Japan's Vision of the Future

An essay on


Betrice Yambrach, Bryn Mawr College, Class of 2014

In Collaboration with Angie Koo

The 1988 film Akira, directed by Ōtomo Katsuhiro, is a cult classic Japanese animated movie. Based on themanga 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 believes should have been learned from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki disasters. We view Ōtomo's Akira as a cautionary film for future generations dealing with new and hazardous sciences and technologies without fully comprehending the risks.

The example from Akira discussed in this essay is the scene in which Tetsuo, a teenage gang member, has been kidnapped by the government and is being tested on by the Doctor for his "pattern" (Figure 1) (Akira 1988, 21:45). While this is happening, the Colonel and Doctor are discussing the safety of experimenting with Tetsuo's unique "pattern" and the possibility of it leading to another disaster similar to that of Akira's.

The significance of this specific scene is that it deals with the government and military's continued presence when working with risky or unrestrained science. Tetsuo, the kidnapped teenager, is going through some sort of tests while being overlooked by the Colonel, the Doctor, and other scientists and government officials. The Doctor pulls the Colonel aside to examine Tetsuo's "pattern" (Figure 2), a circle of light that flickers and rotates. The Doctor claims that it's quite unique and that after some cultivating, Testuo may be able to match Akira's own "pattern". While still early on in the movie, the terms and topics that are being discussed by the Colonel and the Doctor are somewhat ambiguous. However, it is known that Akira was the force that destroyed Tokyo in 1988. Therefore, the audience can infer that these "patterns" represent a kind of power force. Namely, the specific force used by Akira that is responsible for Tokyo's past destruction. The Doctor and Colonel discuss continuing the experiment in order to shape Tetsuo's "pattern" into a parallel of Akira's.

In this situation, both the Doctor and the Colonel are aware of the amount of power that can be produced by Tetsuo's "pattern" if cultivated correctly. However, at the end of the scene the Colonel does say, "But maybe we weren't meant to meddle with ultimate power". Similar to 1945, where the reproduction of nuclear weapons continued despite knowledge of the horrific suffering of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims, the Colonel and Doctor in Akira continue to experiment on these "patterns" and "ultimate power" even after the Akira incident. They are fully aware of the dangers and destructive forces that this power can lead to. Comparable to the 3.11 Fukushima incident, the hazards of nuclear power are known and understood; yet society continues to take risks by using and testing this power for technology and science. The dangers of meddling with these unrestrained and risky technologies and sciences, both in Akira and real life, are disregarded for the desire to harness the powers they produce. The attraction of these powers is that they either bring some sort of status and supremacy or signify a scientific breakthrough. Akira is attempting to send out a cautionary message to modern society on the use of unrestrained science and technology. Yet, regardless of past experiences, selfish attitudes and desire continue to ignore these messages.

Although dialogue is the core aspect of this scene, it's crucial to point out specific visual features as well. The "patterns" of Tetsuo and Akira, when formed together, shape a bright dome that appears as though it's dancing while it rotates in a circle (Figure 3). This dome is multi-colored, sparkling, and produces its own twinkling kind of music or sound. While these colors and twinkling sounds make the "pattern" appear pretty and whimsical, the dome overall looks like an explosion, similar to the explosion witnessed in the first scene of Akira (Figure 4). The aesthetics of the patterns visually represent the allure of society to new and risky sciences and technologies. Yet, the dome shape, appearing as an explosion, symbolizes the inevitable destruction. It can be said that these "patterns" foreshadow the near-future destruction of Neo-Tokyo in the film.

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're 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 we have faced.

Works Cited