From Breaking Bad’s arrogant, embittered Walter White to Conan the Barbarian’s titular brute, the masculine urge to dominate is a prevalent narrative force in popular art. How many movies and shows consist more or less solely of men struggling with one another for control over a lover, a kingdom, a company? Katsuhiro Otomo’s legendary 1988 animated sci-fi feature Akira, a brutal film about a futuristic Tokyo gripped by unrest and corruption, a gang of rough-edged young biker punks, and the mysteries surrounding a group of children with terrifying psychic powers, delves deep into this stock element of so much action-driven fiction, probing at the seldom-touched origins of masculine violence with surprising poignancy.
When, at the film’s climax, troubled teenage antagonist Tetsuo’s (Nozumu Sasaki) out-of control psychokinetic powers transform him into a gigantic infantile monstrosity like something out of a Clive Barker story, skinless and oozing, it’s a moment of sudden clarity. The key to understanding Akira’s incendiary thesis on the emotional mutilation undergone by young men lies somewhere deep within that seething hill of flesh.
The first time we see Tetsuo, he’s marveling at another boy’s motorcycle. We know it’s not the first time, either, because when the bike’s owner, daredevil punk Kaneda (Mitsuo Iwata), shows up to find Tetsuo in the seat, the first thing out of his mouth is a scornful, “Is that you again, Tetsuo?” It’s a type of interaction that becomes a familiar refrain between the two. Kaneda trying to keep Tetsuo safe via a distinctly older-brotherish brand of light bullying, Tetsuo chafing against Kaneda’s vision of him as a child in need of restraint and protection. The complexity of their relationship to one another, later confirmed to have begun in early childhood, has begun to escape the boundaries of their adolescent emotional skills.
That Tetsuo lives in Kaneda’s shadow isn’t even subtext. Every seething look he throws at the other punks speaks volumes about the sense of inadequacy cultivated both by his own insecurity and their constant teasing. The rough camaraderie shared by the rest of the gang seems somehow to elude his grasp, held away by unspoken consensus. Nor is force enough to seize it, as even with his psychic powers awakened he remains an object of scorn and derision, unable to match Kaneda’s natural charisma and skill. If anything, it cements his status as an outsider and inflames his adversarial relationship with Kaneda.
Just as the frightening physical and emotional changes of puberty deprive young men of connection and intimacy, Tetsuo’s ascent to godlike power ensures that no one can relate to him or ease his pain. Consider our own culture’s views on the transition from boyhood to adolescence. In the space of a few months it becomes a sign of sissyish weakness to rely on one’s mother, an unforgivable sin to hold another boy’s hand, a grave transgression to cry. At the same time, boys’ bodies become stronger, larger—unwieldy vessels for confusing new emotions.
At a time in life when boys need tenderness most, not just from their caretakers but from each other, societal norms snatch it away and makes its pursuit into a mark of failure. The result is young men aching to be loved, filled with overwhelming emotions, and incapable of expressing their needs to such an extent that when those needs inevitably grow unbearable, they seek relief through violence. When Tetuso’s monstrous fetal form seizes hold of his hapless girlfriend Kaori (Yuriko Fuchizaki), perhaps seeking safety in her touch, he crushes her to death. Whatever solace she might have given him is no match for the depth of his long-ignored need.
As Kaori’s body cracks like an egg between the enveloping walls of his own shifting, warping mass, he pleads with Kaneda to help her, to help him. He’s a victim of this awful transformation, too. What Tetsuo wants, although he doesn’t realize it, is what so many men have wanted and lacked the words and self-awareness to reach for— a second infancy, to be loved and comforted without a need for the introspection or communication. Once his powers escape his conscious control, they set about reshaping him into a grotesque fusion of his desire for strength and stature and his need for nurturing and love, a hideous baby-thing towering taller than the stadium walls around it. It’s an unforgettably upsetting and tragic image.
It’s also a far different look at troubled masculinity than the kind of narratives we see built around adult men, but the skilled violence employed by the Tony Sopranos of the world goes hand in hand with Tetsuo’s directionless angst. Both stem from the trauma of emotional cauterization during childhood, which then congeals during the stress of puberty into a dysfunctional and antisocial personality. Both men also struggle with perpetual discontent, unable to find fulfillment in violent triumph because, in the end, it’s only a cheap vicarious substitute for the affection they crave.
The espers—the film’s other juvenile psychics—are presented as wizened children, their physical maturation arrested by the heavy medication to which they’ve been subjected. We have no way of knowing exactly how old they really are, but their compound is a kind of armored nursery suited to children even younger than they appear. Their prolonged childhood offers Tetsuo no relief from his turbulent inner life. It’s a prevention of the processes that will eventually lead to his self-destruction, not a cure. His fight against their psychically animated playthings, which ooze milk like thick streams of semen, is one of the movie’s ugliest images, a rancid failed pairing of infancy and adolescence embodied with particular virulence by a towering teddy bear which sprouts foot-long claws and fangs.
Tetsuo rejects their cloistered lives after a short stay, ripping the compound and its staff and guards apart in a psychic tantrum and even gloating over Kaneda, his would-be rescuer, after he accidentally injures the older boy. A moment later he literally dislocates himself, the destruction of the relationship at the center of his old life flinging him out into the empty sky via previously unknown powers of teleportation. He cries out in triumph, but he’s just thrown aside his last friend.
Too weak for Kaneda’s gang, too scornful and adult for the company of the espers, Tetsuo is alone no matter who’s around him. The film’s entire final action sequence—a haze of laser beams, motorbikes, and roiling meat—is, in a way, a continuation of his struggle to find connection. Tetsuo’s attempt to murder Kaneda—a symbolic destruction of his old life and place in the social hierarchy—leads directly into his engulfing Kaneda and Kaori. He wants them, needs them, but he lacks the ability to express those feelings through any medium but force. Only the intercession of the titular Akira, silent and godlike, ends his flailing attempts to end the pain and misery of his lonely, frustrated life.
In that silence, the quiet, childlike emotions underpinning the film’s terrifying conflicts finally become clear. Kaneda revisits the foundation of his relationship to Tetsuo, an incident in which he stood up for the abandoned and bullied boy against a gang of older kids. Did this act of kindness make him the perverse focus of Tetsuo’s inferiority complex, a constant reminder to the younger boy of his own weakness? However badly those emotions curdled over the years, they remain bright enough to flare one final time between the two of them before Tetsuo is gone forever. A memory of safety. Of love.
When Kaneda returns to the physical plane, it’s Kei’s voice that draws him safely back. “You called for me,” he says to her, standing in a flooded mirror to the black, desolate crater on which the film opens. And however much the exchange has devolved into a slew of memes over the years since the film’s release, Tetsuo and Kaneda spend their last moments together crying out for one another, each shouting the other’s name again and again as the world disintegrates around them, two boys clutching at the last frail line connecting them across the gulf of their inability to show each other love.