Reflecting on Trauma and Technology

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Words: 2353 |

Pages: 5|

12 min read

Published: Feb 13, 2024

Words: 2353|Pages: 5|12 min read

Published: Feb 13, 2024

Film as a medium has allowed creators to explore the depths of the human condition. Artists have often used film’s capabilities to hold a mirror to and reflect on the human subject, allowing for suggestion and interpretation by the audience. Whether a film is realistic or not, films always can be seen as a reflection of the reality of human history and experience, manipulating real events or people to emphasize certain ideas and themes. A genre of film that deliberately drifts away from realism is animation, and especially the Japanese form known as anime. Anime is a form that breaks free from the limitations of reality (Suan 63), enabling the creator of it to produce ideas that can help humanity examine itself. No other anime has explored humanity as clearly and precisely as the 1988 anime classic, Akira, directed by Katsuhiro Otomo. Otomo’s work has been seen as a lasting commentary on the state of Japanese cultural identity, drawing ties to Japan’s history through its incredible production, unforgettable designs and immersive visuals. This paper will draw on Otomo’s film and showcase how it uses a visual aesthetic to reflect upon how technology is intertwined with the traumatic history of destruction that Japan has been forced to witness firsthand. The paper will argue that Otomo uses Akira to present a distorted, imagined allegory of modern-day Japan that, by emphasizing the central themes of trauma and technology, indicates the dangers of modernity itself. This is accomplished through the film’s use of the city of Neo-Tokyo, the neon lighting which it employs, and its youthful characters. Akira is important not just to anime, but also to science fiction cinema, and shows how on film people can make better sense of their own history and come to terms with the fears of their society.

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As Suan (65) notes, “the way that anime distinguishes itself as a distinct media-form is also similar to the way genre in cinema operates”. However, the anime film genre is a product of Japan that uses recognizable elements, so as to keep it quite distinct from other forms of media. The recognizable attributes of anime are usually seen in the 'practices of panel layouts, common conventionalized facial/bodily expressions, as well as character design styles and narrative content” (Suan 64). These are the core concepts that lay the backbone of the style, with other elements such as “techniques of animation, styles of movement, narrative structure and pacing” (Suan 64) adding more diversity to the art form. Animation in anime can be viewed as an escape from authenticity and realism, as character's bodies and expressions can be expanded and animated to look intangible or cartoonish. This can also be said for the settings, as colours can be saturated, vibrant and escape away from realism. Having these elements, along with specific stylistic features such as the 2-D drawn visuals repeating throughout the media, keep anime distinct. The structure of the media is there for anyone to use, but individual style and complexity is added to the animation by the different artists who use anime to tell their stories. Otomo is no exception, as he originally drew the manga on which the 1988 film was based, and continued to direct the film.

Having said that, the continued repetition of these elements resulted in the genre turning into a brand, leading to the pumping out of similar products over the subsequent decades. “With anime, the dynamics of repetition and variation are the very operations of the entire anime industry, which is sustained by producing the same form of products” (Suan 64). Couple this with the varying degree of quality of some anime and the result is a medium that clearly has much limitations. “It is because of anime’s ‘recognizability’ that anime sells itself as anime, both inside and outside Japan” (Suan 64). Moreover, in many instances anime's artificiality does not facilitate a deeper discussion of substance to take place, simply because of the formal and repetitive systems set up by the medium.

However, Otomo does not fall into this trap. He created his story knowing the pitfalls of the form and instead used it for his own means. Instead of using the similar, repetitive narrative structures that are commonly seen in the genre, Otomo used the distinctions of the medium to deepen the level of the story he was telling and engage with the viewer by purposely using the animation to conceptualize a postmodern Japan. Otomo’s film became well known for its painstaking animation, as the film has the closest attention to detail and colour of any anime. This created a canvas for Otomo to flesh out his manga with unparalleled fertility and depth. Thus, Otomo’s use of the anime genre in Akira is able to create a deeper, more authentic experience for the viewer, in part because his personal and highly-stylized vision of a future, neo-Tokyo creates the visual splendor that is the film’s setting within the film’s narrative. This in turn allows the concepts that Otomo tries to explore come to life abstractly.

Otomo’s film begins in 1988 with the destruction of Tokyo at the hands of a nuclear device and it is mentioned that this nuclear event led to World War III. Thirty one years after this event, the film picks up in a futuristic Tokyo, called Neo-Tokyo, a metropolis enriched with tall buildings and hundreds of lights that fill the skyline (Tanaka 136). Otomo guides the viewer through the city and its streets, allowing the viewer to inspect this future world. The lights seemingly have different qualities and textures, with Otomo presenting Neo-Tokyo as a shimmering and glistening metropolis that houses a fully-realized living city, whilst being built on the crater of its own destruction. This core idea will be the catalyst for the film’s themes on trauma and technology. The film then introduces us to the main protagonist Kaneda (Mitsuo Iwata), a teenage motorcyclist who runs a motorcycle gang. Along with his best friend Tetsuo (Nozomu Sasaki), his gang battle's other gangs across Neo-Tokyo, until an unsuspecting event changes their lives for good. Otomo has created this narrative so that he can project social issues in the 1980s Japan into the future, using visceral animation and narrative to introduce and develop his ideas about the state of Japanese society at the time the film was made. An example of this is how Otomo obfuscates the viewer at many points within the narrative, shifting the perspective of the viewer and often leaving one confused about how much time has passed and where the characters are in relation to each other. This is Otomo entrenching the viewer in the setting of Neo-Tokyo, which will become an integral character in the film and be the fulcrum of his social commentary as to how society reacts to trauma.

The world of Akira is a world that was created by dire events from the past. This is an allusion to the reality of Japanese history, and the toll that manmade destruction had on Japan and its people. Neo-Tokyo resembles some parts of the authentic, real version of Tokyo, but Otomo distorts it through animation to create a newly-imagined reality which reflects the events of history. The opening scene is a disturbing parallel to the Allies' use of nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the audience would clearly recognize the reality that Japan faced at the end of World War II. Thus, the destruction of the city in Akira is an allegory for Japan’s dark past. The scene “seems to productively explode the rules or boundaries of a whole genre or medium on the one hand, and the dark immersive or illusionistic historical reminder” (Bolton 296). Moreover, the result of the destruction is that the city has been left to its own devices, leaving it in a restless and chaotic state from which it does not emerge. It is held together somewhat by the militarily and a corrupt government, but Otomo reminds us of the underlying chaos with sly scenes of gang-related violence and sexual assault, whilst still being in a world filled with neon lights and aesthetic cars. Fast-edited shots of the gang members racing through the streets in colourful vehicles with moving light trails behind them engage the viewer in the disruption, developing and sustaining the idea of what could be called a traumatic city. The trauma of destruction constructs the story of the city, but the viewer knows little of the history of the city before Neo-Tokyo; Otomo wants the viewer to use their own ideas to construct a vision of what Tokyo was like before the bombs.

The main characters have been damaged by history, and this is demonstrated in the rendering of the characters. None of the main teenage characters, such as Kaneda, have any parental supervision or restrictions, showcasing how the trauma of destruction can lead to lawlessness. “There is almost no kinship described in the story, there is no responsible adult figure” (Tanaka 139). The teenagers do not seem to know their place in history or what event had occurred that created Neo-Tokyo, but they do not seem to care either. This is a history that has been forgotten and covered up, a history that is ‘unknowable’ (Tanaka 139). The catastrophe not only created a new physical environment, but a new era for the people of the city to live through. This new age destabilizes the way the characters see the world, all because of the trauma that reality bestowed upon Neo-Tokyo. Otomo is alluding to the idea that Japan’s youth are not educated enough about their own histories; they don’t fully comprehend why the bombing of Japan took place at the end of World War II and how it changed the social and political culture of the nation. As Freiberg (95) notes, “Akira is made by and for a generation of Japanese who have no personal memory of Nagasaki and Hiroshima”, which suggests that Otomo is emphasizing a theme about the relationship between the past and the present. Otomo can use his film to bring this relationship to the attention of the casual viewer, and most importantly, the generation of Japanese who have no recollection of a time before the bombs.

In a related vein, the destruction of Tokyo, caused as it was by modern technologies, demonstrate the film’s critique of the proliferation of technology. Technology in Akira is not viewed as a good thing, as the city has become beautifully grotesque because of its utilization. Machinery fills the city and its landscape and Otomo explores the relationship between flesh and machine within the film. Nature and trees are replaced by metal skyscrapers, living animals with shiny vehicles, and people are put back together with technology, overwhelming the viewer with a strong cyberpunk aesthetic. As Gottesman (106) describes it, in cyberpunk “not only is nature replaced by technology but human beings as well in which ‘organs are replaced by artificial devices’ in a ‘post-human’ phase of capitalism”. Neo-Tokyo in Akira is a manifestation of the move towards technology replacing everything and everyone. This is amply demonstrated within Neo-Tokyo, as the whole film is situated at night, with light only emerging from the artificial neon lights of headlights and buildings. Neon lighting in Akira is a subtle, but significant reminder of the artificiality of both the cyberpunk genre and indeed of contemporary Tokyo itself. Otomo showcases neon as a beautiful but bitter light that represents the colourful radiance and extravagant consumerism of postmodern Japan. In this, Otomo is critiquing “contemporary corporate Japanese society” (Standish 62). The neon lights of Neo-Tokyo are infused within the whole city, almost as if it’s the blood that is keeping the city alive. At the same time, however, the neon that illuminates the character's faces need not be from lights, but the result of gunfire in the dark. In so doing, Otomo again links trauma and violence while at the same time using light to demonstrate how technology can overwhelm the natural, just as trauma can overwhelm society.

Otomo is thus suggesting that trauma can arise from the progression of technological modernity. This can be demonstrated within the film in the scene where the young Tetsuo is turned into a cybernetic human hybrid; the human body mutates into a half organic, half artificial weapon that is a symbol of both technology and weaponry. The newly-implanted metal invades the flesh of the teenager like an infection, as Tetsuo screams in traumatic pain throughout the procedure. Otomo uses Tetsuo’s transformation to represent what he takes to be a monstrosity: technology invading and overwhelming humanity’s world. It is an allegory for what Otomo considers to be the deepest fears of Japanese society. In Akira, “there is a dialectic relation between the machine body, personified in the youth, and the embodied living labour of the machine” (Gottesman 113). This dialectic is predicated on the traumatization of the body, which mirrors the trauma of the bombing of Japan. Otomo is alluding to the destructiveness of technology, and the social traumas that such destruction creates. Thus, Otomo offers a warning about the rise of modernity itself, as inherent in modernity is technological revolution which can in turn and too often does result in destruction and trauma.

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In conclusion, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira is a film that presents an altered vision of modern Japan by setting Tokyo in a post-apocalyptic future that is distorted, artificial and violent. This paper has argued Otomo uses the medium of anime to present an allegorical representation of a modern Japan that was founded on trauma and which is blind to the destructive possibilities of technology. Otomo does this by using film elements, such as lighting and setting, to create a living character in Neo-Tokyo, and has the characters become a representation of how the past can disrupt the future. Otomo’s story offers a social commentary on the legacy and history of Japan, positioning itself as a warning to the dangers of modernity itself. Watching Akira, the viewer can come to understand about the consequences of the past and how these consequences can affect the future of a humanity that is still in the present. 

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This essay was reviewed by
Dr. Oliver Johnson

Cite this Essay

Reflecting on Trauma and Technology. (2024, February 13). GradesFixer. Retrieved April 15, 2024, from
“Reflecting on Trauma and Technology.” GradesFixer, 13 Feb. 2024,
Reflecting on Trauma and Technology. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 15 Apr. 2024].
Reflecting on Trauma and Technology [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2024 Feb 13 [cited 2024 Apr 15]. Available from:
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