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Set in post-war Tokyo, the work uses conventions of the cyberpunk genre to detail a saga of turmoil. Initially serialized in the pages of Weekly Young Magazine from 1982 until 1990, the work was then collected into six volumes ranging from 300-500 pages by its publisher Kodansha. The work was first published in an English language version by the Marvel Comics imprint Epic Comics. AKIRA was then published by Dark Horse Comics in the 90s and currently is the English publisher for some of Otomo's work.
"How I got to do AKIRA is a very long story. I told the publisher I was doing a science fiction story. The publisher opposed but eventually ran my sci-fi piece. It had a good response. When I did Fire Ball I was given 50 pages. 50 pages was far from enough... I wanted to tell that story right and that became AKIRA.
In the story Tetsuo takes drugs. He becomes so self-destructive that he loses himself. Young people go berserk on impulse and eventually destroy themselves. It's about motorcycle gangs, rock musicians and punk rockers. You know how they all die young. I wanted it to be about the marginal members of society. It's society's outsiders, those who don't belong, who are more intriguing to draw.
Like we did, young people today should find their own way. It's not for us to say. They wouldn't listen to us anyway. That's how it goes."
-Katsuhiro Otomo, SUPREME interview 2017Through the breadth of the work, Otomo explicates themes of social division and isolation, oppressive governmental powers, abolishment of tradition, and war anxieties of the Shōwa period. The story also carries a strong Shintoist message by indirectly referencing Buddhist values and beliefs. The manga is told in a third-person omniscient perspective but mostly focuses around a group of teenagers and the Resistance.
The manga starts of with establishing the state of Neo-Tokyo by describing the apparent nuclear explosion on December 6, 1992, which destroyed previous Tokyo and started World War III. The story fast forwards to 2030, where the new metropolis called has been built on an artificial island in Tokyo Bay, gripped by anti-government terrorism and gang violence. While riding in the ruins of old Tokyo, Tetsuo Shima, a member of the bosozoku gang led by Shotaro Kaneda, is injured when his bike explodes after Takashi, an Esper (a psychic child with wizened features) blocks his path. This incident awakens psychic powers in Tetsuo, attracting the attention of a secret government project directed by Colonel Shikishima. These increasing powers unhinge Tetsuo's mind, exacerbating his inferiority complex about Kaneda and leading him to assume leadership of the rival Clown gang.
Meanwhile, Kaneda becomes involved with Kei, a member of the Resistance organization which stages terrorist attacks against the government. The Resistance, led by Kei's brother Ryu and opposition parliament leader Nezu gets wind of Colonel Shikishima's project and a mysterious figure connected with it known as "Akira". They hope to use this leaked information, and try to restrict Kaneda's movements after he becomes too involved with their activities. However, when Tetsuo and the Clowns begin a violent city-wide turf war, Kaneda instigates a counter-attack that unites all of Neo-Tokyo's biker gangs against Tetsuo. The Clowns are easily defeated, but Tetsuo is nearly invincible because of his powers. Tetsuo kills Yamagata, a high-ranking Capsule, and astonishingly survives after being shot by Kaneda. Colonel Shikishima arrives with the powerful drugs needed to suppress Tetsuo's violent headaches, extending an offer to join the project.
Kaneda, Kei, and Tetsuo are taken into military custody after the climax of Volume 1. They are held in a high-security military skyscraper in Neo-Tokyo, but Kei soon escapes after becoming possessed as a medium by another Esper, Kiyoko. Kei/Kiyoko briefly does battle with Tetsuo and frees Kaneda. After rapidly healing from his wounds, Tetsuo inquires about Akira, and forces Doctor Onishi, a project scientist, to take him to the Espers' playroom. There, a violent showdown unfolds between Tetsuo, Kaneda, Kei, and the Espers. It is during this encounter that Doctor Onishi decides to try to let Tetsuo harness Akira—the project's test subject that destroyed Tokyo—despite Tetsuo's disturbed personality. Upon learning that Akira is being stored in a cryogenic chamber beneath Neo-Tokyo's Olympic Stadium, Tetsuo escapes the skyscraper with the intent of releasing Akira.
The following day, Tetsuo enters the secret military base at the Olympic site, gruesomely killing any soldiers that get in his way. Colonel Shikishima comes to the base and tries to talk Tetsuo out of his plan; Kaneda and Kei enter the base through the sewers and witness the unfolding situation. Tetsuo breaks open the underground cryogenic chamber and releases Akira, who turns out to be an ordinary-looking little boy. The terror of seeing Akira causes one of the Colonel's men to declare a state of emergency that causes massive panic in Neo-Tokyo. The Colonel himself tries to use a laser satellite called SOL to kill Tetsuo and Akira, but only succeeds in severing Tetsuo's arm. Tetsuo goes missing in the explosion, and Kaneda and Kei come across Akira outside of the base. Vaguely aware of who he is, they take him back into Neo-Tokyo.
After Akira's release in Volume 2, both Colonel Shikishima's soldiers and followers of a former Esper named Lady Miyako begin scouring Neo-Tokyo in search for him. Kaneda, Kei, and a third Resistance member, Chiyoko, attempt to find refuge with Akira on Nezu's yacht. However, Nezu betrays them and kidnaps Akira for his own use, attempting to have them killed. They survive the attempt, and manage to snatch Akira from Nezu's mansion. The Colonel, desperate to find Akira and fed up with the government's tepid response to the crisis, mounts a coup d'etat and puts the city under martial law. The Colonel's men join Lady Miyako's acolytes and Nezu's private army in chasing Kaneda, Kei, Chiyoko, and Akira through the city.
The pursuit ends at a canal, with Akira about to be taken into the Colonel's custody. Nezu attempts to shoot Akira rather than have him be put into government hands; he is immediately fired upon and killed by the Colonel's men. However, Nezu's shot misses Akira and hits Takashi in the head, killing him instantly. The trauma of Takashi's death causes Akira to cause a second psychic explosion that utterly destroys Neo-Tokyo. Kei, Ryu, Chiyoko, Colonel Shikishima, and the other two Espers survive the catastrophe; Kaneda, however, disappears as he is enveloped by the psionic blast. After the city's destruction, Tetsuo—entirely absent during the volume—meets and accosts Akira.
Some time after the events of Volume 3, an American reconnaissance team led by George Yamada covertly arrives in the ruined Neo-Tokyo. Yamada learns that the city has been divided into two factions: the cult of Lady Miyako, which provides food and medicine for the destitute refugees; and the Great Tokyo Empire, a group of zealots led by Tetsuo with Akira as a figurehead, both worshiped as deities for performing "miracles". The Empire constantly harasses Miyako's group and kills any intruders with Tetsuo's psychic shock troops. Kiyoko and Masaru, the two remaining Espers, become targets for the Empire's fanatical soldiers; Kei, Chiyoko, the Colonel, and a former Capsule member named Kaisuke align themselves with Lady Miyako to protect them.
Yamada eventually becomes affiliated with Ryu, and updates the latter on how the world reacted to the events in Neo-Tokyo; they later learn that an American naval fleet lingers nearby. Tetsuo becomes heavily dependent on government-issued pills to quell his headaches. Seeking answers, he visits Lady Miyako at her temple where she gives him a comprehensive history of the government project that unleashed Akira. Miyako advises Tetsuo to quit the pills in order to become more powerful. Tetsuo begins an agonizing withdrawal. Meanwhile, Tetsuo's Aide stages an unsuccessful Empire assault on Miyako's temple. After the Colonel uses SOL to attack the Empire's army, a mysterious event opens a rift in the sky dumping massive debris from Akira's second explosion...as well as Kaneda.
After returning at the conclusion of Volume 4, Kaneda is reunited with Kei and joins Kaisuke and Joker (the former Clown leader) in planning an assault on the Great Tokyo Empire. Meanwhile, an international team of scientists meets up on an American aircraft carrier to study the recent psychic events in Neo-Tokyo, forming Project Juvenile A. Ryu has a falling out with Yamada after learning that he plans to use biological weapons to assassinate Tetsuo and Akira; Yamada later escapes Ryu's confines and meets up with his arriving commando team. Akira and Tetsuo hold a rally at the Olympic Stadium to demonstrate their powers to the Empire faithful, which culminates with Tetsuo tearing a massive hole in the Moon's surface and encircling it with a ring of the debris.
Following the rally, Tetsuo's power begins to contort his physical body, causing it to absorb surrounding objects; he later learns that his abuse of his powers have caused them to expand beyond the confines of his body, giving him the ability to transmute inert matter into flesh and integrate it into his physical form. Tetsuo makes a series of visits on board the aircraft carrier to attack the scientists and do battle with American fighter jets. At one point, Tetsuo actually takes over the ship and launches a nuclear weapon over the ocean. Kei—accepting the role of a medium controlled by Lady Miyako and the Espers—arrives to battle Tetsuo. Meanwhile, Kaneda, Kaisuke, and their small army of bikers arrive at the Olympic Stadium to begin their all-out assault on the Great Tokyo Empire.
Kaneda and his new gang continue the assault on the Stadium that started in Volume 5. Tetsuo returns from his battle with Kei and faces Yamada's team, but absorbs their biological attacks and temporarily regains control of his powers. Tetsuo kills Yamada and the commandos; he also eludes Colonel Shikishima's attempts to kill him by guiding SOL with a laser designator. Kaneda confronts Tetsuo, and the two begin an epic fight; they are joined by Kei. However, the brawl is interrupted when the American navy—horrified by Tetsuo's previous attack—tries to carpet bomb Neo-Tokyo, then gut it outright with its own laser satellite, FLOYD. Tetsuo flies into space and brings down FLOYD, causing it to crash down upon the aircraft carrier, killing the navy's fleet admiral and some of the scientists.
After the battle, Tetsuo unsuccessfully tries to resurrect Kaori, a girl he had been acquainted with who was killed in the battle. He heads down to Akira's old cryogenic chamber beneath the stadium, carrying her body. Kaneda and his friends appear to fight Tetsuo once more, but his powers transform him into a monstrous mass resembling a fetus, absorbing everything near him. Tetsuo pulls the cryogenic chamber above-ground and drops it onto Lady Miyako's temple. Lady Miyako dies while defying Tetsuo, but not before guiding Kei into space to fire upon him with SOL. Kei's attack awakens Tetsuo's full powers, triggering a psionic reaction similar to Akira's.
With the help of Kiyoko, Masaru, and a resurrected Takashi, Akira is able to cancel out Tetsuo's explosion with one of his own.
Following the climax, the United Nations sends forces to help the surviving parties of Neo-Tokyo. Kaneda and his friends confront them, declaring the city's sovereignty as the Great Tokyo Empire and warning them that Akira still lives. Kaneda and Kei meet up with Colonel Shikishima, and part ways as friends. As Kaneda and Kei ride through Neo-Tokyo, they see ghostly visions of Tetsuo and Yamagata. They also see the city shedding its ruined facade, returning to its former splendor.
- AKIRA was the first manga to be translated entirely in English.
- It was also the first comic to be completely colored digitally.
- The title AKIRA is written in katakana despite being a reference to a character.
- Due to western localization, AKIRA is flipped in order to be read from left to right. Because of this, Tetsuo's prosthetic arm appears to be on his left side in translated versions of the manga (English, French, German, etc). Many characters also appear to be left handed and remaining Japanese text in the background are flipped as a result.