyo of 2030, a vast metropolis built on the ashes of a Tokyo annihilated by an apocalyptic blast of unknown power that triggered World War III. The lives of two streetwise teenage friends, Tetsuo and Kaneda, change forever when dormant paranormal abilities begin to waken in Tetsuo, who becomes a target for a shadowy government operation, a group who will stop at nothing to prevent another catastrophe like that which leveled Tokyo. And at the core of their motivation is a raw, all-consuming fear. A fear of someone or something, of unthinkably monstrous power known only as ‘Akira.'”
Famously, our two heroes Kaneda and Tetsuo are motorcycle gang members–bōsōzoku, as they are known in Japan. Tetsuo in particular kind of literally runs into the plot. He is in the middle of the gang’s usual tearing up of the city streets, when, all of a sudden, in front of a him a strange, mutant child appears. In order to not run over the kid (whom we later learn is the mysterious “number 26,” aka Takashi,) Tetsuo skids out and is badly injured as a result.
In the manga, Number 26 seems to fade away just as official looking vehicles arrive. They’re completely uninterested in Tetsuo or his injury and tell Kaneda to tell the police all about it when an ambulance arrives.
Kaneda has his first indication that something deeper is going on….
If you’re like me and am far more familiar with the movie, all this is completely new. For comparison, in the movie, Kaneda already knows that the military is involved because Tetsuo is airlifted out of the area by ‘The Colonel’ and immediately experimented on. The manga is much slower to reveal its secrets.
I have to say that I’ve been spoiled by the modern practice of taking something as sprawling and complex as the Akira manga and making into a TV series that more or less follows the story as it was written and drawn, frame-for-frame. This manga-to-movie adaptation is far more like what Kubrick’s “The Shining” movie is to Stephen King’s The Shining novel—which is to say that the feel/vibe is the same, as are few of the moments/lines, but it’s otherwise an utterly different experience.
In some ways, the movie “Akira” is even far less like its manga counterpart.
Because, as far as I can tell, the movie stops somewhere around volume 3, though it picks up the ending resolution. That’d be like discovering several thousand more pages of The Shining, and that the story doesn’t end with the mom’s escape on the snowmobile.
I have to say that now that I’ve read all of the manga, I think I prefer it. I decided to rewatch my copy of the movie after having finished the manga’s final volume 6 and, in some ways, the movie does an impressive job of condensing really complex socio-political upheavals into background information, but you miss the opportunity to really get to know Kaneda, in particular. In the movie, he makes the transition from being a womanizing jerk to hero a bit more clumsily, IMHO. The manga is weird, in that in preserves much of what is unlikable about Kaneda to the very end, while somehow transforming the reader’s take on his crudeness and temper into something admirable and even desirable.
Maybe it’s because the love story between Kaneda and Kei (a terrorist who is initially attempting to help number 26 evade recapture) has a chance to develop. You can, over six THICK volumes, watch Kaneda actually grow to love and respect Kei–and it’s that last part that’s critical to shifting the reader’s impression of this otherwise, wholly unlikable biker thug.
At any rate, I’m not sure where I stand on recommending this to the average manga reader. There is a lot of nudity, threatened rape, violence, and drug use in Akira, so take that into consideration, if any of those things are particularly no-go for you. I feel like it’s the sort of thing you might want to read if you want to say you’ve read a manga classic and aren’t feeling Astro Boy or Lupin III for whatever reason.
Or you could see if you can get your hands on the classic movie. I will say: the opening motorcycle chase still stands the test of time.