The manga takes place in a vastly larger timeframe than the film and involves a far wider array of characters and subplots. Through the breadth of the work, Otomo explicates themes of social isolation, corruption and power.
Otomo's Akira projects – the manga and its film adaptation – marked his transition from a career primarily in the creation and design of printed manga to one almost exclusively in the creation, direction and design of anime motion pictures and television.
Tetsuo Shima is Kaneda's best friend and a member of Kaneda's gang. He is involved in an accident at the very beginning of the story, which causes him to display immense psychic powers. However, the evil ways in which he uses his powers, as well as his mental instability, causes his friendship with Kaneda to shatter. Tetsuo is the main antagonist (and possible anti-hero) of Akira. Tetsuo was inspired by the scientist in Tetsujin 28. Tetsuo is voiced by Nozomu Sasaki in the Japanese version of the film, by Jan Rabson in the 1989 English version and by Joshua Seth in the 2001 English version.
Kei – a member of a terrorist resistance movement led by the government mole Nezu, Kei is supposedly the sister of fellow resistance fighter Ryu, though it is implied that this is not really the case. Kei and Kaneda do not get along when they first meet, and Kei at first seems to view Kaneda with contempt. Later in the story, however, the two become increasingly attracted and fall in love with each other.
Colonel Shikishima – never explicitly identified as such and instead addressed simply as The Colonel, he is the head of the secret government project conducting research on psychic test subjects, including the Esper children, Tetsuo, and formerly Akira. The Colonel at first appears to be an antagonist early in the story, though he is really an honorable man who intends to save Neo-Tokyo from any second onslaught of Akira. He is usually referred to by Kaneda as "The Skinhead."
The Espers – three children who are test subjects for the secret project. The children have normal bodies but have an unusual appearance because their bodies and faces have wizened with age, either because of their powers, the battery of tests done on them, or the drugs used to keep those powers in check. They are former acquaintances of Akira, and survived his destruction of Tokyo. The Espers include:
Akira – the character for whom the story is named. Designated "Number 28", Akira has immense, almost godlike, psychic powers, although from outward appearances he looks like a small, normal child. He is responsible for the destruction of Tokyo and the beginning of World War III, though this was probably unintentional on his part (he is so psychically powerful that simply teleporting can cause destruction on a massive scale) . After the war, he was put in a cryogenic chamber not far from the Heart of Destruction (the crater left by Akira's onslaught) and the future site of the Neo-Tokyo Olympic Games. When he first appears, we see that Akira has not aged in the decades he was kept frozen. Akira was inspired by the demon from the anime adaptation of Osamu Tezuka's Saiyuki.
Yamagata – a member of Kaneda's biker gang, who serves as Kaneda's right-hand-man. He is killed in the first tankōbon by Tetsuo.
Kaisuke – sometimes known simply as Kai, he is another high-ranking member of Kaneda's gang. He does not play a major role at first, but becomes more prominent later in the story.
Joker – the former leader of the Clown gang, a motorcycle gang made up of junkies and drug addicts. Joker plays a small role in the beginning, but becomes more prominent much later in the story.
Nezu – a parliament member who is also the leader of the terrorist resistance movement against the government. He seems to be the mentor of Kei and Ryu, and purports to be saving the nation from the corrupt and ineffective bureaucrats in power. It soon becomes evident, however, that Nezu is just as corrupt, and that all he seeks to do is to seize power for himself. The surname, "Nezu," is reminiscent of the Japanese word, "nezumi," meaning "mouse" or "rat.
Ryu – a comrade of Kei's in the resistance movement, he claims to be Kei's brother, but it is implied that this is not the case. As the story progresses, Ryu abandons his terrorist roots and becomes more heroic, but battles with alcoholism.
Chiyoko – claiming to be Kei's aunt, she is a tough, heavyset woman who is involved in the resistance and eventually becomes a key supporting character.
The Doctor, sometimes known in other media as Doctor Onishi, is the head scientist of the secret psychic research project who also serves as Colonel Shikishima's scientific advisor.
Lady Miyako – a former test subject known as "Number 19", she is the high priestess of a temple in Neo-Tokyo, and a major ally of Kaneda and Kei as the story progresses. She is also an initial ally of Nezu.
Tetsuo's Aide – known only by this title, he is a fanatical devotee of Tetsuo who serves him as his aide-de-camp late in the story.
George Yamada – an American soldier who is sent on a top secret mission in Neo-Tokyo in the latter-half of the story.
Project "Juvenile A" – a team of scientists who are appointed to investigate psychic events in Neo-Tokyo in the latter-half of the story. Project members include Dr. Dubrovsky, Dr. Simmons, Dr. Jorris, Dr. Hock, Professor Bernardi, and Karma Tangi.
In 1988, the manga was published in the United States by Epic Comics, a division of Marvel Comics. This colorized version ended its 38-issue run in 1995. The coloring was by Steve Oliff, hand-picked for the role by Otomo. Oliff persuaded Marvel to utilise computer coloring, and Akira became the first ongoing comic book to feature computer coloring. The coloring was more subtle than that seen before and far beyond the capabilities of Japanese technology of the time. It played an important part in Akira's success in Western markets, and revolutionised the way comics were colorized. Delays in the publication were caused by Otomo's retouching of artwork for the Japanese collections. It was these works which formed the basis for translation, rather than the initial serialisation. Marvel collected the colorized versions as a 13-volume paperback series, each volume collecting four of the Epic issues, and also in six hardback volumes collecting the series as Otomo intended. The work was later reprinted in paperback from 2000 to 2002 by Dark Horse Comics, this time in black and white, although Otomo's painted color pages were utilised minimally at the start of each book as in the original manga.
The serial nature of the work influenced the storyline structure, allowing for numerous sub-plots, a large cast and an extended middle sequence. This allowed for a focus on destructive imagery and afforded Otomo the chance to portray a strong sense of movement. He also established a well-realised science fiction setting, and through his art evoked a strong sense of emotion within both character and reader. The work has no consistent main character, but Shotaro Kaneda and Tetsuo Shima are central protagonists.
Jenny Kwok Wah Lau writes in Multiple Modernities that Akira is a "direct outgrowth of war and postwar experiences." She argues that Otomo grounds the work in recent Japanese history and culture, utilising the atomic bombing of Japan during World War II, alongside the economic resurgence and issues relating to over-crowding as inspirations and underlying issues. Thematically the work centres on the nature of youth to rebel against authority, control methods, community building and the transformation experienced in adolescent passage. The latter is best represented in the work by the morphing experienced by characters.
Susan Napier has identified this morphing and metamorphosis as a factor which marks the work as postmodern; "a genre which suggests that identity is in constant fluctuation." She also sees the work as an attack on the Japanese establishment, arguing that Otomo satirizes aspects of Japanese culture, in particular schooling and the rush for new technology. Akira's central images, of characters aimlessly roaming the sky on hover bikes is seen to represent the futility of the quest for self-knowledge. The work also focusses on loss, with all characters in some form orphaned and having no sense of history. The landscapes depicted are ruinous, with old Tokyo represented only by a dark crater. The nihilistic nature of the work is felt by Napier to tie into a wider theme present in Japanese literature of the time.
The movie led the way for the growing popularity of anime in the West, with Akira considered a forerunner of the second wave of anime fandom that began in the early 1990s. One of the reasons for the movie's success was the highly advanced quality of its animation. At the time, most anime was notorious for cutting production corners with limited motion, such as having only the characters' mouths move while their faces remained static. Akira broke from this trend with meticulously detailed scenes, exactingly lip-synched dialogue — a first for an anime production (voices were recorded before the animation was completed, rather than the opposite) — and super-fluid motion as realized in the film's more than 160,000 animation cels.
Akira is expected to be developed into two live action films with the first scheduled for a summer 2009 release. Warner Bros. and Appian Way Productions will adapt the two movies from the manga. The first film is expected to be an adaptation of the first three volumes. The second film may cover the last three volumes. Ruairi Robinson is directing in his feature film debut. He was nominated for a short film Oscar in 2002 for Fifty Percent Grey. Gary Whitta is writing the script. Andrew Lazar, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Jennifer Davisson will produce the film. The film is set in New Manhattan, a city rebuilt by Japanese money after being destroyed 31 years ago. No announcement has been made regarding the cast.
A graphic adventure game based on the animated movie adaptation was released in 1988 by Taito for the Famicom console. The video game version has the player in the role of Kaneda, with the storyline starting with Kaneda and his motorcycle gang in police custody. In 1994 a British-made action game was released for the Amiga CD32, and in 2002 Bandai released a pinball simulation, Akira Psycho Ball for the PlayStation 2.