Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo
When I was growing up, there was certainly anime around to watch, albeit not as much of it and the quality was, er, questionable. There was Astro Boy, and an Astro Boy-like series called “Prince Planet” that I never actually got to see, and Battle of the Planets (Science Ninja Gatchaman, translated, kiddified, and all Star warsed up). Later on there was Star Blazers (Space Battlecruiser Yamato, also translated but there was nothing they could do to affect the basic quality of the story) and on the french channel, some variant on Harlock. Later yet there came Robotech (Macross, Southern Cross, and MOSPEADA). I had also been exposed to high-quality animation, since I grew up watching the classic Warner Brothers shorts, most of which had been made for cinematic distribution, with the high quality that implies (or implied at the time, anyway). What I’m saying with all this is that it was neither novelty nor quality that accounted for my reaction to the movie Akira when it was released to North American cinemas in the early 90s.
I went to see it with a friend, and we both came out of the theatre grinning maniacally (though I think we each took different things from it). For me it was a demonstration of what you could do to tell a story with animation, even if that story doesn’t make a lot of sense (the ending of Akira the movie rivals 2001: a space odyssey in incomprehensibility). The Manga, however, is an entirely different beast, having more space to fill out the story. Or so I’m assured; as I write this I am nowhere near the end.
In volume one, it is 2030 CE, 38 years after World War III. Neo-Tokyo has been built over the ruins of the original city (though there is still a massive crater out on the edge of town). Our protagonists are members of a teenage motorcycle gang: Kaneda (the leader) and Tetsuo. As the gang races along the empty night highways on the edge of town, Tetsuo is injured when his bike explodes (the art isn’t clear as to why it explodes; it may have crashed or something else may have happened to it) trying to avoid hitting a wizened figure the size of a child. No one but Tetsuo and (after the explosion) Kaneda sees the kid; Kaneda sees him disappear in plain view. Military police arrive quickly and investigate but they don’t stay; Tetsuo is taken to the hospital by regular police, and the rest of the crew head off to school, where we learn that they are incorrigible delinquents. Still, they begin looking for Tetsuo, who has vanished. They don’t find him, but they do find the Kid, which leads to Kaneda getting involved with a kind of rebel cell led by Ryu and his sister Kei, to whom Kaneda is instantly attracted. This also puts Kaneda in opposition to the Colonel, who seems to run Neo-Tokyo’s military. He is also responsible for the Kid, whose real name is Takashi but who also answers to “Number 26”. And who has massive psychic powers.
Meanwhile, Tetsuo returns, and starts to manifest psychic powers of his own. He takes over the “Clowns” gang, rivals to our heroes, and a massive gang war breaks out.
I don’t want to give too much away here; I’m skipping a lot and obviously, not going near the end of the book (which is nowhere near the end of the story). This is a classic manga that, if you have any interest in this sort of thing, you must read.