Previous Retro Reviews...
- MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO *** KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE *** PRINCESS MONONOKE
- HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE *** NAUSICAA *** CASTLE IN THE SKY *** PORCO ROSSO
- TRIGUN Vol. 1 *** AKIRA Vol. 1
What’s funny about reading AKIRA, now, is that it offers plenty of perspective on other, familiar parts of pop culture that either happened around its time or occurred, down the line, as a result of it. See, if “decompression” were a measurable property, the needles would be spiking furiously over this particular volume. 300 pages are lavished on plot that essentially breaks down like this…
- Tetsuo grows bored in government custody.
- Tetsuo gets fixated on finding this mysterious “Akira.”
- Tetsuo forces the Colonel and the kids to tell him where Akira is.
- Tetsuo rampages to the Olympic stadium.
- Tetsuo digs Akira up and heads to surface.
- Tetsuo gets maimed by an orbital laser canon.
Basically. And with most of these beats, of course, involving the kid’s seemingly-limitless telekinetic abilities.
An omnibus or a digest (or whatever the proper name is for this collection) isn’t just the ideal format to experience this in - - it might be the essential one. It would be just maddening to get this same content in smaller increments of about, say, 22 pages. Each one would leave you feeling sorely gipped; and I’m speaking from experience.
Actually, let’s back up a little.
“Decompression” might not be a common term in the parlance of manga, but it became a fixture of even casual American comics discussions after Warren Ellis notably described his highly-popular run on THE AUTHORITY as such in the late 90’s. The title was a snarky, modern and very cinematic update of the superhero, with Ellis giving the artist, Bryan Hitch, plenty of space to tell the story with big blockbuster action sequences unencumbered by nonessential dialog, captions or, really, any text at all at times. The style became all the rage for years, with many creators aping the surface elements without the necessary understanding of how or why it worked. It led to a whole mess of poorly-paced comics where nearly nothing happened in a given issue.
Seeing this, it’s clear that AKIRA trickled down into THE AUTHORITY, continuing a circle of influence that spun previously when Otomo took inspiration from Western movies (as his bio in this book says.) It’s doubtful that Otomo was that quick to adapt his ideas to what was playing in theaters at the time, of course, so there really must been something specific swirling in the visual science fiction zeitgeist of the 80’s. I actually just went on about this subject, at length, over at Screened. By my reckoning, a very precise style of mean sci-fi action movies ruled that decade and AKIRA the anime definitely fits into its umbrella.
Hell, wouldn't you know it? AKIRA the comic embodies that wave's qualities even more so. Dare I say, there's such a sense of authority to its storytelling because its world feels so concrete and its tech looks so real. Take the industrial platform that carries Tetsuo down to the underground bunker - - the amount of R&D and “imagineering” Otomo (or his uncredited assistants) must’ve committed to it before drawing a single panel is kind-of staggering. It ain't the window dressing you normally see in science fiction.
The comic's got the sub-genre’s hard-mindedness, too. Oh yes. As callous as it might sound, it’s actually refreshing that Kaneda so quickly accepts that he’s got to use whatever means available to put his former pal down (the cool laser rifle being the most handy.) He’s presented as this rough 'n tumble delinquent, after all; you really wouldn’t expect it’d take more than one nearly-fatal case of his friend trying to crush him with heavy machinery for him to realize this is a “him or me” situation.
Actually, while on the subject of dangerous Master Tetsuo, it’s hard not to read some metaphors into his rampage, specifically those pertaining to Japan's post-war youth culture. C'mon, these punks come of age after another, city-leveling explosion that a fellow kid's awakening caused it! There's something brewing under the fact that Tetsuo's teenage rebellion manifests in frightening powers that allow him to blow adults' heads up and force authority figures to grovel. That, or it could just the coincidentally-evocative byproducts of Otomo's straightforward “blow some shit up” impulse.
For a review that began with a discussion of decompression, it's probably appropriate that I've again run out of space with plenty of points left to spare. I felt like I ought to halt the non-stop stream of effusive praise a little and note that the comics' signature minimalism probably cuts both ways. That is, we're close to 800 pages in without much understanding of who these characters are. But hey - - who gives a shit? I honestly don't need to know if Kaneda's got a worried kid sister waiting at home for him, nor what Tetsuo's relationship with his Mom is like, to get invested here.
There's a lot of manga that doesn’t resonate with me because they share so much visual vocabulary with anime and their own adaptations that reading them is like flipping through a digest-sized storyboard. They feel like preparatory documents, not works to their own end. Even though this incrediubly cinematic, it takes advantages of the silent tension between word and image as only comics can. It's the highly-compressed movie that's starting to look like the preparatory material, now.