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Traversing the ImagiNation

6 Jan

The Radical Gaze in Akira (1988)


Benedict Anderson’s seminal notion of the nation as an “imagined community” supplemented by the mass reproduction and circulation of printed literatures has been almost indispensable for film scholars examining the intersections between film and the national imaginary. The connections between a collective imagination of the “nation” and the cinematic experience are almost too tempting to pass up. In fact, film scholars who took issue with the universalizing film apparatus theory of the 1970s popularized by figures such as Jean-Louis Baudry and Christian Metz have profited from Anderson’s work. According to Michael Walsh, the theoretical turn towards film spectatorship grounded on local and/or national experiences has been more or less a response against what was seen as the reductively universalizing theories of the film apparatus (6). But this isn’t to say that the theories of particularized film spectatorship have simply disavowed the psychoanalytic insights brought in by these earlier accounts. Rather, film apparatus theory has been appropriated and expanded to accommodate the specific historical and cultural contexts. Even then, many of these newer critics carried on the skeptical tradition inherited from the earlier film theorists, preferring to read films as being complicit with their respective national imaginaries. A reading of films as fantasmatic supplements to the ideologies of their respective national imaginaries are still very much the good standard practice of academic skepticism. In other words, there has been insufficient attempts to explicate the radical potential of films to challenge the orthodoxy of the national imaginaries  which can be said to be the conditions of their productions.

This is an attempt to read Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (1988) as a film that pushes its spectator towards an alternative imagination of Japan. By paying particular attention to the ways Akira deploys the gaze, it would seem that the film exposes for its spectator the gaps within its cinematic fantasies, and in so doing gesture towards the recognition of gaps repressed in any fantasies. That being the case, it is also my contention that the significance of when and how such gaps are exposed in Akira must then be read against the Japanese national imaginary dealt with by the film. Through the strategic deployment of the gaze, Akira opens up spaces for the spectator to deterritorialize and reterritorialize the national imaginary of Japan. Rather than reading the film here as a national allegory, I chose instead to focus on the significant moments in which gaps within the image are exposed and thereafter to read them by recourse to the film’s narrative. Since the film Akira does draw on and indeed engages with the existing national imaginary of Japan, an allegorical reading of the film is of course possible. However, to systemize it as such into an allegorical reading runs the risk of subordinating, from the outset, the film’s disruptive moments to their imaginary ‘origins’, thereby potentially reducing the import of their political force. To facilitate this paper’s argument, I would begin by briefly recapitulating some of the new currents made in Lacanian film theory and animation theory that this paper draws on. This would then be followed up with the analysis of disruptive moments when the gaze is presented to the spectator in relation to Japanese nationalism.

The Legacy of Lacanian Film Theories

The earlier accounts of Lacanian film theory drew extensively on Jacques Lacan’s earlier essay “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function, as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience” as their point of reference for the gaze, without so much as to acknowledge Lacan’s own revision to this concept. For these early theorists, the cinematic apparatus was simply an ideological mechanism built for the recalibration and reproduction of conservative subjects. Through the fantasmatic provision of a sadistic gaze, the spectator is simply deluded into having a subjective agency whereas in actuality, he leaves the cinema just as he was before: a politically-impotent subject. In short, these theorists saw cinema as the new opiate for the masses. However, these earlier accounts placed an overemphasis on the realm of the imaginary in the spectatorial experience, and thus mistakenly conceived of the gaze as a subjective gaze for mastery. In fact, Lacan himself offers in Seminar XI a contrary revision of the concept; the gaze, as the objet petit a of the visual field, refers to the uncanny sense of the object looking back at the spectator from an unidentifiable point outside of the spectator’s visual field, thereby addressing “the lack that constitutes castration anxiety” (73). Rather than the “external view of the filmic image”, the gaze is also the lacuna in the visual field that accounts for the loss that constitutes the subjectivity of the spectator; it is that which therefore disrupts the spectator’s ability to remain all-perceiving and unperceived in the cinema (McGowan 7-8). As the object cause of desire, the gaze is also that which holds the spectator’s desire to look in the hope of finding something that could account for this profound sense of loss despite the apparent plenitude of the image before him.

However, this loss of an illusory mastery is not to be mourned for. Todd McGowan asserts that this vision (which was the subject of early Lacanian film theory) gives us “an implicit sense of mastery over what we see”, but it is merely the product of the imaginary filling in for the constitutive loss addressed by the gaze in the first place (16). While the symbolic order and its system of representation is always already punctuated by lack for it to work (i.e. for the possibility of symbolic exchange to exist), the imaginary functions to gloss over the insufficiency of the symbolic in order to maintain the image of coherence. But the ‘magic’ of the cinematic fantasy is rooted in the realm of the imaginary; it works insofar as it represses the gaps or interstices within the moving image itself in favour of an illusory contiguity and integrity. While the early theorists like Baudry and Metz may have explicated on the relationship between the illusions of a coherent image and a coherent subjectivity, they have tended to slide over the implications of the gaps within the cinematic fantasy in favour of politicizing the ideological complicity of cinema. In fact, was it not Baudry himself who alerted us to this necessary “denial of difference” between the frames, i.e. the repression of gaps within the cinematic fantasy (536)? As Slavoj Žižek notes, fantasy is “much more ambiguous than it may seem”; in trying to conceal the horrors of the gaps of the real, fantasy simultaneously “creates what it purports to conceal, its ‘repressed’ point of reference” (92). Therefore, a psychoanalytically-informed film theory cannot afford to focus solely on the ideological effects of cinematic fantasy concealing the real; it must address the ways in which the cinematic fantasy can and does expose the gaps it tries so hard to mask over.

One of the ways in which the film can gesture towards a realization of interstices within its cinematic fantasy is by drawing attention to its interval. In fact, this interval between the frames is precisely the lacuna at the heart of the spectatorial experience, or the points of negation repressed in the unfolding of the cinematic fantasy. And as with the antagonism of the real, the intervallic lack shares the potential to disrupt the imaginary/fantasmatic coherence of the moving image when it becomes visceral for the spectator, when it addresses the real poverty of any fantasies. Though rarely deployed as the gaze, every interval between the frames of the moving image when felt by the spectator has the potential of the gaze radically disrupting the “magic” that the cinematic fantasy has over the spectator. (One only has to recall the jump-cuts popularized by Jean-Luc Godard.) Because the moving image is dependent on this inter-frame interval to work, one could say that there is an inherent potential in all forms of the moving image to expose the lack in the form of gaps within the fantasy.

Animetism and the Interval

Thankfully, the interval between the frames is not the only analogous form of the Lacanian real in the moving image. Thomas Lamarre has conceptualized two terms in his discussion of animation that addresses the interstices within the framed image. But before diving into what Thomas Lamarre terms as the “animetic interval” and “animetism”, it behoves us to turn to what Paul Virilio calls “cinematism” since Lamarre’s concepts are derivative of Virilio’s. Cinematism refers to a ballistic vision, a movement into depth with the visual technologies of modern warfare being the apotheosis of such a logistic of perception. As Virilio explains in a tone not unlike the apparatus theory offered by the earlier Lacanian film theorists, “What happens in the train window, in the car windshield, in the television screen, is the same kind of cinematism” (85). For Virilio, cinematism represented a site for the mass calibration of our vision; it is designed “to align our eyes with weapons of mass destruction, with the bomb’s eye view. The eye becomes one with the bomb, and everywhere in the world becomes a target” ready to be bombed into submission (Lamarre, “Anime Machine” 5). Here, the resemblance to the subjective gaze proposed by earlier accounts of Lacanian film theory becomes clear. The main import of their work lies in their shared scepticism of how the modern subject has been instrumentalized and duped into thinking that he is a master over all he sees – be it through a sadistic voyeurism or a ballistic vision. Curiously, both film apparatus theory and Virilio’s concept of cinematism cannot fully account for the multiplanar image that is appearing substantially in today’s post-filmic cinema – of which Akira arguably belongs.

Rather than race along the trajectory of motion as in cinematism’s violent movement into depth, Lamarre conceptualizes a different potential in the moving image in which the spectator looks from the point of a sideway glance. This he terms “animetism”. Instead of movement into depth, it is a movement “on and between surfaces” (Lamarre, “Anime Machine” 7). But more importantly, animetism causes a “separation of the image into multiple planes” which thus allows fault lines to “appear in the apparently unified and totalized modern technological condition …[as] denounced in Virilio” (Lamarre, “Anime Machine” 6). This perhaps needs to be understood with a brief exegesis on the animation process of the multiplanar image: Prior to the digital overhaul of the animation process, the animation stand with its stacked layers of cel sheets were used to produce the illusion of depth in animation. Rather than drawing movements frame by frame as was the method favoured by American animators such as Walt Disney, animation in Japan took to the animation stand because of its ability to economize the number of drawings that needed to be done. Instead of drawing movements between every frame, the animation stand moved drawings across and within the frame, thus saving on the amount of labour that is required. But this is also why there is a potential in the multiplanar image to produce the lateral effect of animetism. Because the lateral movements are perpendicular to the illusion of depth, there is a much more visceral effect of the interstices between the layers of the multiplanar image (Lamarre, “Anime Machine” 17-8). Lamarre terms the fault lines or gaps opening up between the constitutive layers of the image as the “animetic interval”. If the terms “cinematism” and “animetism” suggests a kind of essential difference between cinema and animation, Lamarre makes clear the point that the latter two are but different potentials that can appear or be harnessed in any form of the moving image – even though he does observe that there is a greater tendency of animetism in animation over other media forms (“Anime Machine” 9-10). Nevertheless, animation can be wholly cinematic and film can also display moments where the animetic interval is presented to the spectator.

What I find interesting and valuable about Lamarre’s concepts of “animetism” and the “animetic interval” is that both seem to gesture towards the understanding of the objective gaze as countered by new Lacanian film theory. The animetic interval in its visceral effect draws further attention to the gaps within the frame of the moving image itself, and not just between the frames. When the animetic interval presents itself to the spectator, it is as if the interstices point to some unidentifiable space from which the image gazes back at the spectator, thereby disrupting the “magic” of fantasy – or to put in terms much more favourable with the early Lacanian film theorists, it disrupts the fetish of the image. It is as if the fantasmatic repression of this lack within the image causes the latter to resurface in the form of the animetic interval. But of course, because the ‘magic’ of cinema necessarily resides in the realm of the imaginary, the animetic interval is always haunted by the possibility of being glossed over or ‘filled in’ by the cinematic fantasy. In fact, this is very much similar to what Baudry meant when he noticed that the cinematic fantasy is perhaps guided by a very strong possibility of repressing differences between frames in favour of a coherent image (536). Therefore, the animetic interval finds itself just as likely to be repressed as it is to be experienced by the spectator. Here then, I should state that while I have experienced these moments in Akira where the animetic interval is viscerally felt and which I will thus attempt to analyse in this paper, I acknowledge that another spectator might not have the same radical experience with the animetic intervals – if any at all. But would this not only prove the varied spectatorial experience that even perhaps the most ideological or deterministic of films have to concede?

Film and the national imaginary are intimately related insofar as they are both forms of fantasmatic distortions. As fantasiesworking in the realm of the imaginary, and as distortions of their actual (social) conditions, both film and the national imaginary have the potential to render the otherwise impossible possible, and the invisible visible (McGowan, “Real Gaze” 24). If we are to understand national imaginaries as fantasies of a coherent community (as per Anderson’s notion), the nation becomes an image that unites identified members; it is a fantasy that enables members, who could otherwise live out their separate lives without having to meet one another, to hold on to this sense of solidarity and identity. In other words, the national imaginary as a fantasy thus renders the otherwise invisible members of the imagined (national) community visible through this projection.

More importantly, and to paraphrase Žižek here, the solidarity of a group hinges not so much on some positive essence identified, but on that which all members of the group disavow in order to maintain the unity and integrity (99). To take the example of Japan, it is not so much the positive content of Japanese-ness that is the basis of Japanese nationalism, but rather the common repression of what could threaten this image of national coherence – i.e. what is ‘not Japanese’ (Yoshino 11). As such, attempts to supplement a national imaginary via fantasmatic images of a coherent community (such as those performed by propagandist films) are always plagued not only by the potential exposure of its repressed, but also the potential realization that there is essentially nothing behind the screen of its national imaginary. That a fantasy (e.g. national imaginary) requires another form of fantasy (e.g. film) to supplement it should already expose the lack of a presence or self-evident truth in the former. Therefore, the further translation of the national imaginary onto the screen of cinematic fantasy brings its lack much closer to the surface . The task of the film theorist would be to discern the moments when such gaps are revealed for the spectator. Or as one of titles of Žižek’s books would have it, it is a matter of “looking awry” at our fantasies. And in this paper, it is a matter of the spectator looking awry at the national imaginaries of Japan played out before him.

Encountering the Sideway Trauma

To recapitulate and consolidate the concepts discussed so far in this paper, it is perhaps necessarily to illustrate them through an analogy of the spectator as the passenger of a moving car. Elsewhere, Lynne Kirby has noted how the spectatorial experience is analogous to that of a train passenger insofar as both entail a paradoxical experience between movement and stillness (2). Cinematism, ballistic vision, or the masterful ‘gaze’ occurs when the spectator aligns himself with the trajectory of the moving car – like Kirby’s spectator-passenger – and thus misrecognizes himself as the master of that vision. But a glance to the side would clearly reveal that he is not the master-driver, and is instead subjected to the drive(r), thus exposing the lack of his fantasy. Likewise, a glance thrown to the window on the other side would present a landscape that seems to open up into layers rather than reveal a totalized vision as before. This sideway glance is precisely the anamorphic effect of the objective gaze that Lacan, Žižek and McGowan speak of; it addresses the lack in the visual field that our imaginary fantasies are keen to gloss over. In other words, there are indeed moments where the gaze of the moving image comes as a kind of ‘sideway trauma’ that hits the spectator, forcing the latter to come to terms with the gaps in the fantasy. Films that deploy the gaze in such a manner thus disturb the workings of fantasy and open up – at least momentarily – a space for the spectator to look awry at the fantasy before him. Rather than remain contented with the easy formulation that all forms of the moving image are always ideologically suspect as vehicles of mass culture, it is necessary to move beyond such ominous foreclosures in order to recognize the radical potential in the moving image.

Curiously, in Katsuhiro Otomo’s animated masterpiece Akira, there is in fact a moment in Akira that the analogy of the gaze as a sideway glance and trauma is directly alluded to. On their way to a showdown with the rival gang of “the Clowns”, Kaneda’s crew decides to wreak havoc on a passing car at a road junction. The driver experiences a blinding light from the side of his seat, much in the same way the spectator’s vision is disrupted by the traumatic gaze. Here, it is as if the spectator-as-driver is made aware of his blind spot and shocked out of the imaginary “total vision”. This encounter with the gaze, this lacuna of the visual field, is the blinding light that hits the innocent driver in Akira like a side-way trauma. Moreover, it seems hardly a coincidence that the title “Akira” translates to “light”. Would this not therefore serve as a suggestion that the “light” of any moving image contains within it the potential for the spectator to encounter the radical gaze?

Unlike Kirby’s spectator-passenger which places an emphasis on passivity, Akira seems to imply that the spectator ought to be a driver discovering his blind spots. In fact, this sequence suggests that the spectator only recovers his agency in the encounter with the gaze. To put it in more familiar terms, it is only in the encounter with the lacuna of that visual field, i.e. this something there which I cannot quite see or identify, that the image or fantasy loses its aura. I the spectator become painfully aware of my own constitutive loss and the poverty of this fantasy before me; but at the same I am joyous at this feeling of liberation this disruptive moment affords me. Only by exposing this gap in the fantasy, the spectator is accounted for, and a negative space opened up to resist the workings of fantasy (both cinematic and national). In that sense, this sequence of Akira serves as a repetition of Kirby’s metaphor but with an important difference that recovers the agency of the spectator. Not only does the spectator have the agency to look and to do so from a decentred position, but this agency also comes courtesy of the image’s gaze before him. Thus, both Virilio and the earlier Lacanian film theorists might have been too hasty with their dismissal of cinema, too fatalistic or deterministic in fact.


More importantly, it is not without significance that the disruption arrives from the side. As discussed earlier, this of course has its resonance with the sideway glance of the Lacanian gaze. But more than that, this disruption from the peripheries of the spectator’s (or the driver’s) vision must be read also as a commentary on Japanese nationalism. Here, I would like to suggest that Akira deliberately had Kaneda’s biker gangs approach and attack from the side of this traveling car. It is as if the peripheral outsiders to this empire of Neo-Tokyo (i.e. an outlandish biker gang made up of delinquent youths) are now attacking the normative Japanese salary-man that has very much come to figure as the poster-boy of post-war Japan’s economic resurgence. The distinction becomes much more obvious if one considers the difference between the motorbikes of Kaneda’s gang and the car driven by the innocent salary-man, drawing attention to the stratified society of Japan. Of course, no nation is completely homogeneous, much less any capitalist nation-state. However, it needs to be said that Japanese nationalism is perhaps slightly more peculiar since it functions at the level of an extreme nationalist discourse known as nihonjinron (discourses of Japanese-ness). As Harumi Befu notes, Japanese nationalism is largely predicated upon a conservative essentialism that not only “espouse[s] the isomorphism of land = people = culture = policy”, but also masks how it is fundamentally centred on the ethos of “central Japan (the Kansai-Kanto belt)” (34-5). While not exactly ethnic others, Kaneda and his gang do play the role of Japan’s peripheral outsiders. In that sense, their disruptive attack must be read as a traumatic moment that accounts for Japan’s ‘internal’ others, since it is precisely through a repression of these others that the coherent image of a nihonjin empire is maintained. It could also be argued that Akira assumes its spectator to be precisely this innocent salary-man driving his car – which would not be a leap of the imagination since the salary-man does constitute the bulk of post-war Japan’s demographics. In other words, the spectator encounters not only the gaze of the film as a sideway trauma, but also this repressed other whose marginality guarantees the identity of the spectator-subject. In a word, it deterritorializes and reterritorializes for the spectator the national imaginary of Japan.

In the gang fight sequence which follows immediately, Akira goes even further to present its spectator with the objective gaze of the moving image – namely, through the irruption of the animetic interval. Just as Kaneda and his biker gang ride out in preparation of their imminent fight with a rival gang, the spectator is treated to a view of the city’s skyscrapers as though it were the point of a view of a rider with his head turned to the side. Yet, the spectator cannot be sure as the film does not disclose this. The image thus ends up like a kind of free floating gaze that haunts the spectator, on top of the animetic intervals that surfaced here. In other words, the gaze presents itself with twice the force, and the spectator becomes doubly aware of the gaps within the cinematic fantasy. It would be easy to dismiss this effect as the consequences of a ‘low production value’. In fact, it would seem almost too easy. After all, if one considers the fact that Akira was commissioned with the largest production budget for a Japanese animation feature to date, such a dismissal seems all the more unlikely – if not downright petty. Moreover, is this lateral view of the cityscape not surplus to the narrative? And Akira deliberately presents this view of the city with the animetic interval rather than provide a smooth coherent moving image. That this sequence is the only sequence in the entire animation film to sustain a succession of animetic intervals calls for critical attention. It is also significant that the exposure of the animetic interval occurs against the vertical skyscrapers towering over the city. Obviously, the contrast between the vertical figures and the horizontal force of the moving image makes the presence of the animetic interval much more visceral. But more than that, the most poignant image in this sequence belongs to the long shot that frames the entirety of a glowing Neo-Tokyo. It is a grand image that soon gives way to the animetic interval. If the skyscrapers are symbolic of the social architecture, the revelation of the inassimilable gaps here disrupts the fantasmatic image of a coherent social order. But how exactly should one read this constant disruptive ‘presence’ of the gaze here in relation to the overarching narrative of Akira, and in fact back to the Japanese national imaginary?


Read against the historical and cultural context of Japan, I would suggest that the encounter with the gaze here marks a point of failure in the post-war national imaginary of Japan perpetuated through the official discourse of nihonjinron. What the atomic bomb shattered in the war was the efficacy of a Japanese imaginary based on the image of a pure and powerful nihonjin empire. The collapse of the Japanese empire at the end of World War II, however, was met not only by an intrusive American occupation but also uncomfortable questions concerning externalized ethnic others in Japan. Against these threats, “post-war nihonjinron re-defined Japan as homogeneous again” (Ko 17). That is to say, the post-war national imaginary of nihonjinron must be read as a reactionary response to reconstruct the image of a coherent Japanese society/empire, predicated upon the repression of both the ethnic minorities within Japan as well as the castrating presence of American soldiers. If so, it is hardly a surprise then for Otomo to structure his film around an outlandish biker gang traversing Neo-Tokyo and its secret(s). If the national ideology of Japan has been predicated fundamentally on the assumption of some positive essence to be found (Befu 21), the gaps revealed here through the interstices of the animetic intervals therefore gesture towards the absented other effaced by this national imaginary. This sequence, in its ostensible attempt to overwhelm the spectator with the succession of spectacular images of the Japanese empire/metropolis, ended up exposing the gaps repressed. The animetic intervals decentre the spectator from the auratic ‘presence’ of Neo-Tokyo, positioning him as an outsider like Kaneda and his gang. Rather than allow its spectator to remain beholden to the conservative fantasy of post-war Japan, the animetic intervals of Akira here open up an invaluable space for the spectator to resist not only the cinematic fantasy but also by extension, that of Japan’s post-war national imaginary as well.

The criticism of post-war Japanese nationalism is followed up in the next (and last) appearance of the animetic interval in Akira which occurs towards the final showdown between Tetsuo and Akira. From the outset, the spectator has been led to invest in this fantasy of “Akira” as the object that is able to grant any character who acquires it unlimited power.  That is, “Akira” is positioned as the lost object of desire for the characters as well as the spectator. Through a secondary identification with Tetsuo, the spectator imagines the possibility of traversing this fantasy, of acquiring “Akira” whatever or whoever it may be. But the impoverished nature of such a fantasy surrounding “Akira” is revealed in this sequence. Rather than a powerful being or wholesome object, the spectator discovers a set of dissected body parts stored in cryonic canisters. What follows is the image of these canisters opening up to its internal interstices, thereby de-spectacularizing the aura of this “Akira” fantasy. Like Tetsuo, the spectator who has traversed the fantasy of power and plenitude finally comes too close to the “truth” or true poverty behind that fantasy.


In fact, I would like to add that this fantasy of power and plenitude that the film initiates the spectator toward needs to be read in conjunction with the film’s rather enigmatic opening sequence where the spectator is presented with a Tokyo being bombed. This then cuts to a black screen that stares back at the anxious spectator, before zooming out to reveal what looks to be a bomb crater. But the spectator is never told what it is, or at least what were the incidents leading up to this event. This is therefore the very first encounter with the objective gaze of the film which sets the spectator out on a quest to find something that might ameliorate this castration anxiety, some kind of an imagined presence that would explain the ‘origin’ of the film. The title “Akira” then glosses over this crater, thus initiating the spectator on the course of seeking out “Akira” (or substitutions of it) as if it was the lost object that would bring the spectator’s profound sense of loss to relief.

Here, it is helpful to turn to Rey Chow’s account of post-war Japan. Because of the restriction placed against Japan’s militarism after World War II, “[post-war] Japan became one of the world’s leading producers of cars, cameras, computers, and other ‘high-tech’ equipment …. [T]he victim of war rises again and rejoins the ‘victor’ [America] in a new competition” (Chow 97). In other words, the post-war economic reconstruction of Japan was really predicated upon a reactionary and nostalgic image of Japan as a superpower. Similarly, Lamarre asserts that Akira repeats the traumatic event of the 1945 bombing in hopes of breaking with “the constitutive cycles of [Japan’s] postwar economic reconstruction” (“Born of Trauma” 141). The grand view of 2019 Neo-Tokyo here clearly parallels the neo-imperial imagination of post-war Japan. To that, I would add that the abyss of the bomb crater therefore functions as the imaginary lost object of post-war Japan; it glosses over the trauma of the bombing with the fantasy of a lost object, as if some form of plenitude existed prior to the traumatic event and that which post-war Japan can recover through the acquisition of this lost object. In other words, the spectator is aligned with both Tetsuo and post-war Japan in Akira, made to seek out this lost object, but only to encounter the very impossibility of this lost object – in the form of Akira’s dissected body parts. Returning to the disruptive moment where the animetic interval irrupts into scene, it is as if the gaze makes its reappearance once more to confirm the very inanity of the spectator’s fantasy. Through this, Akira gestures its spectator towards the recognition of post-war Japan’s national ideology as a nostalgic project founded upon a fundamental misrecognition of some lost object of power.


Yet, and rather distressingly, Akira does in fact make a final appearance in the film and presents himself as some kind of final revelation that would resolve the deadlock. Does it not simply suggest that this lost object is attainable? In other words, Akira seems to provide a fantasmatic resolution of this lost object. This is complicated when one considers just how it is that Akira comes to save Neo-Tokyo from being destroyed by Tetsuo’s berserker body. For all of the disturbing potential of the lost object, this seems to suggest the possibility of domesticating the lost object after all. While all these are certainly valid, it behoves us to consider the last sequence of Akira when the spectator is greeted by what looks to be a giant human eye. Here, it is as if the film makes a last ditch intervention to shake things up once more, to reintroduce the gaze so as to destabilize the euphoric moment of the resolution before. It suggests that there is once again something yet to be determined, thus opening up a space once more for the spectator to resist any imaginary foreclosure of the fantasmatic resolution offered up earlier.


Despite globalization and the transnational flows of today’s digital culture, it would still seem tenuous to dismiss nationalism as an ideological project of the past, now done and truly dusted. After all, the organizing principle of the nation still exerts the greatest symbolic efficacy today, both politically and culturally. It is hard not to think of our passports and our national teams up there on the world stage, just as it is of categorizing films and other cultural products along the lines of their national ‘brand’ (e.g. Hollywood blockbuster, Japanese anime, Korean drama, British humour). Yet, convenient labels these may be, it needs to be stressed that they work insofar as they repress certain differences or tensions that are nonetheless there within their demarcated boundaries. In other words, the nation is never a homogeneous entity or a coherent image as it would imagine itself to be. There are always already other voices. Particularly in the case of Japanese nationalism, Katushiro Otomo’s Akira comes as an intervention perhaps to the conservative essentialism of the Japanese state. And contrary to the common criticism of mass culture as always ideologically complicit with the ruling ideology, these other voices can be heard in the popular medium of film. If anything, films do not cultivate a unidirectional look that is necessarily aligned with the national ethos. Whether it is the de-spectacularization of the post-war discourse of nihonjinron in Akira or otherwise, disparate voices can be heard by the spectator and for the intrepid film theorist to pick up on. But only if one looks hard enough. Otherwise, they might just irrupt into view from the peripheries of one’s vision.

Works Cited

Akira. Dir. Katsuhiro Otomo. Toho, 1988. Film.

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 2006. Print.

Baudry, Jean-Louis. “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus” Movies and Methods Vol. II. Ed. Bill Nichols. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985. 531-541.

Befu, Harumi. “Concepts of Japan, Japanese culture and the Japanese” The Cambridge Companion to Modern Japanese Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Print. 21-37.

Chow, Rey. “The Age of the World Target: On the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Dropping of the Atomic Bomb” Mass Culture and Everyday Life. Ed. Peter Gibian. New York: Routledge, 1997. Print. 91-107.

Kirby, Lynne. Parallel Tracks: The Railroad and Silent Cinema. Devon: University of Exeter Press, 1997. Print.

Ko, Mika. Japanese Cinema and Otherness: Nationalism, Multiculturalism and the Problem of Japaneseness. London: Routledge, 2010. Print.

Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1998. Print.

Lamarre, Thomas. The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009. Print.

—. “Born of Trauma: Akira and Capitalist Modes of Destruction” positions: east asia cultures critique 16.1 (2008): 131-156. Web. 22 October 2012.

McGowan, Todd. The Real Gaze: Film Theory after Lacan. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2007. Print.

Virilio, Paul and Sylvère Lotringer. Pure War. Trans. Mark Polizzotti. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983, Print.

Walsh, Michael. “National Cinema, National Imaginary” Film History 8.1 (1996): 5-17. Web. 31 October 2012.

Yoshino, Kosaku. Cultural Nationalism in Contemporary Japan: A Sociological Enquiry. London: Routledge, 1992. Print.

Žižek, Slavoj. The Žižek Reader. Ed. Elizabeth Wright and Edmond Wright. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999. Print.