Akira opens with an empty silence and a flash of white light that spreads across Tokyo circa 1988. It’s an explosion of unmatched scale, one that recalls the atomic bombs that ended World War II and decimated swaths of Japanese society. We quickly learn that the imagery isn’t just symbolic — the film then jumps 30 years, from “World War III” to the present, where a new metropolis (simply dubbed Neo-Tokyo) rises from the rubble and bones of the old city.
It’s immediately clear that 2019 society isn’t in a good place, despite the towering skyscrapers, bustling streets and dramatic lights that make Neo-Tokyo sparkle. Protesters rage in downtown avenues, with improvised blockades and spontaneous fires that recall the real-world chaos of the ongoing protest in Hong Kong. Chants and signs demanding the government “repeal the tax reforms!” and “oppose imperialism” abound. A group of motorcycle hooligans race through red lights, with one masked youth tossing a grenade into a salaryman’s sports car, just for a little classist revenge.
Against this backdrop, we meet Tetsuo, a young man who belongs to a bōsōzoku — a motorcycle gang. The cadre is led by Kaneda, a charismatic figure who is also Tetsuo’s oldest friend. They both grew up as orphans and slipped through holes in the social safety net. The school they attend is ramshackle, and the halls are ruled by belligerent ne’er-do-wells and violent administrators who discipline through bloody slaps across the face. Their lives appear to be dead ends, with only “chasing skirts” and brawling on the streets with their nemesis gang, the Clowns, to look forward to.
Tetsuo doesn’t thrive in this world. His heart is gripped by insecurity that he’s not strong enough, courageous enough, cool enough — basically, the things Kaneda has always been. But a reckless decision to try to prove his mettle leads Tetsuo onto a literal dark road and into a jump-scare collision with a small child. The child survives, as does Tetsuo. But the impact leaves Tetsuo with new telekinetic abilities that make him more forceful than ever before. As the world unravels around him, so does Tetsuo, becoming increasingly drunk on what power and intimidation can garner him in a world with little hope.
Akira landed in the U.S. 30 years ago, a year after its release in Japan, and its impact on both animation and the sci-fi genre cannot be overstated. It was the first time that a full-length animated feature dared to depict violence and despair with genuine intensity, caking scenes in blood and the grime of urban decay. While it only made a modest amount at the Japanese and U.S. box offices, it has blossomed as an international cult hit, standing next to films like Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey as some of the most influential of the 20th century. Everyone from Rian Johnson to Hype Williams name-checks Akira as a source of inspiration. As Kambole Campbell wrote for Birth.Movies.Death.: “If you’ve watched a sci-fi film made after 1988, you’ve probably interacted with something inspired by Akira.”
I first saw the anime as a teenager, but the significance of its themes rings louder in adulthood. It’s the most vivid portrait of adolescent male rage I’ve ever seen in a film, in large part due to the lysergic beauty and madness allowed by the medium of animation. Akira is also arguably one of the best expressions of what makes us violent — and why it’s so instinctive, and satisfying, for humans to lash out when cornered.
The core of Tetsuo’s experience is a deep-seated loneliness and desperation to be something, even when the odds look impossible given his station in life. That bitterness evolves into rage when he realizes, post-accident, that his crippling headaches are the symptom of a power unlike any grasped by humans. Akira is a story of boys struggling to grow up, and Tetsuo serves as the tragic crux. His arc and anger very much reminds me of the violence of real-life lonely young men, who realize at some point that killing is a worthwhile way to feel agency again.
Shortly after his accident, an injured and delirious Tetsuo breaks out of the hospital where he’s locked up and reunites with his girlfriend, Kaori. He steals Kaneda’s motorcycle, a cherry-red beast that’s been off-limits because Tetsuo “can’t handle it.” They start to head out of Neo-Tokyo, only for the motorcycle to sputter and stall. Then the duo sees a pack of Clowns coming at them, melee pipes in hand. With no escape, Tetsuo is beaten to pieces while the Clowns rip Kaori’s shirt off and batter her face. Luckily, they’ve been trailed by an angry Kaneda and the rest of the gang, who scatter the Clowns before confronting Tetsuo.
Tetsuo is occupied with kicking the life out of a Clown, and Kaneda looks almost horrified before demanding he stop. “Are you trying to kill him?” the leader spits.
In short, yes. “Don’t order me around!!! Do you always have to come and save me? I understand that I got beat up one time,” Tetsuo screams through tears. “But I won’t always be on the receiving end. Understand?!?!”
The emotional high triggers hallucinations, and the powerful energy streaming from Tetsuo tips off government forces, who swarm and collect him to return to the hospital. This is effectively the beginning of the end; in the hospital, a series of dreams and hallucinations allow Tetsuo to gain some command of his telekinesis. He breaks open the lock of his room, and kills security forces with a swipe of his arm, as if he’s Darth Vader.
At no point does Tetsuo truly have control. The people around him, both friends and prospective enemies, say so to his face, warning that things will spiral. But that just reinforces the feeling of being emasculated at every turn, whether it’s because Kaneda gives him commands or because shadowy figures from the government want to medicate and tame his new power. We learn that the government has always had an interest in studying how some kids develop telekinetic and other mind-warping powers that can turn their surroundings to rubble. In fact, it’s the small child who Tetsuo collided with that gave him his newfound powers — a cycle created by a higher power (the state) hiding secrets that could destroy the world.
We learn that there are three other “espers,” but they don’t suffer from the growing egomania of Tetsuo or his unpredictable spurts of telekinetic rage. We also learn that the explosion that leveled Tokyo in 1988 was actually the result of one esper, Akira, succumbing to his own power in the same way Tetsuo is. But learning of Akira, and his “location” deep underground, only fuels Tetsuo to outdo him. The crybaby kid once described as a klutz by Kaneda is now a sneering Ubermensch, and when they confront each other again, Tetsuo drips with contempt for his friend.
“I forgot you were there, Kaneda. I won’t be needing you to save me anymore,” Tetsuo says. “From now on, I’ll be saving you.”
He kills a bartender to self-medicate on expensive “capsules,” and he takes Kaneda’s bike once more. The only person who can seemingly calm him is Kaori, who finds him at the Olympic Stadium where Akira’s remains are buried. But it’s too late: His body spontaneously begins to morph into some horrific genetic experiment as a result of his anger and violence, rapidly gaining mass and limbs.
All Tetsuo can do is scream for help from Kaori and Kaneda — the two people who genuinely cared for him. But, in a symbolic twist, his body crushes Kaori in a bloody spray. Kaneda, meanwhile, cannot help but run toward his friend, even despite the fact he was just trying to kill Tetsuo in order to stop the violence.
Everyone around Tetsuo watched this progression happen, especially the actual adults in the room. The government scientist in charge of tracking Tetsuo’s development failed, because he couldn’t help but marvel at the sheer power. The institutions that could’ve provided him a way out failed. His peers, even Kaneda, didn’t make Tetsuo feel held. The blood — so, so much blood — is solely on Tetsuo’s hands. But the undercurrent of the movie screams, It didn’t have to be this way.
Tetsuo mistook force for strength, even when his mind was about to break under the stress of life. Before his disfiguring transformation, the colonel tasked with stopping Tetsuo pleads with him to come receive treatment, and find peace along with the other espers who have matured into stability. But Tetsuo can’t help but laugh.
“You want me to enroll in that kindergarten and live happily ever after?” he says.
Like so many men in the real world, the answer for him is no.