Before and after Akira : the themes and motifs of Otomo’s shorts

Katsuhiro Otomo’s work in animation is mostly and rightly remembered for his 1988 masterpiece Akira, especially in the West where it has become part of the SF and animation canon. However, just like his career as a mangaka goes beyond Akira, his contribution to anime does not only come down to this behemoth of 80’s anime. Along with two feature films, Roujin Z in 1991 and Steamboy in 2004, Otomo directed 4 short movies between 1987 and 1995. These are both laboratories to experiment ideas and motifs which would be developed further on in his longer movies, but also works that stand on their own and that deserve to be studied for themselves and not just as preparation or follow-up of Akira. This is what this essay will endeavour to do : take a look at Otomo’s career in animation and focusing on how he secured both techniques and connections that made him the great director he’s still know for today. Along with Otomo’s own work, it will be a glimpse of the industry in the 1980’s.

Otomo’s entrance into the anime industry was in 1983, when the already successful mangaka (his first success was Domu, which was published in 1980  ; Akira started publication in 1982) was recruited as a character designer for the movie Genma Taisen, already one of the landmarks of 80’s Japanese animation. This first experience was reportedly a tough one : even though this was a feature film and not TV animation, it was the occasion for him to discover the already intense working schedules and low pays of the industry. 

Otomo’s designs for Genma Taisen

However, such business practices were also common (and still are) in the manga industry from which Otomo came from ; his participation to Genma Taisen was probably more important for two reasons. First, despite the quality of his work, it may have been a somewhat artistically disappointing experience. Indeed, even though the movie is without a doubt a masterpiece of animation, it’s largely because it was the occasion for Yoshinori Kanada to go wild with his famous style of effects. However, it falls short on the character animation department : like many 80’s works, it favors imposing over simple character designs, and their movement tends to feel a little (if not very) stiff. This is the case in this movie, where the underdeveloped character movement contrasts heavily against the impressive animation and light effects which make the movie so impactful. This may have been somewhat of a disappointment for Otomo : what would have been interesting in animation would precisely have been to have the characters move in an attractive manner. But they didn’t here ; and the reason this is striking is because a characteristic of Otomo’s works is precisely their very detailed and realistic character animation, achieved with the help of great realistic animators such as Toshiyuki Inoue or Yoshiji Kigami. If such a kind of animation was the one Otomo was striving for from the outset, the stiff movement of Genma Taisen’s characters could only have been a letdown.

But the real reason why the movie was seminal in Otomo’s animation career was because it enabled him to make contacts, some of which would be the driving force of his 20 years-long work in animation. Indeed, even though it was less prevalent than it is today, the industry was already fragmented in a plurality of studios, among which very small and minor ones ; for one to advance in one’s career, especially as a director, required not only talent, but also business sense and a good network of friends and reliable colleagues. For the novice that was Otomo, Genma Taisen was the perfect place to start, as the movie united some of the major figures of the industry : produced by studio Madhouse, then one of the leading studios for quality, adult-oriented, occasionally experimental animation, it was the last but most flamboyant collaboration between director Rintaro and animator Yoshinori Kanada ; though Kanada and Otomo never worked together again, Rintaro would direct and produce Manie Manie – Labyrinth Tale (also known as Neo Tokyo), again at Madhouse, the next animation project that Otomo would participate in. But most importantly, it’s there that Otomo met animator Koji Morimoto, who would collaborate with him and support him during the rest of his career, most notably as the head of studio 4°C, which would produce Otomo’s last two movies, Memories and Steamboy.

After Genma Taisen, it would take some time for Otomo to come back to animation : 4 years, as his next project, included in Labyrinth Tale, came out in 1987 ; however, this was a very busy time : in two years, 1987 and 1988, Otomo worked on two shorts and his first feature film, Akira, and he very probably worked on the three more or less simultaneously. The three movies therefore share many common images or motifs – in a move that may very well be parodic. 

The Babel-like city of The Order to Stop Construction

Otomo’s contribution to Labyrinth Tale was the last short, titled “The Order to Stop Construction”. It reveals, along with his other shorts, a dimension of his works absent from his most known features, that is, a predilection for absurd comedy, but always with a menacing aftertaste. “The Order to Stop Construction” tells the tale of a Japanese salaryman sent in the fictional Aloana Republic to stop the construction of a monumental, Babel-like city in the midst of marches. On site, he confronts the foreman of the project, a dysfunctional robot who threatens to kill him every time he mentions his order to stop the project. The comedy stems from the powerlessness of the proud Japanese worker, and his progressive loss of composure in a situation that he did not expect ; but at the same time, the robot’s menacing aura is very real, and there is something foreboding in the last shot of the movie, in which, not unlike in Akira, the city seems to awaken from some sort of slumber. 

A comical tale always on the verge of falling into horror, the short clearly has something to say about Japanese capitalism. Indeed, our protagonist is the exemplary conceited but ultimately weak Japanese salaryman ; and while the marshes where the story takes place evoke the Third World and most notably South-East Asia, the colonial attire of the hero makes the metaphor transparent : Japanese corporations are on the path of neocolonialism, a course which will only alienate both foreign and Japanese workers, and ultimately turn back against them. Furthermore, the final twist of the film, in which the cancellation order is itself cancelled, only reveals the absurdity and fragility of market rules.

Imperialism, the last stage of Japanese capitalism ?

What’s most interesting in this movie, however, is probably its imagery. It is the first display of a motif that crosses all of Otomo’s works : that of the ruins. The city being built in this short is very much falling apart, just like Akira’s decadent Neo-Tokyo or Steamboy’s monstrous Steam Tower. This and the ever-present mechanical imagery largely contributes to the image of the decadent, falling apart capitalist structure that is also portrayed in Akira. But it is also the occasion to display, in delightful animation, the contrast between the robot, who always seems to be on the verge of exploding, and the vainly exaggerated movement of the human main character. But as well as character animation, the other core of Otomo’s directorial style is the exploration of movement in depth. And here again, “The Order to Stop Construction” fares at least as well as Akira, whether it be in its dreamlike opening sequence which adopts the subjective point of view of the protagonist, or in camera movements which use the multiplane camera to its full potential. With this directorial debut, Otomo seems to play with the medium of animation, and to get accustomed to it, as to harness it to its full potential.

The other work he directed that came out in 1987, the opening and ending sequences to the compilation movie Robot Carnival, is far less ambitious. But this is no surprise, considering that Otomo only worked on the project by chance. Robot Carnival was a production of studio APPP, and a project of director Hiroyuki Kitakubo, who had made his mark in the industry with the 4th episode of the Cream Lemon OVA series, “Pop Chaser”. This wasn’t his last work with Otomo, as he did some key animation for Akira and directed Roujin Z, another adaptation of a manga by Otomo. It was him that recruited Koji Morimoto, which in turn brought to this new project most of the Labyrinth Tales team. Among them was Otomo, who reportedly heard that Morimoto was working on another compilation movie and asked if he could participate. However, he was already very occupied with Akira, a project he watched over very closely. For this reason, his involvement in Robot Carnival was very limited : he only directed the OP and ED, of which he only did the storyboards ; the rest was handled by co-director Atsuko Fukushima.

However, this limited participation does not mean that the work that came out of it isn’t worthwhile ; on the contrary, these two dialogue-free short sequences are among the most interesting in Otomo’s portfolio. The similarities with “The Order to Stop Construction” are striking, most notably in the tone : there is without a doubt a sense of both amusement and terror at seeing the circus-like behemoth entirely destroying a whole village. The most ruthless sequence is without a doubt that of the ending, when a father brings what he believes to be a toy to his miserable children, only for it to be a bomb that kills the entire family. And, again like in his previous short, Otomo plays with the contrast between overly exaggerated human movement and the mechanical, doll-like gestures of the robots.

I’d be tempted to read the destructive power of the apparently innocent Robot Carnival as a commentary on the ambivalence of otaku culture and Japanese soft power, but there’s not enough in the text to fully support such an interpretation. However, the miserable condition of the villagers who found themselves invaded by the robots evoke, once again, the Third World ; but now it’s not South-East Asia, and rather the deserts of the Middle-East. At the time when the short was produced, the USSR was still invading Afghanistan, and the short is somewhat of a prediction of Japanese intervention in Iraq along with the US more than a decade later, a geopolitical gesture that was heavily debated in the pacifist state that is Japan. As we can see, even in such a short work, Otomo’s artistic and political preoccupations come out at their fullest. But obviously, it would be in his next features that they would surface : in Akira’s apocalyptic portrayal of postwar Japan, and in Roujin Z’s sarcastical depiction of an aging country and its increasing reliance on technology. These two successful works very probably made Otomo a figure to be reckoned with in the industry and enabled him to supervise his own compilation movie in 1995, Memories.

This movie was probably largely made possible by Otomo’s contacts : it was produced by both Studio 4°C which had been founded 9 years earlier, in 1986, by Eiko Tanaka, Yoshiharu Sato, and Koji Morimoto, and by Madhouse, where Otomo had already worked a lot. As this time Otomo was the head of operations, he took a large part in the project : he wrote the script of the second short, “Stink Bomb”, which is very close thematically and tonally to the earlier Roujin Z, and directed the last movie, “Cannon Fodder”.

The welcoming first shot of “Stink Bomb”

“Stink Bomb”, because of its similarities with Roujin Z, is probably the most recognizable Otomo movie of the two. In stark contrast with “Cannon Fodder”, it shares the same absurd and dark humour of its predecessors and is again a successful satire of Japanese culture and politics. The first shot sets the tone : with a happy-go-lucky jingle, the camera zooms out, revealing us a TV set playing a news program whose title, “Good Morning Yamanashi” cues us into the falsely carefree tone of the short. Just like in “The Order to Stop Construction”, the protagonist is a salaryman, this time working in the pharmaceutical industry. What’s mocked here are both his total lack of initiative and submission to orders, and at the same time blindness to what goes on around him : carrying with him a deadly biological weapon that instantly stuns or kills those around him, he never questions what’s going on and sheepishly travels to Tokyo where his boss has ordered him to go, provoking a disaster in the process. This obviously toys with the “worker bee” image that Japanese salarymen had in the 1980’s and 90’s. But the theme of the killer “stink” gas would reveal itself strangely actual, as in May 1995 (the movie was released in December of the same year), the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo released deadly gas into the Tokyo subway, killing 13 and injuring thousands.

However, Otomo probably did not plan for this short to echo such dark actuality. On the contrary, he seems, just as in Roujin Z, to play with his own brand : against the image of the postapocalyptic Akira, he delivered here a parody of disaster and monster movies, with that twist that the monster is not Godzilla, but your common Japanese employee. Everything is played for fun, and the delight of both animators and viewers reaches a peak in the more and more disheveled faces of the hero and the military officials.

But what’s not so laughable in the short is its chilling portrayal of American imperialism. Indeed, the Japanese crisis unit is slowly overtaken by an American officer, who enjoys the opportunity to test new equipment. With what they deem to be superior technology, the Americans simply ignore the Japanese military and act on their own to finally capture the cause of the crisis. The massive build of the U.S. soldiers starkly contrasts with the Japanese commanding officer’s tiny body, just as the futuristic and intimidating space suits make the Japanese equipment look like toys. The movie came out just a few years after the Gulf War, that is at the peak of American hegemony ; considering that American military bases still exist to this day in Japan (mostly in Okinawa), the fear of a complete overtaking could have been a very real one.

Militarism and military technologies are also portrayed in the other short directed by Otomo, titled “Cannon Fodder”, albeit in a very different tone. Indeed, the last of Otomo’s shorts has no time for comedy, as it depicts a dystopian, totalitarian society whose entire system is geared for war : the main character, an unnamed boy, wears a military uniform and is taught constant propaganda (he is, probably, the titular cannon fodder ready to be killed at any occasion), while his father operates a cannon that shoots all day long its shells at an unknown enemy that may very well not exist. The visual presentation speaks for itself, and the short’s take on militarism is a transparent one : both the protagonist and his father look like dirty, miserable people, while images of an oppressed industrial proletariat are everywhere.

The industrial proletariat of “Cannon Fodder”

What’s most interesting in this short, then, is not its nonexistent story or obvious message. Rather, I believe that it is Otomo’s strongest attempt at truly experimental and groundbreaking animation techniques, which he would explore further in Steamboy (note also that both share a similar steampunk imagery). Indeed, in its 22 minutes of runtime, the short does not feature a single regular cut. With the help of stellar compositing and seamless transitions, it manages to build a fully-realized and living setting. The result is truly mesmerizing, as it serves as a fascinating exploration of lateral movement and what Thomas Lamarre calls movement “over” the depth of the image, in contrast with the movement “in depth” which would be the central focus of Steamboy. Just like Akira’s haunting cityscapes, it is a tribute to the evocative power of the animated medium.

Despite the variety of techniques and styles, all these short bring to light the constant preoccupations at the core of Katsuhiro Otomo’s works. They also highlight his main motifs, both as a storyteller and director of animation. The question of the human is everywhere : whether it is in contrast with the mechanical movement of the robot, or when it is itself taken up in a mechanical-like rigid social structure dominated by militarism. With this contrast, which is essentially a contrast in imagery and acting, Otomo reveals his talent not only as an artist, but as an animator : problems are laid out and solved animetically, thanks to the movement itself. In the very same vein, we see that Otomo always challenged the technology of animation through his constant researches on depth, setting and compositing.

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