In Control: Understanding Akira

Whenever I think of Akira, the first thing that comes to mind is my sophomore year of high school. There was an anime festival going on in the city, and I was waiting in line to watch Galaxy Express 999 at a small theater. Behind me on the line was a guy, probably somewhere between 16 and 24, discussing anime, talking about how he found Akira to be incredible and the “best movie ever.” This man’s life was changed by Akira. Later that evening, my life would be changed by Galaxy Express 999. Still, I had seen Akira before, and I wondered just what was it that blew this guy’s mind.

Today, years later, I rewatched Akira, and I finally understand it. More importantly, I understand that Akira is actually not that difficult to understand.

Akira takes place 21 years after the end of World War III in the city of Neo-Tokyo, a city with strong police presence, assigned curfews, and the youthful delinquents who constantly ignore that authority. The story focuses on Kaneda, the confident leader of a biker gang (bousouzoku, literally berserkers), and his timid childhood friend Tetsuo, also a member of his gang. Beyond this, describing the plot of Akira is difficult in that ultimately a cohesive story progression where characters get what they deserve and plot threads tie together is not the aim of Akira.

Neo-Tokyo is an advanced city, portrayed as having large, high-tech skyscrapers looming overhead and bright neon colors all around, but it is through this portrayal that Neo-Tokyo is revealed to be a city liable to fall apart any moment. People in Neo-Tokyo live for the moment, unsure of the future. Neo-Tokyo is a city out of control.

“Control” is the theme of Akira. Wanting it, gaining it, and losing it, one leads to the the next. Tetsuo has always been looked after by Kaneda since they were children, which causes Tetsuo to become resentful towards his own inability and gives him the desire to want to surpass Kaneda. Another character, a scientist with good intentions, strives to control a primal force beyond human comprehension. The politicians believe they control everything, but their pointless bickering and lack of understanding as to what is happening in the real world show that the only things they control are their own wallets. It is the illusion of control that ultimately results in one losing it.

Akira is very famous for its visual style and excellent animation. Everything, from explosions to vehicles to environments (as mentioned above) are rendered beautifully with fluid movement, and it is in this hyper-realism that the fragility of the world in which they live becomes most noticeable. The world of Akira is almost so tangible that it may crumble if touched.

Most of the people who I have met who have a fondness for Akira saw it in their teeange years, like the guy waiting behind me on line. It is in our teenage years that our minds and bodies develop most rapidly, and we begin to think that we control of our lives, or perhaps that our lives are out of control. Tetsuo and Kaneda themselves are teeangers. In a sense, Akira is a visualization of the conflict of being a teenager, where the more you learn about the world, the more frightening it can become. Given the theme of Akira, I realize that while it was not a mind-blowing experience for me individually, it is no surprise that it has been one for so many people.

Despite all that I wrote, I still believe Akira is easy to understand. If you’re struggling with trying to make sense of the narrative, it may just be that you’re trying too hard to control it.

8 thoughts on “In Control: Understanding Akira

  1. I’ve always thought of Akira as a straight reaction to the post-war period – terrifying technology, disorder, corruption etc – but the ‘control issues’ idea rather incorporates that interpretation. Still, I had been thinking of it as a relation to actual change, rather than a parallel with the teenage experience. Your angle gets across why a film so tied to specifically Japanese paranoia has been so important for certain Westerners. Personally, Akira doesn’t mean too much for me beyond general coolness and esoteric interest, TETSUOOOO and so forth. But general coolness goes a long way with me.


  2. “More importantly, I understand that Akira is actually not that difficult to understand.”

    You finally do ?
    Somehow i was always amazed that its a widespread opinion that Akira contains some twisted plot lines or phylosophical/metaphorical issues.
    My reaction to the people who claimed that was :
    “Wha, RLY ?”
    “Ya, RLY !”
    “NO WAI !!!”

    But really, maybe its just USians that cant ever understand anything (not surprising in the least), never seemed to be a problem for anyone i know in my own country.


  3. I can’t speak for others, but I don’t even remember when exactly it was that I last saw Akira. It was always “some movie I watched that was very famous and also had a lot of shouting.”

    Maybe the Streamline dub is responsible for some of the confusion.


  4. I would have said that AKIRA is about chaos, but that’s only a different way of saying it’s about control. And it would seem Otomo made decisions in adapting his manga to emphasize chaos: whereas in the opening of the manga Tokyo-3 was a relatively law-abiding city with a biker punk presence, in the anime the punks have to share the streets with a seething protest movement burning cars and setting up barricades, ready to follow an apocalyptic messiah even before the city’s second destruction. That ties directly to the change he made in Lady Miyako’s character, who in the manga was a voice of peace and reason, but who in the anime is a cult-leading rabble-rouser.

    Maybe it’s a mental deficiency on my part, but I’m also not one of those who goes tunneling for the one, true, correct secret meaning in an anime. I think some people are afraid that if they don’t “get it,” they’re watching it wrong. But we should remember the wise words of Lo Pan, who once informed another foreign devil that he was not brought upon this world to “GET IT.” I’m amazed people try to figure out the meaning even of FLCL; to me, that anime has so much *feeling* to give that its “meaning” is hardly relevant.


  5. I’m not sure if I conveyed it properly, but I too believe that Akira is much more of a “feeling it” kind of work, which may be why sometimes people have trouble explaining their interest in it. My attempt was to put into words that feeling. You feel the control/chaos, you don’t necessarily think about it, though for me it slowly clicked, taking a path from the eyes to the heart to finally the head.

    That is to say, I think Akira is easy to understand if you don’t overthink it.


  6. I watched Akira last night, and loved it even more than when I first saw it. This time round I was amazed by the connections/mentions on alternative realities of buddhist morality/ethos (choosing ones path) and the movie finale, where the “mutants” pop into a different dimension and create a new universe. WHat u say, you didn’t notice? its pretty clear, watch the closing scenes, the movies last words are “I am Kaneda” and then we are shown a picture of new universe.

    I can’t but think of the connections with what we know now about M theory and parallel universes. Maybe just like gravity some of us may have noticed hints of parallel universes in our reality? is it merely sufficient to imagine a”sliding doors” scenario to grasp the concept of the multiverse? or is it so much embeded in the fabric of the universe that it is also embeded in our dna …. sorry…

    Well back to the movie, besides what i see now in this movie you guys have failed to see what the critics have said about akira for a long time and I do feel it one of the most important aspects of the movie. The implications of post nuclear culture are said to be embedded in japanese magna culture, mostly due to what west thought of akira if u ask me, but all the “monsters” mutants, cyborgs etc, that we can see in japanese magna have something to do with the idea of mutation derived from explosion to radiation.

    American culture reacted to “the atomic fear” by creating positive figures like Hulk and spider man, where individuals exposed to radiation, like dr octopus or the sandman to mention more, become empowered by exposure to radiation. The Japanese take on the topic, is, excuse me if it seems a contradiction, more realistic. Mutations in japanese magna seem to have consequences, many of which negative, and this is probably due to the “experience” they had in hiroshima and nagasaki. Ofc this has been part of japanese cinema since the 50 (watch akira kurusawa’s “” if your interested) but AKira immortalizes the impact that nuclear radiation has had on their culture and every day life.

    Akira was very much about this, consciously or not, while the story might work around the concepts of control the world in which it is set is one that hits the same notes as mad max but with more interest to the consequences this would imply for humanity.

    what i also find staggering about akira is how the powers of its characters are explained. Its no silly spider bite or such, it mentions the energy within living cells and the infinite possiblities every one of us has. This is very in sync with buddhist philosophy yet with a modern interpretation one more adapt to science, demonstrating in full that sacred and profane sense that the best magna always portray.

    I have always watched the magna scene after having seen akira, and as captivating as howls castle is (or even ghost in a shell) may be, i have never, ever seen another anime reach the artistic hights of Akira. It had an interesting plot, an intriguing narrative style, respectable intellectual concerns to raise, and great art, meeting so many of the criteria of what cinema should be as a form of art.

    One more mention about the soundtrack. awsome. the use of kabucki makes it feel traditional and classic yet there is sucha modern sound, a rythmic beating, like that of a heart that accompanies you through the picture.

    just to put in in prospective. IMDB gives akira a 8.0
    it also gives rapsody in august a 7.1
    la dolce vita gets a 8.1

    IMDB is not even run by critics and Akira recieves a higher rating than one of the most sacred idols of classic cinema: akira kurusawa and is almost as good as fellini’s masterpiece.

    well ofc IMBD is just as reliable as wikipedia but i think i made my point


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