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.