Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Akira, Volume 1 Review (Katsuhiro Otomo)


That’s basically the extent of my memory of Akira, an anime movie I watched when I was 9. So I was interested to learn that it’s also a critically acclaimed comic that’s hailed as one of the finest the medium has ever created. First published in 1982, the comic predates the film by 6 years though interestingly both were created by one man, the visionary artist Katsuhiro Otomo, who was an astoundingly young 28 years old when this book was first published, meaning he’d written/drawn this epic story at an even younger age! It’s astounding because of how accomplished the style here is and how well Otomo understands the language of comics - but I’ll come back to that in a moment. 

Akira is set in 2030, a decade after a powerful new bomb destroyed Tokyo completely, leading to World War 3. Neo-Tokyo is populated with drug-fuelled biker gangs battling each other over turf, one of which our protagonists Kaneda and Tetsuo, two best friends, belong to. During a late-night race they encounter a weird young boy with the face of an old man being chased by shady government types. Tetsuo crashes his bike and is abducted by this secret army force. When he re-emerges, Tetsuo has blinding migraines but possesses incredible psychic powers – what is this secret organisation, who are these weird-looking kids, and what is Akira? 

I really wanted Akira to live up to the hype but unfortunately it doesn’t. I’d forgotten the character flaws that were probably in the film but are shown here in all their disgrace. Kaneda, our “hero” is probably one of the most despicable protagonists I’ve read since “Message to Adolf Part One”, a book by another acclaimed manga artist, Osamu Tezuka. And like Tezuka’s main character, Otomo’s Kaneda is a sexual predator. After knocking up the school nurse and completely ignoring her pleas for help in deciding what to do about it, he tries to rape the only other female character in the book, Kei! What is it about Japanese artists and their appalling treatment of women?! 

When he’s not being a sexual creep, he’s getting stoned and drag-racing his motorbike through the streets - and we’re supposed to think this is awesome and cool! I realise Akira is a 6-volume story and it’s altogether possible that Otomo’s setting up Kaneda in the first book as this immature prick at the beginning of his arc and ends with him completely changed for the better, but the way the character is written doesn’t make me want to invest any more time in reading the rest of this series. 

I think the story’s emotional crux is predicated on Kaneda/Tetsuo’s friendship but I never believed they were very close. You could tell they were pals, but besties? Tetsuo just seemed like another member of the gang. We never see why Kaneda would care so much about him. None of the characters are very well written either. The Colonel character is your regular army officer stereotype, the various gang members act as you’d expect, ie. like punks, and so on. They’re all pretty much one-dimensional. 

There also isn’t much of a story. This 360 page book is basically a series of chase sequences between Kaneda and the resistance and the army. But who are the resistance and why are they helping free the experimental old-faced kids? Who are those weird kids? Why is Kaneda holding on to a special pill everyone’s chasing? And if it’s just a pill, why don’t they have more? Pills are mass-produced after all. I never really understood the point of the book or much of the world of the story. Besides the biker gangs and the army, there isn’t much to Neo-Tokyo, it’s just unpopulated urban sprawl with lots of empty highways and construction zones. 

As weak as the story and characterisation was, I was still impressed with the storytelling style. The action is ambitious and frenetic but always clear to follow. It’s easy to see Otomo moving on from making comics to making movies later in his career as he has a strong eye for visual storytelling. He knows the importance of providing an establishing shot for a scene, when to focus on a character, when to pull back and include other characters, how to populate a panel perfectly so it’s not cluttered, and when to let a scene breathe. He knows implicitly where to put the “camera” for the best effect of a scene and how to represent different kinds of scenes – traditional panelling for dialogue/character-driven slower scenes, and more dynamic layouts/splash pages and so on for pacier scenes like chases and gunfights. 

Continuing the idea of Otomo as a visual storyteller, there’s a notable lack of narrative boxes in the comic and almost nothing in the way of exposition. This is another aspect of the book I really liked, with the artist letting the reader see the story play out naturally and allowing more opportunities for the reader to engage with the story – pay attention or fall behind! I like that the story isn’t spoon-fed to the reader. 

It’s surprising that someone so young could not only understand but execute such a sophisticated way of storytelling like he has in this book. It’s an expertise you tend to see in older artists but underlines how dedicated Otomo was to his craft that he must’ve started very young to develop so quickly in the way he did. I wish Otomo had had another writer do the script for him, partly to overcome the problems I’ve mentioned, or at least had an editor who could’ve tightened it up for him and maybe directed him in a more fruitful direction, because I think Akira has the potential to be the legendary comic others have said it is, but because Japanese manga is almost always long-form storytelling, it was allowed to run to 2000 pages and becomes a bit of a stagnant story to readers like me as a result. 

The art itself is unmemorable and resembles a lot of generic manga. It also has the problem of the characters looking too much alike. Kaneda and Yamagata looked the same in certain scenes and during the biker fights I couldn’t tell which side was which – colour might’ve helped, assuming the gangs wore gang colours to differentiate between themselves (this is a black and white comic).

I wouldn’t dismiss Akira entirely because of its commendably ambitious sci-fi/horror story that was enormously influential and the masterful visual storytelling Otomo possesses, but it’s a book that’s difficult to like for its characters and often directionless, sometimes rambling plot. Maybe the series gets better in later volumes but based on this first book alone, I’d say this might be one of those rare instances where the movie surpasses the book (I’ll have to re-watch it to decide). Either way, I’m not particularly interested in picking up Volume 2 to find out who or what Akira is, so this book fails in delivering perhaps the most important job of a first volume: leaving the audience wanting more.

Akira Volume 1

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