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Arts 2018, 7(3), 32; doi:10.3390/arts7030032
Has Akira Always Been a Cyberpunk Comic?
Institute of European Art History, Heidelberg University, Heidelberg 69117, Germany
Received: 14 May 2018 / Accepted: 12 July 2018 / Published: 1 August 2018
Between the late 1980s and early 1990s, interest in the cyberpunk genre peaked in the Western world, perhaps most evidently when Terminator 2: Judgment Day became the highest-grossing film of 1991. It has been argued that the translation of Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s manga Akira into several European languages at just that time (into English beginning in 1988, into French, Italian, and Spanish beginning in 1990, and into German beginning in 1991) was no coincidence. In hindsight, cyberpunk tropes are easily identified in Akira to the extent that it is nowadays widely regarded as a classic cyberpunk comic. But has this always been the case? When Akira was first published in America and Europe, did readers see it as part of a wave of cyberpunk fiction? Did they draw the connections to previous works of the cyberpunk genre across different media that today seem obvious? In this paper, magazine reviews of Akira in English and German from the time when it first came out in these languages will be analysed in order to gauge the past readers’ genre awareness. The attribution of the cyberpunk label to Akira competed with others such as the post-apocalyptic, or science fiction in general. Alternatively, Akira was sometimes regarded as an exceptional, novel work that transcended genre boundaries. In contrast, reviewers of the Akira anime adaptation, which was released at roughly the same time as the manga in the West (1989 in Germany and the United States), more readily drew comparisons to other cyberpunk films such as Blade Runner.
Keywords:audience; comics; genre; Germany; manga; reception history; science fiction; translation; United States
Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s Akira was first published in the Japanese manga periodical, Young Magazine, from 1982 to 1990. Spanning almost 2200 pages, Akira was collected in 6 volumes in Japan between 1984 and 1993. The first edition in the Western world was the English translation by Epic, an imprint of American publisher Marvel, in 38 issues from 1988 to 1995 (De la Iglesia 2016). French, Italian, and Spanish translations followed (all of which begun in 1990), and between 1991 and 1996, Akira was released in 19 German volumes by the publisher Carlsen. The following text focuses on the American and German first editions as being representative of the entire Western world.
In the wake of these foreign Akira editions, a considerable number of similarly themed manga were translated into European languages, such as Masamune Shirow’s three titles, Appleseed, Dominion, and Ghost in the Shell, Masaomi Kanzaki’s Xenon, and Yukito Kishiro’s Battle Angel Alita. According to Roger Sabin (2006), the success of Akira created a “fashionable template” which Western publishers tried to follow by selecting manga titles from the same genre for translation, which “had the benefit of co-opting manga into the tradition of SF comics in the USA and Europe”. The attribution of a genre to a comic (or any piece of fiction) is a critically relevant act because genres “specify the proper use of a particular cultural artifact”—they “ensure their appropriate reception” and exclude “undesirable responses” (Jameson 1981, pp. 106–7). “Genre guides interpretation”; it “structure[s] our reading, guiding the course it will take, our expectations of what it will encounter” (Frow 2006, pp. 101–3). Therefore, the audience response, and ultimately the success of a comic among critics and other readers, is connected to the identification of its genre. However, what genre precisely does Akira belong to? From today’s perspective, Akira is regarded as cyberpunk—a genre that had its heyday just at the same time when Ōtomo’s manga was first published in the Western world. However, was it actually identified as cyberpunk back then? And, did the popularity of the cyberpunk genre really play a role in the success of this manga? To answer these questions, we need to first ask whether people in the late 1980s and early 1990s were familiar with the concept of cyberpunk at all. We also need to verify that Akira is in fact a cyberpunk comic. Furthermore, in order to do so, we need to define what cyberpunk actually is. These questions in reverse order result in the outline of this article: Section 2 is a brief definition of cyberpunk, followed by a reappraisal of Akira as cyberpunk in Section 3. Section 4 provides the chronological context of cyberpunk in general, and Section 5, the centrepiece of this text, is an analysis of magazine reviews with which the genre awareness of the readers of Akira is gauged.
2. The Concept of Cyberpunk
There is no universally agreed-upon definition of cyberpunk. Some authors even go as far as to deny cyberpunk any usefulness as a concept, claiming that the term “served […] only to provide a facile adjective for the working vocabulary of lazy journalists and unimaginative blurb-writers” (Womack 2000) and wondering whether “we should simply stop talking about ‘cyberpunk SF’, that witty coinage of [Gardner] Dozois’s? Perhaps it might be more useful to say that there is the writer William Gibson, and then there are a couple of expert PR men [...] who know full well the commercial value of an instantly recognizable label, and are sticking one onto disparate products?” (Suvin  1991). Others insist on either cybernetic body modifications or cyberspace (or both) as necessary elements of cyberpunk fiction, however such narrow definitions would exclude many stories that are typically regarded as cyberpunk.
Instead, for the purposes of this article, the concept of cyberpunk is better described in the words of Istvan Csicsery-Ronay ( 1991): cyberpunk is about “alienated subcultures that adopt the high-tech tools of the establishment they are [...] alienated from”. When Csicsery-Ronay wrote this, he meant it as criticism of the entire concept of cyberpunk and felt that the cyberpunk writers did not succeed in convincingly conveying these subcultures’ “political-aesthetic motives”. However, Csicsery-Ronay’s quotation can nevertheless serve as a succinct definition of cyberpunk, albeit only in word and not in spirit. In a similar vein, Bruce Sterling, one of the protagonists of the cyberpunk movement in science fiction literature, described cyberpunk as an “unholy alliance of the technical world and the world of organized dissent” in his preface to the Mirrorshades anthology which became a sort of cyberpunk manifesto (Sterling  1991). In another text (Sterling  2003), Sterling condensed this formula to the classic phrase, “lowlife and high tech” (often rephrased by others as “high tech and low life”).
In other words, the cyberpunk definition used here relies on two necessary characteristics: a piece of cyberpunk fiction needs to feature high technology, and that technology needs to be employed by anti-establishment, counter-cultural characters from the fringes of society. It should be noted, however, that a formal or thematic definition of any genre is only valid with regard to a specific period in time (in this case, the late 1980s and early 1990s). Genre theory has stressed that genres are not static but evolve or mutate over time as their characteristics are negotiated and renegotiated by authors, critics, and audiences (Altman 1984; Frow 2006, p. 139; Rieder 2017, pp. 5, 66). In fact, more recent definitions of cyberpunk put more emphasis on “information networks”, “virtual reality” (Nicholls  1999), “the information explosion” (Clute 2003), “computer technology, artificial intelligence” (Prucher 2007), “global information exchanges”, “massive interlinked data networks, virtual realities”, “flows of information”, and “virtual cyberspaces” (Higgins and Duncan 2013). This shift from high technology in general to computer technology and information networks in particular might have been influenced by the increasing impact of the Internet on society from the 1990s onwards.
3. Akira as Cyberpunk
Is Akira, according to the definition that was derived from Csicsery-Ronay and Sterling (high technology employed by anti-establishment characters), a cyberpunk comic? On closer inspection, only five cyberpunk elements can be identified in Akira that play any role whatsoever, which are listed here in order of their significance.
- Tetsuo’s arm (Figure 1): the metallic arm of Tetsuo, one of the protagonists of the manga, is the closest thing in Akira to a cybernetic limb. It is visible for the first time in vol. 4 on p. 106 (all volume and page numbers refer to the Japanese 6-volume collected edition from 1984–1993). In the previous volume, we see how his natural arm is shot off by a laser blast, but we do not get to see how the mechanical arm got attached to his body (the animated film adaptation, however, shows how metal parts levitate towards his body and are assembled into the arm through supernatural powers). Therefore, even though Tetsuo’s arm looks very much like a cyberpunk motif, it is probably not a piece of high tech, at least not one that was developed by the “establishment” (i.e., the government, military, or industry), and thus, it does not strictly fit the definition of cyberpunk given above. This is a crucial point, as the appropriation of pre-existing “establishment” technology, rather than the autonomous creation of new technology, is what justifies the “punk” part of the word “cyberpunk”. Later, we see a mutation spreading over Tetsuo’s whole body starting from his arm (from vol. 5, p. 263), and later still, his body fuses with machines, such as a jet fighter plane and an aircraft carrier (vol. 5, p. 352). Again, these motifs might seem typical of cyberpunk stories, however strictly speaking, they do not meet the criteria of our definition.
- Motorcycles (Figure 2): not all of the motorcycles that are depicted in Akira are high tech machinery, however some are definitely pieces of futuristic technology. The first one of these is protagonist Kaneda’s motorbike, which is even equipped with a display screen (vol. 1, pp. 10–22). Kaneda is the head of a gang of teenage motorcyclists, an anti-establishment, lowlife group of characters if there ever was one, which makes his motorcycle a strong cyberpunk motif. Two other instances of motorcycles in Akira are noteworthy: in vol. 5 on p. 55, Kaneda is given a new motorcycle by his ally, Joker. It is another futuristic-looking model, and this time Kaneda is not going to use it for fun, but to confront Tetsuo who has seized the political and military power in the city. Even more anti-establishment is the use of the same motorbike at the end of the series (vol. 6, pp. 419ff.) by Kaneda and his companion Kei against the United Nations troops.
- Caretaker robots (Figure 3): the so-called caretaker robots, or Security Balls, could even be considered Artificial Intelligences, however only in the beginning of the manga when they are still controlled by the military. When Kaneda and his friends get their hands on one of these robots, they convert it into a manually operated transport vehicle (vol. 5, p. 152). Later still, Joker reworks a caretaker robot into a combat vehicle which is equipped with a machine gun (vol. 5, p. 332).
- Flying platforms (Figure 4): the flying platforms are another example of advanced military technology. The first one of these aircraft is captured by protagonists Kei and Kaneda already in vol. 2 on p. 190. Later, it is again Joker who assembles his own flying platform from parts of the wrecks of others and gives it an idiosyncratic paint job (vol. 5, p. 314). At the end of the manga, a flying platform is once more used by Kaneda, Joker, and their allies against the United Nations forces (vol. 6, p. 411).
- Laser rifles (Figure 5): laser beam firearms are experimental technology that are developed by the military. A laser rifle is stolen by Kei and Kaneda in vol. 2 on p. 72 and is used against the military. In vol. 5 on p. 312, Joker reveals that he too has obtained one such weapon which is subsequently used in the fight against Tetsuo.
Apart from these five recurring objects, there are hardly any further cyberpunk elements in Akira. One might say that Tetsuo appropriates the cryogenic chamber, a piece of governmental high tech, when he carries Kaori’s dead body there (vol. 6, p. 201), however the functionality of the chamber—if it is still functional at all at this point—cannot possibly bring Kaori back to life; more likely, this place is meant to be a sort of burial site for her due to its symbolic meaning. Neither can the Colonel’s improvised, unauthorised use of the satellite laser weapon called “SOL” against Tetsuo in the second half of the story (e.g., vol. 6, p. 20) be considered anti-establishment, and is thus not cyberpunk, because he still believes to act in the interest of the official government. Some might consider the synthetic, mind-altering drugs that are featured recurrently in Akira to be a cyberpunk trope, however, while such drugs are a theme in many cyberpunk stories, it is safe to say that they are neither a sufficient nor a necessary cyberpunk characteristic.
By and large, at least some cyberpunk elements are undeniably found in Akira. However, elements from other genres abound as well—supernatural powers from the “science fantasy” genre, the setting of a city in ruins (in the second half of the comic) from post-apocalyptic fiction—so that Akira resists to be readily and wholeheartedly pigeonholed into the cyberpunk genre.
4. Cyberpunk in the Late 1980s and Early 1990s
Cyberpunk originated in science fiction literature, with the central author here being William Gibson. His first published short story, “Fragments of a Hologram Rose” from 1977, already contained some cyberpunk themes. With his subsequent short stories such as “Johnny Mnemonic” (1981) and “Burning Chrome” (1982), Gibson built a near-future world in which he then set his seminal novel Neuromancer (1984) which can be regarded as the nucleus of the cyberpunk genre. Shortly before Neuromancer, the term “cyberpunk” was coined by Bruce Bethke’s eponymous short story, which was first published in 1983. It was not until 1984, however, that this term was applied to a group of science fiction writers around William Gibson (Dozois 1984). Another important event in the formation of the cyberpunk genre was the publication of Mirroshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology in 1986, the preface of which, written by editor Bruce Sterling, gave the cyberpunk movement its manifesto.
Cyberpunk was also influential in film. The most important cyberpunk film, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, was already released in 1982, which makes it cyberpunk avant la lettre. Of course, both Blade Runner and Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall from 1990 are based on much older stories by Philip K. Dick, however the film versions proved to have a stronger impact. Also noteworthy in the context of cyberpunk are the films of David Cronenberg, primarily Videodrome (1983), as is another Paul Verhoeven film, RoboCop (1987), as well as the James Cameron films, The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the latter of which was commercially the most successful film of 1991 worldwide.
However, there were also cyberpunk comics in the Western world before or at the same time as Akira. The following titles appear to be the most important of these: The Long Tomorrow by Dan O’Bannon and Mœbius (US release 1977), Judge Dredd by various authors (from 1977), Rōnin by Frank Miller (1983–1984), Shatter by Peter Gillis and Michael Saenz (1985–1988), Appleseed—another manga that was released in the US in the same year as Akira—by Masamune Shirow (1988), and Hard Boiled by Frank Miller and Geof Darrow (1990–1992).
Considering all of these developments in the fields of literature, film, and comics, it seems likely that comic readers were familiar with the concept (though not necessarily the explicit label) of cyberpunk at the time when Akira was first released in America (1988) and Europe (1990/1991). Furthermore, many cyberpunk stories were set in a fictional future Japan or other East Asian countries (Tatsumi 2006, pp. 44–47, 111) which might have made it easier for Western readers to draw a connection between Akira and cyberpunk.
5. Genre Designations in Magazine Reviews of Akira
Did readers recognise Akira as cyberpunk? To find an approximate answer to this question, reviews and other texts about Akira from magazines and newspapers were searched for any terms or phrases that place Akira in a genre or put it in any kind of context. Beginning with the anglophone world, the first article on Akira is an announcement from the Comics Buyer’s Guide from January 1988, which calls Akira a “color series about post-holocaust mutants”. In March 1988, the same magazine ran an advertisement by Westwind Distributors which announced Akira as “a science-fiction adventure tale”. The Comics Journal identified Akira as “an imported science fiction Japanese manga” in April 1988. Marvel Age, in August 1988, called it “a science-fiction thriller”. In May 1989, Advance Comics referred to Akira simply as “the Japanese SF series”, and in January 1990, the same magazine noted a “shift in tone from hardware SF to a post-apocalypse saga”. The only reference to the cyberpunk genre with regard to Akira is found in the December 1988 issue of Amazing Heroes: “Elements of the story reminded me of the Sprawl stories and novels of William Gibson, the high priest of cyber-punk [sic]. Otomo deals with several of Gibson’s themes: the fate of directionless youth in a technological world, the possibility of heroism and the value of friendship in what might seem to be unsalvageable individuals.”
In Germany, the situation was largely the same: Akira was identified as science fiction in general or as some other genre, but not cyberpunk. In 1991, Epic editor Archie Goodwin was quoted in the German comic magazine ICOM-INFO (all translations mine) saying, “The story belongs to science fiction.” Also, in 1991, Rraah!, another important German comic magazine, saw in Akira a “trailblazer for the influential violent tendencies of modern Japanese comics”. In 1992, Rraah! spoke to a new Akira volume, “once more there’s high speed action”, and in 1994, the same magazine referred to Akira as “the futuristic thriller”. In a review of the anime adaptation from 1991, the German film magazine Cinema also mentioned the manga source, calling it a “science fiction epic”. Another German comic magazine, Comixene, identified Akira as an “adventure series” in 1995, and in the same issue, it claimed, “Otomo is called the Ridley Scott of the Land of the Rising Sun”. This last statement is the only one that can be said to make some connection between Akira and cyberpunk, however as the article in which it appears is about Katsuhiro Ōtomo and Hayao Miyazaki as both comic authors and anime directors, it is not clear whether this statement refers to Ōtomo as the creator of Akira the manga or Akira the anime.
By way of comparison, journalistic texts about the animated film adaptation of Akira, which was theatrically released in the West between 1989 and 1991, shall also be considered here. In contrast to the reviews of the manga discussed above, the film reviews quoted below represent only a small sample which was selected rather arbitrarily. Once more beginning with English-language reviews, the earliest one in this sample was published in the Washington Post in 1989, saying of the fictional Neo Tokyo in which Akira is set that “The rebuilt city [is] looking like an animated Blade Runner prototype”, and that “There are several Scanners-style showdowns, Altered States-like hallucinations and none of the comic release usually found in cartoons.” In 1990, the Seattle Times also mentioned “’Neo-Tokyo,’ an endless metropolis which gets much of its visual inspiration from Blade Runner and Brazil [...]”. The British Monthly Film Bulletin wrote in 1991 that “The film version sits comfortably between Blade Runner and 2001” and is “closer to Cronenberg’s ‘new flesh’ than to the orthodox versions of genetic engineering”. On the occasion of the laserdisc release of Akira, Time magazine said in 1993 that “[Neo] Tokyo is imagined down to the last noodle shop and intersection, a place of deep night and lurid neon that looks like Blade Runner on spoiled mushrooms.” None of these texts mentioned cyberpunk explicitly, however it is striking that all four of them compare the film to the (proto-) cyberpunk classic Blade Runner.
This tendency is also apparent in German texts about Akira the anime. The comic magazine ICOM-INFO, this time referring to the film, said in 1991, “One could rank Akira among classics such as Blade Runner or RoboCop” (again, all translations mine). In the aforementioned 1991 issue of Cinema, the film is described like this: “Katsuhiro Otomo’s futuristic animated film Akira, like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop, or David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, gives off the foul smell of doom in a hyper-technocratic world.“ The same text later explicitly assigns the cyberpunk label: “Even without machine men, Akira, like Blade Runner, belongs to post-apocalyptic cyberpunk”. Another German film magazine, Filmdienst, noted in 1991 “the morbid mood of Blade Runner”, and said that Akira “ranges from Blade Runner over E.T. back to Rebel Without a Cause” and contains “action orgies in the vein of RoboCop”. Most extensively, cyberpunk is written about in the Akira film review of the Berlin city magazine, Tip, also in 1991: “Akira’s psycho demons are no avant-garde specter, only the cyberpunk is a new phenomenon. Cyberpunk is the philosophy of Akira, and is explained by Akira’s press department as follows: ‘Cyberpunk is a philosophy that can shape the world in its own image and create a self-mutilating freedom, that is, an image that angrily growls back.’ Even if no one has growled in the first place.”
Why did journalists readily identify Akira the anime as cyberpunk, but not Akira the manga? There are two main reasons for this. On the one hand, consider once more the list of cyberpunk elements in Akira the manga that are given above in Section 3. These cyberpunk scenes appear in different issues or volumes that were published at different times during the long publication history of Akira, both in the US and Germany. The following list gives the number of cyberpunk scenes from issues that were published in the corresponding year for the first American edition that was published by Epic:
- 1988: 2 cyberpunk scenes
- 1989: 1
- 1990: 3
- 1991: 5
- 1992: 0
- 1993: 0
- 1994: 0
- 1995: 2.
Here is the corresponding list for cyberpunk scenes in volumes of the first German edition by publisher Carlsen:
- 1991: 3 cyberpunk scenes
- 1992: 2
- 1993: 6
- 1994: 0
- 1995: 0
- 1996: 2.
In both editions, the majority of cyberpunk elements appear only several years after the launch of the series. In other words, Akira was not a cyberpunk comic in the beginning (when most of the reviews and announcements that were quoted above were written)—it only became a cyberpunk comic during the course of its serialisation. Therefore, if Akira can be identified as cyberpunk at all, it is only in hindsight, with the complete series published. In the anime adaptation, the whole story was released at once and all of its cyberpunk elements (except for the caretaker robots which appear only in the manga version) were present in the condensed form of a two-hour film, meaning that it was easier to recognise Akira as cyberpunk in its animated form.
On the other hand, it appears that the idea of a genre to which a work belongs, and also its intertextual context, is strictly confined to its own medium, at least for the writers of the journalistic periodicals discussed above. That means that it is easier to place a film in a filmic genre than to place a comic in a filmic genre and vice versa. It is also easier to make comparisons between two films or two comics than between a film and a comic. Therefore, even if we ascertained that comic readers of the late 1980s and early 1990s could have been familiar with the cyberpunk genre in general, we still need to ask: was the cyberpunk genre already established in the medium of comics specifically? The six early cyberpunk comics that were mentioned above represent only a small part of this comic genre. A bigger picture emerges when we turn to attempts of canonisation: in recent years, several websites have published best-of lists of cyberpunk comics (White 2016; Davidson 2017; Lovett 2017). While these lists are rather subjective, some titles are included in two or even all three of them, apart from the aforementioned The Long Tomorrow, Judge Dredd, Rōnin, and Hard Boiled: namely Ghost in the Shell by Masamune Shirow (US release 1995), Battle Angel Alita by Yukito Kishiro (1995–1998), 2020 Visions by Jamie Delano and various artists (1997–1998), Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson (1997–2002), Heavy Liquid (1999–2000) and 100% (2002–2003) by Paul Pope, The Surrogates by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele (2005–2006), and Tokyo Ghost by Rick Remender and Sean Murphy (2015–2016)—interestingly, the comic adaptation of Gibson’s Neuromancer by Tom De Haven and Bruce Alan Jensen (1989) has not had much of an impact and is mentioned only by Matt White (2016).
Although a certain degree of presentist bias is to be expected from these kinds of websites, it is striking that according to them, most canonical cyberpunk comics were published in the mid-1990s and later, and thus after Akira. It seems as if for comics, unlike science fiction literature, the defining decade of the cyberpunk genre was not the 1980s, but a later one. Therefore, the readers of Akira around 1990 must have had difficulties recognising it as cyberpunk, because cyberpunk comics were not an established genre yet.
In conclusion, the hypothesis has to be refuted that the success of Akira is explained by its affiliation with the cyberpunk genre, as this affiliation was not largely recognised. More likely, Ōtomo’s manga was seen as something new and exceptional. Its success might have been due to a combination of perceived freshness and sheer quality. In an attempt to replicate this success, Western publishers looked for similar, near-future science fiction manga to license and translate, some of which belong to the cyberpunk genre.
This article is based on a paper that was presented at Michigan State University Comics Forum, East Lansing, Michigan, 23–24 February, 2018. The author’s attendance of this conference was supported by the Young Researchers Fund of Heidelberg University.
The helpful comments of three anonymous reviewers of this journal are gratefully acknowledged.
Conflicts of Interest
The author declares no conflict of interest.
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Figure 1. (a) panel from Katsuhiro Ōtomo, Akira (Kōdansha), vol. 4 (1987), p. 106; (b) vol. 5 (1990), p. 263; (c) vol. 5 (1990), p. 352.
Figure 2. (a) panel from Katsuhiro Ōtomo, Akira (Kōdansha), vol. 1 (1984), p. 16; (b) vol. 5 (1990), p. 55; (c) vol. 6 (1993), p. 420.
Figure 3. (a) panel from Katsuhiro Ōtomo, Akira (Kōdansha), vol. 5 (1990), p. 152; (b) vol. 5 (1990), p. 332.
Figure 4. (a) panel from Katsuhiro Ōtomo, Akira (Kōdansha), vol. 2 (1985), p. 190; (b) vol. 5 (1990), p. 314; (c) vol. 6 (1993), p. 411.
Figure 5. (a) panel from Katsuhiro Ōtomo, Akira (Kōdansha), vol. 2 (1985), p. 72; (b) vol. 5 (1990), p. 312.
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