Since the western release of the anime film version of Katsuhiro Otomo’s early 1980s manga Akira it has entered the western pop culture lexicon like few other things from the Far East, arguably kick starting the ongoing fascination with Japanese culture in the western world that spans from the films of Studio Ghibli to the likes of Pokemon.
Despite having seen the film long ago and the many references to it in cinema since, I had yet to go back to the original manga until now. So, while I had some expectations, I didn’t have a total grasp of what it might be like.
This first book of the series kicks off by introducing us to a teenage bike gang (bōsōzoku) in Post-World War Three Neo-Tokyo, and we are dropped into a slightly familiar, exaggerated gang culture of Japanese youth (if this exists in real life or just in manga and anime I’m not able to say, but it certainly has a ring of truth) in a vaguely totalitarian society where we soon discover something is amiss with superpowered mutant humans being hidden, somewhat unsuccessfully, by mysterious government agencies.
The story itself is one that has become somewhat cliché, but this feels like where it started, so we follow gang member Kaneda as he becomes embroiled in this mystery following the apparent death and resurrection of fellow young biker Tetsuo.
While the story is undeniably engrossing what sets Akira apart, and at the time of its original publication must have been fairly astonishing, is the pace of the storytelling and action. While American comics traditionally were fairly verbose works, with long passages of expository dialogue, in Akira much of this is removed and Otomo allows the images to do the heavy lifting.
So we race through the society and city which is never explained explicitly but we explore it much as we might in a film, through the detailed visuals. Similarly the characters are revealed to us as much through action as anything else and, while they are mostly fairly typical, it isn’t long before we get behind Kaneda and get a genuine sense of mystery over the fate of Tetsuo that builds to this part’s climax.
While American comics have since caught up with this style it’s hard not to recognise the pioneering nature of Akira as it races along like its characters. While this first volume is clearly just getting the story up and running, it is as engaging and engrossing as any comics I’ve read and, as well as being a notable historical artefact of the medium, remains a compelling read with some excellent artwork.