The man behind the seminal work in Japanimation is back with a 3,000-piece exhibition of original artwork, a new short film, and plans for a new manga series.
In Japan, manga and anime are seemingly everywhere and all-encompassing — something grown men and women indulge in without a second thought. At 3331 Arts Chiyoda, a former junior high school turned art gallery near Akihabara Station, the man who defined these artforms for a generation of readers and viewers is front and center. Katsuhiro Otomo, the mind and hands behind Akira, is posing for photos with giggling, excited visitors. Otomo is here to unveil his Gengaten — an exhibition of 3,000 of the pieces he's produced over his 39 years as an illustrator; among them are the 2,300 original pages composing the Akira manga series. I managed to score an invitation to the private viewing before the Gengaten opens to the public, letting me check out the exhibit and catch a sneak peek at his new short film, Hi no Youjin (Combustible).
And I got to try on Kaneda's jacket.
"If you continue illustrating you keep correcting yourself a little bit at a time, so your work really changes."
I'm not ashamed to say I mostly know of Otomo from the Akira manga and anime, but when I first walk into the gallery I get a sense of just how prolific the artist is. The middle of the main room is filled with original manga illustrations with a wide variety of themes and styles ranging from 70s rocker counterculture to work from his Japan-only Batman release to a self-portrait of the master at work. Like most in the room, though, I'm more drawn to the brightly-colored illustrations on the periphery, such as the full-color renditions of classic Akira panels, the art from a 1980s Canon ad campaign, and an amazing portrait of Stanley Kubrick in a 2001 spacesuit.
For many people here the biggest draw is the Akira manga itself. Published over eight years between 1982 and 1990, the series is comprised of thousands of pages, which now sit packed in glass cases spanning two whole rooms of the gallery. The individual sheets of paper are strung up on nearly invisible guy-wires, creating the illusion that they're floating in space (or perhaps that Tetsuo's holding them in place telekinetically). Arrows are conveniently located on the floor to keep the visitors moving in the right direction, but that doesn't get in the way of groups huddling around particular pages to relive the first time they read the manga. Once you move past the comics, Akira really comes to life with a full-sized replica of Kaneda's bike and leather jacket. Of course, I jump at the chance to live out a childhood fantasy, but I have to dismount quickly to give the next person in line a shot.
The tone of the day is celebratory, but every so often you're reminded of its serious side. Otomo is from Miyagi prefecture in northeast Japan, one of the areas hardest hit by the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami. It understandably left a big mark on the artist, who has been active in a number of charity projects since the disaster occurred last year. The exhibition was partly conceived as a way to raise money for charities involved in the ongoing relief effort, and visitors are invited to drop their ticket stubs into one of several boxes, determining how the donations are apportioned among the various organizations.
After soaking in the sights for a couple of hours everyone is ushered upstairs to the gymnasium in order to check out Otomo's new 13-minute film, part of the Short Peace omnibus to be released later this year. Hi no Youjin (Combustible) is set in Edo-era Japan, the same setting as Otomo's as-yet-untitled upcoming full-length manga series, his first since Akira ended in 1990. The backdrop of the film is the Great Fire of Meireki, a disaster that burned through more than half of the wooden city of Edo (now Tokyo). The animation is beautiful and, clearly styled after art from the time period, feels very two-dimensional and intricately drawn — like an old Japanese scroll come to life. The film ends with a gripping scene of Edo on fire and a booming instrumental piece that stops momentarily, only to pick back up as taiko drummers and dancers fill up the auditorium. It's a powerful way to finish off and the crowd is enthralled.
"CRAMMED INSIDE THAT 2,000-PLUS PAGE BEAST IS MORE THAN JUST THE PICTURES AND THE STORY."
To end the night, everyone is brought back downstairs for a reception party with food and drinks. There are quite a few famous faces from the manga and anime worlds in the crowd, including Takehiko Inoue (Slam Dunk, Vagabond), Naoki Urasawa (20th Century Boys, Monster), Koji Morimoto (The Animatrix's Beyond), Michael Arias (Tekkon Kinkreet), and Jiro Taniguchi (Ikaru). Once the party dies down everyone is funneled back into the room housing Kaneda's bike for a manga jam session on the gallery wall. That's right, a who's who of Japan's finest manga artists are creating an impromptu mural in front of us, and it becomes hard to tell the difference between the artists and the spectators. It's incredible to see the speed and ease with which they flick their pens around; everyone's a big kid, just playing around on the wall. Otomo gets in on the action himself, adding a sketch of the metal-armed Tetsuo and the robotic DJ Teck.
Everyone's having fun and carrying on, but the real communication is happening on the wall
Once most of the press clear out and everyone else is getting ready to leave, I manage to steal a minute of the master manga artist's time to ask about the role of technology in Akira — which depicts a 2019 filled with flying bikes and laser cannons. I ask him if he were to rewrite the story today, if modern technology like computers and the internet would play a bigger role. "Akira is something I wrote at that point in time," he replies, "I really did my best on it, and I think it stands the way it is." More than 20 years since the film's release, I have to agree.