Autoethnography is “an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyze personal experience in order to understand cultural experience” (Ellis 2011) As a method, autoethnography combines characteristics of autobiography and ethnography (Ellis 2011), which will be utilised to understand the protagonist Tetsuo in Akira film.
When writing an autobiography, an author retroactively and selectively writes about their “epiphanies” – remembered moments, crises and events with significant impact on a person’s life (Ellis 2001).
I will begin my autoethnography journey by looking back into my past.
Japanese anime has been no stranger to me.
One of my biggest hobbies during my adolescence was reading Japanese manga and watching Japanese anime. My two favorite manga series, which both had their anime adaptations, were Inuysha and Ranma ½, all written by Japanese manga artist Rumiko Takahashi. Despite my early and extensive exposure, I have never pondered over whether there were any motifs or dominant themes in the world of Japanese anime.
Until today, I got the chance to watch Akira, a Japanese animated sci-fi cyberpunk action film depicting a dystopian version of Tokyo in the year 2019.
The very moment when Tetsuo’s grotesque, gigantic body transformation was overflowing the screen in my class, it suddenly dawned on me that most of the Japanese anime that I enjoyed do have one thing common: Metamorphosis.
Inuyasha anime features a half-demon-half-human who could turn into a ‘real human’ or a ‘full-fledged demon’ in different cases. Ranma ½ is about the protagonist Ranma who is cursed to switch between being a girl and a boy when splashed with water. Tetsuo’s body in the film ending, similarly, is also transformed. However, both Inuyasha and Ranma possess confused and comic figures, while Tetsuo’s metamorphism is confused and terrifying. These two different ways of body representations are very popular in Japanese animation, especially when it comes to the notion of the adolescent body as a site of metamorphosis (Susan 2001).
Autobiographers can make texts aesthetic and evocative by using techniques of “showing” to bring readers into the scene” – particularly into thoughts, emotions, and actions, in order to “experience an experience”.
Ethnography, as part of autobiography, studies a culture’s relational practices, common values and beliefs, and shared experiences for the purpose of helping insiders (cultural members) and outsiders (cultural strangers) better understand the culture (Susan 2001).
A special detail that struck me was the scene of Tetsuo attempting to jump start Kaneda’s enormous red motorcycle, only to be laughed at by his stronger comrade. A feeling of resentment towards the gang and pity for Tetsuo emerged from inside me, seeing Tetsuo silently going back to his motorbike.
Throughout the film, Tetsuo gradually becomes a victim, a protester to the oppressive authority, and a criminal. However, when Tetsuo drags Kaneda into his body metamorphosis, Tetsuo is screaming, begging for help from Kaneda. Before Tatsuo disappears, he shows Kaneda his memory of when they first met and how Kaneda started protecting Tetsuo. After all, Tetsuo is still a frightened and alienated adolescent in the crisis that made him monstrous both to himself and others.
Inuyasha, as a half-demon, has always been outcast by both humans and demons. Ranma, with his gender transformation, is considered as ‘weird, abnormal’ by everyone else. Tetsuo, Inuyasha and Ranma all fit into dominant themes in Japanese cultural self-representation, which ‘have long been those of uniqueness, isolation, and victimization – hence of a lone nation struggling against all odds’ (Susan 2001).
In conclusion, using different forms of autobiography – personal narratives, layered accounts and co-constructed narratives (the live-tweeting experience with my peers), I have broadened my understanding of the representation of Tetsuo in Akira, and on the broader scale, the Japanese anime world and the Japanese culture.
Ellis, C, Adams, T.E & Bochner, A.P, ‘Autoethnography: An Overview’, Forum Qualitative Social Research, vol. 12, no. 1, <http://www.qualitativeresearch.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1589/3095>
Susan, N 2001, Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: experiencing contemporary Japanese animation, Palgrave, New York.