Amoeba, Plankton, Genes & Space Dust: from Madness to Our Ancient Power

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on Tetsuo’s suffering, anger, and “the power of God” in AKIRA


The thing itself may be called Akira, and the leader of the gang, the guy with the coolest baddest reddest motorbike, may be Kaneda, but the real star of Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 cult-classic animated film is Tetsuo. Tetsuo, the only character whom perhaps we are moved to care about.

Tetsuo is all the more notable since the film itself does not seem to care for, which is to say, show interest in any of its characters as singular beings. Individual human life holds little value, in a post-nuclear post-WWIII “Neo Tokyo,” but also in Otomo’s film—more interested in aestheticizing shocking acts of violence and brutality, in rendering explosions of blood and guts into spectacles of beauty by way of its meticulously yet coolly animated hand-drawn sequences whose primary effect is to wow and impress on a technical-stylistic level.

The characters either fall into types (“bad boys” of biker gangs) or are total creeps (the trifecta of little god-like creatures with the bodies and voices of children and the wrinkled skin and faces of the elderly). The female characters are all tarts, “bad girl” accessories to hang upon the arms of “bad boys.” Or else we see the sweetest, most sensitive one of them, Kaori, who happens to be Tetsuo’s love interest, made vulnerable to sexual assault. And Kei, some tomboyish hot woman who exists in the film to serve as Kaneda’s love interest, remains mysterious but not really intriguing.

That leaves only Tetsuo, whose name the film utters with its last breath, “…I am Tetsuo.” Ultimately though, we aren’t meant to or asked to care about Tetsuo either. His death is not a tear-jerker. His death is expected, leaves us at most indifferent. But before we get there, before Tetsuo too becomes reduced (not totally but largely) to a role, that of pure villain, the evil of “absolute power” in the hands of man, before all of that and for just a brief spell of time, we do care.

We are asked to care when we are made to see Tetsuo’s suffering. The camera trains itself on Tetsuo lying in the hospital bed, face in agony, writhing, teeth clenched, features squeezed into one tight knot toward the center of his face. He groans, grunts, at times screams. He has gotten into a motorbike accident, but it is not his limbs or vital organs that have sustained critical injury. His injuries are neither visible nor identifiable. It is, rather, that his head hurts. Maybe he has a migraine. But it’s his head that hurts.

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And it’s this particular (peculiar) suffering that, I will show, ultimately leads him to “the power of God.” Here and hereon substitute in the place of “God,” amoeba, plankton, genes, and space dust, since these are the sources of Akira or, according to Colonel Shikishima, “absolute energy” — that ancient power residing in every one of us, dormant until tapped.

After just one proper screening of the film, I’ve no qualifications or interest in parsing the ending of AKIRA or “what it means.” That Tetsuo’s death by madness is in the end redemptive is almost a sure thing. But I am not in this space or instance interested in redemption. If Akira resides as potential in all of us, then is Tetsuo so special? Is not Tetsuo merely no-body, no-thing, as we see him (do not see him) at the very end? How then, why does “the power of God” emerge in Tetsuo?

What this piece sets out to do is trace the expression (speaking in the genetic sense) or activation of the power of God in Tetsuo, to be inextricably linked to his trajectory (rise? descent?) into madness. This madness itself, in turn, assumes the only “logical conclusion” of his being/feeling mad—as in, enraged or angry—as a natural by-product of his anger at inexplicable suffering (his own). Madness thus also shows itself as the precondition* to tapping into the ancient power, into “absolute energy.”

{{ * By precondition I mean an (internal) environmental trigger, e.g. suffering, itself resultant from other (external) environmental triggers. I make the int/ext distinction here for the reason that there does exist a qualitative difference between the suffering of the world (Neo Tokyo) and the suffering of Tetsuo, at least while he is still embodied in recognizable human-form. In other words, I argue that there is a method and a sequential logic to the madness after all, which this piece aims to describe and make discernable. }}

While we learn Tetsuo was abandoned as a child and bullied in school, a misfit among misfits, a weakling compared to someone loud and gregarious like “natural born leader” Kaneda, that aspect of Tetsuo’s background is rather uninteresting for playing into the patronizing old trope of pity-the-poor-unwanted-child. So let’s see that as another one of the film’s stale impulses and not hang upon it too dearly.

The first trigger to the (genetic) expression of Tetsuo’s madness is a tangible event in-the-world: the motorcycle accident. Tetsuo collides head-on into one of the three little gods, Takashi, and, by the looks of how high and far his body is thrown, should surely have died upon impact. This is the first point by which Tetsuo emerges from the periphery where sidekick characters hang out in back chain-smoking for ambiance’s sake. At this juncture, however, we still cannot foresee his becoming a central actor. After all he is so ordinary, unassuming, a poor minor criminal rebel caught in the snare of misfortune, offered up as sacrifice so that hero Kaneda will be spared. If Tetsuo died then and there, we would not have cared. As we see him live to survive the collision, we are neither relieved nor glad (for we’ve not yet even met), only surprised.

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This accident ushers in the first (and thereafter lasting) waves of Tetsuo’s mental suffering. Here in the hospital, across long shots of his pain and frustration (“What’s wrong with my head?”), we begin to bond with him. Confined to the hospital bed, clutching his head, Tetsuo experiences migraines that turn into visions; these hallucinations mock and make a fool out of him; he responds in turn by getting angry at these visions and the pain in his head, propelling into e/motion a cycle of suffering-anger-suffering that not only sustains but exponentially feeds and grows the (inhuman) power of “his” madness.

At the point by which this energy (e/motion) can no longer be contained, Tetsuo breaks out of the hospital. This act marks Tetsuo’s first self-initiated (i.e. internally motivated) break with authority, rules, discipline, even and especially those rules of rule-breaking Kaneda. (That is to say, for the first time, he didn’t do something because Kaneda told him to do it.) This is Tetsuo’s first breach against the leader of a nominally anti-authoritarian counter-culture. He takes Kaneda’s red motorbike sans Kaneda’s permission for “a joyride,” swooping along love interest Kaori who happens to appear at the right moment. It’s worth hammering home the point that this breach does not result from careful, rationalized deliberation. As depicted, the escape is sudden and impulsive, one might say “natural” or instinctive. The purpose is clear and urgent: to escape the hospital, the site of mental suffering, so as to escape mental suffering itself. And the desire (need?) to escape: born not out of suffering but of great anger (anger at suffering), that is, because not complacent to suffer.

Of course, this first breach against all rules, even those of a “counter-culture,” is immediately punished. A rival bike gang appears out of nowhere to hunt down Tetsuo and Kaori, though the real target of worth is Kaneda’s red bike. Tetsuo receives a physical beating. Kaori is sexually assaulted, her shirt ripped from her body, her chest exposed. The camera rests consistent in its harshness, never batting an eye.

This second trigger, another event in-the-world, an incident no less accidental, perhaps signals a more vital turning point than the first trigger on the road. This is the event that propels Tetsuo into total rage. This event also exposes Tetsuo’s own limitations as human (and man), that in his bid to reject all external rules and any authority not his own, he overlooks his own obedience to one of the oldest strictures: the near-universal value for and criterion of humanness, which is to live with dignity, with honor, and without shame.†

{{ † In the limited space of this post, I’ll bracket a relevant discussion of honor and “honor suicides” in the specific historical context of Japan, and more broadly in the East Asian cultural imaginary. }}

Kaori’s humiliation – as far as we can tell – is nothing compared to Tetsuo’s humiliation at Kaori’s humiliation. After Kaneda and co. come to the rescue, Tetsuo isolates the rival gang leader and gives him a beating. Tetsuo is so angry he won’t let up; it’s a beating aimed to kill. Kaneda tells him to stop being stupid. And when love interest Kaori approaches him, Tetsuo says, “Get away from me.” His anger is and has been partially or chiefly directed at her. His anger in this episode arises out of shame, itself following on his value for honor and dignity, experienced as lost—not so much for Kaori as it seems for himself. This largely, though certainly not wholly, culturally conditioned sense of pride (now wounded) pushes his already extant anger to a height of madness that is sustained and fed throughout the rest of the film, until it bursts. It is this event of molestation, personally felt, that sends Tetsuo running off in retaliation against suffering, the one in his head, which he cannot beat up as easily as he did the rival gang leader. He abandons Kaori, Kaneda, and the rest of them, going off alone in search of the three little gods who appear in his visions, as the only tangible forms that compose and inflict his suffering. The three little elder-kids who wield, as he does, the power of God, become his targets yes, but so it seems does everything else, everyone, every power that has ever been or wants to levy itself over him.

Tetsuo-Akira

As the guardian-cum-butler figure of the three little gods Colonel Shikishima explains, all of us have this power inside of us. I have called it the ancient power because the source of this power lies in “ancient” albeit still living entities such as amoeba and plankton, in genetic material, and even, as the Colonel points out, in space dust. And just as the ancient historical origins of these entities do not preclude them from their undeniably current existence, so this ancient power also rests present, always-and-now potential. Once one discovers this power, according to the Colonel, one can “choose what to do with it.”

In the fleshy inept hands of man, unfamiliar with ancient power, Tetsuo “chooses” – it seems – oblivion and annihilation, destruction rerouted to self-destruction (Tetsuo’s) thanks only to the counter forces of “good” (the three little gods risking their lives to save Kaneda). When the little gods justify their selfless decision to plunge into the overgrowth of mutant Tetsuo flesh-and-machine on the verge of implosion, they do so with the following, gently uttered justification, “After all, he didn’t do anything wrong.” The little gods are referring to Kaneda’s innocence in the unfolding of this entire affair. It may not be a stretch however to think, as was my initial understanding of the phrase, that after all, Tetsuo didn’t do anything wrong either.

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What Tetsuo has done, no doubt, is “discover this power.” But surely, as I’ve tried to show, such a discovery cannot constitute a “wrong-doing” on his part. I have tried to show this by tracing the movement of the external world (event triggers) alongside the movement of Tetsuo’s internal world (e/motions), together composing a circuit without beginning or end. A feedback loop punctuated with certain nodes of significance, eventfulness, yet never overturned or broken by the sparking points, detoured only to strengthen its own current… The movement of all of which in this case contribute to an accidental combination wherein something incredible occurs. A discovery: the discovery of absolute energy that cannot be contained in Tetsuo’s body (soft, human).

As the Colonel and the scientist Doctor Onishi warn repeatedly, he (Tetsuo) can’t control it. The power will be out of his control. They’re right. He cannot control it. He tries to, perhaps as the only option known or knowable within his limitations in his then-human existence (embodiment).‡ He tries to. He fails.

{{ ‡ Or perhaps, in an expanded discussion, he simply isn’t as yet sufficiently taoist to know. }}

“…I am Tetsuo.” The last line is spoken by space dust. Voiced over shots of stars and debris floating in the galaxy, Tetsuo is no more, no body, and he is everywhere, everything, ancient and present. I like to think of Tetsuo, though, as tiny no-things, because too tiny for us stuck in manly scale to ever in any real (haptic) sense relate to as yes-things: Tetsuo as the space dust and dead skin cells, the absolute energy we breathe in at each and every and this very moment.

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