This month Kodansha is releasing a 35th anniversary hardcover box set of one of the most acclaimed comics of all time, Akira. The original manga by Katsuhiro Otomo began its first serialized run in 1982, eventually passing 2000 pages.
Otomo himself adapted the comic for the screen in 1988, in what was then the most expensive animated film ever made. That same year, Epic Comics (an imprint of Marvel) began printing a computer-colorized run of the story in the US for the first time. Dark Horse Comics later published their own black-and-white series of trade paperbacks with a revised translation between 2000 and 2002.
Kodansha’s new box set will feature the original Japanese art and right-to-left reading format for the first time in the US, as well as include the highly sought after Akira Club art book, spotlighting some of Otomo’s developmental and promotional artwork for the manga.
Though he began his career in comics, the critical success of this sprawling story and its amazing filmed adaptation, arguably the most influential animated film of the last 50 years, cemented Otomo’s place in both comics and animation history, garnering him numerous awards in both industries.
Fans worldwide are acquainted with the film version of Akira, though given its budget it was not a great commercial success during its initial release. Alongside the original Blade Runner (1982), a film to which it’s often compared, Akira defined a particular look and feel for dystopian science fiction. Gleaming, impossibly high and imposing, monolithic structures soar above streets teeming with contrasting urban decay and flowing crowds of disconnected, disaffected people.
A key difference in Otomo’s presentation of this dark future is the depiction of ongoing street protests along the periphery of the central story. The films are also thematically linked, portraying dissatisfaction with the increasing isolation of individuals in these over-crowded societies.
Blade Runner focused on the question of how to define what it is to be human in the context of such a society, working through its plot in the style of a classic film noir with the ambivalent moral code associated with that genre.
The film version of Akira reduced the many story elements of its source material to explore a central message of challenging authority—reminiscent of the film Rebel Without a Cause, which Otomo has cited as one of his favorites—and whether or not anyone truly has the moral right to wield power.
Where Blade Runner introduced Replicants, fabricated adult constructs (marketed as “more human than human”) treated as the unwanted “children” of technology run amok, Akira revolved around the misused and ultimately feared subjects of experiments to harness the next step in mankind’s evolution who were actual children.
In lieu of Blade Runner’s super-soldiers and pleasure models shipped off-world to be used as their owners saw fit, Akira featured a nursery school-full of psychokinetic super-kids who might inadvertently destroy the world as they’re forced to transition to godhood and fed increasingly powerful drugs to control them.
As stunning and influential as Akira was as a movie, that Otomo was able to make a coherent film out of his densely packed narrative is an achievement in itself.
Though the film examines several important issues, Otomo had the necessary extra space in the manga to weave in extra layers to the plot, introducing parallel story arcs and diverse themes.
Supporting characters only briefly glimpsed in the film (if at all) played key roles in the printed version, adding further depth.
The central characters had time to mature and evolve, allowing Otomo to use them in very different ways by the end of the story.
Otomo is a master world builder along the lines of J.R.R Tolkien, J.K. Rowling or George R.R. Martin: Akira is truly a graphic novel, featuring all the narrative complexity the latter word implies, as well as the skilled visual presentation the former does. And it’s all the work of a single creative mind.
An international audience recognizes the merit of Akira as a milestone in the world of animation. The manga deserves an equally celebrated place in the public consciousness.
Others have written stories as dense and thematically engaging, and some have created and drawn worlds to match—but few solo creators have simultaneously done both at such a high level (albeit with some able art assists from time to time).
With the release of this anniversary edition, a new generation of readers will likely discover this masterwork and its creator, further securing their position in the global history of comics.