So. The final volume of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira has rolled around on supercharged wheels. It’s carrying some kind of monster thing that I think was a kid once. There’s carpet bombing and from-orbit lasers. There’s annihilation and birth; grotesqueries of form and the simplicity of connection. There’s death, and there’s life.
There’s also a fair chance that for a reasonable part of the work, it’ll feel like you have no idea what the fuck is going on. But that’s ok, because the ending to this tale of conspiratorial struggles to contain universe-warping power really wants to remind you of one thing: everything comes down to the friends you make along the way.
Let’s back up a bit. The work has been as sprawling as its setting, and the action is certainly ramped up in this instalment. I mean, it has to, right? This is the end. For me, it’s the last trade paperback in a set of six, but for Otomo it was the end of eight goddamn years of work. So there’s bound to be a thirst for release – for the tale to deliver. The narrative has been whipped into high-stakes frenzy, and there’s certainly an incredible amount of action here. As ever, shit is blown up in suitable quantities: military sorties seek to eliminate Akira and his followers, orbital lasers try to cauterise the psychic wound that is Tetsuo. Major characters die, and hell, it looks as if everyone will snuff it for good measure.
But just as things reach a fever pitch, the story turns inwards. Throughout, Tetsuo’s barely-controlled body – a kind of mewling baby if that baby was made out of a skyscraper’s worth of hamburger that’d gone off but had managed to learn how to lurch menacingly – has behaved like a cancer, some kind of horror that will take over the world. Until now, when – through destruction – rebirth happens. Akira – the thing to be feared throughout the entirety of the run – has revealed himself as a saviour; of the weird psychic children, of Tetsuo, and of humanity itself. The body-horror that came before the transformation of Tetsuo was a physical reaction to the emergence of one thing: enormous powers of potential.
Potential has always been a key concern of Akira. At the beginning of the first volume, we saw pretty much nothing but squandered potential: teenage wasters who chose speed in pill and bike form over any sort of positivity. But through the course of the story, these same characters have had to start using their potential: to survive the fucked streets of a destroyed city, to win battles, to live. But this final volume foregrounds human potential. The potential of an energy, accessible to particular individuals: the potential of that energy to build and to destroy.
What was most affecting for me was that mental potential and the potential of power (to build or to destroy) were, while important, not the most important thing. The potential of friendship is the real driver of so much of the work here. The desire to love and be loved in return, and the potential for terror if that bond is removed, however unwittingly. Early on, I joked that the story was a bit of a brotastic sausagefest, what with all the TETSUUUUO! KANEEEEEEDA! kind of stuff that goes on. But it really does come down to the role that connection plays in one’s life. And how important it is.
(Of course, you could argue that an author could examine the pitfalls and benefits of friendship without constructing a story predicated on a secretive program that carried out horrific medical and psychic tests on children, but that wouldn’t be as much fun.)
It’s difficult to explain some of this volume’s art. The cityscapes and fight scenes are as detailed and full-on as ever, but there’s a sense of quietude in some of the illustration. There’s longer stretches of silence, too: we’re given the space to consider what’s going on, which is suitable as a lot of what’s conveyed is communicated with internal dialogue. We’re at the sharp edge of thought for some of the more dramatic parts of the book. Sure, there’s a lot of OTT onomatopoeia, but there’s also a lot more subtlety than I’d come to expect. It’s very much an either/or proposition – there’s the hamburgerbaby sections that are all goop and yelling and what the shit? but that’s countered by stretches of introspection, of unfolding memory. It feels more… mature? … than other volumes, curiously.
This was not the ending I would have predicted, but it was certainly one that served the story better than what I’d expected. I was delighted to discover that Otomo still had some tricks up his sleeve. Unlike Neon Genesis Evangelion‘s wait what ending, this one seemed to make sense, and it packed in much more emotion than I had expected. Parts of this were extremely touching, and their impact came out of nowhere, given the amount of weight the run had put on testosterone-heavy dude action.
I’ll read this again, someday. Because, Otomo pulled it off. It’s remarkable, but bugger me, there it is. The pace might slacken, but fuck it if this thing doesn’t get under your skin.
(Hopefully not in a nanotubes kind of way. But then, maybe…)