The Anime Classic 'Akira' Foresaw The 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics – And Its Empty Stadium

Three years ago, when we revisited the 1988 anime masterpiece Akira for its 30th anniversary, it was a neat trivia factoid that the film happened to predict — purely by coincidence, mind you — Tokyo, Japan as the site of the 2020 Summer Olympics. Scientists and Steven Soderbergh had already warned us, years earlier, about the potential dangers of a global pandemic. Still, the vast majority of people would have never guessed what 2020 held in store for the residents of planet Earth.

Here we are in 2021, yet the athletes of the world are just now lacing up for the 2020 Summer Olympics, officially known as Games of the XXXII Olympiad. In the U.S., the opening ceremony is set to broadcast live on the morning of Friday, July 23, 2021, with a later primetime airing and overnight replay. Viewers who are still wedded to their TV sets will see it on NBC. Cord-cutters can stream it on Peacock.

Japan's capital is indeed the host city, and as it turns out, Akira was more prescient than it or any of us knew about what Tokyo 2020 would look like when it finally arrived.

Corona what? Corona Extra? Why, yes, thank you. It would be quite appropriate to sip a cold imported beer while watching the 2020 Olympics in the heat of summer. This is the mindset that some people may have had "back in the before times" of 2018, those halcyon midsummer days when all we had to think about were the 30th anniversary of 1988 films like Die Hard and Akira.

A year and a half later, COVID-19 hit and we all added the word "coronavirus" to our vocabulary (except for certain willful, demagogic politicians, who shall remain nameless but who never missed an opportunity to call COVID "the China virus.") Merriam-Webster's online dictionary highlighted "pandemic"  as the Word of the Year for 2020. The rest is history.

"Just Cancel It": How Akira Foresaw Tokyo 2020

The Olympic stadium makes its entrance in Akira around the 16:50 mark, after the famous motorcycle chase that winds us through the cyberpunk streets of Neo-Tokyo at the beginning of the movie. First, we see the open-air stadium in a god's-eye shot, looking straight down on it from the sky at night, the way a bird or helicopter might if it were flying overhead. Then, it cuts to a ground-level view outside the stadium, where we see construction cranes rising over the top.

The camera pans down to a sign, in Japanese, reading: "Tokyo Olympics – 147 Days to the Opening Ceremony." Below that, there's a rallying message, again in Japanese: "Let's make this a success with everyone's support." Yet some street artist has added their own graffiti below that message, with the words, "Just cancel it."

It's this phrase, "Just cancel it," which reads like an inversion of the Olympic sponsor Nike's famous "Just do it" slogan, that was trending hard on Japanese Twitter last year. The date? Friday, February 28, 2020. 147 days before the Olympics.

Or so we thought. The same day, people on Facebook shared images of a replica of the movie sign at Kyoto University. Countdown signs like the one in Akira, minus the post-apocalyptic graffiti, have been a common sight all around Tokyo in the lead-up to the Games, too. They had to readjust those signs, of course, and add another 365 days after the postponement of the Olympics to 2021.

Meanwhile, that phrase, "Just cancel it," matches the sentiment of most people I've spoken to here in Tokyo, who feel that the city and the IOC (International Olympic Committee) should have either postponed the event again or canceled it altogether. I do know one nurse who will be on-site in full PPE (personal protective equipment, like a hazmat suit) at the Olympic Village. But that's because it's her job to test athletes who are exhibiting a fever or other symptoms of COVID.

A Stadium Built on Top of Secrets

The connection between Akira and the 2020 Summer Olympics goes further than one brief movie scene. In fact, the whole climax of Katsuhiro Otomo's film is set inside this empty stadium. As it turns out, the stadium is built on top of a secret cryonic storage unit that holds the remains of the titular Akira, an esper, or kid psychic with god-level abilities, powerful enough to trigger the singularity that destroyed the old Tokyo in 1988.

The movie, it should be noted, is set in 2019, the year that gives COVID-19 its numeric designation. What is a virus if not Mother Nature, red in tooth and claw, at work?

In real life, they actually built a new $1.4-billion National Stadium here in Tokyo for these so-called "Recovery Olympics." That was before the late-breaking announcement, this month, that the Olympics will be closed to spectators for the first time in history. With coronavirus case numbers on the rise again and a slower vaccine rollout than the one in the States, Tokyo is, unsurprisingly, under a fresh state of emergency. During the closing ceremony, the new National Stadium will sit mostly empty, just like at the end of Akira.

As The AV Club noted in a post last summer:

"The Olympic stadium [in Akira] is literally covering up the bad thing that destroyed the city and could easily destroy it again, which means the basic desire to go back to how things used to be is metaphorically covering up the real danger."

Having lived in Japan for the last 11 years, this seems to me to be a distinctly Japanese reaction to potential awkwardness. Cover up the bad thing to save face. Discretion is the better part of valor, so let's put on a brave face and not talk about the thing that might cause distress or discomfort.

I happened to be in the area, so I stopped by the new Olympic stadium in Tokyo's Shinjuku ward recently. Previously, I had seen it under construction — and completed — from high up in skyscrapers over the city. Now, I was seeing it up close. But not too close, since they have a big security fence up around the whole thing and as much of a police presence there as they do at the U.S. Embassy. It reminded me of Akira, where you see the police clashing with protesters like we saw last summer all across America.

The True Spirit of the Tokyo Olympics is “Fenced In”

My wife and I had tickets for the Olympics (long since refunded) and we were disappointed by the fenced-in sight of the stadium. We had hoped to just see the colorful Olympic rings display outside, which they're always showing on the news, as if to project an image of oneness, international unity, rings interlocking like arms. Yet I came away feeling like the fence, the high-security atmosphere, that general "Don't come here!" vibe, was truer to the spirit of the 2020 Summer Olympics than any other fake photo op we could muster.

Speaking of photos, I have some old ones, taken outside the newly refurbished Tokyo Station on Christmas Eve 2012, which show huge posters with the Olympic rings and the words "Tokyo 2020 – Candidate City" written on them. Tokyo won its bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics eight months later, on September 7, 2013.

People I know here on the ground in the capital had been looking forward to the Olympics ever since. Through my job as a teacher, I encountered many Japanese adults who were practicing their English, looking forward to volunteering and showing international visitors the unique spirit of omotenashi, or Japanese hospitality.

The road to 2020 was long and not without its controversies, such as an early Olympic logo design that was scrapped due to plagiarism accusations. Some said the Japanese government should not be sinking so much money, billions of dollars, into the National Stadium and other ventures like the Olympic Village when it could have been doing more to help out the still-recovering Tohoku region.

Tohoku was hit hard by a devastating earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. It happened during my first year here and shook buildings so hard in Tokyo that, for a few seconds, I thought mine was going to collapse. It didn't, but there are times when it feels like the whole house of cards that is human society might do that, if we're not careful.

Who Will Benefit from the Pandemic Olympics?

The one-year postponement from 2020 to 2021 was unprecedented for the Olympics. However, before the spectator ban, NBCUniversal's CEO was saying this could be the most profitable Olympics ever for the network in terms of advertising and viewership.

I sincerely hope someone profits from these Olympics, because I'm not sure it will benefit the taxpayers of Tokyo any more than burying the secret of Akira benefited the citizens of Neo-Tokyo.

People were worried, before, about the sweltering summer heat of the city in July and August. The 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics notably took place in October, and people thought that tourists coming to Tokyo might be unprepared for the temperatures and liable to get heatstroke. In the end, there will be no tourists, and many of the events will happen in the morning or at night so that NBC can broadcast them live in the states.

It goes without saying that the 2020 Summer Olympics are taking place in adverse conditions. For the generation of athletes who lost their chance to compete last summer in the true calendar year of 2020, the rescheduled Games offer an important opportunity for them to put their lifelong training to use on the world stage. For the organizers, advertisers, and volunteers participating in this historic event, it represents a chance for them to finally come out the other side of a logistical nightmare, planning and pulling off the Olympics under the worst circumstances imaginable.

For the rest of us — including civilians on the ground here in Neo-Tokyo — the 2020 Summer Olympics are something we will only ever see on TV. Or maybe on Netflix Japan, which is currently streaming one hell of a prophetic anime film called Akira.


NBC's live, first broadcast of the opening ceremony for the 2020 Summer Olympics will be from 6:55 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. ET/3:55 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. PT on July 23, 2021.