Akira remains an outlier in America. Somebody needn’t have watched a single cel of anime–they’ll still be at least aware of “that weird movie with the biker gang and the monster made of veins and wires.” So, that’s why my six, phonebook-size volumes of Akira usually attract the most attention out of any manga on my bookshelf. The norms recognize the title, first. Then, they furrow their brows, questioning how such a simple plot could ever take up that many pages.
Well, this is another case where the book is better than the movie. Like, light years better. And I say this while still regarding the Akira movie as a true classic of modern anime. It’s just an extended trailer for a much fuller feature. A radio-friendly single for a double-disc concept album.
Quick refresher: Akira is a cyberpunk thriller about angry, teenage bikers in a Tokyo that’s been rebuilt in World War III’s aftermath. Most of their nights are taken up by feuds with rival gangs, but they turn the wrong corner one evening, and run afoul a secret military project involving psychic children. The gang’s put-upon toadie is suddenly imbued with unimaginable power, and he goes on a ferociously destructive rampage throughout the city.
There’s a lot more to it, obviously, but that’s the gist. And without spoiling too much, Neo-Tokyo is more-or-less nuked towards the end. One would think that a definitive end for any story. Well, it only occurs in the third volume of the manga. There are over 1,000 pages detailing what happens after the explosion.
Akira‘s last three volumes show a war of young factions in the ruins. It plays like an epic-scaled vision of The Road Warrior meeting Lord of the Flies. Characters are developed more. Other teenagers gain psychic powers. A villain punches a crater into the moon. There’s one of the most spectacular motorcycle charges ever depicted. And much space is given to deep, philosophical dialogues.
The fourth volume is one of the most powerful story experiences I’ve ever had. On screen, or in print. In comics, or prose. From any corner of the world. It’s an endlessly-engaging, highly-accessible piece of work that transcends most stereotypes about manga. And I’m eager to share it with whomever I can.
These volumes were collected by Dark Horse in the 2000s and, since the company’s license lapsed, they’ve been out of print for a few years. Still, they’re easy to order second-hand online. If you’ve got a well stocked library in your town, there’s strong a chance it’ll be in their graphic novel section. Or perhaps you should make friends with somebody like me, and ask to borrow it the next time you see it on his book shelf?
Have you experience the Akira manga for yourself yet? Do you prefer it to the anime, too? Sound off in the talkback below!
Photo Credits: Kodansha USA/Random House