Watchmen, Akira, and the Shadow of Nuclear Power

This week in class, Professor Whalen drew a brief parallel between Watchmen and Akira, being two definitive comics works we’d recently studied. I hadn’t ever thought of comparing the two before, though other people in the class have, but I realized that the two comics have some interesting similarities, despite being written in different cultures. Particularly, I was interested in how both works were influenced by the existence of nuclear power and nuclear war. Watchmen depicts an exaggerated version of, Cold War America, whereas Akira takes place in a Tokyo ruined by world war not once, but twice. (Please note: I’ll be using the movie version of Akira as my main source of reference as the manga is very long and I don’t have access to all of it, but the Akira manga takes a much different turn plotwise about halfway through. This video provides a brief, comprehensive look at the differences.)

It seems precarious to compare Watchmen and Akira, considering that they come from very different cultures and comics traditions, and even the historical backgrounds and current anxieties that inspired them were different. However, in the 1980s, nuclear annihilation was a very real fear throughout the world. In America, it was a potential threat in the future. In Japan, nuclear bombing was a tragedy of the not-too-distant past. The existence of nuclear warfare hung over both America and Japan. The psychological effects of this on even fictional characters led to palpable moods in the art of the 80s.

In the thickly populated, violent urban landscapes of Watchmen‘s New York and Akira‘s Neo-Tokyo, the main characters are for the most part, on the outskirts of society, involved with crime and antisocial behavior or trying to pull themselves out of it, in a world where government tries to restrict them (the Keene Act in Watchmen banned costumed heroes, and in Akira, Kaneda and Kei are both involved with gang behavior and terrorism). The characters of the two comics aren’t analogous to each other, since most of the cast of Watchmen are adults trying to fit into mainstream adult society and most of the cast of Akira are teenage delinquents, young protestors, and children, though you could draw some parallel between Kei and Rorschach as ruthless truth-seekers in a society that tries to hide things from them. At any rate, despite the tumultuous lives the main characters live and the amount of fighting they get involved in, they’re all vulnerable ordinary people, without superpowers—except their respective story’s crucial anomalies.

To me, the most interesting parallel to draw between Watchmen and Akira is that they both personify nuclear power as characters: Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen and the child espers in Akira. It turns out that the nuclear-bomb-like explosion at the beginning of Akira was caused by the titular Akira, one of the espers. Throughout Watchmen Dr. Manhattan is feared and coveted for his destructive power, and rumored to cause cancer. (Though in Watchmen Dr. Manhattan’s nuclear power is literal, in Akira the nuclear nature of the espers is not literally present in the text, so alternate readings of them are possible.)

Both Dr. Manhattan and the espers gained their powers through suffering: in Dr. Manhattan’s case, he disintegrated in a particle-accelerator-like machine and had to reconstitute himself piece by piece. The espers were a result of government experimentation, and Akira in particular was dissected and frozen for science after achieving the fullest extent of his powers. Similarly to the nuclear tests conducted in the American Southwest and at Bikini Atoll, destruction was what gave birth to the most powerful incarnation of nuclear power. And their suffering didn’t end there: both Dr. Manhattan and the espers were kept sequestered away and studied by the government. The espers face physical degradation in the form of premature aging and in the case of the most powerful espers like Tetsuo, uncontrollable constant mutating. Dr. Manhattan feels cut off from the rest of humanity by the new omnipotent state of mind he possesses, and eventually abandons humanity entirely for a period of time by leaving Earth. (By the end of the movie Akira, the espers also leave Earth.)

People possessing nuclear power are depicted in both Akira and Watchmen as the ultimate form of human being, transcending their own humanity—an Ubermensch. However, their existence is a result of, and perpetuates, suffering. In a subtle way, Moore and Otomo were both showing their concern about nuclear power with the alienated, superpowerful, blue characters of their comics.

I’ve only scratched the surface of this facet of these two comics, but other members of the class have also looked into it here and here.

Bibliography/Suggestions for Further Reading:

“Akira, Postmodernism, and Resistance.” The Worlds of Japanese Popular Culture: Gender, Shifting Boundaries, and Global Cultures. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. 56-74. Print.

Wilson, Kristian. “Akira, Metropolis, and the Quest for the Übermensch in Postmodern Japanese Animation.” The Artifice. 25 May 2015. Web. 25 Oct. 2015.