When it comes to the art in manga, I don’t really have any particular preferences. As long as the artist nailed the anatomy and the perspective, then it’s all good.
Other than those two cardinal rules, I also like it when the artist has a distinct art style that makes it easy for us to spot their work amongst a pile of other manga.
Akira is one such manga. It is filled with amazing artworks that are brimming with Katsuhiro Otomo’s personal touch.
Out of every great thing that could be said about his art in Akira, there are five things that stand out to me the most. But before we dive into those five things, here’s
A brief mention on the character design
Although Katsuhiro Otomo has a very extensive and hyper-realistic background and details, which we’ll talk about later, the character design is very much reminiscent of the manga art from the ’70s and the ’80s.
There’s a meme going around titled “Guess which one is the main character”. The picture is of rows of people with the same looks except for one character with spiky hair and a funky outfit. And yes he’s the main character.
Kaneda, the main character in Akira, is one of those people standing in the row that looks similar to one another.
Same thing with the other characters. Sure, there are one or two funky-looking characters in the series, but for the most part, they all look just like another human being.
This is a deliberate choice taken not only because of the personal style but also to make the characters that much closer to the real world.
So if you somewhat turn off because of the design of the characters, please don’t. Give it time and your eyes would adjust in no time. You might even come to like it as you dive further into the series.
Anyway, I talk too much about this already, so let’s jump into the real topic on hand.
1. Dark Atmosphere
Prior to creating Akira, Katsuhiro Otomo published a short manga called Domu. It was a horror story with a supernatural element to it. You could see in Domu a lot of things that he would later on used in Akira
One of the things that were successfully carried over was the overall dark and gloomy atmosphere that somehow manages to envelop the story from the first panel to the last.
I think most of it has to do with how he masterfully manipulate the light, or the lack thereof, on his scenes.
At times he would paint most of the panel pitch black, to create those ominous and helpless feelings. Other times, he would simply cast a shadow that clearly accentuates the character’s facial features to emphasize emotions and reactions.
Take the scene above for example. The way he chose which one to light and which one to cover, create some sort of mysterious feeling to the scene.
Like something would jump off the shadows or like the character would slowly walk and reveal something terrible had happened to his face.
This kind of art style emphasizes the menacing atmosphere of the story even further. Which in turn immersed the reader even deeper into the narrative.
2. Hyper-realistic world
When I said hyper-realistic world, what I mean is everything that exists in the background, like buildings and trees, and everything that the characters interact with, like vehicles and furniture.
There are tons of weird stuff happening throughout the saga of Akira. To keep the story grounded to reality and also as a way for the readers to connect to the story, there needs to be something familiar in it.
And that’s where the hyper-realistic world comes in.
By anchoring our expectations to the real world using the hyper-realistic illustration, the absurd thing that happened later on in the story would hit us even harder than if all of it is purely fictional.
A weird-looking alien who could move space minerals with his mind would be less impressive than a drugged-up teenager who could throw skyscrapers around, wouldn’t it?
It is also a great way for Katsuhiro Otomo to flex his drawing muscle.
I mean, just look at the panel above. A huge helicopter hovering slightly above ground with an extremely detailed body and moving parts.
He got the perspective right, the movement right, the details right, the composition right, the camera angle right, and the characters, that act not only as a point of reference for the size but also to liven up the scene, absolutely right.
That is a mad drawing skill right there.
3. Dynamic pose
Katsuhiro Otomo is a master in drawing movement. He rarely has a panel where the characters are simply staying still and talking. They are always on the move
Some panels might contain big movements, such as during the action sequences. While others might content little movements, such as during two characters who simply walk and talk.
Whatever the case may be, his panels look like a collection of still frames from a movie rather than just individual illustrations.
Take a look at the image above for example. The image is composed in such a way so that we know that the focal point is the man who’s about to leave the helicopter.
He’s in the middle of walking down the stairs and we know he’s in somewhat of a hurry. We also see a group of people coming from the right side who’s also hurriedly walking towards the man.
And in the back, we see the landing crews still busy doing their job. We can also see how all of them are affected by the wind coming from the chopper’s blade.
Because of the way he impeccably depicts the individual movements of every element in that panel, it looks like a photograph taken seconds after the helicopter land rather than a drawing of a scene.
4. Facial Expression
In Akira, we could easily tell the emotion of the characters through their facial expression. No matter how small the panel is, Katsuhiro Otomo could always clearly express the emotion of the characters.
He utilizes a mixture of subtle lines and detailed expressions depending on how much impact he wants to give on certain scenes.
He usually opts to use a slight variation of lines and shades for small panels in less important scenes. In big impactful moments, however, he would go all out with the details to the point you could clearly see the wrinkles in the character’s skin.
The image above is an example of one such “big” scene. I won’t tell what scene it is or who the character is, but believe me, it is a very important moment both for the story and for the overall arc of that particular character.
We could witness all kinds of emotion in that one panel. We see her rage, her pain, her desperation, and her determination. We see the details on her skins, on her ripped clothes, and even on the boulder behind her.
The way she positions herself certainly helps in conveying her state of mind to the readers. But ultimately, it is her facial expression that acts as a window that enabled us to stare at her bare emotions.
5. Establishing Shots
To paraphrase Wikipedia, establishing shots is a series of shots that are taken to establish the context of a scene and to show the relationship between important objects in the scene.
This is a term that is usually used by the filmmaker but I think comic/manga artists often use the same technique as well.
Katsuhiro Otomo often used the same technique in Akira. He will use the first panel to show us a bird-eye view of the place. Then gradually move on to smaller settings in the subsequent panels.
The page above is a great example of this technique at work.
The main focal point of this page is obviously the man in the last panel. But before knowing who he is, we need to know where he is.
The first panel shows us that he is in the middle of a big city. The second panel shows us that he is in a public area. The third panel shows us that he is in the suburban area. And the last panel finally reveals him walking while trying to see if there’s anything suspicious happening around him.
All of that information without uttering a single word. That right there is visual storytelling at its finest.
I hope this article could give you a glimpse into what makes Akira so visually pleasing. As I’ve said at the beginning of this article, there are many other great things that could be said about the art in Akira but these five are the ones that stood out the most for me.
Flip through the pages yourselves and you might find something in the art that attracts you and it might be completely different than mine.
If so, don’t hesitate to tell us what it is that you like so much about the art of Akira in the comment section below.
This is the fourth out of five feature articles on Akira. Check out the previous article where I gave a review on the story arcs of Akira. Up next: What is the best version of Akira and where to buy it