023 / Tuesday Night, 7PM, PBS
November 29, 2021

One evening when I was 10 years old, I was in the living room alone. It was winter, dark already since 5 o’clock. My mother was at work for the evening, and my father was in bed early. I turned the knob on the television, until suddenly a futuristic red motorbike emerging from a cloud of flames flashed across the screen. The animation style was unlike anything I had ever seen in my familiar Saturday morning cartoons. I watched the entire movie, completely enthralled. The complexity and detail of the animation, the incredible sense of motion and in emotion in each frame, and the overwhelming sense of awe, I can’t think of a better way to put it, left me filled with curiosity and wonder. 

After that night, I had a new mission to find out more about this movie, cryptically named Akira. I looked through the yellow pages to see if comic book shops existed in Philadelphia. This search let me downtown to Fat Jack’s comic crypt. It took me to the Ontario Street Comic shop in Kensington. I ventured to South Street to find out more about this movie and the associated art form. 

The whole world of comics was a mystery to me, and by trying to find out about Akira I learned more about the rest of my city. Art was doing what it does best, taking my intangible imagination and using it to put my physical body in new situations where I could learn and experience new things and open up new possibilities. Akira filled me with a sense of potential. The discovery of this work gave me the sense that more was out there, more was possible, I just needed to go out and find it.

Before Akira, I never felt much more than a passing attraction to any of the DC or Marvel comics. There was a period where I was into the Frank Miller series of Batman. I found the gritty and dark psychological exploration of Batmans’ past intriguing, but generally comics felt a bit lame and cheesy to me. However this chance late night encounter with Japanese animation and storytelling sparked something inside of me that set me on an ongoing path of exploration driven by my curiosity and fascination about art.

Akira was created by Katsuhiro Otomo, originally as a syndicated print comic book and then later the film which I happened to come across on PBS on a Saturday morning. Thematically rich, it explored psychology, spirituality, a dystopian future, questions about politics and forms of government, military intervention, sexuality, violence and a host of other topics that were lacking in the average issue of Spiderman (to be fair this probably isn’t actually the case, and its become clear to me since I was 10 that all of the classic comic book superheroes plot-lines also incorporated much deeper and involved themes, it just wasn’t obvious to me at the time). I felt drawn to all of this, even if I didn’t completely understand or appreciate it at the time. I just knew that this story and this artwork was different from what I typically saw on channel 17. Despite the fact that it is sci-fi, it felt real. It dealt with life and death, and wasn’t just about a superpower or a neatly wrapped up story where the hero saves the day in the end. All of the characters in Akira are inherently flawed and their lives are complicated. Not just complicated, but intertwined and would all depend upon each other in ways that none of them could foresee. 

Since Akira’s 1988 release, anime has become more or less mainstream, and as with most things that become mainstream, the individuality, spirit and originality of the product has become more homogenous. On the surface, the graphic style of anime isn’t as strange to the Western eye any longer. We see it today in video games, advertising and kids cartoons. But when Akira debuted, it sent shockwaves through the Western world and started a revolution, setting tens of thousands of young people like myself on a path of exploration and creativity. This ability for art to inspire is an aspect that all art possesses, and that I think is one of its most important. Art inspires in completely unforeseen ways, and can do so outside of the boundaries of time and space, it is bigger than language and culture. New artworks and new acts of creativity will emerge that could never have been predicted. 

Viewed this way, creativity can be a framework for how we interact with the world and how we see ourselves in it. I cannot help the fact that for me, art is the way to question and discover the world, to put it in my mouth like a baby. For others it is music or mathematics. In the end these are all forms of human creativity, and with that in mind I feel more at home with the idea that art is mine to explore and struggle with.

I recently bought the print compilation of the Akira manga. The thick pages full of lavish and enthralling illustrations take up ample space on my bookshelf. The drawings are simply incredible. The detail is so intricate that I can spend so much time on a single spread to take in all of the action and to fully understand a scene. I also love the way that Otomo uses negative space and stillness to give the story pacing and build the personality of each character. It’s really a masterclass in storytelling. 

It is interesting to return to these drawings after nearly 30 years, and to explore what resonates now as an adult, to see some aspects of the artwork and story for the first time. It’s also intriguing to note what appealed to me as a 10 year old, and what still appeals to me now. Interacting with the same piece of art at age 41 and at age 10 is a revealing experience. I still have the same sense of awe and appreciation for the beautiful and intricate line work packed into each page of the printed comic and every frame of the anime. However at age 41 I am able to better understand the underlying and mostly unspoken sexual tension between Kei and Kaneda, to see and understand the teenage rivalry that drove the conflict between Kaneda and Tetsuo, and to appreciate the transformations that each of the characters went through, including the scenes in which Tetsuo remembers his own birth and recalls fleeting images of his parents that he never knew as a child. These scenes resonate in a way with me now that a ten year old, due to lack of experience and context, could not appreciate. This to me is a sign that Akira is a true work of art. It’s a well that does not run dry, only becoming more sophisticated and deep as I develop in ways that allow me to finally see the full range of what its story has to offer. 

Subscribe to The Random Embassy Papers