Previous Retro Reviews...
- MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO *** KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE *** PRINCESS MONONOKE
- HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE *** NAUSICAA *** CASTLE IN THE SKY *** PORCO ROSSO
- AKIRA Vol. 1 *** AKIRA Vol. 2 *** AKIRA Vol. 3 *** AKIRA Vol. 4 *** AKIRA Vol. 5
- LITTLE NORSE PRINCE VALIANT *** TRIGUN Vol. 1
Ah, the frustrating final installment. How you so cruelly confound expectations. How you court anxious hopes that you’ll deliver on what you’ve promised in the rapidly-shrinking remainder of your plot. How you always return to remind us to never get ahead of ourselves when praising a series.
The last time I ran into this particular breed of finale was in Stephen King’s DARK TOWER. Decades in the making, it actually gave you the option to stop reading at a certain point and accept an optimistic, open-ended scene as the saga’s closer. Then it gave you the choice to continue on to a conclusion that was more-or-less designed to be unsatisfying; warning you all the while that it wasn’t the answer you wanted.
Part of me wants to pretend AKIRA had similar options. I'd really rather this epic be capped off at the end of the last volume when Kaneda and his gang were charging off to kill Tetsuo. Maybe they were racing to their psychokinetic dooms at the Olympic Stadium. Maybe they were just about to put this demigod down in a hail of brutal laser fire. What happens after the moment isn’t crucial; all that matters is that the frenzied dash is a perfect zenith to the series’ themes of violent, youthful recklessness.
Volume Six sort-of, kind-of shows the confrontation it seemed built up for. Kaneda’s gang has a firefight with the New Tokyo Empire that lasts for all of a couple pages. However, the whole plan to take Tetsuo out so Kei doesn’t have to fight him is foiled without comment when the gal arrives to basically just torpedo through his colossal fetus form. And Lady Miyako’s stated plan to pit Tetsuo against Akira is forgotten for no better reason than her presumable senility.
Big chunks of this book are instead preoccupied with revisiting beats previous volumes were already devoted to. There’s a long descent down into Akira’s subterranean tomb just like Volume 2 was centered on, Tetsuo re-lives all the painful moments of his life just like he did for a big portion of Volume 4, he throws powerful fury down onto the off-shore aircraft carrier more-or-less like he did in Volume 5 and there’s a frantic hot potato game of allegiances and motivations much like the one Volume 3 was defined by.
As vexing as it is to see Neo Tokyo blown up yet again (how much rubble is even left to obliterate?) it’s that last re-visitation that’s the most frustrating. It fit for all the scurrying players of Volume 3 to be trading important little Lord Akira back and forth without much sense of what to do with him. They were stupid kids and mere mortals. Lady Miyako, however, has been presented as an all-knowing sorceress. When she keeps changing her mind about whether the highest priority is to destroy, protect or befriend Akira, it feels more like Otomo’s making this part up on the fly and he forgot the point he wanted to make before he ran out of pages.
And perhaps that’s actually what happened. Otomo’s said somewhere that he feels neither the ending to AKIRA the anime nor AKIRA the manga are adequate and, as much I hate to say it, that does seem to be the case. This isn’t an ambiguous ending so much as a close-out filibuster using smoke and mirrors to seem like an ambiguous ending. It’s like a middle school essay that summarizes every paragraph at the bottom of the page in the hopes that it'll pass for a conclusion statement.
The feelings are still raw about this one. They were raw about THE DARK TOWER right after I was done reading it, too. I see both series as works of literature that transcend their genres and, a lot of times, what comes with that is an ending you can’t grade as simply as you would for regular entries in the genre. It’s not just a matter of whether “It sucked!” or “It rocked!” Your sense of it changes after some thought and analysis (like this!)
See, the coda scene where Kaneda’s gang assumes control of Neo Tokyo’s ruins and slams the door on foreign aid out is actually a superbly fitting final note. Again, there’s no better way to tie off a story of teenage rebellion writ large than to basically show an island-sized middle finger being waved to the world. However, it still feels like a very bold and sharply-rendered exclamation point plopped right after a block of muddied chicken scratch.
I don't want to wrap this batch of retro review so ambivalently. Reading AKIRA has been such a profound experience. One that put me right back in touch with how thrilling and mesmerizing this medium can be. Whether my opinion on this volume changes with time or not, I still want to agree with its boast of being one of the greatest works of graphic narrative ever. However, when I think back on the murky and repetive mumbo jumbo that takes up so many pages here, I can’t help but feel like that aforementioned middle finger’s partly aimed at the reader.