To know that both Blade Runner and Akira are set in the year 2019 is to confront a unique discomfort — we now live in the time in which we predicted dystopia would happen. Wack.
Blade Runner and Akira are landmark films in the science fiction genre, and the visions that they presented back then were as haunting as they are today. Both movies deal with the blurred definitions between person and machine, and what it means to be alienated from our humanity — realities that, in many ways, we are already confronting.
But each movie imagined 2019 in different ways, and to analyze these imaginings can make for an interesting exercise in assessing where the world is at today. How similar is our modern condition to what Blade Runner and Akira imagined? How are they different? And what do we make of all these varying degrees of life-to-art imitation, and what they make of our own blasted, neon-lit landscape?
We are Rick Deckard
Every Blade Runner analysis you’ll come across with inevitably note how the movie blurs the line between robot and human being, but usually the analysis stops there. Like, yes, freshman who just took their first philosophy class, knowledge is data and brains are hardware, you’re not the first person to realize this.
Nobody thinks about why the Tyrell Corporation, the company that manufactures the rogue replicants that protagonist Rick Deckard is tasked to destroy, decides to endow their replicants with the likeness of people at all.
What ideological function does it serve, to make robots look human and all? Wouldn’t any sane corporation just let robots look like machines, allow what are meant to be tools to be seen as tools? Consider this instead: we can look at the Tyrell Corporation’s choice to make their robots look human as a way, intended or not, corporations disguise their exploitative practices as natural processes. It isn’t difficult to find real-life examples of companies touting their business practices as progressives when they aren’t — clothing brands can promote eco-fashion and pieces made from recycled materials without thinking about the outsourced workers who labor in their sweatshops. Wellness-themed brands can talk big about metal straws and sustainability, while stealing logo designs and underpaying their employees.
If the line between laboring human and programmed automaton is so blurred, then there is no good reason to believe that higher forces won’t exterminate us once we are unable to fulfill our functions.
Consider how Deckard and the higher powers that deploy him so ruthlessly dispatch the targeted replicants. Consider as well the dread and horror when we see one of those replicants get shot and crash through the glass of a shop window, even when we know they aren’t flesh and blood. That unease isn’t unfounded. If the line between laboring human and programmed automaton is so blurred, then there is no good reason to believe that higher forces won’t exterminate us once we are unable to fulfill our functions. Robot? Person? If they can’t work, if they rebel, get rid of them. Like the products we laboriously work to create, and the tools we use, we are not just objects, but disposable things, ephemeral, “like tears in rain.”
Keep in mind that it isn’t just the integrity of his memories that makes Deckard question the truth of his humanity, or whether it means anything or not that he’s a replicant. It’s also the fact that he’s mercilessly thrown back into the grind of being a blade runner and forced to dispatch beings that may or may not have similar interior lives and memories and hopes like him.
Think about the job you work, the soul-crushing hours you put in to pursue a bottom line that benefits your bosses more than you. Think about the paralyzing awareness that comes with knowing the things you purchase and enjoy are brought into the world through the exploitation of natural resources and laboring bodies, and how you cling to the notion that being a responsible consumer could possibly make a difference. In a world that, in forcing us to do ethically questionable things, makes us question if our personal experiences mean anything at all, we are all Rick Deckard.
The status quo is Tetsuo’s mutated body
The film takes place after World War III, which was kicked into high gear after an explosion destroys Tokyo. We are dropped into a ruinous, gritty Neo-Tokyo still recovering not just from the blast that rocked it, but also, implicitly, the political baggage that comes with rebuilding from destruction. This is a city ailed by gang wars, a hypermasculine school system, disaffected youth — and let’s not forget, a military harboring children that look like old men, with psychic powers. Lots to unpack here.
To make sense of Akira means to understand the Japanese condition in the context of the atomic bomb. The influence of the bomb on the Japanese psyche comes through in other maddening cinematic visions, Godzilla being another famous example. Even after Japan has, since World War II, evolved into one of the world’s most complex and robust economies, its people still have to wrestle with both memories of the war, and its physical effects on the populace.
Our societies are technologically developed and certain creature comforts and a degree of power are accessible to us, but at what cost?
Akira deals with that post-bomb condition in a way that says, though the war is over, violence doesn’t truly cease. For a city to recover, rapid industrialization and development has to transpire, compromises have to made, and certain scars have to be covered up. Imagine the whiplash. Imagine now — going beyond Japan and broadening our view for the global — the way multiple governments just assumed that a free market with little state regulation could promise progress and wealth, only to result in mass poverty, widespread ecological destruction, and the ideal breeding grounds for fascism to flourish. Our societies are technologically developed and certain creature comforts and a degree of power are accessible to us, but at what cost?
We look upon the mechanisms and processes that brought us this development, and see something grotesque and uncontrollable — much like Tetsuo’s form in Akira’s iconic body horror scene. Unable to control his psychic powers — the same kind of power that began Akira’s World War III, the same power that the movie’s military attempts to both hide and harness — he transforms into a bubbling mass of machinery and flesh. Let’s not forget the ways that industrialization and development (the power structures that perpetuate the exhausting thing we’ve colloquially come to call “the grind”) mess with our bodies. So tethered we are, to the violences and power that come with technology and steel, that we lose ourselves.
A different dystopia
This is obviously not a competition to see which movie got it right, as if a science fiction film’s merits could solely be judged on the accuracy of its predictions. But it isn’t exactly good news, to find ourselves in 2019 and sensibly describe our present condition as dystopia — whether or not it aligns with what science fiction assumed would become of us.
Reality is stranger than fiction, after all. The real threat isn’t a robot uprising (for now), or psychic powers. But we do live in a world with bombs and wars, and people who feel alienated from themselves, and companies who don’t give a crap about who gets in the way of their bottom line.
And in order to make sense of all that absurdity and violence, it would help to revisit these movies and their predictions of the past, these memories of the future. Maybe the most sensible thing is to see these actual forces as more horrific, and more monstrous, simply for the fact that they’re real.