Otomo’s genga will make you remember

by Andrew Lee

Staff Writer

Without “Akira” there would be no “Cool Japan.”

There’s no denying that for many non-Japanese back in early 1990s. The anime adaptation of the manga “Akira” was for them the first taste of a drug that ultimately drove the addicted to seek more highs like it, and it caused a pandemic of interest in Japanese pop culture that still exists today.

No wonder then, that when Katsuhiro Otomo announced he would be displaying the genga (original drawings) of every single page of his six-volume masterpiece “Akira,” the twitterverse lit up like synapses sparking in a neural network — transmitting the news to diehard manga fans in Japan and the world over.

Published between 1982 and 1990 by Kodansha in Young Magazine, the inception date of “Akira” was around the same time as William Gibson’s novel “Neuromancer” and Ridley Scott’s film “Blade Runner.” Together, these three works defined the cyberpunk genre of dystopian science fiction and established the archetypal image of a futuristic Neo-Tokyo, rising from the rubble of apocalypse, that’s burned into the psyche of sci-fi fans everywhere.

Last year, when images of the destruction wrought by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami began to beam into TVs around the world, it seemed like that postapocalyptic vision had come horribly true. It’s somehow fitting then that the “Otomo Katsuhiro Genga” exhibition currently showing at Tokyo’s 3331 Arts Chiyoda was conceived in the days following the quake as a way to raise funds to help disaster victims.

On March 11, 2011, Otomo was in the midst of working on a collection of his past work to be published as a sequel to his highly praised art book, “Kaba” (1989). When the quake occurred, Otomo — who hails from Miyagi Prefecture — knew that he had to do something to help.

Around the same time, a group of like-minded creators were also thinking about what they could do. One thing led to another, the group met with Otomo, and the idea to display — for the first time ever — the complete genga of “Akira” became the foundation of the exhibition and charity fundraiser.

What makes this rare chance to see the genga so special is that you get to see beyond the high-contrast black-and-white images that appear in the final published manga. You can see the process of creation captured in the work itself: Pencil sketches show through the final ink work, mistakes are covered by white-out, speech-bubble texts are glued-on pieces of paper. It’s in these details that a manga artist’s character and thought process can be surmised: How was an effect achieved? When was there hesitation, and when were creative decisions made? The “Akira” genga are astounding in this regard.

Some say that you can date manga as “pre-Otomo” and “post-Otomo,” and seeing his hand-drawn pages close up you can understand how, at the time of its release in 1982, “Akira” must have totally and utterly consumed the imagination of Japan’s teenagers.

The story seems to build with the pace of an action movie, your eyes fly across the page following speed-lines, noticing places where Otomo made notes or reworked an area, struggling to take in everything he crams onto each page. Each frame of the manga is drawn with such attention to detail — every single one of the 2,300 pages is a classic of composition, each of the six volumes a masterpiece and the entire work an opus of astounding complexity, skill and storytelling.

Otomo credits the work of French comic artist Moebius as being a huge influence on his own style and composition. Like Moebius, Otomo’s work is highly complex, has vast areas of exaggerated perspective, futuristic cityscapes and realistic character design. That, combined with a storyline set in a future that sees Japan once again in a period of postwar rebuilding, facing impending Olympic games, political protests, violence and chaos, made for a manga unlike any that had been seen before.

The way Otomo has chosen to display the genga has, by his own admission, created a new work, one elevated into the realm of fine art. The sheer number of genga meant that displaying them on the walls of the gallery was not feasible. Instead, each volume of the manga is displayed in a large glass box — reminiscent of the glass tanks in which Damien Hirst was so fond of placing dead animals. Within the boxes, thin wires are arranged in seven “shelves” upon which the sheets of genga lie, exposing the contents of each volume in an exploded view that shuffles the pages according to the way Otomo felt they should be seen. Instead of simply laying out each page in chronological order, he placed each genga in a position that he felt optimized its view. He has said that during the laborious process of positioning the pages for this exhibition he discovered a new rhythm in the work.

Make a difference and be Kaneda

Katsuhiro Otomo and the event organizers are working with the nonprofit organization Think The Earth to ensure that people do not forget about the effects of the Great East Japan Earthquake and to realize that Japan is far from healed.

This exhibition is the first event in the Wasurenai Project (Don’t Forget Project) and from each ¥1,500 ticket, ¥500 will be donated to charity. Visitors can choose from six charities to donate to by placing their ticket stubs in one of six boxes at the exit of the exhibition. For an extra donation of at least ¥500 to “Bokura Company,” an organization that supports autistic children, you can also have your photo taken while sitting on a working replica of the motorbike used by the character Kaneda in “Akira.” (A. L.)

Alongside the “Akira” genga, the exhibition also includes around 700 other drawings by Otomo. Seeing his earlier work, it is fascinating to see how telekinesis, childhood trauma, dysfunctional societies, apocalypse and mass destruction are repeated themes. Though Otomo has often denied that his work has any “message,” in post-March 11 Japan — struggling as it is with its lingering nuclear disaster and trying to rebuild Tohoku — it is hard not to see one of warning here.

Additional reporting by Maaya Konagi

“Otomo Katsuhiro Genga” at 3331 Arts Chiyoda runs till May 30. Demand for the exhibition has been so intense that tickets must be purchased in advance at Lawson convenience stores. Tickets are not available at the venue and only valid for certain timeslots. Open 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m. (Sat. and Sun. 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Admission ¥1,500. www.otomo-gengaten.jp (Japanese).