Akira: The Future is Neo-Tokyo

June 3rd, 2010 Posted by david brothers

I was sitting here thinking about what I wanted to go up on the site today and drawing a blank. I have several posts in progress, but none I really felt like finishing tonight. A couple need more research, another would require some scanning, and I’ve had a long day. I threw on the Akira blu-ray I picked up the other week and had been putting off watching.

I think it’s safe to say that Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira was the first anime I ever watched, barring translated stuff like Puss-n-Boots and a few other fairy tales. It had to have been ’90, or ’91. I know I was living at my grandparents’ house at the time, and my uncle picked it up from the local video store. It was Akira and Fist of the North Star, and then Ninja Scroll a few years later, that ran my anime world. (FotNS was important to a much lesser extent than the others–my grandmother walked in on a headbusting segment and I didn’t see the end of that movie for a couple years. By the time I got back to it, I’d discovered Ranma and probably Tenchi Muyo. The animation looked stupid by then.)

The opening sequence of Akira got me thinking. Frank Miller’s Sin City burned a love of crime stories into my brain. I think that Akira, a movie I definitely saw before I turned ten, ruined me for science fiction.

I’ve briefly mentioned my problems with a lot of sci-fi stories on here before. I’ve never been into the super sleek Star Trek stuff. It’s too clean, too boring. Star Wars came a little closer, but still tended toward the shiny. Too much sci-fi indulges in utopianism, or at least some kind of frontierism, and I think that’s where the break happens. I’m not enough of an optimist to believe in anything utopian, I guess. It all rings false. The future isn’t going to be shiny.

No, the future is Neo-Tokyo.

The city design in Akira, movie or manga, is fascinating. There are pipes that spiderweb around the city. Dirty alleys lurk around the corner. Glitzy neon signs litter slums. The city is confused, with a ton of brick and stonework next to jury-rigged pipes and metal. It hints at rapid, unchecked expansion. Otomo’s incredibly detailed artwork makes the buildings look real, or at least real enough. There is depth and weight to them, and when they begin falling, it’s like the end of the world. After the rise of the Great Tokyo Empire, you can look and see how the ruins came from a real city. The city makes sense, which is something that is vital in establishing a setting or mood.

The thing about Otomo’s future is that it isn’t the far-flung future. There is technology beyond our capabilities, and it is clearly not the present day. It’s tomorrow. And the thing about tomorrow is that it looks a lot like today. Today? It looks a lot like yesterday. We wear our clothes a little different, we talk a little funnier, but society doesn’t change that much. The visions of the future from the World’s Fair or science-fiction didn’t come true. Our cities don’t walk on wheels, our cars don’t fly, and we don’t eat pills for breakfast. Well, most of us don’t. Our buildings are taller. Our roads are the same. There’s just a different layer of dirt on everything.

That’s Akira. Neo-Tokyo isn’t ugly. It looks normal, but just a little different. There’s a certain beauty in its crowded, cluttered landscapes. There’s something to it that reminds me of Moebius’s work on Silver Surfer: Parable or Geof Darrow’s Hard Boiled. They all show history through a weathered building or clusters of trash in the street.

What I like about it is that there’s been a clear progression from now to then. It looks like what the future might actually look like one day. It looks like Tomorrow Plus. A little dirty, a little dingy, but clearly the future. No utopia, no grand sense of exploration, and no sleek, sex toy-esque cars. The lasers are bulky and unwieldy. The backgrounds are dirty and old.

I think I like the future, but only when it looks like an older version of tomorrow. Akira works for me. Star Trek doesn’t. Maybe that’s Otomo’s fault.

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Sick Day Linkblogging

October 22nd, 2009 Posted by david brothers

I’ve been sick for the past two days, but I’m almost back in fighting action now. While I recuperate, you get to enjoy these links to a couple of good posts.

-Tim O’Neill on the X-Men and longevity:

The weird part is that Marvel as a company aren’t ready to acknowledge that the franchise has peaked – or even that, if it hasn’t peaked, it needs some time off before it can perform again. When the X-Men were the number one franchise in comics they built an incredibly powerful editorial apparatus around the books to guide and control the direction. The books were so important that nothing could be allowed to pass unexamined: every creative decision was micromanaged and second guessed, characters and creators were treated as interchangeable and at the same time jealously guarded. This worked to a point – in the early-to-mid-90s when the books were at their inarguable peak, the machine ran smoothly.

-The Eastern Edge has a great translation of Naoki Urasawa talking abotu making comics.

The trouble is, will I be able to produce a drawing of the ideal acting that I have in my head. It’s a matter of whether I’ve got the skill in my drawing hand or not. For example if I’m drawing Kanna, whether she’s crying, laughing, or just standing there, I’ve got her face in my head but sometimes when I try to draw that it turns out completely differently. I feel like, “Ah, stupid right hand!”

-Kate Dacey talks about one of my all-time favorite comics, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira. I love the sprawling and crazily detailed comic, and the movie even holds a special place for me, since it was almost definitely the first anime I saw.

The story itself has held up well. Its paranoid, don’t-trust-the-military vibe seems as resonant in 2009 as it did when the manga was first released in 1982, as does its message about the devastating consequences of WMDs. Watching China prepare for the Beijing Olympics in 2008 — leveling shanty towns, silencing protests — suggested parallels with AKIRA’s own Olympic subplot, both in the secrecy surrounding the facilities’ construction and in the Chinese government’s adamant denial of citizen opposition to the projects. Even Tetsuo and Kaneda’s brotherly drama, which was never one of AKIRA’s stronger points, seems better developed in the manga.

I kinda wish that Kodansha used Marvel’s color for the first few volumes, but c’est la vie!

Business as usual next week, hopefully including a post that’s four weeks in the making (four weeks late).

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On Katsuhiro Otomo

May 28th, 2009 Posted by david brothers

Early this week, Matthew Brady linked to a great lecture on Katsuhiro Otomo by Kentaro Takekuma. Click through, give it a read.

I’m a big Otomo fan, in part because Akira was one of the first anime I ever watched. The anime led me to the manga, which led me to the (awesome) colorized Marvel/Epic versions, which in turn led me to the (slightly less awesome) Dark Horse reprints. I’ve got three of the hardbacks Marvel and Dynamite Forces put out in the ’90s, even. I’d love to get the ones I’m missing in hardback form, but finding those seems to be pretty tough.

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