An essay on
Angie Koo, Bryn Mawr College, Class of 2015
In Collaboration with Betrice Yambrach
The 1988 film Akira, directed by Katsuhiro Ōtomo, is a cult classic Japanese animated movie. Based on the manga series of the same name, also by Katsuhiro Ōtomo, which ran from 1982 to 1990, Akira portrays a dystopian Tokyo society run by corrupt government and military officials. Using human experimentation, these authority figures hope to gain ultimate control over the risky supernatural powers that develop as a result. As a post-World War II project, the film strongly suggests themes and events that are similar to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki Atomic Bombings. In doing so, it attempts to convey the disasters brought on by unrestrained science. The movie ultimately reflects what could be interpreted as Ōtomo's criticism towards the continuation of science and technology that is known to be hazardous and life threatening – a lesson that he believed should have been learned from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki disasters. We view Ōtomo's Akira as cautionary film for future generations dealing with new and hazardous sciences and technologies without fully comprehending the risks.
One specific scene where the film's message is particularly clear is when Tetsuo's powers grow beyond his control and manifest themselves directly upon his body. In a sequence that starts at 106:32 and lasts until 108.53, Tetsuo's body transforms into a massive, animated humanoid mass of flesh, veins, and arteries that ensnare his girlfriend and best friend. There is no return for Tetsuo beyond this point and what follows are scenes of destruction as he and Neo Tokyo are consumed by the result of pushing science too far.
This particular scene is significant in understanding what lessons I see that Ōtomo believes Japan should take away from previous disasters in multiple ways. Not only is it the climax to the film's narration on pursuing higher technology unabated but this scene also draws on the imagery of the iconic mushroom cloud from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. In the timeline of the film, old Tokyo had been destroyed decades prior by an event that mirrors what happened with Tetsuo; scientists and the government were conducting experiments on children in order to bring about great telekinetic powers that they believed could be controlled and used. Ultimately however, they failed to contain the effects of their research and the power they created decimated the old Tokyo.
The manifestation of unbridled power and the pushing of science too far in Tetsuo represent the failure of Japan to learn from its mistakes. It is perhaps this fear – the inability to learn from repeated self-inflicted disasters – and not necessary the fear of the disaster itself that plagues the minds of the Japanese and inspired Ōtomo to create Akira. In the film, the Japanese are only able to recognize their mistakes briefly after the disaster has already begun; once they rebuild in Neo Tokyo however, these lessons are cast aside and they easily give into their temptations for power through science again. This is evident in the film at 107:49 as following Tetsuo's transformation, he cries out for help realizing that he is no longer in control of the powers he had just previously flaunted. I believe this scene is Ōtomo's depiction of a worst-case scenario if Japan and the rest of the world are unable to learn from their past choices and mistakes. Filmed nearly half a century after the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Akira is Ōtomo's way of calling on Japan and the international community to learn from World War II and to be wary of pursuing power through science or technology unless they want such man-made disasters to reoccur.
With regards to the how this message is transmitted through film, Tetsuo's transformation is the most visually engaging scene; within seconds, he uncontrollably balloons into a grotesque, fleshy, and massive monster that leaves Tetsuo unrecognizable. The change is sudden and quick, marking a point where there is no returning or undoing the damage done. This mirrors the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II. Just as Tetsuo visually disappears from view after being engulfed into his transformation, once the atomic bomb is dropped from the plane, it descends and disappears from view before exploding into the iconic mushroom gas cloud. Furthermore, just as the transformed Tetsuo symbolizes a point where humanity is beyond help, the mushroom cloud stands for the inevitable destruction and horrors ahead for Japan. I see this parallelism as intentional and Ōtomo plays heavily off of the visual similarities of the atomic bombing in Akira to not only unsettle viewers and compel them to see Tetsuo's situation as analogous to another atomic bomb being dropped on Japan – reinforcing the idea of disasters being repeated, but also to impress upon them his message of caution as a way to avoid such future incidences.
The above examples of visual effects and dialogue demonstrate what we see as Ōtomo's critical stance towards the roles of science and technology in disaster. The role of dialogue in the film represents the inner debate among the government. Though they know about the danger in dealing with Akira's power, the government and the Doctor's desire to control and harness it leads to a continuation of research, despite the risks. By visually mirroring the events in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Ōtomo uses Tetsuo's graphic transformation as a way to teach the audience that those same disasters, because they are man-made, can repeat themselves if the boundaries of science are not approached with caution and respect. In relation to the events of 3.11, TEPCO's negligence towards maintaining its nuclear power plant ultimately led to the nuclear meltdown. The argument we are presenting in Akira is significant in regards to 3.11 in that it forces society to question how nuclear power will be approached more carefully in the future. In the end, nuclear power and other forms of science are not inherently bad; rather, it is the way in which humans exploit this power that results in the issues and disasters that have been faced.