Rebuilding Neo-Tokyo: The Search for Normality in the Apocalypse of Akira

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INTRODUCTION

This isn’t something I’m going to post on my blog often. It’s something I may do only two more times. This is a 3,300 word essay I wrote for my Literary and Cultural Studies class called New Media Narratives. I chose to write about Akira and its representations of WWII Japan. It’s a third year essay, so it may feel a bit heavy on the LCS academic jargon, but I usually try to keep things relatively easy to understand, regardless of your background. If anything needs clarifying, I’d be happy to oblige.

Also, the topic is quite specific, so I really hope people are interested enough in it to read through the whole thing. I submitted this in second semester last year, so I’ve really got nothing to gain from this, and it was just going to sit idly on my computer, so I thought I may as well put this up here. It should at least give you guys a bit of a picture as to what I’ve been doing at uni for the past three years.

At the very least, it’s great to feel passionate about things. And I guess that’s one reason why I feel like putting this essay up here instead of some other essay I wasn’t really interested in.

On another note, if you’re writing an essay on a similar topic, you’re welcome to reference this essay, but remember, I’m an undergrad and this essay is a little rough around the edges. It’s no honours/PhD thesis, and it’s not published in any academic journals. If you’re after solid, reliable reference materials, maybe try hunting down some of the stuff in my “Works Cited” list.

REBUILDING NEO-TOKYO:

THE SEARCH FOR NORMALITY IN THE APOCALYPSE OF AKIRA

On August 6, 1945, the atomic bomb, ‘Little Boy’, hit Hiroshima, and on August 9, 1945, the atomic bomb, ‘Fat Man’, hit Nagasaki, causing death and destruction, not only to those two cities and those who resided there, but also to Japanese culture. From those two bombs, Japan’s history was divided into two very distinct and separate categories; ‘before the bombs’ and ‘after the bombs’, or pre- and post-apocalypse. Katsuhiro Otomo’s science fiction/cyberpunk manga Akira (1982-90) and animated film adaptation of the same name (1988) represent the cultural anxieties of post-WWII Japan, exploring the struggle to find normality in amongst the social and architectural collapse of Neo-Tokyo, to learn that there can be no returning to the pre-apocalypse, only the memories can be accessed through trauma and imagined nostalgia.

First of all, we must acknowledge that we are engaging with Japanese texts through a western discourse, and unless we learn to read and speak Japanese, the only way to access them is through translation. While we trust that the Akira manga and anime translators kept things as accurate to the original as possible, we must also acknowledge that we are engaging with a re-presentation (a copy) of the original texts, where some elements of the story (eg. cultural references) may have been altered or removed to make the texts more accessible to a western audience. Of course, one of the benefits of Akira being in manga and anime format is that both are largely visual media, and aside from the translations of dialogue, sound effects, signs, and the flipping of images to read left-to-right (where traditional manga is read right-to-left), the visual language of the manga remains in its original Japanese context (as is the same with the film). The importance of the manga, as a form of graphic novel, is that word and image coexist on the page and tell stories in ways that other media can not; “with image playing off of word, word playing off image,” (VanderMeer, 29). As a cyberpunk text, Akira‘s representation of Neo-Tokyo as a techno-capitalist nation state translates smoothly onto western cultures, and its visual iconography is not limited by a restricted Japanese discourse. It is barely identifiable as Japanese by image alone, yet in combination with the text/dialogue it becomes clear that we are engaging with Japan in its ‘post-WWII’ stage, and more specifically, as it constructs a new history in the wake of an apocalypse that eclipses/erases the apocalypse of 1945.

It is also worth noting that Akira was translated into English (and several other languages) in the first place; while it is set in a Japanese culture, it is a globalised Japanese culture. Neo-Tokyo is a place of industrial capitalism, represented by its tall buildings and dystopian techno-culture; elements that are common in Japanese and western science fiction alike. Akira‘s popularity outside of Japan can be attributed to its thematic accessibility, yet its setting requires its readers (both Japanese and western/other) to view it within the discourse of Japanese culture. It incorporates themes of globalisation, technology, hegemony, and capitalism, yet it is not about just any city or culture which represents those ideologies; it is about Neo-Tokyo, and the restructuring of Japan post-apocalypse.

While the image of Neo-Tokyo is familiar, the narrative provides us with a “non-Western worldview,” (62) as Susan Napier calls it, “in which good does not always triumph over evil,” and while Napier refers particularly to the animated films of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, her observations can also be applied to Akira. We engage with Neo-Tokyo on two distinct levels; as a product of a particular place, and of a particular time. Neo-Tokyo is physically closer to its Japanese audience than its western audience, however, the time frame in which the narrative takes place is foreign to Japanese and western readers alike. The present in the narrative is a dystopian future that is wildly unstable; it begins with an apocalypse that, decades later, Japan is still trying to recover from. The post-apocalypse narrative reflects the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in WWII, yet it is temporally detached from that particular moment in history and becomes metonymous of not just that apocalypse, but apocalypses in general. Therefore, readers/viewers can access their own experiences of trauma and apocalypse (whether lived or mediated) to inform their understanding of Akira.

From the very first pages of the manga, and the opening scenes of the anime, Akira confronts its audience with an apocalypse which mimics the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The first page of the manga is of a satellite-type image of Earth, white clouds swirling above blue ocean and converging, tornado-like, upon a small black sphere, with the caption; “At 2:17 P.M. On December 6th, 1992, a new type of bomb exploded over the metropolitan area of Japan,” (1: 9), and on the next page, the black sphere is shown taking up the whole double-page, at street level; all the surrounding buildings have fallen down or are in the process of falling down. The next couple of pages show more images of the bomb’s destruction, and the text informs us that it was the beginning of World War III.

From there, the manga leaps ahead 38 years to 2030, where a map-like aerial image of Neo-Tokyo signifies that it is a long way from recovery, and that its geography has become permanently altered; Neo-Tokyo can not be completely restored to the way it was. Just as ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’ signalled an end to WWII, the bomb at the beginning of Akira signals the beginning of a new world war. James Hirsch relates trauma to the Freudian concept of “fright,” which is to encounter a dangerous situation without being prepared for it. Hirsch focuses his studies on Holocaust documentaries, yet his definition of trauma can also be applied here. The reason why the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were so traumatic was that the magnitude of the death and destruction “were literally inconceivable; they did not fit any imagined possible reality,” (96). Katsuhiro Otomo was born in 1954, after Japan had already entered its ‘post-WWII’ stage, his experience of WWII (and pre-WWII Japan) is mediated through history; the intense ‘fright’, the trauma belongs to the generation before him. Akira reconstructs the apocalypse of WWII Japan (and resulting trauma) for the younger generation; the narrative begins decades after the apocalypse began. The generation that lived through the trauma is thrown into chaos, and the next generation is raised where post-apocalypse is all they’ve ever known, the chaos is normal, ‘natural’. The narrative begins with a teenage motorcycle gang who, like Otomo, are of a generation removed from the trauma; they know nothing of Neo-Tokyo before the apocalypse. Even the reader knows nothing before WWIII, in the pages of the first volume there is nothing before the bomb.

After WWII, Japan turned into a culture where everything was informed by WWII; Japan ceased to be Japan and started being post-WWII Japan. Japanese history became pre-WWII Japanese history. So, too, the novels, films, and manga created after WWII became post-WWII texts, regardless if they related to the war or not. They could be about the war, or about Japanese culture after the war (eg. the technology boom, hyper commodification, or globalisation), or a reflection on pre-war/imperial/pastoral Japan (where texts produced before the war were automatically pre-war, they became consciously ‘escapist’ or ‘nostalgic’ or ‘historical’). In the years after the end of the war; books, films, and manga being produced were starting to reflect upon the war. Of course, the trauma didn’t just disappear, and Japan was trying to deal with the culture shock; film and literature were outlets for dealing with the shock and trauma. The 1954 film, Godzilla explored the tense relationship between Japan and USA at the time. Eldad Nakar has collected and studied a variety of manga from 1957-1967, where there was a boom in WWII related manga where narratives were focused on aerial combat and the tragedies of war were substituted with the heroics of individual pilots, Japan’s overall defeat was recontextualised around the small victories of Japanese fighter pilots in the later stages of the war. These texts reflected upon the war, yet remained largely absent of bloodshed, death, and trauma; instead, focusing attention more towards the “friendly camaraderie” and “dedication to their country,” (61). After a decade or two, these texts still avoided direct representations of the trauma of war, and even Godzilla could only access the trauma (as Akira does) through science fiction, the estrangement of a world that is familiar, yet obviously fictional. It is only after Japan has started to re-establish itself that these representations of trauma become more common. The further we become from the source of the trauma (in Akira‘s case, it is a temporal displacement) the easier it gets to handle the trauma.

In 1988 Studio Ghibli released an animated film called Grave of the Fireflies [Hotaru no Haka], which was directed by Isao Takahata. The film follows the narrative of a young boy and his infant sister, orphaned by the firebombings of Kobe in WWII, and their struggle to survive through the chaos and tragedy. Takahata was born in 1935 and had a first-hand experience of the war, and “with one of his siblings was separated from his family for two days during a firebombing,” (Goldberg, 40). He belongs to the generation of Japanese who lived through the trauma. Grave of the Fireflies reflects this position of immediacy, the trauma is personal, individual. Where Akira is concerned with politics and power in post-war Japan, Grave of the Fireflies is concerned with the individual experiences of trauma, and a nostalgic view of the past.

As a direct representation of WWII, Grave of the Fireflies differs from 1950s and ’60s war manga in that it openly displays what those texts tried to mask: the abundance of death, injury and illness of the Japanese people. The film shows us not only the trauma of the main characters, Seita and Setsuko, but also the hardships and tragedies of the people they come in contact with. Goldberg refers to the film critic, Roger Ebert’s reading of the film, “when we see images of Setsuko starving and finally dying, because she is animated, she becomes the idea of a child starving and not the child herself,” (42). Their trauma is so severe and overwhelming, yet it is contextualised around a collective national trauma, where everyone is mourning the loss of a care free pastoral Japan. In their patriotism, the characters become blind to the fact that their nostalgia of the past is ideologically constructed, and the trauma they experience turns them apathetic to each other’s needs; with all their resources spent on their own survival, no one can afford to look after Seita and Setsuko.

The teenage motorcycle gang in Akira, like Seita and Setsuko, are orphans; their gang is unified by the fact that they have no parents (no family history), and have therefore transformed the gang into an unconventional family, where the main protagonist, Kaneda, performs the role of father (as leader/protector/provider). As the characters in Grave of the Fireflies are apathetic to those outside their immediate family, Kaneda’s gang is apathetic to Neo-Tokyo, and yet they are very close to each other. They share a camaraderie and unity that give them a sense of identity while their city is in a state of post-capitalist anarchy. To the gang, the streets are their home. The city belongs to no one; it is theirs for the taking, and it is theirs to defend, should some other gang or higher authority choose to challenge them. The lack of authority figure in the city signifies the social collapse of Neo-Tokyo which, like its architecture, takes time to rebuild.

The city is a space where many cultures converge, and unless there is a clear sense of authority and order, there will be anarchy. In Grave of the Fireflies, Seita resorts to thieving to provide food for his sister, taking advantage of those who have let their guard down in the chaos. Setha M. Low posits that “[in New York] there are important differences in the responses of culturally identified individuals in the communities closest to the World Trade Center,” (168). After the September 11 World Trade Center attacks (the New York apocalypse) it was clear that the buildings held cultural significance to New York, and therefore they could not just be rebuilt, nor could the site remain empty. The problem was that it meant too many things to too many people. While neither were a landmark in their own right, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were home to many thousands of people, and the only way to progress with the recovery from such apocalypses is to have an authority figure present and factoring the cultural dynamic into the new city. Akira does not have this. Instead, it has a military authority competing against various rebelling factions, political parties, underground movements and biker gangs.

The discourse of power in Akira is unstable and shifts constantly throughout the text, as competing factions fight over the possession of Akira, a child of immense psychic power. Whoever can contain and control Akira’s power will control Neo-Tokyo, with the option to spread their influence nationally/globally from there. Here, Akira uses what Darko Suvin calls ‘cognitive estrangement’ to represent the cultural anxieties of the post-WWII Japan where weapons of mass destruction are a reality in the world. “[Science fiction] sees the norms of any age, including emphatically its own, as unique, changeable, and therefore subject to a cognitive view,” (7). While there are weapons of mass destruction, Japan (and the rest of the world) can not return to a time before such threats existed. Akira explores how the presence of weapons of mass destruction change the dynamics of power relations. Suddenly, what matters most is not the loss of history or identity to an invisible/non-existent authority figure, but the prevention of another apocalypse.

Kaneda becomes involved in the chaos when his close friend Tetsuo gets taken by the military and starts developing psychic abilities at an alarming rate. Tetsuo poses a new threat to Neo-Tokyo that is more aggressive and self-destructive than Akira. At various moments throughout the narrative, several different groups work together to fight the destruction of Neo-Tokyo, as the city has essentially become their own, and become worth defending, yet there still remains the firm distinction from one group to the next, and what they are willing to do to ensure the safety of their people. Napier posits that “the film is both a subversion of traditional power and authority and a celebration of a new kind of power, one linked to the issue of identity, in the form of Tetsuo’s astonishing metamorphoses,” (340). In the end, Tetsuo’s power becomes excessively unstable, and he undergoes involuntary physical transformations where he withdraws into his own powerless and voiceless past, until Kaneda saves him, affirming the notion that power is not static, and resolution is only found through movement, finding a new balance when power becomes destabilised.

Post-WWII Japan found its balance in a globalised capitalist network, and its technological boom signified (to some extent) the popularity of science fiction texts in Japan. It could not hang on to its imperial culture after its losses in the war. Hiroshima and Nagasaki could not be repaired without factoring in the new Japanese culture. Even natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans signify some cultural shift. Before reconstruction began on New Orleans, Carolyn Kolb posed the question: “Can New Orleans be rebuilt as a major city?” and she follows up this thought by suggesting “some city will continue to exist here at this bend of the Mississippi,” (111). In Akira, whether or not Neo-Tokyo can be rebuilt is irrelevant. The fact that an attempt was made signifies a need to retain the image of the capitalist city. This desire to hang on to the old, the nostalgia for capitalist ideology is problematised when the city is stuck in a position where no progress is made on the city’s (re)construction, yet more damage is being done by all the different organisations trying to take control of the city. There is no room for nostalgia or trauma. Only after nostalgia is out of the way, and the threat of apocalypse (and a relapse of social collapse and trauma) is removed can the city start to be rebuilt – and built around the new culture, not the old.

With a new hegemonic order, the past must (to some extent) be erased and nostalgia pushed aside to make room for the emerging cultural model. Akira signifies direction towards a post-capitalist discourse which is less static – more like the ‘metamorphoses’ Napier mentioned – and with a stronger sense of individual identity. The characters were so desperate to control Akira, not only for the power and authority attributed to him, but to also carve out an identity for themselves in the new world that goes beyond the anonymous/affectless masses of techno-capitalist Japan. Thomas Lamarre argues that “we confront in such images [of mass destruction] a compulsion to repeat what terrifies us, but repetition of the terror of world annihilation also numbs us to it, and larger doses of destruction become necessary,” which “[makes] anything less than mass destruction feel a relief, a ‘victory’,” (131-32). While the people of Hiroshima or Nagasaki may not have wanted to flirt with the danger of annihilation by nuclear apocalypse, it is certainly true that Japan’s involvement in the war ran the risk of destruction on some scale. What is at stake, and what is to be won from taking such risks needs to be factored into account when heading into these situations. It could certainly be argued that the characters in Akira would have faced a greater risk from another apocalypse by doing nothing than the risks they ran by trying to catch Akira. However, it is more important to note the relationship between power and identity.

Akira highlights the danger not only of war and apocalypse, but also of the cultural conflict caused by an over-reliance on history, nostalgia, and patriotism in the building of a new world, and neglecting to factor the shift in dynamics of the new world. Trauma is only real for those who directly experience it. Of the instances where collective trauma takes place, it can take up to a few decades before the generation gap is wide enough for the trauma to turn into history, something only accessed through a mediation between the past and the present. Jameson states that “it is instructive to step away for a moment and to deny that it is natural and self-explanatory for masses of people to be devastated by catastrophe in which they have lost no one they know, in a place with which they have no particular connections,” and he asks us “is nationality really so natural a function of human or even social being?” (298). It is no coincidence that in Akira the only characters interfering with Akira and the military that aren’t directly affected by the events are the Americans.

Akira is obviously about post-WWII Japan and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, yet “the referent in such post-apocalyptic films need not exclusively be the past, but may also be the past conceived in terms of the present,” (Baishya, 4). It is about post-WWII Japan, yet it is about the distancing of trauma, the representation of power and identity in the emergence of a new culture, and the abjection of nostalgic ideology from the new culture. As the text engages with audiences both of Japan, and outside Japan, it provides a globalised warning that in the apocalypse, there is no returning to normal, holding on to patriotic or nostalgic ideologies only delays the inevitable shift in power and identity. After the apocalypse there is a reinvention of the culture and the self, a metamorphosis, and a new normal.

LIST OF WORKS CITED

Akira. Dir. Katsuhiro Otomo. Toho Company, 1988. Film.

Baishya, Anirban Kapil. “Trauma, Post-Apocalyptic Science Fiction & the Post-Human.” Wide Screen. 3.1 (2011): 1-25. Print.

Godzilla [Gojira]. Dir. Ishirȏ Honda. Toho Company, 1988. Film.

Goldberg, Wendy. “Transcending the Victim’s History: Takahata Isao’s Grave of the Fireflies.” Mechademia. 4 (2009): 39-52. Project Muse. Web. 13 Sept. 2011.

Grave of the Fireflies [Hotaru no Haka]. Dir. Isao Takahata. Studio Ghibli. Toho Company, 1988. Film.

Hirsch, Joshua. “Post-Traumatic Cinema and the Holocaust Documentary.” Trauma and Cinema: Cross-Cultural Explorations. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press. (2004): 93-121. Print.

Jameson, Fredric. “The Dialectics of Disaster.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 101.2 (2002): 297-304. Project Muse. Web. 7 Oct. 2011.

Kolb, Carolyn. “Crescent City, Post-Apocalypse.” Technology and Culture. 47.1 (2006):

108-11. ProQuest Social Science Journals. Web. 13 Sept. 2011.

Lamarre, Thomas. “Born of Trauma: Akira and Capitalist Modes of Destruction.” Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique. 16.1 (2008): 131-156. Project Muse. Web. 13 Sept. 2011.

Low, Setha M. “Spaces of reflection, recovery, and resistance: reimagining the postindustrial plaza.” After the World Trade Center: Rethinking New York City (2002): 163-71. New York and London: Routledge. Print.

Nakar, Eldad. “Memories of Pilots and Planes: World War II in Japanese Manga, 1957-1967.” Social Science Japan Journal. 6.1 (2003): 57-76. Print.

Napier, Susan. “Panic Sites: The Japanese Imagination of Disaster from Godzilla to Akira.” Journal of Japanese Studies. 19.2 (1993): 327-352. JSTOR. Web. 13 Sept. 2011.

—. “The World of Anime Fandom in America” Mechademia. 1 (2006): 47-63. Project Muse. Web. 13 Sept. 2011.

Otomo, Katsuhiro. Akira. 6 vols. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1982-90. Print.

VanderMeer, Jeff. Monstrous Creatures: Explorations of Fantasy Through Essays, Articles and Reviews. Bowie: Guide Dog Books, 2011. Print.

Welker, Mark: To See is to Know: Naturalism and Trauma in The Road. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. (2009): 1-12. Web. 12. Sep 2011.

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