ANIME has a certain stigma, that it is childish or that one must be fully consumed within Japanese culture to enjoy it. Yet a recent surge in popularity has brought it to the west in a significant way. AKIRA (1988) was a very influential factor in anime’s success. Its complex, volatile characters still resonate with the cyberpunk genre since their humanistic conflict allows them to appear real, against the stone cold atmosphere the film portrays. Ôtomo painstakingly depicts Neo-Tokyo’s cruelty and decadence through his attention to detail, something that allows people to dissect the film to this day, 29 years after its release.
While the promotional art prominently features the rambunctious protagonist Kaneda (voiced by Mitsuo Iwata), the film actually follows Tetsuo (voiced by Nozumo Sasaki), an equally boisterous but headstrong follower of Kaneda, leader of the Capsules biker gang, who harasses, harms and humiliates Tetsuo to breaking point. After opening with a bike chase and being introduced to an enigmatic power drained child, a series of collisions leads Tetsuo to be taken away by a mysterious group. Following the results of much examination, Tetsuo awakens with powers. His naivety and recklessness leave him with a god complex. Experimentation only leads to further chaos, as he evolves into more and more of a monster. Tetsuo escapes from a prison-like facility using his pent-up rage as a conduit, until he breaks free into a world of hate. Now he is free, he begins his retaliation against Kaneda and those who kept him down.
What is Tetsuo envious of? We see him grow up in a downtrodden Neo-Tokyo, the result of the previous generation’s failures. This leaves him alongside other gangs fraught with their detest for the system. Yet his suppression exists not only within society but in his group. Before re-encountering Kaneda, he stumbles upon a local bar whose occupants once shamed him. He thrashes the owner as a feat of pure strength then cockily confronts some former friends, ready for a final fight. Three key scenes demonstrate Tetsuo’s envy. He fawns over Kaneda's bike and is bullied for it. He steals Kaneda’s bike out of spite and is beaten for it. He faces Kaneda one-on-one and he engulfs Neo-Tokyo with his uncontrollable power - everyone suffers. This series of acts culminates in a violent climax. As Tetsuo’s powers grow, his hubris consumes him. His body grows, limb after limb, to form a convulsing, mutating, cancerous catastrophe; a monster.
While AKIRA is a precursor to the expansion of anime culture, it also serves as a sign of rebirth within the science-fiction genre. While Neo-Tokyo is at the centre of the film, its expanse is not the focus of the film but rather the complex characters that live among the horrors of the world, who survived the war and lived to tell an envious tale. Tetsuo seems like a naive child, one lost within the hate of his peers and searching for his place in life. Yet opportunity allows him to unleash a beast, one that is not a result of his psychic powers but that of hubristic desire.