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Not So Super, Hero: What Modern Superhero Blockbusters Could Learn From “Akira”…

This Saturday, as part of the annual “Anime April”, I’ll be discussing Akira on The 250, the weekly podcast that I co-host discussing the IMDb’s Top 250 Movies of All-Time. However, I had some thoughts on the film that I wanted to jot down first. You can listen to last week’s episode on Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind here. You can listen to our episode on Akira here.

Akira is a startlingly influential film.

Even if a person hasn’t seen Katsuhiro Otomo’s animated masterpiece, they have undoubtedly felt its influence rippling through popular culture in various media. In music, Kanye West cites it as his “biggest creative inspiration”, to the point that his video for Stronger is almost a shot-for-shot remake. Rian Johnson has cited Akira as a major influence on his own Looper. Josh Trank and Max Landis’ Chronicle has a number of obvious similarities to Akira. Even outside of these direct references, individual elements of the film continue to have an outsized influence on American popular culture. The iconic red bike pops up in Ready Player One. Even individual shots have been mimicked and imitated, such as the fantastic “Akira bike slide” from early in the film.

Inevitably, there has been much talk of a potential Americanised remake of Akira. After all, there have been other big-budget live action adaptations of cult Japanese projects like Ghost in the Shell or Alita: Battle Angel, and so it is surprising it has taken so long. There were rumours of an adaptation by Albert Hughes that might star Morgan Freeman. (James Franco might have headlined.) More recently, Jordan Peele declined the invitation to direct the adaptation, despite his affection for the source material. The most recent rumours suggested that Leonardo DiCaprio might be producing a version directed by Taika Waititi, which would shift the action from Neo-Tokyo to Neo-Manhattan. There were other significant changes made to the source story.

There are a variety of reasons why Akira has been so difficult to adapt. Most optimistically, it may simply be a case that so much of what made the original film iconic has already been filtered through to audiences in the movies indebted to it, like Looper or Chronicle; this is the challenge adapting John Carter of Mars following the success of films like Star Wars or Flash Gordon. More pragmatically, Akira is a story rooted in a very specific cultural context. It is not an American story, it is a story anchored very specifically in eighties Japan. Of course, this is not necessarily a problem; samurai films like Shichinin no Samurai or Yojimbo could be reworked for American audiences as cowboy films, their cultural context shifted in the journey across the Pacific. Still, it is a challenge.

However, this challenge of cultural translation suggests one of the fundamental issues with adapting Akira for American audiences. It is hard to define Akira in terms of a single genre; it is a coming of age science-fiction deconstruction of masculinity infused with a psychedelic sensibility. However, in terms of visual style and narrative flow, the movie’s closest relatives in contemporary American cinema are superhero films. Superheroes are, after all, the dominant American cinematic mode of the twenty-first-century to date. Indeed, a modern audience approaching Akira might be tempted to read it in the context of that genre. If Chronicle is to be considered “the American Akira”, it is notable that it uses the language of the superhero genre to translate the story.

However, there is something fundamentally different about the way in which Akira approaches the idea of the superhero figure as compared to mainstream superhero films, and this difference might demonstrate why an adaptation of Akira for American cinema might pose such a challenge.

It is important not to be reductive here. Akira is an impressively vast and complex movie, especially considering its relatively compressed runtime of two-hours-and-four minutes. In those one-hundred-and-twenty-four minutes, the film charts both the political collapse of Neo-Tokyo in the then-distant future of 2019 and the erosion of the friendship between two young men named Kaneda and Tetsuo. Following a freak encounter in the middle of a civil protest, Tetsuo finds his body undergoing a profound physical transformation. An angry and abandoned young man, Tetsuo uses his power to lash out at the world around him as the city descends into anarchy. His best friend Kaneda finds himself tasked with trying to stop Tetsuo from causing untold destruction.

This plot synopsis is simplistic, at best. It glosses over so many of the little details and key thematic points that Katsuhiro Otomo injects into his narrative. Akira is a story about many things; about a generational crisis in eighties Japanese culture, about the lingering trauma of the sixties protests in Tokyo, about the bosozoku biker gangs that wandered the country without any purpose or meaning. These details are not incidental. They add up to a lot of what makes Akira so unique and so powerful. There is an incredible attention to detail in Akira; not just in the groundbreaking animation, but even in its application of various storytelling mechanics.

Indeed, one of the recurring minor themes of Akira is the way in which western culture has influenced and shaped postwar Japan. One of the establishing shots of the film’s dystopian future focuses on an American-style jukebox in a dingy dive bar. Campaigners at a protest wave a banner pleading to “end imperialism.” Neo-Tokyo is largely defined through its American-style advertising, bright neon signs advertising luxury goods. The Colonel spends most of Akira lamenting the moral decline of this once-great nation, cursing the “corrupt politicians and capitalists” that he blames for the city’s collapse into near-anarchy. As such, Akira seems very engaged with the relationship of Japanese culture to that of the west.

There is a lot of the contemporary superhero film to be found in Akira. This is most obvious in a number of design choices. When Tetsuo escapes from the government facility, beginning to realise the extent of his powers, he ties a red clothe around his neck. This choice seems strange, except in how it evokes the iconic red cape of Superman. The film reinforces this point of comparison when Tetsuo lays waste to the new Olympic Stadium, a symbolic gesture of itself given the opulence of the stadium in contrast to the poverty of his early life. (Also a biting piece of political commentary on the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.) The army attacks Tetsuo using a satellite, prompting the young man to launch himself into orbit to take the weapon down. It is a Superman sequence.

Interestingly, the sequences in which Tetsuo rampages his way through Tokyo have aged remarkably well. This is in large part because they use a similar cinematic language to contemporary superhero blockbusters. Many, many modern superhero films are fixated on the destruction and demolition of urban landscapes; The Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Man of Steel, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, X-Men: Apocalypse, Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, The Incredible Hulk. To be clear, this is not an entirely new phenomenon – Superman II offered a prototypical sequence almost forty years ago – but it is a defining trait of the genre.

In terms of American cinema, these sequences often feel coded in terms of the destruction of the terrorist attacks upon the World Trade Centre. Indeed, compared to many early movies featuring urban devastation, like Independence Day or Volcano, the visual language of these sequences seems intended to evoke the cultural memory of 9/11. Those attacks were – to a certain extent – coded in the language of cinema: for those people not living in New York, the attacks largely played out in real-time on television in a manner similar to high-stakes drama; footage was often captured by civilians using handheld video cameras; for many people who lived through the day, cinematic spectacle was often the primary point of reference.

Of course, a lot of American culture was shaped and defined by 9/11. Although The Blair Witch Project became a breakout hit before the attacks, the found footage horror genre really exploded in the years that followed; commentators have noted the manner in which found footage horror evokes those handheld video recordings of the attacks. Similarly, there was a marked increase in horror movies about Americans being victimised abroad, like the Hostel series or The Ruins, which perhaps tapped into some of those post-9/11 anxieties about the relationship between the United States and the rest of the world. However, because superhero films became the dominant form of blockbuster in the twenty-first century, it makes sense that they would also reflect these anxieties.

Those anxieties are reflected in a number of ways. Iron Man and Batman Begins made a conscious effort to recontextualise their heroes as part of the military industrial complex; Tony Stark had always been an arms manufacturer, but Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s work on The Ultimates largely set the tone for twenty-first century superheroics by literalising the idea of superheroes as an expression of the American military-industrial complex. The Dark Knight used its central character to construct a complicated and elaborate allegory for the challenges facing the United States in during the War on Terror. However, most viscerally and most emotively, twenty-first century superhero films tended to borrow the iconography of urban devastation.

In Thor: The Dark World, space craft launch suicide attacks on both Asgard and London. In The Winter Soldier, helicarriers fall out of the sky and collide into buildings. In Guardians of the Galaxy, an invasion fleet dive bombs into a city populated by screaming civilians. In Man of Steel, impossibly strong characters hurl one another through buildings, the prologue to Batman vs. Superman making a point to underscore the cost of this spectacle in terms of civilian lives. In The Avengers and Age of Ultron, death comes from above as buildings crumble to dust. In Avengers: Infinity War, a hole in the sky opens over New York City and the villain throws his daughter to her death from a perch under the shadow of two gigantic stone towers.

In some respects, this suggests an obvious parallel between Akira and the modern superhero genre. Both unfold in the wake of massive tragedies, defined in large part by their allegorical response to these cultural traumas. As with a lot of Japanese cinema, Akira can be read as a response to the dropping of the atomic bomb, Japan wrestling with the enormity of destruction on a scale almost beyond human reckoning. After all, Japan is the only country on the planet to have experienced a nuclear attack, and so it makes sense that its culture would be shaped and defined by this. The opening moments of Akira feature a massive explosion of incredible magnitude in a major metropolitan area, making that context clear.

Akira handles all of this through metaphor. The movie opens with a massive explosion in 1988, which is implied to have started “World War III.” The film is set forty years after that prologue, which is approximately how far Akira was from the Second World War. There are references to “postwar” Japan that literally refer the aftermath of the Third World War, but apply just as effectively to the Second World War. At one meeting, a bureaucrat laments, “The postwar period is over.” There is a real crisis of identity in Akira over what that means, how Japan moves out of the shadow of the war. “The passion to build has cooled and the joy of reconstruction forgotten,” the Colonel complains, “and now it’s just a garbage heap made up of hedonistic fools.”

In many ways, Akira plays as a deconstruction of a typical masculine power fantasy. Tetsuo is a bullied and neglected child, victimised and brutalised. He has suffered a lot in his short life. It is clear that Tetsuo measures himself by fairly standard modes of masculinity; he aspires to ride Kaneda’s cool bike and he clings desperately to the affection of Kaori, even though he treats her sexual assault as something that shames him. Naturally, when granted unlimited power, Tetsuo lashes out in stereotypically masculine ways; he uses his new gifts to smite those who dare cross him, luxuriating in the freedom that absolute and unchallenged power affords him. (Kaneda also responds to Tetsuo’s transformation with violence, trying to kill him.)

Akira treats Tetsuo’s transformation as a source of awe and terror, even before his grotesque body transformation in the third act. The film lingers on the violence that Tetsuo inflicts on the people around him; blood splatters, bodies contort, heads explode. This is not action designed to provoke excitement or anticipation in the audience. Instead, it triggers feelings of revulsion. It is repulsive. It is the stuff of nightmares. Indeed, Akira often avoids showing the action itself, choosing to dwell on the aftermath. As a bunch of soldiers prepare to confront Tetsuo, smoke grenades obscure the horror of what is unfolding. However, the next shot reveals that Tetsuo got past the guards with no real effort, the animation revealing the bent and mangled corpses left in his wake.

Approaching Akira as a deconstruction of the short of power fantasies that can power mainstream superhero stories, this cynical deconstruction can be contextualised as part of a broader wariness about the genre during the eighties. Around the same time that Katsuhiro Otomo was working on the Akira manga, a then-unknown writer named Alan Moore took over the Marvelman (later Miracleman, for obvious reasons) comic being published by Eclipse in the United Kingdom. These comics would remain out of print for decades, owing to the complicated legal situation surrounding the character, meaning that they remained (relatively) unknown. This is a shame, as it remains one of the most effective deconstructions of the superhero genre ever published.

There were generations of comics fans influenced by Miracleman, who would go on to become influential creators in their own right and whose work was inflected by the cult comic. However the work never truly broke into the mainstream, even compared to Moore’s other iconic comic book work – V for Vendetta, Watchmen, From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. In this sense, it also feels like a fitting point of comparison for Akira. Both Miracleman and Akira are hugely influential works of art that have a tangible influence on mainstream popular culture that is perceptible even to those who have no direct knowledge of the source of that inspiration.

Both Akira and Miracleman explore the idea of how superheroes would affect and alter the world around them, how such power would reshape the world. Both Akira and Miracleman feature an antagonist who is a bullied and brutalised teenage boy who is suddenly given tremendous (unquantifiable and unimaginable) power and who reshapes the world in his image. Given that, particularly at the time, these sorts of bullied teenage boys were largely seen as the audiences for these sorts of power fantasies, those narrative choices were quite bold and striking. Both Akira and Miracleman portray the investment of such power in a victimised young man as a source of horror and terror.

The sequences in which Tetsuo tears through Neo-Tokyo in Akira, leaving a trail of broken bodies in his wake, evokes the work of Alan Moore and artist John Totleben on the infamous Miracleman #15. In Miracleman #15, a wrathful and vengeful Kid Miracleman tears his way through London, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. The artwork is graphic and brutal; Totleben’s defining work with Moore would come during his tenure on Swamp Thing, cementing the idea that Totleben is primarily a horror artist. Bodies are hung from trees, fires rage in the background like a cosmic inferno, the army is powerless to stop the atrocity as it unfolds. It is harrowing reading, even today.

Miracleman was hugely influential, both inside comics and outside it. The sort of body horror and urban devastation on display in Miracleman would be incorporated into a lot of the superhero comics that followed. In the nineties and into the twenty-first century, comics became increasingly violent; dismemberment became a go-to narrative tool, sexual violence became increasingly common, the destruction wrought by superheroes only escalated. This naturally fed into the big screen adaptations of these characters, which tended to imagine urban devastation on a graphic scale beyond the humble sixties and seventies comics.

However, despite these superficial similarities, Akira and Miracleman offer a dramatically different exploration of these power fantasies than the big budget superhero films that employ a lot of the same visual language. Most notably, modern superhero films offer a much more romanticised form of that power fantasy, refusing to treat it as horrific. The one exception might by Zack Snyder’s work on Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman, which makes a point to portray the use of sheer physical force by its heroes as almost biblical in scale. The opening scenes of Batman vs. Superman capture the sense of horror of a population living through such an event. These films are relatively unique in this regard.

To be fair, this requires a caveat. Most obviously, Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman provoked a seismic reaction from fandom. A not-insignificant portion of this was rooted in the idea that they were not a “correct” representation of beloved and iconic characters. Similarly, a large portion of the backlash was firmly anchored in the insistence that Superman – despite having the power of a god – should not kill. More than that, Batman vs. Superman also makes an effort to compromise on this scale of urban destruction. Exposition at the climax goes out of its way to insist that the gigantic urban brawl is tearing through a largely empty part of Metropolis so as to minimise civilian casualties. (Never mind that people might work late and traffic would still be moving through.)

However, most superhero cinema treats urban destruction as empty spectacle. The Avengers and Age of Ultron feature a few shots of the heroes helping to evacuate the immediate vacinity of the action, but with minimal reflection on the loss of life that even the best possible alien or robot invasion would incur. Buildings collapse and dust fills the air, missiles explode and objects are thrown from the sky, but these are portrayed as largely mechanical processes. There’s seldom any acknowledgement of the flesh and bone that would get crushed or bent or torn by all of this carnage. Oddly enough, Captain America: Civil War brings up the subject through the characters of Helmut Zemo and Miriam Sharp, only to drop it for more of the same sort of action beats.

In fact, it is worth noting that a sizable portion of the modern American superhero genre is given over to attempts to reappropriate that horrific imagery, to offer a heroic spin on that level of urban destruction. This is not a new phenomenon, movies like Die Hard, Predator and Rambo all attempted to reappropriate the idea of geurilla warfare following Vietnam. In Man of Steel, two characters sacrifice their lives to pilot a plane into a Kryptonian terraforming device. In Avengers, Tony Stark flies on a suicide mission carrying a nuclear weapon through a hole in the sky over New York City. In The Defenders, the heroes must collapse a Manhattan skyscraper to save the island.

This is very much in contrast to the horrors of Akira and Miracleman, which present that level of power as monstrous and destructive rather than inherently heoric. In this case, it feels like it might be a cultural issue as much as anything else. Alan Moore is a British writer, and so his writing tends to be filtered through that lens. It is telling that Moore is perhaps the most influential superhero writer in the medium of comics, despite his stated disinterest in the genre. In the decades since works like Miracleman, Watchmen and V for Vendetta, very few works have come close to picking apart the superheroic fantasy. (Frank Miller’s work on The Dark Knight Returns probably comes closest, but its legacy has been complicated in the decades since.)

In fact, it could be argued that Americanised adaptations of both Watchmen and V for Vendetta missed this aspect of those works. V for Vendetta offered a decidedly more heroic and less ambiguous version of the title character than the source material, with the action direction revelling in the character’s incredible physicality. Similarly, Watchmen was a surprisingly faithful adaptation in all but tone, with director Zack Snyder fetishing the sort of violence and brutality that Moore found – by turns – pathetic and repugnant. There is a sense that the laws of the superhero narrative bend even a deconstruction to their logic. It is no wonder that Moore has grown ambivalent to adaptations of his work.

There is a sense that there is a cultural divide at work. While superheroes are arguably descendents of older forms of pulp heroes, they are a distinctly American cultural phenomenon. (In Watchmen, an over-eager journalist reports that, “The superman exists and he’s American.” Later on, a scientist claims that he was misquoted; he initially said “God.”) Superheroes are an expression of distinctly American ideals. Superman is the ultimate immigrant fantasy. Spider-Man is a character designed for the verticle cityscapes of the United States. Green Lantern is capable of fashioning anything as long as he has enough willpower. Captain America is self-explanatory.

As such, superhero stories tend to adhere to the American experience of power. It is no coincidence that the superhero rose to prominence during what has been described as “the American Century.” Like many of those superheroes, the United States is a great power that acts in what it believes to be the greater good. That power might be weilded clumsily and with unintended consequences, but always with the purest of intentions. One of the most insightful moments in Batman vs. Superman comes when Lex Luther confronts the audience with a paradox of power, “If God is all-powerful, He cannot be all-good. And if He is all-good, then He cannot be all-powerful.” It is telling that superhero movies rose to prominence when the United States needed assurance of its own goodness.

This is a unique relationship with power, one quite different from the relationships that Britain and Japan would have. For its part, Britain is still coming to terms with the disolution of the British Empire in the second half of the twentieth century, and still wrestling with the consequences of various actions that were taken to preserve it. Similarly, Britain spent the second half of the twentieth century watching other powers rise to promenance, including the former colonies in the United States and the former enemies in the European Union. As such, British popular culture has a unique relationship with the concept of power and influence.

(Doctor Who is perhaps an effective illustration of this concept, perhaps in contrast with the American equivalent Star Trek. The Doctor is typically characterised as an ancient and impossibly wise bohemian. Various writers have implied that he might even be a member of Gallifrey’s upper classes – a student of “the Academy” and a “Time Lord.” However, while the Doctor critiques and upends the established order of the various societies with which he comes in contact, he is careful about the application of his power. The Doctor never replaces established order, even though he is uniquely qualified by virtue of his experiences. Indeed, the show has repeatedly and consistently warned against the hubris of applying such direct influence.)

Akira is a product of the unique relationship that Japan has with power, and particular in the context of the eighties. The eighties were a massively successful time for Japan. The “economic miracle” had taken off in the seventies and was in full swing at the time that Akira was being published and produced. By the mid-eighties, Japan and the United States together accounted for forty percent of the global economy. As the United States economy declined in the late eighties, the Japanese economy kicked into overdrive. The success of Japanese manufacturing had caught America off-guard, and generated no shortage of anxiety. A lot of this was, naturally, informed by the legacy of the Second World War.

The American side of this anxiety is perhaps more familiar to global audiences, given the ubiquity of American popular culture. In the late eighties, American cinema portrayed Japan as somewhere foreign and alien. There was a palpable sense of moral panic around the portrayal of Japanese culture in movies like Die Hard, Rising Sun, Black Rain and even Blade Runner. It should be noted that there were also a number of high-profile espionage cases; eighteen executives at Hitachi and Mitsubishi were implicated in a 1982 investigation into theft of IBM information and Ronald J. Hoffman was arrested in 1990 for selling industrial information to Japanese businesses, earning more than $700,000.

However, Akira is interesting because it represents the other side of this cultural anxiety. Japan itself often seemed uncomfortable with its increased level of global influence. Towards the end of the eighties, Japanese foreign policy became increasingly complicated as the country tried to navigate the competing demands of its relationship with the United States and its own interests. There was a strong sense that Japan was reluctant to embrace the responsibilities that came with its increasing level of global influence. After all, more than any other country, Japan knew the consequences when an ambitious power oversteps its bounds in global politics.

As such, Akira might be read as a metpahor for that central anxiety, the fear of a nation that was accumulating international power and influence while still bearing the scars it had accrued the last time that it had exerted international power and influence. Japan’s previous efforts to establish itself as a global power had ended with around three million Japanese dead, an estimated six million non-Japanese lives lost in the Pacific theatre as a whole, the complete restructuring of Japanese society by the Allied powers, and with the only use of atomic warheads in the theatre of war. As such, it makes sense that Japanese would be more anxious and cynical about the fantasy of unlimited power than that of the United States.

In Akira, power is presented as something inherent. It is not something that is sought or pursued, it is something inate. “Ryu told me about it once; he said that Akira is absolute energy,” Kei tells Kaneda. “Humans do all kinds of things during their lifetime, right? Discovering things, building things. Things like houses, motorcycles, bridges, cities, and rockets. All that knowledge and energy, where do you suppose it comes from?” This is an idea of power and knowledge that is very firmly rooted both in the military history of Japan (“rockets”) but also in the country’s subsequent economic expansion (“houses, motorcycles, bridges, cities”). Akira isn’t just about nuclear energy, although that is how it begins and ends. Akira is about power as an abstract concept.

In the world of Akira, power has consequences. Power cannot be controlled or restrained. It exerts a tremendous toll on those who weild it. Tetsuo’s body is warped and distorted by the power flowing through him, becoming something monstrous and grotesque. (The other children who encounter the power are similarly transformed by it, appearing stunted and rotten.) This makes an interesting contrast with the depiction of power in American popular culture. Even comics like X-Men, which nominally treat such power as a source of “othering”, are populated by mostly photogenic characters. The “original five” X-Men were all white-skinned teenagers. Their replacements were more diverse, but still handsome. The Morlocks eventually came to represent unphotogenic mutants.

Any adaptation of Akira would have to grapple with this central tension, the difference in how Akira approaches its central power fantasy as compared to the conventional superhero movies.

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