|BIG IN JAPAN
Photo courtesy of Kyodo Photo Service
July 16, 1988 is the
day most Western fans of Japanese anime recall as the day that put this modern art form on
the global map. This was the day that the movie Akira was released in the US. Audiences
were shocked by its hyper-realism, and hailed the series and its creator, Otomo Katsuhiro,
as the emergence of a new cultural phenomenon.
Otomo was born in Tome-gun, Miyagi Prefecture, in April 1954. As a child, he held a
fanatical love of movies, often travelling over three hours on the train to see films in
Sendai. His visual imagination translated itself easily into the comic form, and after
leaving high school, he took what many others had hoped would be the road to fame and
fortune - moving to Tokyo to get a job in the burgeoning manga industry. His first
commission was writing short strips for Action comics, which began appearing in
His apartment was in a newly developed area outside of central Tokyo, and the residents
were an odd combination of old-school downtown types - manual laborers, bartenders,
low-level yakuza - and young couples with babies, bewildered by the new suburban
experience. These characters were to make their way into Otomo' later fiction, giving the
stories a warm, totally believable feel. In this period he was absorbing many influences,
both at home and abroad; he was deeply impressed with the cityscape of New York, where he
and his wife Yoko went on their honeymoon.
In 1979 he started the
serialized (but sadly unfinished) "Fireball," which introduced the themes which
later became his trademark; supercomputers, psychic powers, and a future Japan as a
post-nuclear totalitarian state.
From 1980 to 1982, Otomo found himself with his first smash hit on his hands. This was the
serialization of "Domu" (A Child's Dream), a chilling and visually stunning tale
of a suburban community manipulated by a mysterious resident, with the power to
telepathically control others. The graphic novel was an instant success, and is still in
print today, having so far sold over 500,000 copies. The English translation was released
by Dark Horse comics in 1996. "Domu" was also a critical success; it won Japan's
Science Fiction Grand Prix awards in 1983, making it the first time ever that the
recipient was a manga.
After that Otomo began work on his masterpiece "Akira," which was to take ten
years and 2000 pages. In early 1988 the animated film was released in Japan, with Otomo
assuming the roles of director, writer, designer, and senior illustrator. It was the
biggest box-office taker that year in Japan, and then went on to wow the rest of the
world. What mesmerized audiences were not just the complex themes and characters but also
the photo-realistic quality of the backgrounds, making Akira's Neo-Tokyo a vivid,
terrifying place to visit.
Otomo has divided his time since between further manga and both animated and live-action
films. His devoted fans, however, are still waiting for further stories set in the world
of "Akira," for they believe that nobody draws the Apocalypse better than Otomo.
John Paul Catton