Akira and the Evolution of Pain
Hi there my friends! Today I posted a new video to my YouTube channel exploring themes of pain, trauma, and healing in Katsuhiro Otomo’s anime masterpiece Akira. It’s no secret around these parts that my life has been forever changed and improved through the arts, and this is one film that came up for me just when I needed it most. Below is the video, and below that is a transcript of the video for you to read through. I hope you enjoy it!
Part I: Introduction
If you don’t know the story of Akira, let me break it down for you as quickly and succinctly as possible. On July 16 of 1988, Tokyo is destroyed by a superpowered psychic named Akira in a, for lack of a better word, big ass explosion. 31 years later in 2019, the city has been rebuilt into Neo-Tokyo, and it is a society of extremes: poverty, civil unrest, and glamorous, technicolor violence. A place where despite the constant battling they are going to host the 2020 summer Olympic Games. This is where we meet Tetsuo. He’s a member of a motorcycle gang comprised solely of angsty youths led by his best friend Kaneda.
Our introduction to the group is on a wild, and probably standard, night. They take off to start a battle with a rival motorcycle gang and get more than they bargained for. And while that is going on, we the viewers witness the city police murder a man as he is attempting to flee with a small child. That child continues to run from the city until he collides with Tetsuo, throwing young man from his motorcycle with psychokinetic power. Tetsuo and the child are apprehended by an appropriately shady government agency and whisked away to a facility to be poked and prodded. That’s where Tetsuo discovers he possesses terrifying powers.
Kaneda and the rest of the gang are apprehended when they witness Tetsuo being taken. At the police station Kaneda meets Kei, a young girl who is an activist and member of the resistance of Neo-Tokyo. From there, Kaneda begins to work with Kei to infiltrate the government facility in order to rescue Tetsuo and find out what kind of horrors are being enacted.
Part II : The World Around Tetsuo and Kaneda
Katsuhiro Otomo,the writer and director of the film as well as the writer and artist of the manga, stated that he wanted to capture the feel and nature of Tokyo in vivid detail on screen in a way he couldn’t on the pages of a manga. He said:
“There were so many interesting people… Student demonstrations, bikers, political movements, gangsters, homeless youth… All part of the Tokyo scene that surrounded me. In Akira, I projected these elements into the future, as science-fiction.”
While Otomo expertly captured the grit and wonderment associated with our modern world, he also projected a depiction of pain and trauma that places Akira squarely at the forefront of cinema. Tetsuo and Kaneda exist in a world of contradictions: isolation but expansion, oppression but freedom, knowledge but ignorance. It’s a world on the cusp of two eternal transformations: destruction and rebirth. The film feels so prescient today, because we ourselves are struggling to make sense of very similar parameters. The film was at the forefront of exploring the insidiousness and truthfully vague nature of pain. In following Tetsuo and Kaneda we learn that trauma isn’t always clear-cut. It’s abandonment, cruel living conditions, verbal abuse, profiling, and poverty in addition to sexual and physical violence. Through Tetsuo we discover how the pain we carry in our minds can last long after the external wounds have healed.
Part III: The Evolution of Pain
When I talk about pain, it encompasses the physical way Tetsuo’s body bends and bloats to transform into a techno-flesh monstrosity, yes. But I also mean pain in the emotional, some would say abstract sense. It’s a feeling that changes with us, adapting, growing, and bursting forth when we least expect it. Pain changes while remaining the same. We humans may create technicolor dreamlands that have the power to descend into darkness, but we are never far removed from the curious apes we once were. Similarly, pain changes while remaining true to its nature. And each character is forced to adapt to the ever-evolving pain in our own way. Where Kaneda turns the pain into apathy – except were Kei and his friends are concerned – Tetsuo is a proxy for the rage associated with trauma and the pain that accompanies survival.
Earlier, I mentioned that Tetsuo was apprehended and imprisoned with a small boy. Well, that small boy is one of three beings with psychic abilities that Tetsuo meets while imprisoned. Known as The Espers, they are actually adults trapped in the bodies of the children they were 31 years ago. They were the contemporaries of Akira and witnessed first-hand what his power could do. And they know the weight of pain better than most.
Kiyoko, number 25 (girl) Takashi, number 26 (boy who was escaping) and Masaru, number 27 (floating wheelchair) represent the adult effects of pain and trauma. Literally stunted in growth as many of us are emotionally, they creak and whisper as though the act of living were a marathon. They are what Tetsuo will become in time if he remains trapped in his cycle of suffering.
But where the Espers were unable to escape the cycle of abuse, Tetsuo adopts a very modern approach: burning shit down. He seeks out Akira for help after being told by Kiyoko that he is still alive and hidden underground. Tetsuo becomes so consumed by the power – his rage – that he is destroyed then remade into the mass I referenced earlier. He is twisted until he crushes and murders those around him. When he finally succumbs to the suffering, Akira appears.
The boy Akira (or number 28) represents inherited, generational trauma. He is Tetsuo’s past, as well as his potential future. When we try to contain and bury the trauma, it explodes. In that regard Tetsuo is a natural progression. Tetsuo didn’t find relief from the agony until someone who understood the weight manifested to aid him : Akira himself. And that’s often what it takes to survive the ever-changing nature of pain and trauma – the empathy of others, especially those who have themselves seen it.
Part IV: Closing
Who are we when we find relief? Who can we become? Free. Things go differently in the manga, which I highly recommend, but the film itself ends with Tetsuo’s transcendence. He goes to another plane, another Universe, perhaps another dimension to begin again. Perfect or not, Akira helps him to escape.
I’ve stated again and again that pain is an ever-changing force, adapting to us as we attempt to outrun it. It is messy as hell, unfair, and eventually forces us to make an impossible choice. Do we fight back to go forward or do we remain wrapped in that warm embrace of sorrow? Who can we become when we find relief, and at what cost? That, it seems, is up to us.