Content warning: Nuclear meltdown, self-destruction. Spoilers ahead
The post-apocalyptic Neo-Tokyo painted by the creators of “Akira” features Blade Runner-esque neon buildings, fanatic cults worshipping the mysterious “Akira,” violent anti-government street protests, and Tetsuo and Kaneda’s slick, crowbar-wielding bike gang. “Akira” is an animated cyberpunk film from 1988, exploring the dystopian fallout in Neo-Tokyo thirty-one years after the Japanese government nukes itself to cover up Extrasensory perception experiments on children gone awry (see: creepy green and purple monster kids with binaural, disembodied voices). Kaneda, the swaggering young leader of his bike gang, must rescue his friend Tetsuo from power-hungry military leaders and corrupt scientists as Tetsuo’s newly-developed psychokinetic powers manifest in confusing and dangerous ways. Geinoh Yamashirogumi, a musical collective renowned for their complexity, produces an award-winning soundscape for the crumbling and disintegrating Neo-Tokyo: over the interweaving, harrowing music, factions of rebels, activists, politicians, and monster-children scramble for control. Coincidentally set in 2019, the 1988 film positions the Japanese dread and anxiety around the possibility of the next Hiroshima or Nagasaki in a future that seemed abstract, far-off at the time of the film’s creation. For 2019 viewers of “Akira,” however, watching a grunged out version of the imagined present might leave them with a strange sense of remorse, a bittersweet irony at how things have turned out: that the imagined 2019 of “Akira,” which served, in 1988, as a cautionary warning of the future, coincides so ironically with the present we inhabit.
Gen Z humor is filled with this kind of irony: a recognition of the cynical nihilism incited by the reality of our climatically-doomed future directly at odds with a refusal to give in to that sense of hopelessness. Despite having grown up bombarded by the horrifying reality of climate science — that things are going to shit! — and scientific data that politicians in power have chosen to reject rather than face, it is precisely youth movements (and activism of marginalized youths ignored by mainstream media) around the world that are driving the fight for climate justice. Similarly, Kaneda and Tetsuo’s Neo-Tokyo of 2019 is increasingly anarchic, chaotic, and out of their control, ruined by the authority figures and institutions they were taught to trust. Tetsuo only gains psychokinetic powers because of an incidental run-in with an ESP child which collaterally sweeps him and Kaneda into something much larger than himself. In the same way, Gen Z has inherited, by birth, a global crisis created by the unchecked capitalistic greed of previous generations. Kaneda goes head-to-head with ever more terrifying systems of power, from rival motorcycle gangs to military leaders to supernatural children to Tetsuo himself, all the while accompanied by a vague sense of confusion. He seems to be embroiled in a Kafkaesque nightmare of constant violence without any cause or explanation, driven magnetically towards the elusive and enigmatic center of it all: the mysterious force referred to as “Akira”, which is locked behind multiple metal vaults under Neo-Tokyo’s unfinished Olympic Stadium.
No one knows who or what “Akira” is or why it matters. This elusive sense of clarity, the truth of it all, is what propels each character in the film: they seek to either inhibit or force the truth out into the open. Not coincidentally, the Japanese name, Akira, is represented in Kanji with the Chinese character “明”, meaning “clarity” or “brightness.” The viewer empathizes deeply with our protagonist, Kaneda, as he is jerked around Neo-Tokyo to dilapidated urban locations, battling various figures while begging someone to explain (“説明する” in Japanese, incorporating the Kanji for “clarity”) to him just what is going on. In viewing this film, I felt the deep ambivalence of Kaneda in these moments — how often had I felt controlled and made small by systems of power larger than myself; how is Gen Z to face the climate crisis of our 2019 controlled by inaccessible people in power? As Tetsuo, possessed by his psychokinetic abilities, turns an increasingly greedy eye towards “Akira”, we watch, perhaps in relief, as Neo-Tokyo, in all its neon glory, falls to pieces. In the final scene of “Akira,” in a cathartic mushroom cloud of white light, what we feared most transpires: Neo-Tokyo is utterly obliterated as Tetsuo is consumed by his supernatural powers and transcends his previously human form. All that Kaneda and Tetsuo once cared about is wiped out and replaced by an abstract, rebirthed Tetsuo-slash-singularity. The film applies a monolithic ending over all the complexities and creases of lived experience — let all the maintenance and labor that goes into our everyday lives be smoothed over by this new form of human consciousness, one that is perfect and whole and singular. If only things were that easy.
Just as nuclear annihilation and other forms of apocalypse occupy a space of dread in the global imagination, the climate crisis re-packages this threat in a less sexy, eat-the-rich Gen Z edition. Reading about increasingly cautionary cases of the climate crisis, one’s sense of frustration might evoke a desire for a quick, straightforward solution, much like the all-unifying mushroom cloud of “Akira”. Tetsuo’s act of destructive transformation, in the end, functions as a transcendence rather than an extinction, uniting all forms of consciousness into a bright white screen that is obviously a product of the bendable world of anime and inaccessible as a viable solution to our contemporary crises. If “Akira” has taught me anything, it is that while destruction and entropy are much easier to create, maintaining the precious health of our reality is much more of a hassle and, in the long run, much more rewarding. The beauty of our home is that it’s one made for people like us: people that are works in progress, not monolithic, and imperfect.
“Akira” (1988) by Katsuhiro Otomo is available on Hulu
Featured image courtesy of pinterest.com