The year is 2030. The world is rebuilding from World War III. In Neo-Tokyo, plans are being made to hold the next Olympics in the "old city"--where the first of the bombs fell thirty-eight years before. There, a band of teenaged delinquents led by Kaneda encounter Number 26--a terrified child possessing extraordinary telekinetic abilities. During the encounter, the paranormal boy gravely injures Tetsuo, one of Kaneda's close friends, then mysteriously vanishes.
As a result, Kaneda and Tetsuo become entangled in a power struggle between a mysterious military and scientific organization led by a man known only as the Colonel and an underground resistance group, bent on stopping to the Colonel's activities.
Among the resistance, Kaneda meets Kay--a girl he alternately maddens and tries to seduce--and Kay's "brother" Ryu. The resistance leaders include Ryu's superior, Nezu--who publically leads the political party that opposes the government--and a powerful religious leader with precognitive gifts--Lady Miyako.
Under his control, the Colonel has a number of children, each one possessing a distinct set of psychic talents and identified by a number marked on the hand. (Lady Miyako was, at one time, Number 19 in this series.) One of the children is the mental giant Akira, so powerful that since the war he has been buried beneath the earth's surface, suspended in cryogenic sleep.
The Colonel's staff subjects Tetsuo to painful experiments which awakens tremendous telepathic potential. Tetsuo is redubbed Number 41. Unfortunately, as his powers appear, a monstrous side of Tetsuo's nature also surfa ces. Able to shrug off the most serious injuries, Tetsuo goes on a killing spree, murdering one of Kaneda's friends and even attacking Kaneda.
Unable to tolerate the notion that Akira may be more powerful than he is, Tetsuo sets out to find his rival. The psychic children, who, like Lady Miyako, fear Akira's power and worry about the disaster < strong>Tetsuo may unleash. The children use their talents to help Kay and Kaneda follow Tetsuo to the Olympic site, below which Akira rests. There, they are almost reunited wi th Ryu, who is working undercover as a soldier.
Hoping to prevent a disaster, the Colonel follows with his troops and scientists. Tetsuo easily repels soldiers armed with the most sophisticated weaponry. The scientists monitoring Akira's cryosleep surmise that even in hibernation, Akira's power is responding to Tetsuo's psychic energy.
Tetsuo reaches Akira's resting place, the cryogenic chamber begins to crack from within. Akira emerges, as Kay and Kaneda watch from hiding.
The paranormal giant is still dazed and weak with the aftereffects of his coma. Akira is unable to speak, shy of bright lights, and easily ordered about. Tetsuo and he begin to make their way to the surface, followed by Kay and Kaneda.
Terrified of what may occur, the Colonel summons the powerful SOL military satellite and orders that its laser cannon be fired at Tetsuo and Akira, who are separated by the blasts. Akira is saved by Kay and Kaneda, but Tetsuo is less fortunate. The laser strikes his left arm.
Neo-Tokyo is placed in a state of military emergency. The Army is backed up by "caretaker" robots who patrol the streets, dealing harshly with looters and restoring order. The Colonel--who successfully manages to conceal the truth about what has occurred despite leaks--plans to use the emergency as an excuse to hunt down and destroy the resistance once and for all. Discredited and made a scapegoat following the disaster, the Colonel sets up a clandestine inner circle o f military and intelligence officials still loyal to him, a circle Nezu is determined to expose.
Lady Miyako divines that Nezu can no longer be trusted. She calls upon Sakaki, a young girl trained in techniques of infiltration, observation, and combat. Lady Miyako asks her to find Akira.
Kay and Kaneda take shelter with Chiyoko, a formidable woman in the resistance. Without Kaneda's knowledge, Kay meets with Nezu and agrees to turn the still-somnolent Akira over to Nezu. When Ryu, unaware of what has occurred since he last saw Kay, also reports to Nezu. He treats Ryu scornfully, denies all knowledge of Kay, and does not tell him anything about Akira.
Sakaki has followed Kay from her meeting with Nezu back to Chiyoko's hideout. She slips in and takes Akira. Kaneda is unable to stop her, but he alerts Kay and Chiyoko.
The pair safely reach the street only to be cornered by caretaker robots. Kay, Chiyoko and Kaneda arrive in time to save them. Sakaki is stunned by a robot, the trio recovers Ak ira.
Despite warnings from Lady Miyako not to overestimate himself, Nezu plans to exploit Akira for his own purposes. He awaits the delivery of the paranormal child. Kay brings Akira , Kaneda and Chiyoko to a rendezvous on Nezu's boat. He whisks the paranormal boy away by helicopter, and orders his staff to kill the three resistance fighters. They manage to save themselves and take control of the boat, and by a trick learn where the copter has taken Akira.
Meanwhile Nezu, rushing to where he has Akira hidden, is caught breaking curfew by soldiers who open fire upon his car!
Is he really worth it? Is it worth the careers tossed aside in the headlong pursuit of perceived power? Is it worth the cost of exposing young paranormals to the force of martial law meted out by the army? Is it worth bringing down a government and ruining a brilliant military career with a coup d'etat? Is it worth the mindless violence and the lives that it has extinguished? Who or what is Akira that so many have been willing to pay the price?