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.