The Role of Kaori in Akira

Gage recently added a comment to my review of Akira (the one anime that made anime famous as anime in the West) and this one made me think. He mainly writes about Kaori who is the girlfriend of Tetsuo i.e. the Guy Who Goes Horribly Nuts. Gage not only correctly points out that Kaori is only on screen in two scenes in Akira but also that in each segment Kaori is in a living hell and no one seems to care. I addressed his second point in a comment of mine in the original post, so I will use this space to address the first point: the role of Kaori in Akira since her two moments seem to be not that important at all.

Before I start please note that you need to have watched Akira at least once to understand what I’m writing about. If you didn’t, you can gladly skip this blog post if you like.

Originally I planned to address all of Gage’s points in a short comment and be done with it, yet I just couldn’t wrap my mind around the whole matter. Why is Kaori in Akira? What’s her purpose? What I certainly know is that her role in the manga is much more important than in the movie. I know this because I bought two volumes of the manga years ago in which she was part of the plot. Yet, in the movie?

Her role at first doesn’t feel important at all in the animated version. I was constantly thinking and wondering why Kaori was in the movie. Certainly you could’ve reached the same plot points with a different character. The only thing I knew from the start was that another character was necessary so that Tetsuo has someone to interact with.

Yet the more I thought about it the more I got lost because I couldn’t really find an answer. Well, until I started remembering one of the scenes in which Kaori was in. This was the moment when it made ‘click’ and for the first time ever I grasped the purpose of her character in Akira completely.

So, what am I talking about? To emphasize this point, let me start with some of the other girls that appear in the movie. There are two scenes in particular I want to talk about. The first scene takes place after Kaneda’s gang is sent back to school and get a good beating from a teacher:

Akira Kaori 1

As you can see, the three gang’s chicks on the right can be fully described as biker’s girls. Colorful dresses, makeup and an almost slutty way of talking. If I’d be an asshole, I’d describe them as the pitch perfect bitches of the gang.

Then there’s another scene which is even more important:

Akira Kaori 2

The appearance of the other girl on the telephone is not that outrageous but you can see that she has a good tan and wears tight clothes which reveal her figure in any way possible. Moreover she’s some kind of gossip girl who seemingly talks all day on the phone. In a way I got the feeling she’s just the same as the biker’s gang girls.

Now compare everything I mentioned with Kaori:

Akira Kaori 3

Kaori’s appearance is the opposite most of the minor girls shown in Akira up to that point. She doesn’t wear makeup; she doesn’t have dyed hair. And she wears rather bland if not slightly colorful yet totally mismatching clothes. She might show some skin, but that’s on a normal level (arms and legs), moreover her clothes are not tight at all as it’s the case with every other girl.

I almost feel like a stupid idiot because both girls appear in the same scene. I never spotted this fact or thought much about it. And I feel massively stupid because of this since the whole purpose of the scene is just to show the contrast between both girls, especially on the level of behavior. One is flashy, the other not. One behaves outrageous, the other one timid and shy. It’s as if two worlds clash.

And this is the moment I understood Kaori and her purpose in Akira. Because when I shifted the outer appearance of the girl onto the symbolic level, everything became crystal clear: Kaori is the symbol of normality, of a normal life. So her role in terms of movie minutes might be minor but that doesn’t mean that her role isn’t truly significant.

The following scene in which she meets Tetsuo drives this point already home: Tetsuo didn’t run to his gang, but to her. Why? Because he wants to run away with her. On the symbolic level this means that he wants to leave his current life behind and start living normally. Remember that he comes straight from the hospital, so he doesn’t have any belongings with him. He even doesn’t want to. He wants to start over.

Minutes later this takes a turn for the tragic in which Kaori plays an extremely important role. She is the trigger of the madness that breaks out in Tetsuo and his lust for power and domination. The reason is the fact, that he wasn’t able to save or protect Kaori, his normal life, from the clowns. He didn’t have the power. But Kaneda did. Kaneda saved the day. This leads to some extreme frustrations inside him. So he not only beats the clown almost to death but also starts to get aggressive towards Kaneda. In a way, Kaneda took Tetsuo’s pride and his face, which is also why he hides his face when Kaori comes close to him and tells her to stay away. He’s ashamed of himself. Seconds later his awakening fully starts and we know that there’s no turning back anymore.

Tetsuo was extremely close to start over living normally, but his old life destroyed everything. The normal life symbolized by Kaori is further away than ever. And the same happens with Kaori as a character: she’s not a part of the following fights and conflicts in Akira.

In terms of structure this scene is the first major turning point of Akira, the moment everything really starts and Tetsuo begins to fully awaken. And Kaori’s a part of it. The exact same thing happens again, this time almost at the end of Akira, at the second major turning point in terms of Testuo’s awakening. And again, Kaori, the normal life, is part of it.

If you remember, Kaori appears out of the blue in the stadium after the big fights are over and Tetsuo more or less found Akira:

Akira Kaori 4

In this scene the character interactions are important as again is the role of Kaori, the symbol of normality. Minutes after the reunion of Tetsuo and Kaori the Colonel offers him help by giving him the medicine that’s necessary to control this power. Tetsuo refuses. But then the marvelous thing happens: he walks towards Kaori and seeks her help. He wants the medicine from her, not the Colonel:

Akira Kaori 5

Remember: this is the guy who killed hundreds of people, even his old gang members. He should’ve killed her or attacked her in an instant but he didn’t (he even let Kaori help him walking as the screenshot above shows). Again, on the symbolic level, he was reminded of the normal life he could have lived after finally seeing Kaori again.  This triggered again his wish for just that. A normal life. He still wants to reach and find it accompanied by all the normality we live in. This time, though, his wish is utterly tragic because there is no way he can turn back anymore. Kaori, the normal life, is out of reach and stays out of reach – Kaori backs off. Seconds later his final transformation begins.

In the course of this transformation he still clings to his wish to return to normality. He frantically grabs Kaori not thinking about her safety at all. He swallows her in his body and moments later she’s killed by it. Tetsuo doesn’t want this to happen but his body – his power – is out of control. He’ll never be able to reach normality because his own body “killed” it. In a way those events in Akira are absolutely logic on the symbolic level. Imagine what would have happened if the kids didn’t awake Akira and Testuo somehow would’ve controlled his body. Do you think he’d still be able to live a normal life? Of course not, simply because his grotesque form would’ve prevailed in one way or another. There’s no way he would’ve gained any form of normality. But even if he would’ve manage to regain his body, he’d still be having those massive psychokinetic powers. Nobody would ever dare to get close to him. He would have been shut out from society. After his powers awakened he lost his path to normality forever.

But back to Kaori as the symbol of normality. As Gage mentions in this comment, everyone seems to treat her coldly or doesn’t care about her death at all. I think that her symbolic role in a way explains, why almost everyone in the movie act the way they do. She – the symbol of normality – is the outsider in Akira simply because everyone else long time ago left this path and nobody wants to return. They don’t want normality, they don’t seek it. Hence nobody interacts with her. In other words: she’s too normal for them.

I am not sure if I overlooked some important scene or moment in Akira but even if I did I for the first time ever get the feeling I fully grasped Kaori and her role in this post-apocalyptic movie. It took some time but I think it was worth it.

What do you think of my interpretation? Let us know!

Comments

  • Wow, I’m glad my comment got that much attention! Kaori really did confuse me as to her importance in the story; it seemed like I couldn’t figure anything out about the character, whereas, with other characters there are at least some identifiable pieces of information. Here are some examples:

    Tetsuo: He’s jealous of Kaneda, yet also looks up to him. He also seems to be a powerless person who wishes to reign over everyone else.

    The green children whose names I have forgotten: They are incredibly intelligent and philisophical, beyond their years you could say (even though they’re about 40). They are also afraid of blood and are slightly cluster-minded.

    Stimpy: he may not have anything to do with Akira, but he’s an easy example for me. First off, he’s an idiot, yet has a brilliant scientific mind. He also really loves T.V and Gritty Kitty litter. He’s also probably gay.

    Okay, they have points in their personality that make them unique. They have likes, dislikes, fears, and special emotions towards other characters. Kaori, on the other hand, I have no idea about anything. She has absolutely no identifiable interests, likes, dislikes, or anything. I see the symbolism which you expertly sleuthed, and… wow, she’s more important than I thought. Frankly, she’s one of my favorites for all the wrong reasons:
    A) She’s an absolute mystery and sparks curiosity, even though she really has very little significance, which only sparks more curiosity!
    B) Man, you really pity the girl. She makes me feel more depressed than I do after hearing “breathe”. Seriously, at least that song tells you that you’ll be trapped in a dull rut for your whole life in a graceful way!
    C) Whenever I see her I think of the song “How soon is now?”. I don’t know why, maybe the meaning of the song has some similarities towards her, or maybe she reminds me of the girl in the music video (which she shouldn’t as Kaori would never pull off the fedora look), but who knows. Either way, this is getting off topic.

    Thanks for this blog! I didn’t know my comment would have such an impact on you, and this post is just brilliant. Frankly, I don’t think I would ever have found anything like that out, however I subconsciously noticed how she was the black sheep of everyone. Well, this taught me two valuable lessons:
    1) don’t try to be different or else you’ll get the $%& beat out of you, sexually abused, then crushed to death.
    2) the smiths really come up in the weirdest of places…

    • Gunther Heinrich

      Thanks a lot for the praise. And well, I also have to thank you and your comment because that’s what made me start thinking. Great or thought out comments always get a lot of attention from me. I consider madmind not only a way to blabber out my mind but also to spark comments and discussions.

      Regarding the character traits of Kaori I’d say you can explain it because of two facts: for one she’s appears only in two segments of this movie. For the other you could say that her rather lacking traits are another element of her being the symbol of ‘normality’. On the other hand…she has quite some character traits: she’s rather shy and doesn’t try (or want) to stand out. You can see those traits of her during her first appearance. Of course, this again can be traced back to the symbolism of her.

  • I guess what really bothers me is that, right after Kaori’s fairly easy to prevent death, The green kids decide to save Kaneda with the motive “it wasn’t his fault at all”; if anything, she really helped, and it wasn’t her fault… it also wasn’t the bartender’s fault, but I’ll let that slide due to the situation.

    • Gunther Heinrich

      Well, when you think about it the ‘first’ kids even don’t give a shit about a whole city. They knew Akira’s power would destroy anything and everything in his near vicinity but they went for it. On the other hand this could mean that they prevented something much more disastrous from happening while not being able to do it themselves. The bartender more or less proves this as they never could have saved him because Testuo was way too powerful already. This is the very reason they ‘reactivated’ Akira.

  • Man, why didn’t the general just shoot tetsuo in the head before or during his mutation? That would have spared, I dunno, roughly… A LOT of people? Or was Tetsuo just WAY too powerful… why didn’t the green kids do anything right off the back? Why didn’t the U.S get involved in something that’s none of their business and will only come back to haunt them; y’know, like we always do? Why why why why why why why- screw this, I’m watching H.R Puffinstuff! ;D

    • Gunther Heinrich

      Normally I’d say that hours before Tetsuo was already able to maintain a power field protecting him from almost anything they threw at him. But yeah…the bullet got through that time. Damn it. Let’s just say the General isn’t able to shoot straight even if his life depends on it.

      Andbyohtheway: In the mange, the U.S. get heavily involved.

  • Your post really did clear things up, though; at first I though “wow, tetsuo sure is a jerk! That guy sucks Nixons!” but then it turns out he had good intentions all along; they may not have worked out well in the end (what, killing his girlfriend, some friends, and multi millions of people, if not billions), but you still feel for the guy. Hopefully he becomes a god and stops hollywood from releasing the new live action Yogi Bear remake coming out sooner or later…

    • Gunther Heinrich

      I never wrote that Tetsuo is a nice guy. I only wrote about his motivations up until his breaking point. And even before then he wasn’t a nice guy. But at least my interpretation gives him a little bit of depth: You can be an asshole and still have a dream/goal/whatever.

  • Good observation… say, who are you referring to when you say “the first kids?”

    • Gunther Heinrich

      With “The First Kids” I mean the green kids. The first ones to become ‘super’…

  • You know who is actually a great character? The only biker (besides Kaneda) to survive at the end. That guy’s awsome; one thing I didn’t get was the scene right after the meeting with the principle; all the bikers are reuniting with their girlfriends (except Mr. surviving biker who doesn’t have one), when he just randomly coughs up a bunch of blood all over himself, then gets hit in the back of the head for it. I mean, the only other random scene was the explosion at the interrogation building where a random explosion happens in the roof, but that was because of the grenade that didn’t go off (no I didn’t figure that out). However, this scene doesn’t make any sense. Your observations? You’ve always been good at figuring things out ;D

  • Pollux

    I stumbled over this blog when I was searching for an Akira Wiki.

    Well, its a movieblog and you’re talking about the anime Kaori, and you’re right with everything. But I’d like to point out some diffrences to the Manga, the role is very diffrent there.

    First you need to know, very much shortened, the main diffrence between the manga story and the movie story as a whole:

    Tetsuos power is unleashed very early on and Tokyo lays in ruins. But such an outburst isnt the end. After the ‘peak’ is over, Tetsuo regains his calm and reignes over the ruins as the prophet of a new theocracy. Akira is awaken but doesnt act or speak at all. Hes sitting in the dirt most of the time and Tetsuo takes the role of his speaker. Well theres some this and that and some nice fights and a real lot of character-development and then theres the final confrontation. Some cult that you wont know if you never read the books causes Tetsuo to unleash all of his power in one huge blow that could even destroy the whole planet, but the ‘numbers’ (old kids) wake Akiras burned out soul/mind for a short moment. In these few minutes Akiras power is nearly unlimited and he is concentrated enough to counter Tetsuo with an exactly opposite reaction. About everything related to the powers ends here, in a very… mythtical event.

    Sooo… that said, wheres Kaori?
    After his first outburst and after he has taken control of Tokyo, Tetsuo is trying to control the power that is building up inside him. He follows his primitive instincts to ease the pain and channel the pressure. He kills people, uses a lot of drugs and: he orders some girls to have fun. He gives them the same pills he got (those that can wake a persons ability to use the power). Most of them die at once, some die while ‘having fun’ with Tetsuo but none survives. Kaori is one of these girls. When we first realize shes there, shes a naked girl in a corner, crying. She didnt take the pill because she thought it was painkiller and she wanted to give it to her injured father. Tetsuo has allready calmed down when he killed the other girls. He begins to cry with Kaori and falls asleep in her arms. Thats her introduction in the Manga.

    Over the whole story Kaori is where Tetsuo goes when he needs to rest. You have to understand that these outbursts could happen any time, its no one-time thing. He could blow up Tokyo every day. He has to surpress the huge power that rages like a beast in him. When he doesnt do drugs anymore Kaori is his best chance to do so.

    She dies in the manga, too. But its not Tetsuo who kills her. When a power-peak causes him to kill a few soldiers theres a firefight breaking loose. Kaori gets hit and is close to death. When Tetsuo sees her, the shock causes him to calm down cause he wants to help her. He tries to use the power to help her. And it seems as if he could beat death in his own game, but just for a short while. Kaori begins to talk about drifting apart and a darkness getting closer to her. Tetsuo loses her.

    Just wanted to show these diffrences.

  • John Wiberg

    Kaori is one of the main reason that I still feel Akira is unsurpassed. But, I do believe she represents something other than just “Normality”. Akira, to me at least, has always been about power and oppression (It is in essence a highly political film; something rarely discussed considering the film features anarchist revolutionaries, greedy officials dying clutching money and a riot being suppressed by military police).

    Tetsuo’s low status in the group and resulting inferiority-complex is the psychological explanation for his destructive deeds once he gains power. Likewise, the oppressive and corrupt government is the explanation for the alienation, the brutality of the gangs, the political upheaval and the doomsday cults. In the end, everyone suffers; even those with power, like post-transformation Tetsuo.

    Kaori fits into this thematic by being the weakest agent in the entire film, not even the destructive power of violence is granted her. In a movie about power, she is the negative pole. She is, in fact, not “normal” in the harsh reality of Neo-Tokyo. It is the cynical, street-smart girls all around her that are normal. They are adaptive survivors; Kaori is not: She is good-natured, naive, incapable of rebellion and for that she suffers like no other. I think it’s important to see her in contrast to her opposite, the revolutionary Kei. She and Kaneda are in no doubt “Empowered” characters, subjects who act.

    If Kei is Kaneda’s female counterpart, Kaori is Tetsuo’s. They are both “Powerless”, and Tetsuo’s journey from that position to Akira, the embodiment of Power, is the movies central arc. But where as Tetsuo can reach existential peace, redemption, mastery of his own universe… Kaori is well and truly doomed. As a feminist, I see her as a touching and honesty study of the relationship between gender and power.

  • Gage

    Wow, it’s amazing to come back to this article after all these years. I refuse to read my comments, but looking at your replies and other comments truly blows my slightly more mature mind. Funny enough, though, even though I can appreciate the tragic purpose of Kaori, it doesn’t really bring me any comfort. Her death is actually the most bothered I’ve ever felt by a fictitious character’s fate. It’s funny, I saw the movie 6 years ago (when I was 11) and I’m just as irrationally bothered now by it as I was then. All I can say is, damn. Just that one word: damn. If you need me, I think I’m gonna go watch “Requiem for an Old Yeller” to cheer up…

    • Soma

      Glad you and I feel the same way, Just watched the movie myself and this was easily my biggest gripe.

  • Mzuark

    I personally really hate that she had to die. It’s just wrong that Kaori, the only character who did nothing wrong, had the second worst fate in the movie, save Tetsuo himself.

  • Omar

    Thank you for the effort you did in analyzing all this. I have read the article and the comments and I liked the conversation very much.

    I have to say that I came here because of my unsettling feeling towards Kaori’s death in the movie. I am not new to anime, but sadly I only saw the movie 2 days ago. I still think about Kaori’s role and her very tragic end.

    Well, I liked the character development shown in the movie, but I didn’t like the characters themselves or most of them anyway. Tetsou was quite power hungry, and his weaknesses made him misuse his powers to the very wrong direction, killing his own friends and other innocent people. Kaneda is an asshole as well, he keeps reminding others of his superiority and keeps thinking about his own self, switching girl friends because of looks not personality and bossing everyone around. His lifestyle is not even productive to anyone or the society. I still find it very silly that he was able to be a threat to Tetsou after his awakening. We saw Tetsou killing trained soldiers easily and destroying tanks and bridges but can’t annihilate Kaneda in the same way.

    I can keep going and talk about other characters, but I will try to concentrate on the point more. I mainly liked the colonel and Kaori. The colonel was not quite innocent, but his goals were the most productive in the roster. As for Kaori, I though she was quite naive, and was feeling unsecured with her life. I guess that this is the main reason she would love Tetsou, even though he mistreats her. Apparently he needs her, and as she doesn’t have friends or other people caring for her, I think that is why she got attached to the only person who noticed her. With Tetsou, Kaori felt she is needed. That is why she didn’t refuse his offer to escape with him leaving everything behind. She may know he is useless, but she has no one else. That is also why she keeps caring for him and searches for him in the stadium, even though he didn’t care for her when she was beaten by the clowns.

    In short I think everyone were way too harsh with Kaori, for not even asking about her at the end. For them, she didn’t even exist. Only Tetsou cared, but he was too weak and childish and he mainly cared about the security feeling she gave him, and never tried to give her back in return.

    Last thing to point here, is that Kaori didn’t in both manga and anime didn’t try to claim anything for her. She was mainly trying to help Tetsou or her father, but just not her.

    Sad story… Anyway there is a rumor of a live action movie version of Akira is in development by the director of “Edge of tomorrow”. I really hope they don’t screw this.

    Thank you for the thoughtful analysis, and thanks to everyone for the great commentary.

  • John Wiberg

    Sure is nice with a thread that ages well.

    Cage, it’s cool that you’re still touched by the film, I can relate. I think the lesson here is that great films are great films, and it’s important to search among the classics and not just among the seasons blockbusters. Hey, any year now you’ll be ready for the likes of Salò and Enter the Void — then we can really start talking about a lifetime of appreciation of purpose and lack of comfort.

    Omar, I’d say that the fact that all the characters are flawed is what makes them worth discussing in the first place. AKIRA features almost uniquely realistic characters, whereas most anime tends towards idealization. It’s yet another reason why it’s such a classic.

    Anyway, AKIRA certainly has it’s moments of fantasy exaggeration, Kaneda’s exploits being one of them. However, one possible way to explain why Kaneda could stand a chance against Tetsuo is that the psi-powers are in essences driven by the mind and thus subject to psychology. Kaneda is Tetsuo’s Older Brother/Father-figure, he has a complex and conflicted relationship with him. Remember, these kids are orphans, Kaneda is as close to family as Tetsuo’s got left. Deep down, Tetsuo doesn’t really WANT to kill Kaneda, he wants recognition and independence. So, it’s not so silly that the powers Tetsuo manifests are incredibly potent against people he couldn’t care less about but are less then reliable when facing off with the guy who is not just his rival, but his only family. In the end, Tetsuo gains his independence and saves Kaneda… though not Kaori which is really quite interesting (WHAM Back on topic baby!).

  • Lionon

    I just rewatched the film after many years and out of some reason Kaori was person I instinctivly felt most pity for, so I googled her and got here. You’re right its not only her death that somehow goes casually along the way, its also the way she was abused in the previous scene in the movie and no one really cared at a lot. Tetsu is way more worried about shotaros bike than about Kaori “If I you put a single scratch on that bike I’m gonna kill you ass”. Kaori just been beaten and violently denuded is already forgotten? I suppose the bike is the symbol of Shotaros esteem as gang leader. Its Tetsus decission to steal that bike were things went wrong already. Like Shatoro says “this whole thing happened since you took my bike for a spin”. So its here where the desire for power and social standing ruined a quiet peaceful life, Kaori is the symbol for.

    Thank you for this blog post. I enjoyed it; years later.

    PS: Her showing up in the stadium out of the blue, there extra a scene shown where she watches the TV in a shop window which reports he is in the stadium and she thus heads there, since she wants to help him (typicial female role cliche of the nurturer)

  • Ninfa

    I didn’t read the comments, so maybe I’m saying stuff that has already been said.
    Kaori as a symbol or Kaori as a plot device created to trigger Tetsuo’s feelings of guilt and therefore reawaken his humanity… both possibilities are likely, and both of them are offensive to women.
    You see, she doesn’t have a story of her own, and none of the women in this movie actually has a significant story arch. And that’s my problem with Akira: the women are there for the sole purpose of providing something to the male characters, never to live their own stories. Therefore, the movie is extremely sexist.
    Kaori is the obvious example, as she is treated with abuse all the time, until her ghastly death. People might argue that Kei is a baddass, but she is a plot device as well: she makes it possible for Kaneda to find Tetsuo in the laboratories. He would never be able to find his friend because he had no resources to do so. But when he tries to hook up with Kei, he ends up meeting a group of people that are planning to invade the laboratory. How neat!
    And later in the movie, when they are imprisoned together, Kei gives Kaneda all the information he needs to understand Tetsuo’s powers. Minutes later, she literally vanishes.
    I watched Akira because I had already watched everything of the Ghost in the Shell franchise. All I wanted was a Japanese animation about a woman, set in a cyberpunk universe. Akira was cyberpunk, it was Japanese, and it was an animated movie. But sadly, it was not about a woman. I watched it anyway because it was such a classic, and because I had hopes that women would still have a role in the story. How wrong I was!
    I now realize that the thing that actually blew my mind in Ghost in the Shell was the female gaze; something so rare in a global society dominated by man. Motoko’s body is very sexualized in the movie, I did notice that. But the story is told from her point of view, and her actions are motivated by her own impulses and desires, not by the need to please a man or to be loved by him. Motoko is her own woman, and that is very appealing for female fans because so many of us are tired of male-centered narratives.
    Akira, on the other hand, is heavily masculine, polarizing and sexist. I’m disappointed, and although I do understand the symbolism behind Kaori’s character, I just can’t be comfortable with it. She was used, in every possible way, by other characters and also by the writers. The years have made me increasingly intolerant with stories that use female characters as tools; because this kind of approach is rarely used when writers are creating male characters. So in the end, writing women as plot devices is just a different way of objectifying women.

    • Penta

      I disagree with Ninfa: Other male characters whit a prominent role in the manga version like Kay or Yamagata don´t have their own arch in the animated version, they just follow kaneda. Kaori and the rest of female cast are just background characters like them. This is because the whole protagonic role is in Tetsuo, Kaneda and Colonel Shikishima, is their story, not the story of Kei or Kaori.

      The whole idea of Kaori in the movie is make the viewer feel umconfortable about Akira´s wolrd, every non protagonic character is a plot device for the story, think in Yamagata.

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