These days, it’s in vogue to acknowledge the technical achievements of Akira but belittle its storytelling. “The ending is rushed!” “The story makes no sense!” I get it. When I saw the movie for the first time in high school, I was baffled by the breakneck plot developments that built into the film’s explosive finale. When I read the manga in college, I appreciated its slower burn and more sprawling scope and scoffed at the movie that confused me years ago. Rewatching Akira in 2015, however, I found myself awestruck by the brilliant build-up that takes place over the course of Katsuhiro Otomo’s masterpiece.
You feel the beginning of Akira in your gut. From the haunting opening explosion to the famous bike chase, the introduction to Neo-Tokyo crackles with an undeniable energy. But it’s the dynamics that make it all work so well. The city begins flawed but functional. Biker punk main characters lounge around in a seedy bar, while protesters march through the streets and confront police in acts of violent civil disobedience. It’s tense but not yet chaotic.
As Tetsuo undergoes scientific experimentation and Kaneda falls in with Kei’s band of revolutionaries, the city grows restless. When Tetsuo and Kaneda meet up again, their friendship is strained. Kaneda’s attempt to rescue Tetsuo only drives him further down a path of wanton destruction. His escape and subsequent rampage gathers revolutionaries and cultists eager to tear down the society of Neo-Tokyo, while his murder of Yamagata puts the final coffin nail in his friendship with Kaneda. From the personal to the political, Akira pulls the strings tight and stretches them until they eventually snap.
This is what makes the brief battle between Kaneda and Tetsuo atop the rubble of Akira’s storage tank so emotionally powerful. They are not just two friends estranged by their own pride and circumstances; their fight represents the conflict at the heart of Neo-Tokyo. Kaneda is a dethroned king of the street, seeking to bring order to his kingdom, and Tetsuo is the rage and sorrow of the masses given form.
This symbolism reaches its nihilistic logical extension in the Olympic stadium as Tetsuo, representative of Neo-Tokyo’s roiling mass of fear and anger, expands into a gross, engorged child who consumes both friend and enemy as his power grows. Created by a generation seeking to maintain control over their crumbling world and fueled by an internal struggle between young people, Tetsuo is a symbol of Neo-Tokyo’s fragile peace. We watch him explode after two hours of watching the fuse burn inevitably down.
None of this is to say that Akira is perfect, but there is power in its harsh, unforgiving tension. As Otomo no doubt intended, the absurd finale, with its grotesque psychic baby and explosive full-circle ending, is the perfect catharsis for that tension.