There was a brief period in my life when I tried the craft of manga-making. I was atrocious at it, and it wasn’t long before the revelation that I abhor drawing slapped me in the visage, but until that facial walloping, I was looking to the manga professionals for technical guidance. However, the artwork rarely impressed me. Illustrations might be technically impressive, but nothing ever wowed me. Knowing what I know now about the tight deadlines mangaka stress over, it makes all the sense in the world that a lot of corners would be cut, then cut again, majorly cutting down on the style. Then came Akira, which blew my head clean off my shoulders and into the stratosphere with the sheer and utter perfection of its artwork.
It’s the year 2019—or 2030, since this manga didn’t make its way to the English-speaking world until almost two decades after its release—and Tokyo is a glorified dump rife with hoodlums and biker gangs, and two of our main characters, Kaneda and Tetsuo, just happen to be both hoodlums and members of their own biker gang. They’re out doing what every hoodlum biker does, taking on rival gangs and raising hell, when they just so happen to come across a runaway esper experiment who blows up Tetsuo’s bike, nearly killing him. On the upside, he gains awesome esper powers. On the downside, he can’t properly control them without drugs. But on the upside, this manga is awesome.
As the intro suggests, the very first thing I ever noticed about this manga is the extraordinary amount of detail put into every panel. The quality of the linework is on its own level. There isn’t a line out of place, and you’d be astonished at how many straight lines it takes to make a skyscraper. Even with the demanding labor of a cityscape, he doesn’t skimp on a single window. Nowadays, I’ve discovered other fantastic artists in the medium, such as Inio Asano, Makoto Yukimura, Chashiba Katabe, Yusuke Murata, and Shun Saeki, but the impeccable attention to detail in the craft of Katsuhiro Otomo was my first taste of what manga art could be.
I wouldn’t be sitting here recommending this manga if pretty artwork was all it had going for it. Good storytime is what motivates me to keep the pages flipping, and I’d be selling Akira short if I said it didn’t blow it out the water. The story isn’t the simplest thing to talk about, because there’s a lot going on, with so many players involved that by the time you’re done explaining one part, an atomic blast levels the city, then some time after that the U.S. navy gets involved. But the plot is nothing if not relentless. It knows what it’s doing and what it wants to do and doesn’t let itself get distracted by anything it deems unimportant. The pacing is also spot-on, the characters shuffling their positions and blueprinting their next plan of attack for great lulls at a time, then the volume will knock you to attention with an action sequence that doesn’t let up for scores of, or even hundreds of, pages at a time. And this is yet to mention the actual lipstick and blush constituting this manga’s makeup. Telekinesis is no foreign concept to science-fiction, but usually, there’s not much more explanation than being the world’s most reliable home mover. In Akira, the esper powers dig unimaginably deep. But it doesn’t descend that pit so much as peer down it, maybe toss a stone in and listen for it to hit the bottom, and comment, “Pretty deep hole, isn’t?”
But the shiniest medal this manga gets from me is for Best Scene. Two of ’em, in fact. Hyperbole’s the name of the game on this blog, but it’s no exaggeration out of my mouth when I say that Akira contains two of the greatest scenes I’ve ever read in any manga, ever.
This is gonna blow some minds, but in the manga called Akira, there’s this character called Akira—and I’m gonna spoil some things—who’s cryogenically frozen at the start. When Tetsuo takes on the role of the big bad, he gets it into his head to dethaw Akira and struts into his walk-in freezer to do just that. It’s this scene I call Akira’s First Awakening, and it’s by far my favorite across all six volumes. Being the climax of the second volume, things are moving at a rapid click, yet it’s so suspenseful on that same note. I can’t tell if the scene on its own is just that damn good or if it’s how it slots in with the 500-something pages beforehand, but it’s just an incredible scene I haven’t found matched anywhere else.
And then I read the third volume.
Akira’s Second Awakening, as I’m calling it because I’m a creative naming genius, is on par in terms of quality as his First Awakening. All throughout the third volume you’ve got all these factions duking it out for possession over Akira, which might tilt some heads, because Akira is just a young, quiet boy. Beyond that, he doesn’t seem to have any will of his own, just letting whichever old lady happens to be strolling by snatch him, and he doesn’t display any telekinetic powers whatsoever. Characters heap praise and loathing on him, but there doesn’t seem to be anything noteworthy about the boy, no matter how closely you look.
Then we get to the end of the third volume, and he blows up half the city.
It comes practically out of nowhere, and just as he’s charging up his Luminaire, we get a brief slice into the lives of ordinary citizens waking up for the day, making afternoon plans, eating breakfast with their families, etc., as the manga says to us, “See all these people? They about to be dead.”
The destruction as Akira’s Tech swallows up the city and wipes out half the cast is shown in glorious detail through several pages of tall panels and dual-page spreads, and it’s the equivalent to seeing the frames of a car crash play out one at a time. It looks bad in the moment, but you know it can only get worse as more metal twists and flies, and by the end of the seconds long catastrophe, all that’s left of the cityscape is completely unrecognizable.
But there’s also this serene beauty to the casting of Akira’s power. Its strength is easily comparable with that of a nuclear warhead, yet it doesn’t blow down buildings or incinerate the flammable. Anything caught within its radius simply evaporates. There isn’t a noise as its white light sweeps across the cityscape, and in a way, it’s like watching something not of this universe.
There’s a lot said yet so much unsaid in Akira. We get a grasp on what the espers’ powers are and what they’re capable of with them, but never does the manga answer the question “What are their powers?” It presents hints through flashes of imagery and snippets of commentary here and there, but no one steps forward to give us a definitive explanation on what exactly the espers hold control over or from where the powers originate. This lack of information makes the esper powers as mystical as they are frightening, and that’s just one of many things that makes this manga so great. There’s no shortage of destruction or badassery with the telekinetic powers, but they’re so much more than that, and the manga makes sure to tell us that the espers’ powers are something to be understood, not feared or abused.
Akira is an epic in every sense of the word. The artwork’s epic, the story’s epic, the fact that we’re blessed enough to live in a universe with it is epic. It’s a remarkable landmark achievement, and even thirty-odd years out it hasn’t aged a day. If I did have two tiny criticisms, it would be that the characters had something to say other than “Eat this!” whenever they shot a guy with a rocket launcher and that the romance between Kaneda and Kei is shoehorned in, but those’re minor nitpicks across a full 2,000 pages of marvelous manga goodness. But don’t just take my word for it that this manga is like nothing else. Just ask Yamaguchi. It blew his mind.