Thursday, September 24, 2009

Review - Akira

by Katsuhiro Otomo
2002 Eisner Winner for Best Archival Project
2002 Eisner Winner for Best U.S. Edition of Foreign Material

A short while into creating his epic Katsuhiro Otomo had to put it on hold. He was approached about making it into a movie. Instead of being something like the US where an author sells the rights to his book to a movie studio and then has nothing more to do with it Otomo adapted his work and directed the film which is justifiably considered one of the landmarks of Japanese animation. Unfortunately he also was only a third of the way through his story when he did this and consequently had to create an ending for the entire thing based on what he had made that far. The result of that is the movie diverges widely with the comic in the last reel and a lot of poorly informed American nerds blamed evil filmmakers for screwing up the adaptation. It also means that if you have seen the movie Akira that the book will be a fresh experience.

Twenty years after the destruction of Tokyo triggered a third world war a new city called Neo Tokyo has risen around the devastation. A motorcycle gang from the new city has a run in with a strange child with powers in the ruins which triggers a series of events that changes the world. For one member it leads one to becoming entangled with a terrorist organization trying to expose the secrets of a government program for harnessing psychics. Another member begins developing psychic abilities of his own and gets first hand experience in what absolute power does. And drawing both of them together is Akira, the government's greatest secret.

Akira is a wonderful example of what I don't like in science fiction. The ideas presented are huge, terrific things; the actual execution of those concepts on the other hand falls flat. Otomo isn't nearly as bad as many I've read since his writing is simply flawed instead of outright awful. It isn't as simple as a bad translation either. There's fundamental information missing, muddled storytelling in the art, and an awkward pacing that comes from stretching out sections for the serial.

There's also the problem that most of the characters in Akira just aren't interesting. The lead is a doofus who's just along with events for the ride. The terrorists who get the majority of the early focus are given no motivation beyond being dupes in a political struggle; it's never clear why they're doing the things they do or why they choose their extreme methods. They're the designated good guys despite the fact that the reader is never given a reason to root for them. On the other hand the character who is gaining vast power and losing control in every sense of the word is fascinating because while his only goal may be anarchy the reader can understand his purpose. Every time the story went to people discussing vague goals with characters whose motivations weren't explained I wanted to back to the guy who was destroying everything.

There is one thing that Akira has going for it: Otomo's art. He has a sense of environment design that is stunning. There are a lot of images of destruction in Akira and he makes each bit of it look unique. Similarly the machines he populates the book with are in some ways more interesting that the humans. I could examine his incredibly detailed backgrounds all day.

Similarly the way that Otomo draws action is impressive. Each explosion is a ultradetailed work of art. Every panel of an complex action scene examined individually tells it's own story. I can't say that I'm fond of how he lays out pages since it's pretty standard it is on a higher plain than most Japanese comic artists who hold to certain artistic conventions that typically muddy up the panel flow. When he brings his focus in on those kinds of scenes Otomo's artistic storytelling is terrific.

So Akira is an visually interesting but inherently flawed work. On one hand I'm not very fond of the story being told, but on the other it's the only Japanese comic that I own a supplemental art book for. Perhaps it's best to think of it like a movie, one of those summer blockbuster action movies like they used to make where they might not have been terrific films the images presented were exciting and fun. I'd recommend Akira on that level: come for the pictures and fun action. Just don't expect any more than that.