Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira: “Let’s go, doctor.”

June 15th, 2011 by | Tags: ,

Charlie Huston’s The Shotgun Rule builds to a fever pitch maybe halfway through due to the fact that the chapters are alternating between a point in the future where things are quickly collapsing into trauma and violence and the present, where the characters are being pushed toward that future. This weird double vision keeps pushing you, and every time you cut away from one path to check in on the other, the other path becomes more and more important. You read each page at the same pace, but the scenes push you along until the tension becomes almost unbearable.

Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira has a scene that reminds me of that, though the specifics are almost entirely different. It’s in Akira Volume 2, if you want to follow along. The images in this post are abridged from the scene, but should neatly illustrate what I mean.

There are a few distinct stories going on in this scene, and they’re all headed for the same end goal. Kaneda and Kei (or Kay, I’m not picky) are rushing toward Akira’s refrigeration unit in an attempt to somehow find Tetsuo and maybe find out the truth about Akira. Ryu and his boy are trying to evade the military and infiltrate the facility. The Colonel and the military are trying to beat Tetsuo to the bottom floor. Another guy is keeping an eye out for Ryu for revenge. Tetsuo is making his way toward Akira.

Kaneda/Kei, Ryu, and Shikishima make three strains. Add Tetsuo–that’s four. The four strains twist in and out of each other’s way before the big finale, trading characters or blows. There’s a clear time limit, and a lot of confusion, and the result is that everyone’s rushing everywhere. Hover vehicles are exploding their way down the elevator shaft, dudes are getting shot and stabbed, and everyone’s sprinting toward the finish line, whether that involves wading through sewage or moving in formation down an elevator shaft.

The only exception is Tetsuo. He’s positively strolling toward Akira, walking with his fur collar around his neck and his hands in his pockets. His body language is casual, but focused. He’s amused by all the stuff going on around him, but clearly far from concerned. He’s murdered a dozen soldiers already, so he knows that he can handle whatever gets in his way. He runs into trouble exactly once while descending, and he survives that with nary a scratch. He’s a teenager blessed with extraordinary and seemingly unstoppable power–he’s just as cocky as he deserves to be.

The net result of these four strains playing off each other is pretty great, from a pacing point of view. This could’ve been a dead sprint, with everyone trying to get to one spot before everyone else. Instead, Tetsuo slipping in and out of focus as the conflict goes on makes things much more tense than an out-and-out sprint would be. Everyone is rushing, shouting, and worried. Scientists are telling the Colonel awful news, Ryu is worried about being detected and/or stabbed, and Kei is trying to get to where she needs to be.

And then there’s Tetsuo. Walking.

My favorite page in this scene… my second favorite page in this scene is akira-book2-descent-01.jpg, the bit where he’s riding the elevator down alongside some seriously ominous sound effects. His posture and the giant panels are just insanely well thought out. He doesn’t have a care in the world, because what thing can kill him?

Just the fact that he isn’t worried about what’s going on is worrisome. It’s like sitting in a room full of panicked people, and being panicked yourself, when you spot one person sitting right in the middle of the room with a huge grin on his face. It’s unsettling. Tetsuo’s casual demeanor here makes the entire scene, which is probably around a hundred pages long. His calmness is scary. It ratchets a simple chase scene up into real tension. You can’t read this slowly. Toward the end, where Tetsuo gets these huge, spacious panels or entire pages to himself, things become even worse. Every panel Otomo spends on on Tetsuo moves him closer to his goal. Every panel on the other strains show us characters who are out of their depth and don’t know it.

Flicking back and forth and allowing Tetsuo to directly touch a couple of those strains is an inspired choice. It demonstrates a direct and brutal contrast in approach between the characters. Tetsuo is Jason in the woods, walking calmly after the screaming coed. He’s a predator, and that sneer on his face is never going to go away. More than that, though, it suggests a certain level of finality to the entire chase. What does he know that we don’t?

This isn’t 1:1 analogous to The Shotgun Rule. That book made its tension work by introducing us to characters and then giving us glimpses of the horrors to come. Here, the three non-Testuo strains demonstrate a complete and total loss of control on the part of the characters, turning them into something that is subordinate to Tetsuo and his powers.

The high tension, shouting, and action makes you want to read through those sections quickly. It gets your heart going and you have to find out what happens next. Following that with scenes and panels intended to slow you down and force you to absorb the panels is like that stutter when you switch gears when driving manual. You’re not accelerating any more, but you’re still going, and then bam, you’re going again, and hard. Pause, go, pause, GO.

One last thing.

akira-book2-descent-08.jpg is my favorite page. Tetsuo beginning to turn to Akira on top, the Colonel trying to talk him down, and then Tetsuo turning and really looking into the darkness?


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12 comments to “Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira: “Let’s go, doctor.””

  1. With all you talk about AKIRA I am surprised there haven’t been 6 episodes of the Fourcast of you guys just talking about it.

    It is a damn fine comic.

  2. You couldn’t have twigged me about a new Huston book before I spent 50 bucks at Amazon? Also I hate you for hooking me on “One Piece”. I’ve still got forty plus books to go! Bastardo!

  3. My favorite comic is Akiravolume9.pdf. I especially love Akira_volume9_page5.jpg

  4. @anonymous: Aw, c’mon baby, don’t be so passive aggressive. Say what you mean. I mean, I know what you mean, but you should say it instead of being spineless.

    Who pirates comics in PDF format anyway? Get with the times, broski.

    @LurkerWithout: That book’s like two or three years old, man. You gotta pay better attention!

    @Rick Vance: It’s tough. I like this book so much that talking about it sometimes just feels like… talking. Summarizing. I’m going to be doing more (and more and more) over the next few weeks, though, as I find ways to talk about the book without just being “gabloo bloo bloo it’s sooo good bloo bloo look at it.”

    And yeah, it’s so good, isn’t it? I’ve been flipping through my hardcovers looking for scenes to pull apart, and the result is that I’ve basically read the series a couple times over the past few months, but completely out of order. I keep meaning to sit down and read the series straight through in order, since it’s been a while, but then I go and do what I did last night, which is read the bit on the boat after this volume that leads into Nezu’s chase and Kaneda infiltrating Nezu’s villa and bam, I’m right back where I started, two hours later.

    It’s my favorite. At worst, it’s top 3, but those top 3 switch places constantly. It’s on my mind constantly these days, though.

  5. I had Book One in black and white kicking around for a while, but gave it away to someone younger and more eager.

    Then, this year, I read Gyo, and now I’m under moral obligation . . .

  6. That last page is absolutely killer. It’s such a unusual way to play that, too. I feel like most folks would either have the bottom panel be the top panel, and then zoom on the door in the bottom panel, or they’d have half the page be the Colonel trying to talk him down, have the top panel be the bottom panel, and then show the door on the next page as a splash. Still getting the impact across, but going broad with it. Comic booky.

    Otomo’s almost got a stage thing going on, where he’s just keeping us on a single set at a single angle and sloooowly raising the lights in the background. And breaking up this quiet bit of stagecraft with a very comic booky, square-shoulders, bold-words spiel that just hits the last panel and stops dead just makes that last panel so much…creepier. Like Tetsuo’s pausing the comic to look at the door.


    Thank you, seriously, for pointing this sequence out.

  7. @Josh: Yeah, there’s something about those two huge panels. Your comment prompted another line of thought. Tetsuo doesn’t pause during the Colonel’s speech. So he’s turning, and the Colonel is shouting, and then we look back, and he’s still turning. It’s almost slow motion->normal frantic speed->slow motion, isn’t it? “Pay attention to this, it’s a big deal.” It’s good stuff.

    I like the idea of this being a stage thing, too.

  8. @david brothers: I’d honestly just taken Tetsuo’s continued turn as just Otomo not slacking. He could’ve gotten away with just copying Tetsuo from the first panel and then doing the background.

    But looking at it again with what you said…if Tetsuo’s turning, he should have his back to the Colonel by the time the Colonel’s done yelling. I think you’re right about it being a slow down.

    I don’t know if this bitwould read as sharply in B/W, but in color, the Colonel’s even kinda fading out visually in the next-to-last panel. The hatching comes in, there’s this grey coloring the Colonel’s sinking down into the bottom of the panel…the closest I can get to it is the slow-mo, everything-sounds-like-it’s-underwater effect used in movies.

    (And another general bit of coloring and stage-esque genius: Tetsuo steals the Colonel’s orange spotlight in the last panel.)

  9. You talk about Akira so :damn: much, I should really get around to reading it. I love the anime, although I felt it was pretty rushed and a lot of the plot machinations aren’t given the proper due. I guess that what happens when you try and stuff a six volume manga into a two hour film. Still, the animation is incredible, even to this day, and it has great tracks like the one posted above. One of the first films that really opened my eyes to animation as more than just slapstick and sing-a-longs, and can tackle mature themes like power and how it corrupts.

  10. (Just noticed how sloppy my last comment was. Too many “justs”, space key and comma key all apparently busted. Oof.)

  11. @Jeremy:

    You should totally take the plunge, If you find any good library they seem to have the Volumes lying around, that is how I read it first time.

    The movie is basically half the story, with the events changed around to make more a film out of the first half and it is great all the way through and really comes together.

  12. You know, the whole series has got so many amazing scenes in it, I never really gave this one my full attention. That’s a bit fucked too, because of the weird way the Waldenbooks by me stocked things, I had this volume first.

    Don’t get me wrong. I always thought there was something inherently badass about the way he’s the one guy sauntering in with reckless abandon amidst all the other chaos going on. But I guess I always kind of took it at face value. I never really thought it through, how the other chaotic threads serve to be the stark contrast that makes his sauntering so badass. And chilling.

    As for that final turn though, I always likened it to that moment say just prior to a car accident where time slows down to a snail’s pace. In reality, only milliseconds may be passing. But something that feels really wrong is about to happen & it’s out of everyone’s control. The senses kick into overdrive to become acutely aware of just how wrong that thing is. The speed in the turn struck me as just that: Instinctual dread of impending doom.