'Just cancel it' - mystic manga foreshadowed 2020 Olympics' demise

Etienne BALMER
·3 min read
An Olympic countdown clock in Tokyo is now covered by a sign that reads 'under adjustment' in Japanese
An Olympic countdown clock in Tokyo is now covered by a sign that reads 'under adjustment' in Japanese

Next to a countdown showing the number of days to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics is scrawled "just cancel it". Not a scene from real life but from "Akira", a remarkably prescient cult Japanese manga series. With the announcement that the Tokyo 2020 Olympics have been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the coincidence has led to "Akira" trending on Japanese social media with fans hailing its mystic powers. Created by Katsuhiro Otomo, "Akira" first appeared in comic form, with thousands of pages produced between 1982 and 1990. An anime version came out in 1988 and became a global sci-fi hit. The action takes place in a dystopian 2019 set in a sinister megacity called "neo-Tokyo", built after the old capital was destroyed in a mysterious explosion in 1982 that set off World War III. It tells the story of a boy called Akira, who acquired psychic superpowers from a secret military programme but became so powerful he was disintegrated. His organs were buried deep underground in an iron box -- on the construction site of the Olympic Stadium -- only to be found later by another boy called Tetsuo who eventually inherits his powers. "The world of 'Akira' can be summed up in one word: cyberpunk. A futuristic and high-tech world but with a huge gap between the rich and the downtrodden," said Matthieu Pinon, a specialist on Japanese manga and anime. While the Olympics are not central to the plot, Tokyo 2020 appears several times in the story, with uncanny if coincidental similarities to the real Games, now postponed until next year. In an example of life imitating art, the real countdown clocks at Tokyo 2020 headquarters have now been replaced with a sign that reads "under consideration". "The story unfolds in a way that suggests a cancellation or a postponement (of the Olympics) is inevitable," Kaichiro Morikawa, expert on Japanese pop culture at Tokyo's Meiji University, told AFP. Images of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Stadium construction site, with red and white cranes poking from an oval structure, were a striking reminder to Akira fans of the way it was depicted in the comic. - 'Unusual sense of reality' - The Japanese government framed Tokyo 2020 as the "Recovery Games", aiming to show how the country had bounced back from the devastating 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi plant. In the same way, the Tokyo 2020 Games in "Akira" could be seen as the authorities "reasserting their glory after the destruction" of the fictional 1982 explosion, said Patrick Gaumer, a manga expert. The fictional Olympic Stadium was built near the ruins of that explosion -- a clear allusion to the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- as a symbol of recovery, Gaumer told AFP. In another coincidence, the "Akira" series also features some fictional news headlines that would resonate today, one of which reads: "The World Health Organization criticises the measures taken against the pandemic." But Pinon said this should be seen as an "element that adds to the atmosphere, nothing more", as it stands outside the main plot. So is "Akira" a prophecy of the future? Morikawa believes it is more like a "reinterpretation of the recent past (post-war Japan), projected onto a fictional near future". Pinon said the author, born in 1954, was drawing on the major events of his childhood for his work. These included the 1964 Olympics, when Japan re-announced itself to the world from the rubble of World War II, as well as the student revolutions of 1968, the authoritarian governments of the time and the frantic redevelopment of Tokyo. As for the references to Tokyo 2020, "all I can say is that such a coincidence might add an unusual sense of reality to the reading/viewing experience of what is already a masterpiece", judged Morikawa.