Katsuhiro Otomo

The first time I saw Akira, I was a freshman in high school.  My brother and I were fans of shows like Dragonball Z, Speed Racer, and Sailor Moon (this was a while ago).  Somehow, we found out there was more of this ‘japanimation’ in existence and we had to see it.  Unfortunately, we were living in a small (SMALL) town and this was before ‘good’ internet.  Hence, we drove 2 hours to the nearest city to RENT Akira and Ghost in the Shell.  We watched them both in one night, and I must admit that I was nodding in and out of sleep by the time Tetsuo began his final transformation.  But alas, it didn’t take long before I had purchased my copy of Akira on VHS (yes that amazing US dub with Leonardo’s voice) and watched it nearly every night while painting for the remainder of my high school years.  And the rest is… well ya know.

Otomo is a powerhouse creator.  Very few creators have accomplished the sheer volume of work that Otomo has.  Many people know of Akira, Otomo’s magnum opus, but he has a breadth of work that is astonishing.  I find his influence seeping into my art-making process on a regular basis.  Every time I view Otomo’s work, I’m amazed and inspired.

Recently my dear friend and fellow artist, Rinko Endo, brought me two collections of Otomo’s short stories straight from Japan.  I wanted to share some images from a the collections that highlight why Otomo is my hero.  I will apologize for some of the blurriness on the scans, but I refuse to dismantle my books for better scanning.  Also keep in mind that these are scans from the japanese editions, so they read right to left, top to bottom.


Otomo is a master of pacing and motion.  He explores methods that constantly direct your eye through the page and control the speed a viewer takes in information.  We all know his ‘big moments’ in Akira (say, the destruction of an entire city… twice), but those only work due to his pacing and panelling on preceding pages.  He can show speed, tension, and motion simply through his panel layouts and framing:

Exhibit A: A gunfight breaks out over cheating in a card game.  Notice how the paneling gets less linear as the events grow more hectic.  He also pushes the camera in tight to highlight details.  Then he brings us back in context of the overall scene with the last panel escape out the window.

Exhibit B: A scuffle between men handcuffed together.  It’s common that people see action lines and think they are doing more work than they are.   The real work is in the gestures.  Notice how the arm positions in panels 2-3 push your eye through each panel then on to the next.  Additionally, Otomo flips perspective in mid action (last two panels), so you’ll see a man in mid-air in two panels.  This slows down the manner in which we perceive the action, enhancing the impact of key moments.

Exhibit C: Something is amiss at my boring office job.  I absolutely love this page.  Subtle but powerful.  Notice how he breaks up the motion portrayed by inserting telling expressions.  He also uses tiny motion lines and cast shadows to full effect in showing the tiny pencil’s journey.


Otomo’s work will always be recognizable as Otomo.  But he is constantly exploring new ways of rendering and enhancing the visual experience, using a variety of techniques and tools.

Exhibit D: Battle suits & robots.  This entire strip makes use of 4 distinct techniques, showcased on this page: Traditional pen & ink, solid areas of ‘out of the tube’ color (panel 1), collage texture in backgrounds (panel 5), a video ‘filter’ in  panel 4 (to show video the view from inside the helmut).

Exhibit E: War with a creature from beyond.  Here Otomo uses a pastel-y watercolor technique and larger panelling reminiscent of european comics (I hear he loves Moebius).  You’ll notice how each panel is more of a self contained illustration, showing multiple elements of the narrative. 

Exhibit F: Squidly Diddly.  This is a panel from an odd little story about aliens in conflict on a far away planet.  The entire strip consists of the cephalopod creatures with very expressive eyes.  This helps create a more whimsical atmosphere than his more realistic renderings.

Exhibit G: Spooky murder scene.  Pen & ink with pencil enhancing the lighting, textures, and patterns on clothing.  Simple but effective, adding an aged look to this piece, set in feudal Japan.


Otomo’s title pages introduce visual qeueus for each piece, while maintaining a stand-alone punch that causes pause in the viewer.  They don’t tell the whole story, but they give you the key to understanding what’s within.

Exhibit H: mmm… that BLUE…

Exhibit I: A boy and his guitar. 

Exhibit J: And of course, Otomo has HIS influences as well.  What better way to introduce a story about artificial intelligence than with an Escher reference?

I highly recommend that everyone, artist and otherwise, give Otomo’s work a look.  I’m sure he’s done something you’ll dig.  Here are some books that are fairly easy to get your hands on in the US:

Akira (I would recommend the Dark Horse collection released in early 00’s, rather than the colorized marvel series)

Domu: Fantastic piece that explores similar themes from Akira, but on a smaller scale

Akira Club Art book: If you enjoy special features on dvd’s, this is like a book of special features for the Akira comic book.

Akira (animated film)


Steamboy: A very under appreciated film, but probably one of the most beautiful animations ever produced.

If you can find em…

Memories, SOSSayonara Nippon, Kaba, Kaba 2, Batman: Black & White 4, Roujin Z

Thanks for listening to my rambling.  Who inspires YOU!?



8 Comments on “Katsuhiro Otomo”

  1. Great post man, you really opened things up to a wide range of examples of his work, I had no idea and hadn’t seen half of that stuff!

  2. Rob says:

    The graphic novel of memories is a really hard book to find. I heard there were several other volumes released in japan but would imagine they are even harder to get hold of.
    Thanks for sharing the scans.

  3. kesterL says:

    hello apart from the memories book what other books did you get these images from ecspecially the cowboy in white.

    • tyrellcannon says:

      Great question! Finding Otomo’s short stories is very tough here in the states. Luckily, I have a friend that is a frequent visitor to Japan and she picked up a couple collections of Otomo work for me. One was ‘Memories’, the other (featuring the cowboy) is called ‘S.O.S.’ Both are fantastic, though I prefer the stories in S.O.S. These collections are in japanese, but still a great buy if you can find them. He has another short story collection available called ‘Sayonara Nippon’, and just released another art book called ‘Kaba 2’, which I got through Amazon Japan (I hope to post some images from that soon). Thanks for reading and good luck hunting down some Otomo!

  4. […] Example: Katsuhiro Otomo.  We all know him for Akira, but the dude’s short stories span all genre’s and […]

  5. Bryan Dass says:

    Your post here is very appreciated. Fantastic insight thank you for sharing!

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