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Anime Impact: The Queerness of Akira

Akira. The famous red motorcycle, the cool tough guy sporting the leather jacket with the half blue pill on his back, the popular highway scene that’s been adopted and reused for decades to come. All anime fans know it, people not even in the ani-space have seen at least one relation of Akira, just look at its influence in fashion and music with A-list celebrities.

While known for its politically charged themes – for me it’s known as one of the first steps in accepting my queerness.

Akira was first created as a manga in 1982 and released as a film in 1988. Written and directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, the story follows a biker gang of teens surviving a bleak future in Tokyo in 2019, just over 30 years after a third World War. With around 120 minutes of psychic powers, secret government experiments, and tearing the city apart to save a friend – Akira became one of the most influential pieces of media, ever.

The film touches on political themes like corrupt government, power-hungry apocalypse, the forgotten orphans of World War II, the dismissive educators to students who don’t do as well as they’d like, and more. The audience sees that in this fictitious 2019, the people have no power – and it’s not far from reality, with citizens protesting for their own human rights more than ever in 2020 and onward. These themes are unavoidable watching this as an adult, and I can see the earth following the same fate generations from now.

Kaneda and Testuo as childhood friends

However, to a nine-year-old kid who was innocent of the world’s impurities, I left watching Akira thinking Testuo had a crush on Kaneda. I remember sitting in my babysitter’s living room, and having her teenage son keep me occupied while he got stoned in his room, by putting on a movie that he had said was “cool, kind of gross, but cool.” Not understanding much English yet, the subtitles meant nothing to me – I was left to my own vices to make up a story between the characters in my head based on what I watched. I got completely nothing out of that one watch, except thinking that Kaneda and Tetsuo were an item… and surprisingly enough, that thought struck when I watched it again at 17, and it helped me accept my own battle with being queer.

The relationship between Kaneda and Testuo reflected a relationship I had with myself being gay. Watching this at 17, immediately I thought of nine-year-old me sitting in that living room and remembering that I thought Kaneda and Testuo were boyfriends. Testuo’s stress dreams, trying to get him to feel protected by having flashbacks to when he and Kaneda were kids, brought me comfort and reminded me of being in love with a childhood friend who took care of me. And that opened up to seeing myself in Testuo, and who I wanted to be in Kaneda. With Testuo losing touch with reality from being power-hungry, I was losing sight of my own life by trying to run away from the fact that I was so close to living a life my family didn’t set up for me. Testuo looking up to Kaneda, being grateful for his friendship to him, which in turn, made Kaneda Testuo’s main reason for seeking more power. As I watched the scene of Testuo screaming out to Kaneda as the Akira explosion consumed him, hoping Kaneda is safe in the end, my heart was in my stomach.  I saw how I turned my queer love into my biggest enemy, fighting it because of fear and insecurity, but realizing that at the end it is the one thing I reach out to when seeking comfort.

I was raised to marry a man when it was time to take care of me, and in a Catholic household, liking the same sex sets you up for the opposite of what I grew up being told to want in a relationship. Still, I knew my feelings about girls since elementary school, and I had the privilege of being around accepting friends in middle school and high school. But it wasn’t until the end of high school that I realized I was so close to stepping into the reality of having to support my family, and I felt the fear of not wanting a husband would let down my mom, who had broken her spirit multiple times to raise me and my siblings. Trying to convince myself I was straight, and being jealous of friends who were able to live their truth comfortably, I became pretty hateful and my actions to prove this put me in very dangerous situations with men. The more I tried to prove how straight I was, the more angrier and repulsive I became at myself.

Later in the film and manga Kaori, Testuo’s love interest, is crushed to death due to Testuo’s uncontrollable wrath. Again I saw myself in him once again. Having hated girls because they sparked that fear that I liked them, or having girls hate me for that same reason – we crushed and bullied each other in high school to show up how ungay we were, to prove a point to our classmates.

Akira queerness
Akira is well-known for its political story, but the queerness between Tetsuo and Kaneda is a hot topic too

Probably the most powerful scene in Akira for me happens during Testuo’s first couple of days in the experiment facility. Because of these new powers, Tetsuo develops severe migraines and vivid dreams. He has a dream where Kaneda and him are in a playground as kids, showing their beginnings as friends. Tearing up but not letting tears fall, as a stubborn and moody teenager, it made me see my current self, how, no matter how insecure I was, I needed my true self to be in my life – just as Testuo knew he needed Kaneda in his to feel OK.

As the years pass by, and I’ve come to accept who I am and who I like, I see less and less of these connections I made as to the teen who couldn’t accept herself yet. My silly little ship between these boys is a thing of the past, and I relate more to the corruption and powerless community the movie screams about for two hours – more so than personifying my hidden sexuality in Testuo. However, I can’t ever forget how this movie was vital in my journey to being comfortable with who I am. My internalized hate became that white noise apocalyptic explosion, starting fresh and new, and giving me a new start that I deserved.

You can stream Akira now on Hulu, Funimation, and Tubi.

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