Akira: A reflection on Japan’s future past

How does reality compare with fiction?

Hannah Lee

Society and culture | Asia, East Asia

2 April 2019

The classic 1988 film Akira was set in a dystopian Japan 2019. Now in that fateful year,Hannah Lee looks at what Akira got right, what it got wrong, and what the film can teach us about modern Japan.

Its 2019, the year portrayed in Katsushiro Otomo’s dystopian anime movie Akira. Back in 1988, when Akira first exploded onto our screens, Otomo confronted Japanese social problems through a post-apocalyptic vision of Tokyo in 2019. Today, Akira remains an insightful rumination on the Japanese experience of youth alienation, the spectre of nuclear annihilation and economic transformation.

Youth alienation in Japan remains as relevant today as it was when first depicted in Akira. As in Akira, today many Japanese young people are estranged from society. Thanks to a long recession, approximately 10 per cent of them are ‘NEET’ – not in employment, education or training. These youths, typically 15-29 years old, have refused to engage with Japan’s hypercompetitive employment and educations markets.

Meanwhile, approximately 500,000 Japanese youths suffer from shakaiteki hikikomori, or social withdrawal.  Like their NEET counterparts, the hikikomori reject social expectations of having a job or attending university. Instead, they shut themselves in their homes for prolonged periods of time and avoid social contact.

Japan’s increasing rates of youth alienation reflect its broader problem of having the fastest declining population in the world as more Japanese youths shun marriage and children. Adding to these social circumstances, Japan’s rapidly ageing workforce and strict immigration policies continue to put great stress on the country’s economy.

Akira also explored the Japanese experience of nuclear disaster, a legacy that continues to haunt Japan in 2019. With its memories of 1945, the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 hit close to home. The consequences of the Fukushima disaster remain far-reaching: 50,000 peoplecontinue to live as evacuees. They face radiation stigmadepression and suicide, divorce and the haunting risk of radiation illnesses.

Towns remain abandoned whilst contaminated water continues to pollute the ocean. Beyond Japan, North Korea’s nuclear capabilities continue to cause tensions. The Japan of 2019 remains an obvious target within a close range. On top of this, Japan finds itself having to rely on an unpredictable US President Donald Trump for its security.

The legacy of Japan’s 1945 nuclear annihilation is a core theme of Akira. The film opens over an immense crater. Other nods to Word War II include the bomb; the militant Colonel; and the prematurely aged esper children, symbols of Japan’s wartime experiments. Given Japan’s unique experience of nuclear devastation, Frieda Friedberg writes that these repeated references to the war aim to elicit the deeply held fear of “collective incineration and extinction” within the Japanese consciousness.

Meanwhile, Tokyo 2019 in Akira closely resembles Tokyo as we find it today with its imposing cityscape and dazzling lights.  Dr Marcos Pablo Centeno Martín agrees that Akira depicts Japan’s lingering memories and contemporary fears of nuclear annihilation in a recognisable, yet futuristic, Tokyo. This creates an unsettling ‘double optic’ which blurs the lines between history and the present. Akira encourages viewers to contemplate the implications that Japan’s underlying survival anxieties have for its future.

Another theme of Akira is the unpredictable effects of economic transformation. In 2019, Japan is set for its second longest period of post-war expansion. This period of growth has resulted in higher female workplace participation, near-record unemployment and lower fiscal deficits These conditions are transforming Japan’s society. Slow population growth has resulted in a labour shortage, prompting the government to relax immigration laws. This could spell the end of Japan’s famously homogeneous population as foreign workers begin to move in. Japan’s ageing population has also resulted in new market opportunities in healthcare, robotics and insurance.

Similarly, Akira was released when Japan’s economy was surging in the 1980s. Japan’s economic ascension is reflected in a neo Tokyo, shocking in its brilliance. Its neon lights are overwhelming whilst mammoth skyscrapers occlude the stars. Yet within this metropolis lie symbols of the decline that would follow: alleyways filled with rubbish and the rioting masses of unemployed people.

Although the Japan was exhibiting unparalleled growth when Akira was released, it also experienced unforeseen social changes as a result. As people moved into cities, an entire generation found itself being raised in previously non-existent urban environments. The resultant youth alienation threatened to fracture Japan’s newly found confidence in the 1980s, as Japan’s ageing population currently threatens its newly found prosperity in 2019.

Katsushiro Otomo’s 1988 film Akira still reflects central social concerns of Japan in 2019. Although WWIII may not have eventuated as Akira had predicted, it remains a compelling exploration of Japan in the 21st century. As such, Otomo’s frightening vision of 2019 is an important film for those wanting to know both where Japan has been, and where it could be going.

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