In 2015 at age 60, Katsuhiro Ōtomo, internationally famous for the anime AKIRA (1988), became the first ever Japanese artist to receive the Angoulême International Comics Festival’s Grand Prix, France’s life time achievement award. Since 2005, Ōtomo has been the recipient of prestigious French, American and Japanese awards recognising the international impact his manga and anime has had since the 1970s. As career-praising accolades they reinforce Ōtomo’s pushing of the artistic frontiers of manga and anime. His innovative expansion of manga’s visual capacity as a storytelling medium through stunning detailed character designs and urban cityscapes as well as science fictional narratives involving dark urban futures and Japanese life, such as the manga series Dōmu: A Child’s Dream (1980) and the post-apocalyptic AKIRA (1983), exemplify Ōtomo’s development and refinement of visual composition through precision of line and form.
But recognition outside of Japan also acknowledges how Ōtomo’s anime, along with Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell (1995), Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s live action film Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1988) and Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, expanded on cinematic science fiction as a global culture in the 1990s. Ōtomo’s development of science fictional anime beyond AKIRA, which at the time was Japan’s most expensive animated film, has evolved into experimental storytelling forms such as Memories (1995), an anthology of highly visual anime shorts all based on Ōtomo’s stories. Ōtomo has since revisited this anthology format with Short Piece (2013), although only as screenwriter and director for the short called “Combustible,” set in Edo Japan, while “A Farewell to Weapons” is based on a 1981 manga by Ōtomo. But it was with Steamboy (2004) that Ōtomo returned to feature-length world-building anime with an alternate 19th Century Europe powered by steam-driven technologies. Given its storyline of youthful characters battling with military, capitalists and scientific authorities over the application of steam power, Steamboy is also Ōtomo’s return to the social themes explored in AKIRA.
Ōtomo’s career as a live-action film director has also expanded the influence of manga. His films Mushishi (2007), a live action adaptation of the paranormal manga series of the same name by Yuki Urushibara, and World Apartment Horror (1991), whose storyline involving gangsters attempting to rid a Tokyo apartment block of illegal immigrants, was based on a story by anime and manga artist Satoshi Kon (1963-2010), who would adapt the film into a manga series.
Much has been made of the influences of Western cyberpunk on Ōtomo’s AKIRA. But as Ōtomo attests, it was the Japanese novelist Seishi Yokomizo who heightened his identification with the generational challenge and disaffection represented by the Japanese youth rebellion of the 1960s, while American New Wave cinema such as Easy Rider (1969) and Bonnie and Clyde (1967) impressed Ōtomo as narratives of counter-cultural defiance and resistance. Recognition of this locates AKIRA as an historical lens on the international cultural aspects of post-1960s Japanese youth history. Ōtomo’s science fictional work as a whole should be viewed as investigating the social worlds and social classes enabled and reinforced by the expansion of technological developments.
— Mio Bryce and Jason Davis