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The day the bubble burst: ‘Akira’ and Japan’s economic ‘miracle’

Remembering the landmark anime film at 35

Economic CrisisCultureAsia

Original illustration by Jade Armstrong

Most of us never considered the prosperity would ever end.”
—Rei Saito

Modern life is so thin and shallow and fake. I look forward to when developers go bankrupt, Japan gets poorer and wild grasses take over.”
—Hayao Miyazaki

It is a curious affair when we pass the date of an imagined future from a renowned work of science fiction. Usually, our current world is lagging far behind the scientific and technological forecasting of speculative worlds. Take Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner (1985) and its film noir depiction of a sprawling Los Angeles in the year 2019. Huge advertisements are seen as flying cars zip around the gargantuan cityscape, modelled after the sketches of the futurist Italian architect Antonio Sant’Elia. Scott’s choice to draw from the Italian futurists as well as Fritz Lang’s depiction of a “hyper-capitalist dystopia” in Metropolis (1927) help to realize his techno-pessimist portrayal of the future.

While these projections are often comically divorced from our extant technological capabilities, they still help to sketch a sort of imagined trajectory of possibility—feeding escapist urges. It’s no surprise, then, that many science fiction films were made in the 1980s, a tumultuous decade that saw huge inflation and two recessions in just three years. However, one country seemed to survive this economic blow relatively well: Japan. This resilience would prove to be impermanent as the bubble economy burst at the end of the decade. One animated sci-fi film from this era stands as a tall monument to this turbulent period in Japan’s recent history; a film that had projected a future from the very apogee of Japan’s ‘roaring 1980s,’ Akira (1988), set in 2019.

The “Japanese miracle” began at the end of the Second World War with US interests playing a heavy role in rebuilding the country following the atomic bombardment of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Americans took former Japanese colonial officers who were found guilty of war crimes and elevated them to top positions in the post-war government. Old imperial companies were restricted or retooled for other purposes. By the 1980s Japan was the darling of the West, built up from its paper and wood imperial past to become the industrial behemoth of Asia. Japanamericana is the term given to the aspects of American culture taken and elevated by Japanese production methods. This applies to a vast slew of Japanese-made goods like denim and vinyl records, both prized for their quality among their respective global consumer subcultures. Indeed, the material circumstances of Japan’s boomtimes have their cultural expressions as well.

The importation of American films led to Japanese audiences being exposed to American New Wave, or Hollywood Renaissance, cinema. Japanese directors would find a home in the genre’s preoccupation with youth culture, disillusionment in a changing society, and anti-heroes. In the post-war period, Japanese cinema was revitalized. The country’s economy soared thanks to cheap credit, real estate over-speculation, and loose monetary policies. Per capita GDP at the peak of the bubble was higher than in the US. For the movie business, this meant ever larger budgets. While many cite Akira as having a massive 1.1 billion yen budget as evidence of it being the “most expensive anime movie of its time,” the truth is that it was not as singular as some would believe. Akira’s actual production cost was around 800 million yen, some 300 million over the initial budget. This cost was comparable to other animated films of the time like Hayao Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) which was also made for around 800 million yen. The 1.1 billion yen figure accounts for Akira’s exceptionally large marketing budget of 400 million yen.

The sheer scale of Akira’s production was at once a watershed moment for the Japanese animation industry and a glaring sign of Japan’s inflated and fragile economy. By the late-1980s, the Japanese studio system had collapsed. According to cultural writer Inuhiko Yomata, “In 1961, this system had six studios that could make 520 films, but 25 years later in 1986, only three studios produced a mere 24 films.” Akira’s production occurred in the wake of this sea change. A new production arrangement was necessary.

The “Akira Committee” was the name given to the group of companies that collaborated to make the film. It included the publishing company Kodansha, radio and television firm Manich Broadcasting System, toy maker and distributor Bandai, advertising agency Hakuhodo, film production company Toho, Laserdisc, and the massive Sumitomo Corporation. Sumitomo, in particular, is deserving of closer inspection as Japan’s oldest zaibatsu, or financial clique. Its history goes far back into the Edo period when it had a prominent role in building infrastructure for the Japanese imperial war machine around Osaka’s harbours. These companies alone could not have produced Akira at the scale necessary to give Katsuhiro Otomo’s 2,000-page manga the film adaptation it deserved.

Akira was made at the tail-end of a dying studio system, and at the apogee of Japan’s asset bubble, which began its slow burst in 1989. The scale of Akira’s story makes it even more remarkable that such a film was able to see the light of day given the floundering of Japan’s economy at the close of the decade.

For the uninitiated, Akira is set during the leadup to the 2020 “Neo-Tokyo Olympics” in a city beset by anti-government protests and growing unrest as it attempts to recover from a nuclear explosion 31 years prior. The film follows Shōtarō Kaneda, the leader of a vigilante biker gang, and his crew as they encounter a corrupt government and Japanese military forces—all against the backdrop of a massive, futuristic city. When one of Kaneda’s fellow bikers, the outcast Tetsuo, acquires telekinetic abilities after being kidnapped and experimented on, Kaneda joins the anti-government resistance through Kei, an activist and saboteur. They must save Tetsuo, whose powers grow until his health (and even the megacity itself) is in danger.

Demonstrators in Akira. Image courtesy of Toho.

Akira is considered one of the seminal films of the cyberpunk genre. With that comes all the usual themes of techno-pessimism, corruption, and transhumanism.

Present within Akira’s Neo-Tokyo is a wild mix of strikes, protests, and even acts of terrorism (funded and led by a member of parliament). The city’s unrest shares many parallels with Japan’s protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Some of the demonstrators in Akira don helmets that are evocative of the garb of Japanese student movements like the Zengakuren, also known as the “All-Japan Federation of Student Self-Government Associations.” This movement, along with other revolutionary formations of the era like the Sanrizuka struggle, saw massive civilian participation in the tens of thousands. The Anpo protests of the 1960s mobilized hundreds of thousands in the streets. Many of these movements formed in opposition to Japan’s subordination to US military interests, corruption within the country’s universities, and the expansion of airports without consent from local farmers. Moreover, this raucous period in Japanese history was a crucible for many of the country’s young artists who participated in the struggles.

Zengakuren in Tokyo, September 30, 1971. Photo by Rian Dundon.

The shining city of Neo-Tokyo depicted in Akira is an allegory for Japan’s economic growing pains. While money flows into a relentlessly expanding megacity, the underlying problems of Japan’s revolutionary period could not be washed away by cheap cash and hasty development. One of Akira’s antagonists, Mr. Nezu, professes a desire to clean the city for good: “This city is already saturated, it’s become an overripe fruit that’s begun to stink.”

The grotesque consequences of this period of rapid industriousness is perhaps best encapsulated not by the city itself but by the way in which Tetsuo’s hunger for more telekinetic powers disfigures him into a mess of flesh and steel; his human form can no longer contain his ever-increasing desire for power. In one scene of classic Japanese body horror, Tetsuo cries out after losing control of his awesome powers: “My body isn’t doing what I tell it to, it’s acting on its own!”

Media scholar and Tufts University professor of Japanese literature and culture, Susan J. Napier, offers additional insight into the character. “His character evokes a less obvious but deeply significant side of Japanese national self-representation, that of the lonely outcast,” she writes. Tetsuo’s fatal lust for power can be read as a metaphor for Japan’s ascension into the “international community.” Ultimately, Neo-Tokyo is once again destroyed as Tetsuo fails to contain his immense strength. Mirroring his hideous distension, Japanese stock prices and real estate speculation in the late-1980s also became dangerously inflated. Between 1956 and 1986, the price of land increased by as much as 5,000 percent, meaning the Imperial Palace in Tokyo was worth as much as the entire US state of California. The extremes of this bubble economy influenced the ambitiousness behind Akira’s production, which took a toll on many workers who made the film a reality.

Indeed, even by today’s standards, the scale of Akira’s production is astonishing. Almost all of its 160,000 frames are hand drawn. Rather than the standard 35mm size film used to capture the animation, animators and producers opted for 70mm film—three times the size. The larger film stock allowed for much more detail and richer definition, which in turn made animators work much longer on individual cells than usual. In 2021, an animator’s hidden complaint was discovered in one of the film’s scenes. The side of an electronic monitoring device shows a sign that reads: “Why do we have to fill in this far? Knock it off! Enough!

An animator left a hidden message on the side of a console in Akira. “Why do we have to fill in this far! Knock it off! Enough!” it reads. Image courtesy of Toho.

Kuni Tomita, one of 60 key animators who worked on the film, detailed the stress she experienced in an interview with the Japan Times. “They wanted me to work solely on Akira, but I told them I couldn’t do that because you couldn’t make money on Akira,” she said. “I couldn’t survive!”

Despite its massive budget, Akira’s animators dealt with low pay and grueling working hours. According to the same interview, “Keyframe animators are paid by shot or sequence, and the time involved in drawing the film’s incredibly detailed frames meant that Akira ultimately paid less than other projects.” This parallels the increasing control production companies held over projects compared to the diminishing influence of unionized entertainment workers.

The animation industry, as well as workers in related digital industries, are underrepresented by unions, in part due to the same reason why Tomita still holds pride of place for her low-waged role in the production of Akira. It was a chance to work on a dream project, and it looked good on a résumé.

In 1989, the year after Akira was released, the Bank of Japan decided to raise interest rates, precipitating a massive crash in both stocks and property. Thirty-five years on, the film should be remembered for its cultural influence but also as a landmark product that was a result of decades of American-led development. Akira’s story is one that extrapolated the whiplash-inducing growth of Japan’s industry following the Second World War while still retaining much of its corrupt, imperial tendencies.

Sonically, the film’s soundtrack is yet another representation of Japan’s economic and social turbulence. The collective asked to score the film, Geinoh Yamashirogumi, used a wide mix of techniques and instrumentation that can be considered a fusion of the past and the contemporary. They interpolate the spiritual theatre of Japanese noh, contemporary synthesizers, Indonesian gamelan percussion, European classical, and progressive rock. The result is almost alien, a score that borrows from such a variety of epochs and places that it produces something so incredibly singular in its effect on the viewer (and listener). The soundtrack could also be interpreted as a synthesis of a romanticized cultural past, invoked to push the brakes on a future hurtling toward oblivion. This is what the protagonists of Akira’s Neo-Tokyo were fighting about, and the themes the film’s creators conjured and thought to be so vital. Vitally, after 35 years Akira’s concerns and questions remain incredibly relevant.

In contrast, the genre most closely associated with Japan’s economic boom and nascent leisure class, city pop, paints an entirely different picture. Tropical motifs in the style of Miami Vice were heavy across the genre as Japan’s citizens enjoyed increased buying power and access to cheap equatorial vacations. This is recognizable in the aesthetics of Masayoshi Takanaka, an influential guitarist, composer, and producer in the city pop genre who has experienced a resurgence—and reappraisal—in the last few years as the music’s stars are slowly discovered here in the West by netizens online.

Covert art for All of Me by Masoyashi Takanaka. Image courtesy of Kitty Records.

Takanaka’s work features many depictions of the newfound leisure of Japan’s boom times: the beaches of Brazil, skydiving over the Seychelles, and even a guitar fashioned out of a surfboard. The genre has been enjoying an upsurge on Internet forums as old vinyl albums are rediscovered in dusty basements and boutique record stores. A vintage, colourful optimism seems to have been unearthed. Yet, the fate of the ‘lost generation’ that grew up in the economic “ice age” following Japan’s economic downturn makes the cheery music all the more tragic.

Although he was strangely prophetic considering Japan’s successful bid to host the 2020 Games and the widespread protests against it, Otomo ultimately missed the mark with his depiction of 2019 in Akira. Though in reality, for better or for worse, no future is certain, and no path is set. No party, in every sense of the word, lasts forever.

Kalden Dhatsenpa is a Tibetan writer and photographer based in Tio‘tià:ke, or Mooniyang, or Montréal, and a member of the Canadian Dimension editorial board. He is a regular on the film and tv review video show ‘The Breaks’, and a former federal candidate for the NDP in Longueuil—Charles-Lemoyne.


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