Akira is an odd film. Some like to believe it a riddle that if you can just get a crowbar into, you might crack it open and spill it’s meaningful contents. And while it is certainly a dense film, there is a more topical edge to it that is often overlooked.
At it’s core the relationship between Kaneda and Tetsuo works as a metaphor for the lost youth of a post atom bomb Japan. It is this lost youth that Japan has been afraid of since 1945, because the new generations have increasingly abandoned their traditions and become adrift culturally/socially. And what choice do the kids have? It is the youth that are perhaps the most victimized during/after wars. Such so that Otomo built an entire film and volumes of a manga series upon the metaphors for the lost youth of Japan. If there is any take away from Akira it should be that the youth are suffering because no one cares about them. They are basically shuffled from school to school till they can be expelled and then they become thugs and mobsters. The future isn’t bleak or non-existent for these youths, they simply don’t care if it is there or not. You can’t take from me what I never acknowledged existed, right?
At the heart of Akira you have a story about young friends lost in a future world, but it’s their circumstances that are still relevant. Having no where else to go, the teens are united in motorcycle gangs that run all over Neo-Tokyo. Now, no one expects that teens are going to secretly activate psychic abilities and terrorize the future, but there has been some major shifts in Japanese culture since America dropped A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. It’s these shifts and changes that leads to the motorcycle gangs that are the only thing protecting these kids and giving them structure. But it didn’t develop overnight.
Japan was shaken post 1945, and rightfully so, a giant Earth shaking bomb annihilated two cities. That isn’t something you just get over. It carries weight with it. Today the bombings are history to us and thuis discussed rather nonchalantly, but for the Japanese it isn’t history, it’s a part of their way of life. Perhaps Japan and it’s peoples cannot shake the specter of the bomb, and who would ever expect such an inhuman reaction. The 1950’s saw many changes for the Japanese, the biggest being the rise of car factories as car sales surged. This windfall allowed the Japanese a surprising and fast economic recovery after WW II. It should be no surprise that the Japanese were primed to become a dominant economic figure in the world. However, at home, the teens were running wild as the old ways faded. The youth of this time complained of loneliness, and disenchantment with both authority and tradition, a theme carried out in countless anime and manga even today. They felt left behind and stranded. Angry, disaffected, and unsatisfied with Japanese society the teens from the lower socio-economic areas and backgrounds began banding together around a new sensation: the motorcycle.
The motorcycle became a symbol of individuality, even though the teens ran in groups called Bosozoku (meaning “violent running tribe” in Japanese). The teens would alter their bikes to reflect what the rider felt was cool or important – often, this involved removing the mufflers from bikes so they sounded like thunder as they peeled down the highways. The riders would often wear worker jumpsuits and sport headbands with phrases or symbols. Not to mention all the badges and insignia they wore on their person, they also put similar on their bikes.
Otomo captures this perfectly with Kaneda’s biker gang The Capsules. But, specifically, Shotaro Kaneda is the epitome of Bosozoku culture. He is young, smart, and pissed. His clothes are a mix of worker jumpsuit and red leather motorcycle jacket, an iconic look to Akira fans – anyone familiar with Akira knows Kaneda’s outfit. But, his outfit isn’t as memorable as his bike. An odd bike of the future with it’s pod like shape emblazoned with decals, insignia, and stickers (isn’t it funny that the bike itself sort of resembles a capsule?). While the meaning behind them isn’t the point, what is lies in the fact that Kaneda thought them important so he stuck them on. This is how the actual Bosozoku behave. They sport badges and insignia that are distinctive. After all, no one else in Akira has a sticker that simply says ‘CITIZEN’ on it, or dress like him exactly. But what is interesting is that the Bosozoku also wear worker jumpsuits, and wave Japanese imperialist flags, as the teens race through the city streets and suburbs of Japan. Does this sound familiar?
It should, it’s the start of Akira. In one of the best scenes of the film, the Capsules (Kaneda’s Bosozoku) ride through the city at dangerous speeds, causing mayhem as they do it. At one point they blow a car up that stalled out on the highway. But, it’s a mistake to think it anarchy or angry. This is the teens at their most joyous. It’s the only time that Kaneda and his friends seem happy. In fact, this could very well be mirroring Japanese society. The Bosozoku did begin as a way for teens to deal with the complex emotions of growing up post-bomb. Angry, lonely, lost. The teens of Japanese society seemingly had no choice but to band together to survive and find a sliver of relief from the hardships of Japanese society.
Even in something as anarchical as the Bosozoku, there is still a hierarchy. For instance, in Akira there are two gangs we meet: The Capsules and The Clowns, run by Kaneda and Clown, respectively. Right there we see it. The gangs have leaders (senpai) that the younger members must defer to. As a matter of fact, during these runs through the city (called Shinai Boso) the leader cannot be overtaken on the road. We see this in the introduction of Clown who is flanked by two clown riders, but both stay poised behind him, never ahead of him. Same with Kaneda. No one ever overtakes him during the run. They come close to paralleling him. Now, the obvious exception to this is Tetsuo, but we will get to that.
So, how do the adults of Akira deal with these kids: physical abuse. As we see the kids are forced at school to answer for their run that ended with Tetsuo taken away by some secret army. Instead of respect, each gang member wears a look of spite and impatience. They don’t care that the men in the room are elders, teachers, principals, or coaches. Seeing this, the principal has the coach beat on the kids, then send them away. Ostensibly they have “learned their lesson.” But, this is the same problem between Kaneda and Tetsuo. As we see in flashbacks later, Kaneda has always been the stronger of the two and thus Kaneda protects Tetsuo quite often it is alluded. But, as we see in the start of the film, Tetsuo doesn’t respect Kaneda because he wants to be Kaneda. This is shown in the scene were we first meet Tetsuo, he is playing with Kaneda’s bike, a mix of both jealousy and awe. Further showing Tetsuo’s place, when Kaneda comes upon him, Kaneda chides Tetsuo for not being powerful enough to ride it. Something Tetsuo is obviously hurt about.
As they ride, at one point, Tetsuo overtakes Kaneda and goes a different path. While on the same highway, the men are on different paths. The two boys only understand the world one way: power. But, this shows the eventual fate of the Bosozoku. It is hard to have a hierarchy in an anarchical institution like the Bosozoku. After all, they did not band together out of love for Japan or motorbikes. They did it because they needed it and the world showed itself to them as one of power and dominance. Something that would lead to in-fighting amongst the Bosozoku, and something that would play out throughout Akira.
Currently, the Bosozoku are a dying phenomenon in Japan. At their height, there was close to 50,000 members in ‘82. Now there numbers are barely 5,000. This is in part due to newer laws in Japan restricting the Bosozoku, but also, as some Bosozoku will admit, there is a crumbling inner integrity to the culture. The newer teens joining the ranks are not adhering the code of conduct and respect, established early on in the beginning of all Bosozoku. While in the 80s there wasn’t much of this, Otomo seemed to see where it was headed and used it as a plot point. If it were not for the rivalry between Tetsuo and Kaneda, the whole movie would have never gotten underway.