Akira & Akira


The History of Narrative Adaptation

As is often the case with adapted narrative, commercial and technical restrictions in each media give rise to alterations and discrepancies between storylines and narrative of the same origin. This holds still, and is often more interesting, between adapted narrative produced by the same author – as is in the case of 1988 cult Japanese feature animation and 1982 manga series Akira. The film, Akira, is effectively an incomplete preview for the much larger saga author Katsuhiro Otomo eventually presented in print – as whilst the film runs a standard two hours, the companion manga spans six volumes and two thousand pages, published over eight years.

Both influenced and influencing the likes of Blade Runner, The Matrix and an entire generation of American daytime animations, the original print comic and feature film both appropriate and comment upon Japanese post-war social anxieties, modernity and post-modernity, dystopia and decay; within “Neo-Tokyo”, in the year 2019.

Though extremely Proppian in nature, the narrative structures of each is not what I will be analysing, rather the devices employed to transfer and interpret narrative between the two types of media, both within the context of Akira and wider establishment of graphic novels and animation – and if, how and why any differences may occur. It must also be noted that discrepancies in film adaptations are by no means isolated by media, time period or origin. From Orson Welles' pseudo-biographical account of American magnate William Randolph Hurst in Citizen Kane (1941) to Disney's famed re-appropriating of European folklore into children's feature films, narrative interpretation has a diverse culture.


First, some history—though graphic novels are closer in appearance to moving cinema than screenplays and books, the wide scope of interpretation and narrative styling between these two media can be accounted mostly to the history of each – as whilst moving cinema has laid roots in projected images and paintings (the latter referring to animation), the emergence of graphic novels is far more complex. Modern graphic novels and manga can be seen to draw from late 19th Century Japanese culture, more commonly referred to as the Meiji Period, an era in which Japan shifted from an insular, tribal state toward a global capitalist force through state-led industrialisation and expansion of world trade as facilitated by western powers (Moon, pp.6).


Though wood-cut illustrations similar to modern manga can be seen in traditional Chinese-inspired art such as Katsushika Hokusai's “Hokusai Manga”(fig.1), it was not until modern print technology and commercial culture brought through increased trade with the Americas during the Meiji period resulted in the first manga publications, mostly aimed at teenage girls (fig.2), in contrast to the largely male-marketed graphic novel market today.


Though offshoots such as German and American “Wordless Novels”grew in popularity during the inter-war period (Berona, pp.63), their illustrators sat largely within artists' circles, and it was only during the post-war period that the modern graphic novel, both in Japan and internationally, held a wider audience. It was at this point, during Japan's “post-war economic miracle”, that the merging of animation and manga through narrative adaptation became mainstream on both television and cinema.

Figure 1. Katsushika Hokusai, Hokusai Manga: Volume 12.

Figure 2. Shojo Sekai. Vol. 30, July 1908.

Akira, in Film and Print

Considering therefore the historical origin of both animation and graphic novels, it can be understood as to why exact similarities between the manga and animation adaptations of Akira are rare – often with even key plot points between the two being different. The final closing scene of the film (fig.3), for example, is seen only roughly a fifth of the way through the manga publication, at the end of the first volume (fig.4); and similarly, Lady Miyako, a key character in the later stages of the manga publication and rival to Akira, is seen only briefly in the film (fig.5) and in a particularly bad case of narrative adaptation, is voiced by a man. Though the latter may have been a mistake on the director's part, it can be seen that the transferral of narrative is never literal and always superimposed, holding different positions and contexts in the story.

Figure 3. Akira (1988) Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo [Animation]

Figure 4. Akira. (1982) Akira Vol. 1; Tetsuo. [Graphic Novel] pp.432-433

Figure 5. Akira (1988) Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo [Animation].

Sound features, however, were obviously not present in the original publication – and so in interpretation of his manga, Otomo had to utilise an entirely new means of atmos creation to re-interpret and support his source text. The animation's soundtrack, composed by Tsutomu Ohashi, adds greatly to the atmosphere captured through moving animation, and though created before any animation work had been completed, and therefore drawing entirely from the manga, the soundtrack manages to both juxtapose against and compliment the film's neon landscapes, due in part to the methodology employed by Ohashi and Otomo in creating sound for Akira's narrative—“Ethnic origins, high technology, the Sound Module Method and the immense volume of sound material made AKIRA's soundtrack come alive”(fig.6).


The ten traditional Indonesian Gamelan Gejog (an instrument historically used to eradicate evil spirits) and the chorus of over five hundred voices are not mentioned directly in the original manga, nor were suggested by creator Katsuhiro Otomo, but were simply inferred through a process of narrative adaptation. The soundtrack therefore represents a second type of narrative adaptation, not taking directly from source text as a plot is transferred from one medium to another, but something which is more a process of narrative re-appropriation and re-invention.

Figure 6. Sound Clip (1988) ‘Making Of ’, Directed By Geinoh Yamashirogumi.

Missing audio in the manga allows for far wider an interpretation on the emotional context for each scene, especially in the case of voice acting, where actors historically 'emotionally project' their voices to replace emotion normally captured through facial expressions.


Where in traditional graphic novels onomatopoeia and stylisation of text might be utilised to emphasise movements or give sounds to otherwise non-visual occurrences, such as Japanese sound symbolism, the usage of sound effects and voice acting gives less room for viewer interpretation, but also less expression in execution, as “Inside the Balloon, the lettering reflects the nature and emotion of speech...It is most often the symptomatic of the artist's own personality, as well as that of the character speaking”(Eisner, pp.27)(Fig.7). That is to claim, that whilst a published comic may be the singular vision of an artist or writer, a film's emotional balance relies strongly on the interpretation of the screenplay carried out by actors.

Figure 7. Eisner, W. (1985) Comics and Sequential Art, Framing Speech.

Thinking more visually however, it can be to no surprise that the majority of shots within the film are stylised in a similar fashion to one would read a Japanese graphic novel – panning, right to left, with frequent close shots and comic-inspired cutting, very much following Hitchcock's “Meanwhile, back at the ranch” parallel storytelling. Scenes would very often end unresolved and cut between narratives – a method that comes naturally to printed material, given chapter and page breaks, but has been clearly adapted by Otomo for use in cinema, derived most obviously from other seminal science-fiction works of the period; such as Blade Runner, featuring Ridley Scott's pioneering usage of disconnected temporality (Hills, 2012:102 quoting Bruno,1990:185). In “Ramble City: Postmodernism and Blade Runner”, Bruno praises Blade Runner for it's mismatched sense of time, jumping between locations and times in a similar method to graphic novels, and the adapted Akira.


Animation and graphic novels are unique in the sense that every frame must be drawn and planned by an artist before production – so a great deal more detail can be spent on the imagery and pacing of cutting than is the case in live-action productions. Satoshi Kon, for example, famously built shots from  interactions between scenes and connecting cuts,arguing that animation's editing offers an edge over live-action as it is much faster, (fig.8).

Figure 8. Millenium Actress (2001) Directed by Satoshi Kon [Animation].

A six figure animation insert from Satoshi Kon's Millenium Actress,  showing a bag thrown toward the viewer, showing the power of animation  when compressing information into fast cuts. A comparative insert in live- action would be composed of more than twice as many frames.


Animators are often able to draw less information in a single shot so that a viewer can interpret them faster, resulting in a more fluid and dynamic shooting style, altering the pace of visual information in a similar way to early comic-book panelling.


Manga artist and creator of Astroboy Osamu Tezuka pioneered the use of shaped panels during the 1950's to suggest motion to the reader within the illustration of each frame (fig.9)—“The intent of the frame here is not so much to provide a stage as to heighten the reader's involvement with the narrative”. (Eisner, pp.46)

Figure 9. Black Jack Vol.1 (1973) [Graphic Novel] pp.12

A page from Tezuka's Black Jack manga, revealing his usage of frame  shapes; as Astro Boy struggles, the frames close in further, drawing in  viewers in a similar way film-makers utilise zoom lenses.


Though the film medium offers creators far more control of the viewer with regards to focus on specific objects and immersion, (Eisner, pp.40) both methods of altering pace and securing attention are wildly different and rely primarily on control and interpretation of the source material, both on the part of viewers and creators.


Visual pastiche and homage is present in both productions of Akira, but is far more evident in the filmic production, ties with Ridley Scott's Blade Runner being far more visually efficient, as an analysis of the opening cityscape scenes from each show (Fig.10,11,12). Architectural historian Giuliana Bruno on Blade Runner once wrote “It is into garbage that the characters constantly step” (Bruno, 1990;185), referring literally to the refuge that litters the streets of Ridley Scott's feature, visible in many of the shots due to the film-noire approach to camera placement, pursuing characters at close quarters within a scene to better immerse viewers.

Figure 10. Blade Runner. (1982) Directed by: Ridley Scott. [Film Still]

Figure 11. Akira. (1988) Directed by: Katsuhiro Otomo. [Animation]

Figure 12. Akira. (1984) Akira Vol. 1; Tetsuo. [Graphic Novel] pp.5

Any number of characters in Akira's animation can be seen doing the same, in stark contrast with the framing of Akira's original manga, comprised primarily of either establishing shots and extreme close-ups; Otomo choosing not to cite directly the framing style of his original publication but instead referencing live-action films that follow a similar plot. Kihachi Okamoto's  Japan's Longest Day (1967), for example, features many scene compositions that have been directly lifted by Otomo for use in Akira's animation – with plots involving military conspiracy and class dissonance shared between each (Clements,pp.46).


Neo-Tokyo's “empire of signs” (Hoestery, 2001:52 quoting Roland, 1970) are also by nature more tactile and glittering in the animated adaptation of Akira, but raises the question – are the visual references simply more efficient on the silver screen, or were they worked into the production as a part of the narrative adaptation process?


Narrative theory and adaptation remains a complex and largely subjective topic, relying on any number of factors during production from technical and physical restrictions to the minutiae of choices made by actors, production assistants and directors on any undertaking. The varied origins of each media type, often with no historical overlap, can account for a large part in the technical and physical restrictions that give rise to differences in adaptation; Disney's adaptation of Little Briar Rose into Sleeping Beauty and the technological space and time between the two versions of narrative are why so few similarities can be drawn between them.


Differences in stylisation, and the far larger topic of cultural shift within media can be attributed to most other changes, but is more a conversation of modernity and post-modernity, and only serves to prove that narrative adaptation is less about media itself, and more the intent of a creator.