When Akira was released in 1988 it sent shockwaves through the film world – both in Japan and in the west. Audiences hadn’t seen anything quite like it before. Along with William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), this animated sci-fi classic remains a vital cornerstone of the cyberpunk genre. As Michelle Le Blanc and Colin Odell argue in their book Anime, it was a major catalyst for the west’s ongoing obsession with “cool Japan”.
Part of the coolness of Akira lays in its depiction of male teenage rebellion, which – while it has parallels in western cinema – belongs in its own, distinct universe.
Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, and based on his manga comic of the same name, Akira takes place in 2019 in a dystopian Tokyo that’s risen from the ashes of World War III. We meet a biker gang of rebellious teenagers, or bosozoku, led by Shotaro Kaneda. When Kaneda’s gang, The Capsules, clash with their rivals, The Clowns, they accidentally uncover a government experiment that drags Kaneda’s friend Tetsuo into a government conspiracy that threatens to once again destroy the city.
As in 1980s Japan, the rival gangs in Akira are made up of discontented male youths who ride around on modified, often brightly coloured motorcycles, dressed in tokko-fuku (special attack clothing) adorned with kanji slogans. Such gangs had existed in Japan as early as the 1970s and still exist in dwindling numbers today, as seen in Magnum photographer Bruce Gilden’s excellent book Go, which explores several of Japan’s lesser-known subcultures.
Transplanted to the near future, bosozoku culture is one of the driving elements of Akira. It’s almost impossible to think of Otomo’s film without thinking of Kaneda’s iconic scarlet motorcycle. The image of Kaneda racing down the streets of Neo-Tokyo is so imprinted in the public consciousness that it most recently featured in Steven Spielberg’s homage to the 80s, Ready Player One (2018).
Going further back, these real-life biker gangs bore similarities with the biker culture of post-war America – immortalised on screen by Marlon Brando playing Johnny Strabler, the truculent leader of the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club, in László Benedek’s delinquent exploitation film The Wild One (1953).
Yet unlike the Hells Angels in Benedek’s film, who seem to be rebelling against anything and everything, bosozoku are formed of groups of disenfranchised teens who felt they’d been rejected or forgotten by Japanese society. As a result, they decided to form their own community, with its own codes of behaviour often echoing the strictures of the society they’d left behind.
Another key difference is that, as with the crimes committed by the ‘heroes’ of Akira, members of bosozoku gangs are anti-social rather than overtly criminal – even if, as is often reported in Japanese newspapers, their members frequently graduate to the yakuza.
At the heart of Akira is the relationship between Kaneda and the younger Tetsuo, who idolises Kaneda in every way yet often finds himself the butt of Kaneda’s jokes. Both teens are shunned by society. Living on the fringes, their entire focus is the gang and their bikes, which they steal and then modify.
The duo are bound to each other because they have no one else. But they are not equals – Kaneda is the leader; Tetsuo the apprentice. It’s a heavily male dynamic, and Akira has often been criticised for lacking strong female characters (except the terrorist Kei), yet the depiction of male friendship remains an interesting one.
Kaneda and Tetsuo’s bond demonstrates the complexity of bosozoku culture, including one of its more positive aspects – loyalty. Writing in The Japan Times, Tomohiro Osaki noted that while these gangs are often best known for their wild, anti-social behaviour, they are also characterised by their sense of camaraderie and allegiance to each other.
This loyalty is tested in the most extreme ways in Akira. When Kaneda learns that his friend – who is revealed to have psychic powers and is transforming into a fleshy, pulsating mess – is out of control and becoming a danger to the city he knows, it must be Kaneda who kills him. Not out of anger or hate, but out of love and friendship.
This is because their honour code demands it. For all his teasing and bullying, Kaneda is not just Tetsuo’s leader but also his protector and friend. He must protect him even if that means killing him.
Teenage rebellion rarely felt so alluring as it does in Akira, but aside from the neon strip lights of Neo-Tokyo and the hi-octane chase sequences, what lasts is Otomo’s depiction of bosozoku – and how that shapes a complicated friendship within it.