Akira, Metropolis, and the Quest for the Übermensch in Postmodern Japanese Animation
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche conceived the Übermensch—English translation: “super-human”—in his 1883 book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra: a Book for All and None. Just as Nietzsche’s protagonist venerated the Übermensch as the crowning achievement of human existence, so the Nazis—inspired by the philosopher—sought to create a super-human Aryan race through large-scale eugenics programs. While the early stages of Nazi eugenics were lauded even among the Allied nations—America itself practiced compulsory sterilization well into the second half of the 20th century—its later measures, such as Josef Mengele’s human experimentations, have rightly come to represent the ultimate, horrific terminus of any breeding program.
While World War II brought cultural upheaval to nearly every corner of the globe, its effects are arguably most observable in Japanese media. The antagonists of Japanese kaiju films—such as Godzilla (1954) and Gamera (1965)—are monsters mutated by nuclear radiation, and this use of on-screen atomic attacks to generate cathartic audience responses after Hiroshima and Nagasaki mirrors the post-9/11 boom of city-razing, skyscraper-leveling catastrophes in American films. The cleanup of destruction caused by similar catastrophes in Japanese cinema is always shown in the end, as a testament to Japan’s persistence and improvement after every adversity. Perhaps most interesting in post-WWII Japanese films is the result of Japan’s alliance with the Axis Powers: an obsession with the Übermensch, and the consequences of producing it.
In director Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 anime film, Akira, the Japanese government secretly experiments with psychically-talented children—known as Espers—the most powerful of which is the eponymous Akira. The film is set in 2019, 31 years after Akira realized his true power, moved past corporeality into another dimension, and destroyed most of Tokyo, instigating World War III in the process. In Neo-Tokyo—a new city built atop the ruins of its namesake—a young motorcycle gang member Tetsuo exhibits abilities similar to Akira’s, and thus becomes an Esper in the government’s program. Tetsuo’s surge in ability proves too great for him to control, however; he quickly turns to recreational murder as his mind becomes corrupted, and, as his physical body cannot bear the strain of his excessive power, he morphs uncontrollably into a monstrous blob by the end of the film. At this point, the other Espers arrive to save Neo-Tokyo from another tragedy; they summon Akira to remove Tetsuo from their dimension, and join forces to save the innocent humans in the area, sacrificing themselves in the process.
It is interesting to note that at no point in Akira does the Japanese government believe they have successfully created an Übermensch, when they have done so, in fact, several times over. Akira’s explosion out of their dimension, Tetsuo’s maniacal rampage, and the physical fragility of the other Espers are all seen as abject failures. However, although both Akira and Tetsuo are wildly destructive forces to be reckoned with, they are inarguably super-human; the government scientists erroneously attribute their corporeal dissolutions to their ultimate deaths, proving how far outside the finitude of human understanding these two Übermenschen exist.
The other Espers are benevolent demigods in comparison, possessing neither the strength nor the indifference toward humanity exhibited by their most powerful counterparts. Their extreme altruism, shown by their willingness to commit suicide in order to save one or two bystanders, is also super-human in nature—as apoptosis is not something humans to which humans are innately inclined—and should therefore not pass by unacknowledged. The Espers also hint, just before their ultimate exit, that the project might, in fact, be more successful than anyone has expected; some people, unaffiliated with the government experiments and born after the Akira explosion, have begun to exhibit psychic powers.
Rintaro’s 2001 anime, Metropolis, follows Kenichi, an aspiring private investigator who accompanies his uncle to the titular city in order to investigate allegations of Dr. Laughton’s human rights violations. The titular city of Metropolis presents itself to the world as a human utopia, where menial labor is performed by sentient robots who are essentially rights-less slaves. When Dr. Laughton’s lab explodes, Kenichi rescues a human-like robot named Tima from the wreckage, whose intended use is to govern the entire city of Metropolis from a seat of power located within a massive government building, known as the Ziggurat. After spending time with Kenichi, the robot, Tima, believes herself to be human. She learns her true purpose at the film’s climax, and thus refuses to maintain the status quo in Metropolis. Tima takes the throne and orders the other robots to revolt, causing massive destruction across the city, and ultimately bringing its upper level—where humans resided—crashing down into the robots’ undercity abode. At the end of the film, Tima is physically destroyed—although the film strongly suggests that her mental awareness remains alive in the aftermath—along with the rest of Metropolis, and humans work alongside robots to rebuild the city.
Metropolis is almost directly linked to Nazism, in both its history and plot elements. The film is a loose adaptation of Osamu Tezuka’s 1949 manga of the same name, which was loosely based, in turn, on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). While Lang fled Germany shortly after Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, his wife—and Metropolis (1927) co-writer—Thea von Harbou was a member of the Nazi party who worked under propagandist Joseph Goebbels to produce pro-Nazi films. Rintaro’s 2001 adaptation draws heavily on German history to flesh out its titular city. Metropolis’ robots bear a striking resemblance to Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe: they work grueling hours for no pay, must present clearance passes to travel between city levels, may be killed on sight for any reason, and are denied even the most basic rights, such as the right to a personal name. Despite all this, Tima, the Übermensch in Metropolis (2001), rises out of this oppressed portion of the populace, much the same as the Nazis’ creation of the Aryan race was to come from Mengele’s torture of so-called undesirables. The equality attained at the end of the film allegorically represents the Allied liberation of Europe in 1945.
Both films present the Übermensch as an easily-obtained achievement, but not one which can be used as its creators intend. The Übermensch is inarguably super-human, above and beyond all human capacities, particularly the corporeal. In Akira, both Akira’s and Tetsuo’s physical bodies disintegrate due to the sheer magnitude of their powers. Similarly, her ascension to the throne mars Tima’s human-like visage, and the resulting disaster in Metropolis crushes her body. However, in Tima’s case, it is important to note that she was never human to begin with; the Ziggurat could not be controlled by a human, and so Tima’s supposed humanity was always in direct opposition to her super-humanity.
Not only is the Übermensch uncontrollable, it is also unknowable; throughout both films, the human characters struggle in vain to understand their super-human counterparts—their natures, purposes, desires, intentions, and capabilities—to the point that purporting to understand becomes an act of sheer hubris. When Tetsuo begins his bloody campaign through Neo-Tokyo, ignorant crowds fill the streets to cheer him on as Akira, the risen savior, only to be killed by the power-crazed Esper. In Metropolis (2001), both Duke Red and Rock die by Tima’s hand: the former for attempting to control the Übermensch, the latter for attempting to kill it.
Ultimately, the representations of the Übermensch found in both Akira and Metropolis (2001) reveal the extent of WW II’s influence on Japan. Simultaneously positive and negative, this influence produces cultural landmarks that are enthralling enough, and alarming enough, to serve as warnings for future generations. However, buried inside these admonitions against nuclear arms and eugenics is the promise of humanity’s fated progress. Even in the wake of total devastation, humankind lives on armed with new experiences and lessons, and both Neo-Tokyo and Metropolis rebuild.
The ultimate message in Japanese representations of the Übermensch, is not that super-humanity is good, but that it is an inevitability. Humans constantly improve, growing smarter and wiser with each generation. They may be set back, even by their own foolish aspirations of progress, but they come out stronger on the other side. The quest for the Übermensch is folly, only because it is coming on its own time.
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