Akira, an incomplete review
26 Feb 2021
Reading Time: 4 minutes
Not long after I started reading Shirow’s work, Akira hit the screens. Unlike Shirow’s Appleseed, I had never read Akira in its manga form so to me, Akira was the (now legendary) film.
Some years later I came across Akira as a bound collection, 4 books per volume. Unlike the original Japanese version, the English version published by Epic Comics (Marvel) in 1988 was coloured, adding a dimension to the original that’s not often found in black and white Japanese manga. At the time I read it with great interest, though unlike Shirow’s work it never stuck with me, not helped by the fact that after the first four volumes, availability dried up and I was left hanging mid story.
So it was after re-reading all of the Shirow I had on the shelf recently, I realised I should probably re-read the Akira volumes which have sat there collecting dust since I read them originally; knowing of course I will have to stop mid story.
Created by Katsuhiro Otomo in 1982, Otomo aimed Akira at the 18-25 age bracket, which up until that point had been mostly neglected by Japanese publishers; and when Akira hit the shelves, it became an immediate hit. The work, widely hailed as a masterpiece, has been one of the most influential manga works to date, long regarded (especially the coloured English version) as being pivotal to the wider acceptance of manga in the West. You can read about the history and background of Akira here.
Now 35 years on, with a special 35th anniversary edition is to be released in November 2017, just how well does it hold up, both story wise and stylistically?
My second exploration into Akira was always going to end about halfway though (a situation to be remedied), so diving into the full story was naturally only ever going to deliver half the experience. That said, this time around I found a level of sophistication I did not recognise the first time; I put this down to preferring the ‘busyness’ of Shirow’s style at the time and my tastes evolving since.
Themes of youth alienation and anti-establishment, military power and government corruption are handled cleanly and powerfully, balanced with the core theme of the super natural powers that drive the pivotal characters. Where it would be easy for the core elements to clash, or to have one overpower the other (as is often the case), within Akira they exist in a delicate balance, working seamlessly with one another to move the story forward.
Otomo’s style throughout Akira is best described as minimalistic. The dialogue is to the point, the illustrative style, clean and sharp. In neither would there be anything that could be called excessive or wasteful. This ‘crisp’ delivery makes the story easy to read and in many frames the illustrations themselves say more than words can… so there are no words! The addition of colour by American colourist Steve Oliff, chosen specifically by Otomo, takes the style and tone of Otomo’s drawings and adds another dimension. Oliff, through the use of computer colouring, which was in its infancy at the time and unheard of in Japan, gives the subtle colours a clean uniformity, adding to the overall atmosphere; one can visually ‘feel’ the isolation of the characters, the society itself, within the almost stark palette.
From an artistic standpoint, Akira is a masterpiece. I found myself so totally drawn into the pages, hence the storyline, it was somewhat alarming. While the likes of Shirow will have typical Japanese comic relief or the odd lazy frame, which ‘pop’ you out of the story’s universe, every frame in Akira is spot on, almost to the point you could blow one us as a single element and not think there is more to it; characters are neuanced, environments believable, hardware you feel is sitting outside your front door. The overall delivery of the story arc and the Akira universe as a whole is masterful.
If you haven’t read Akira, I would strongly recommend you try and get your hands on at least some of the volumes (or the anniversary addition). If you have it on the shelf already, take it down and re-read it. Either way, in reading it you will soon discover why it’s has been and still is so acclaimed.
All images: Katsuhiro Otomo
English version manga published by: Penguin Randomhouse
Copyright 2023 Gerard Thomas. All rights reserved.