Last month, we published an article about politics in anime. It covered Marxist anime on the left, all the way across the political spectrum to anime with overtly far-right and fascist iconography and themes. The article briefly touched on a number of popular anime, like Fullmetal Alchemist, My Neighbor Totoro, and Attack on Titan.
Thanks to the article’s success, in this new series, Your Anime is Political, we’ll be introducing the political themes of major anime. Those themes will be contextualized partly to Japan, but mainly as how they stand up in the contemporary discourse.
For the first entry, I’m going to explore Akira and Neon Genesis Evangelion.
(Read the full disclaimer in the original article about differences between Japanese and American political spectrums.)
But why these two, together? Well, both are titanic accomplishments of sci-fi anime. Both would have no problem landing in a top-ten (or maybe fifteen) list of the most influential anime ever. Also, both of them received fresh life outside of Japan in the last decade.
Above all, both are immensely dense, politically and philosophically charged works of art. Neither can be defined as explicitly left or right wing. Instead, they interweave a variety of intriguing political ideologies. Sometimes it may feel like we veer away from politics altogether.
But in my opinion, both of these anime depict and advocate for nothing short of revolution.
Let’s jump into it, starting chronologically. That means starting with Akira.
Akira: A Revolution of Apocalypse
Akira is surprisingly and even disturbingly relevant to the contemporary political climate.In my opinion, both of these anime depict and advocate for nothing short of revolution. Click To Tweet
It began as a serialized manga in December 1982, created by Katsuhiro Otomo. Akira is set in 2019 in the dystopian Neo-Tokyo. It takes place on the dawn of the Olympics and in the aftermath of a third world war. Neo-Tokyo is prosperous, but suffers from a corrupt government. It has turned into a police state weaponized to fight an anti-government resistance movement as well as lawless gangs. (More than a few things sound familiar here.)
Its influence can hardly be understated. Experts say that Akira helped kick-start the anime boom in the U.S. and the U.K. The plot’s heavy-handed political themes and the amazing visual spectacle of the film combined to make it a cult classic for generations. It received many re-releases and screenings in the U.S. and elsewhere in the 2010s, alongside the rising popularity of anime and Japanese culture abroad.
It does feel hard to ignore the film’s experimental elements and unusual visual flair. But even strictly analyzing the plot on a surface level, Akira puts forth several critiques of capitalism, technology, military, and bureaucracy—and a call to revolution.
Before digging into what these critiques are, they are perhaps most easily understood in the context of pre- and post-war Japan. The film overtly references these periods of history. Before World War II, a totalitarian regime crushed the opposition with political assassinations and distributed power among military leaders. Some Japanese orphans were left in China after the war. Others were abandoned by the government after the nuclear bombings. These children are clearly represented by the children in Akira, twisted by technological experimentation. Then, post-war, Japan saw a wave of sometimes-violent student protest movements in the 1960s, a wave of “new religions” in the ‘70s, and the turbulence of biker gangs and violent youth throughout the second half of the century.
As a result, Akira features scathing critiques of Japan’s post-war stubborn and power-hungry government, desperate for technology as a means of control and relentless economic growth.
Corrupt government and society demands rebellious actors
The film depicts abundant military failures and incompetent bureaucrats. Akira is a portrait of civil society corroding alongside bureaucratic power-grabbing and an obsession with technology. The government refuses to invest in its youth and instead goes to war with them. Akira doesn’t fall so much on the right or on the left as it is a critique of politics in practice. It criticizes the type of people that seek power and maintain the status quo.