When you think of Katsuhiro Otomo, Akira is usually the first thing to come to mind. It was the West’s first major flirtation with anime outside of the realm of children’s television and the manga version is a colossal tome of unparalleled action and cyberpunk ambiance. But for people outside of Japan, Akira is where Otomo’s body of work begins and ends. Only a fraction of his other manga titles, like Domu and The Legend of Mother Sarah, have been released in English and none of those are even still in print. Steamboy, his 2004 animated feature, failed to grab much attention and since Otomo is not the young man he once was, he’s not producing quite as much material as he used to, leaving all of his other works lingering in obscurity and away from Western audiences.
Otomo’s art book, Kaba, covers his most prolific period, 1971 to 1989, which included manga like Domu and Sayonara Nippon and anime work like Genma Wars and Robot Carnival. We also see his hand in novels, albums, whiskey advertisements, health insurance advertisements, travel guides, television, and even concept cars. You might be saying “so Otomo knew how to be a shill? Big whoop.” But Otomo balances a fine line between craftsman and artist his work exudes personality. Even when he’s doing an ad for vodka he evokes Taoist and Chinese Zodiac imagery by crafting an elephant and a whale sharing a bottle of vodka emerging from a lotus blossom that is resting upon a tortoise.
While Otomo is mostly known for ultra-violent cyberpunk fare, the cover to Kaba features a large friendly hippo standing upright in a pleasant looking living room that is also underwater.
The book is roughly the same dimensions of a record or laserdisc, which can’t be a coincidence when you consider how Otomo embraces music and analogue technology. Kaba is bilingual (Japanese and English) with informative captions and background info, possibly because Otomo would often use English on the covers of his books and illustrations to give his work an international feel.
Otomo’s illustrations are full of expansive cityscapes, complex machinery, sprawling wires, and clothes of every fashion imaginable. At a glance it seems jumbled or overwhelming, but when you really look at it, you see an intricate attention to detail and how a complex and messy metropolis can be governed by a careful geometry. For lack of a better term, Otomo is great at drawing scenery porn, a style of art where locations play just as important a role in establishing motifs and story as characters. There are also some great photos of Otomo in his studio, which looks like a scene taken out of one of his comics as books, records, audio equipment and drawing tools spill out of every inch.
One of the most fascinating sections is on the illustrations Otomo did for the talk show, YOU. YOU ran on NHK in the 1980’s and featured Japanese teens discussing current affairs and important issues (it also had a soundtrack composed by Yellow Magic Orchestra front-man, Ryuichi Sakamoto). Otomo’s artwork was featured in the theme song and throughout the show. The pictures he made were simple stills depicting gleeful, but not malicious, destruction. A young girl in a red and yellow jumper squeezes an over-sized light bulb shaped balloon until it bursts. A chubby woman with a grin drops an enormous Casio keyboard from about four feet and it practically explodes. The pictures are intrinsically simple, but Otomo gives careful craft and detail to the characters, their clothes, and the destruction of the objects. The balance of destruction with cheery expressions and bright colors embodies Otomo’s entwinement of order and chaos.
Here’s a link to the opening of YOU: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WglFy8O-A2g
While the majority of the book is comprised of fragments of Otomo’s career, there are two short stories collected in Kaba, Farewell To Weapons (which was published in Young Magazine in 1981) and The Watermelon Messiah (also from a 1981 issue of Young). Both titles pre-date Akira, but they show where Akira’s themes and motifs start to form.
Farewell to Weapons shows a battleground in World War IV after a massive explosion in the “Far East.” Sound familiar? The story lacks Akira’s polish, but one of the techniques Otomo uses is that for panels that are supposed to be from the perspective of cameras or HUD’s he takes the artwork, films it with a video camera, manipulate the images on a TV, then re-insert it into the comic. Photoshop? Filters? BAH!
The Watermelon Messiah simply shows a colossal melon crashing onto a post-apocalyptic planet and bringing refreshing salvation, prefacing the theme of life after cataclysmic destruction. You know, every day stuff.
Kaba is tough to find and not exactly on the cheap side, but it’s one of the finest collections ever published of Otomo’s art and embodies the strange stylistic and technological orgy that was 1980’s Japan.