Comic Club: AKIRA Volume 1 by Katsuhiro Otomo

This post marks a couple of firsts for me; my first Comic Club and my first manga. And given it’s taking place during SciFi month where I’m talking all things cyberpunk, I thought what better way to mark the occasion than with Volume 1 of AKIRA, the classic and much beloved post-apocalyptic cyberpunk political thriller by Katsuhiro Otomo that –

Wait wait wait. I can’t go any further without getting one thing off my chest. This book isn’t cyberpunk. I mean sure, it’s on all the major lists of ‘must-read’ cyberpunk but, like, it isn’t cyberpunk? The only genre features I saw are the near-future setting (but that’s true of a lot of science fiction) and the prevalence of nihilistic youth subcultures. I’m not gonna get derailed cos I wanna talk about what the book is rather than what it isn’t, but it’s fairly universally agreed that the major theme of cyberpunk is technology and how it ‘sharpens the division between social classes’, but Akira is a story mainly about supernatural powers being exploited by the government and the military. But that’s a failure of marketing, not of the book, so end of sidebar.

Akira Volume 1 opens with the revelation that “at 2:17pm on December 6th 1992, a new type of bomb exploded over the metropolitan area of Japan” and that “nine hours later, World War III began”. Explosive stuff, pun intended. But this story isn’t about the war, but its aftermath. We’re immediately fast-forwarded to the city of Neo Tokyo in the year 2030, where me meet our main characters, Kaneda and Tetsuo, two juvenile delinquents and members of a criminal motorcycle gang. Their world is turned upside down after a road accident that begins to awaken paranormal powers in Tetsuo, making him the target of a shady government agency that will stop at nothing to prevent another catastrophe like the one that levelled Tokyo. At the centre of the agency’s motivation is a raw, all-consuming fear of an unthinkable, monstrous power known only as Akira.

I was very excited to read this book. It’s lauded as one of the greatest manga of all time, with great art that’s influenced the development of manga and comics ever since. But honestly, all I can say is…meh. I’m really sad about that because I was hoping to start Comic Club off with something I could get really excited about, but I just didn’t vibe with this much at all. It starts off with a lot of promise, introducing us to Neo Tokyo and the abandoned, off-limits ruins of the old city, and setting up an intriguing mystery I was looking forward to delving into. But as things developed there were a bunch of elements that I found increasingly tiresome. Far from the art being some of the best in the business, I actually just found it very confusing. Especially during the action sequences, I often found it difficult to follow what was happening; the panels didn’t follow on well from one another and even taken on their own, it was sometimes difficult to discern what some of the panels were even depicting. One of the things that grated on me quite a bit was the total overkill of the onomatopoeia comics are so fond of (stuff like POW! THWACK! KABOOM! etc), that when used well, and sparingly, can really add to the sense of atmosphere and action. In Akira though, there’s sooooo much of it and half the time I don’t even know what sounds they were supposed to be simulating. What does ‘POUM’ mean when depicting someone falling over? Or ‘POUTCH‘ when someone is being kicked? It was just annoying.

One other thing I want to mention too (and this is something that seems to be a convention in the limited amount of anime I’ve watched, and seemed to exist in this manga too) is expository dialogue and soliloquy. I’m no expert in Japanese storytelling, so maybe someone with more knowledge can confirm or debunk this. There’s just a lot of people saying pointless stuff out loud (sometimes when no one else is even around) just for the purpose of making the reader aware of it. I’m really not a fan of this kind of storytelling, usually it just shows that the writer isn’t skilled enough to work the point into the story or that they don’t trust their readers to draw the correct conclusions from what’s going on in the story. Sometimes both. Maybe I’m missing something?

Long story short, I never really got into this one and found myself skimming through the second half without much interest. I hope some of you might recognise what I mean when I describe the sensation of reading a really good book and not really being aware of holding the book in your hands because your mind is thoroughly in the story world; but then also the opposite feeling where you’re hyper aware of the book in your hands and your mind is still outside of the story even while you’re reading? That’s how I felt most of the time reading Akira. I might pick up the second volume just cos I’m a compulsive completionist and there’s a lot of unanswered questions at the end of Volume 1, but that’s nothing to do with the merits of the book, just my own idiosyncrasies. I didn’t enjoy this much but clearly a lot of people do, so I won’t warn you away from it, I just wouldn’t be actively recommending it to anyone.

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