The Fall 2020 Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
Akudama Drive ?
What is this?
Long ago, there was a war between Kanto and Kansai and the world was split apart. Kansai became a vassal state of Kantou, and as developed in its own peculiar way. However, the power of the government and the police is waning, and crime is widespread. These criminals are called "akudama." As these akudama gather together in one place, their aesthetics will clash and an ordinary girl will be caught up in their world of crime.
Akudama Drive is an original series and streams on Funimation at 8:30 AM ET on Thursdays.
How was the first episode?
What was that?!
It was Akudama Drive, zooming past you at the speed of light! No time for exposition, gotta get to the action! No explanation, that's for wimps! We're just going to throw a lot of cool, edgy imagery at you and you're going to like it!
As a well-established Danganronpa-liker, it's pretty much impossible for me to not compare this series to the game trilogy, so I guess I'll just lean in. After all, with a scenario from Kazutaka Kodaka, character designs by Rui Komatsuzaki, and scripts by Normitsu Kaiho, it's practically a Danganronpa reunion! Hey, even Megumi Ogata is here! Obviously, the show will appeal to fans of the games, right?
The answer, right now, is a firm maybe.
There's a lot of appeal here in this first episode. Once it starts moving – that is, in the first five minutes – it doesn't slow down for a second. Like our heroine, who is now going by the moniker “Swindler,” we are thrown into a bizarre, colorful, dangerous world and left to figure out for ourselves what's going on. They live in a cyberpunk Kansai enveloped by neon lights, many of which are announcing the upcoming public execution of a man called Cutthroat, and a hazy orange air that is eerily reminiscent of the recent wildfire smoke that blanketed the entire west coast of the US.
The visual direction and storyboarding is excellent, from small touches like creative scene transitions to big, bold action sequences and atmospheric use of color. I watched the episode through twice, and both times I felt like I was catching new details, partially because there was so much happening on screen and partially because it was going so fast, my poor tired brain couldn't keep up. It's arresting and gory and, in a strange way, beautiful.
The character writing is where I have the most doubts, and where I'm most tempted to compare the experience to Danganronpa. The episode makes it clear: with the exception of Swindler, these are not nice guys. They are not misunderstood, they are not outcasts. They are terrifying criminals, all of whom will commit murder without an instant's hesitation. It makes for a great thrill-ride of an episode, since no scruples means no boundaries, which means they do some truly wild stuff, but isn't necessarily the most sustainable for a full-length TV series. Danganronpa may be best known as a quirky murder-driven mystery game, but what made it special to me and so many other people is its underlying warmth and strange optimism. I just can't see myself falling in love with, say, a Doctor who may be able to fix a patient but also loves to commit murder, even if she's destined to be “I want her to step on me” Twitter's newest icon.
The first episode of Akudama Drive was cool to watch and fun as hell, but will it have the subversive appeal of Danganronpa? Or will it be action and gore and dystopia sheerly in the name of edginess?
Seeing as I tend to spend a lot of Preview Guide going out of my way to decry anime that fail to present their own unique ideas and styles, would it be hypocritical of me to lose my shit over Akudama Drive, which basically sees creator Kazutaka Kodaka plagiarizing his own incredibly popular Danganronpa franchise and slapping a Blade Runner filter on top of it? Probably, but you know what? I'm going to lose my shit anyway. Sure, the concept of using bizarre contrivances and the threat of imminent death to coerce a bunch of implausibly talented crazy people to participate in some kind of ridiculous murder game has been done before; Mr. Kodaka sure doesn't earn any brownie points for originality here. However, there's at least one way nearly any piece of entertainment can get me to ignore its lack of novelty, and that's by being rad as hell.
Look, I'm a sucker for this stuff. The first Blade Runner movie and especially its sequel are two of my all- time favorite films. Call me an easy mark, but I'm more than happy to go along with anime if it is willing put in the time and effort to at least do a good job of “paying homage” to the Blade Runner franchise (along with its countless imitators and sources of inspiration). So far as this premiere goes, Akudama Drive gets the job done, and then some. The show looks incredible, sounds incredible, and as every one of the increasingly-silly Akudama introductions proves, it certainly isn't wanting for style. I don't know if Studio Pierrot and Co. will be able to maintain this level of aesthetic fidelity for an entire season, but I'm eager to find out. There were a couple of awkward edits and cluttered action beats that made the climax a bit hard to follow on occasion, but I can forgive some technical hiccups when there's so much confidence and ambition on display with this production.
The story and characters are a lot of fun too, but again, you've basically seen all of this before if you're even passingly familiar with games like Danganronpa. The titular Akudama are all known only by their criminal titles that have earned them many dozens of life sentences apiece, and they're the exact mix of charismatic, horny, and stupid that made the Danganronpa casts so much fun to hang out with. Even if you don't particularly like Courier, Brawler, Doctor, Hacker, Hoodlum, or Cutthroat, you can rest easy knowing that they'll probably die some kind of gloriously goofy death before the season is up. Our heroine, who passes herself off as “Swindler” after getting arrested for not forking over five bucks for Takoyaki, is also a likeable leading lady, who basically pulls a Paddington Bear and bumbles her way through the chaos and survives through pure force of luck and niceness.
It remains to be seen if Akudama Drive is going to spend much time developing meaningful relationships between all of these weirdos, but if the story can maintain its propulsive energy and keep us entertained, I don't think that will be too much of a problem. Akudama Drive doesn't seem to have any high-minded pretentions, and it sure as hell isn't going to impress anybody that is looking for a fresh take on original material. Its premiere had me grinning like a doofus from beginning to end, though, and that's more than enough reason for me to throw all of my stars at it and stick it right on top of my Must Watch list of the fall season.
Take a Blade Runner-styled near-future setting, ramp the action factor up to the max as extreme criminals attempt to rescue a killer set for execution (all as part of a contest with a lot of money at stake), and throw an innocent girl and a talking cat mastermind into the midst of it all and you more or less have this original series. And yes, if that sounds crazy on paper, wait until you see the actual episode.
What, exactly, is going on here is not fully clear by the end of the first episode, as the writing does not explain the setting or circumstances at all. This is one of those cases where context is largely irrelevant, however. The first episode shows just enough to allow viewers to appreciate what is currently happening: a motley assortment of high-ranked criminals, apparently called Akudama in this setting, have all been enticed by some mysterious individual to attempt the rescue of a serial killer. Each of them is called only by what they do – Courier, Hacker, Hoodlum, etc. – and in most cases the only introduction provided is a short scene showing them engaging in their normal specialty. Most of them also have abilities well beyond the norm, such as a motorbike that can sail over normal traffic by using anchor wires (and drive up the side of buildings!) or seemingly-superhuman strength and toughness. And even this is just the set-up for the real game, which has the participants wearing explosive collars. A girl who isn't really a criminal gets caught in the midst of this while trying to rescue a cat (whom she does not at that point know can talk) and passes herself off as a Swindler in order to prevent the other Akudama from immediately offing her.
Honestly, though, the details don't matter much. This episode is practically an orgy of crazy, lavishly- presented action sequences, all powered by high-quality CG, flavored by occasional bursts of intense graphic violence, and driven by an intense techno score. In terms of visual presentation, it's up there with Moriarty the Patriot and HYPNOSIS MIC for top honors amongst debuts this season, with the main difference being that it does not obsess with bishonen designs but rather delights in freaky-looking eyes. Eventually revealing some solid world-building would put this series over the top, but the first episode can carry on visuals alone.
I will have to see an episode or two more to determine if this one will be one of my Titles to Follow for the season, but it sure makes a first impression.
Akudama Drive is edgy. Super edgy, even. How can you tell? Because it takes place in a dystopian future where if it's not always night then it at least looks that way from the ever-present mustard-yellow haze, every single sign being day-glo like an 80s fever dream, and even though it's ultra high tech, they're still executing people with a guillotine. In public. To great fanfare. Like the French Revolution, if you missed the reference they're making. Oh, and also no one has a name, they're all just referred to by the crimes they most frequently commit, or, barring that, as “Ordinary Citizen,” like our hapless heroine, who learns that when this show decides that no good deed goes unpunished, it means it.
Quite frankly, watching this episode is kind of exhausting. It's trying so, so hard to be as dark and edgy as possible that it comes off like a middle school kid during their Goth or Emo phase, playing things up way too hard. Every character is introduced with an over-the-top sequence to show us their primary characteristics, like Doctor, who waltzes around in lingerie and a lab coat and performs operations on moving train cars while killing bystanders; or Brawler, who just really, really enjoys punching things. Even Ordinary, who later in an attempt to save herself declares that she's “Swindler,” is shown as good because she routinely saves preternaturally calm cats and gets in trouble for not paying for takoyaki with someone else's money, because that would be dishonest. It's about as subtle as a moose in the living room, and I hope that's on purpose, because otherwise someone needs a lesson in how to write with nuance.
Even if all of this in-your-face madness is being done purposely and for non-parody purposes, there's just so much going on visually that it can be hard to determine where to focus. I had to pause a couple of times watching to look away at a blank wall for a bit, because if you're prone to headaches, this really could risk triggering one, with all of its gaudy flashing lights and constant motion. The busyness does make its point about it being set in an urban dystopia, but the episode's need to be as over-the-top as possible means that viewing it can be really uncomfortable in a physical sense, even without considering things like Courier's rappelling motorcycle or the aurora borealis running by on the train tracks. (Which everyone stops to pray to?) It really just comes off as trying too hard on all fronts.
Presumably there's a story in here about Cutthroat (who's more like Decapitator) and the other Akudama (criminals) fighting…something for some reason that may or may not have to do with the chill cats and the bombs Cutthroat just put around everyone's necks. There's not enough migraine medicine in the world to make me find out what it is.
Well I certainly can't fault Akudama Drive for a lack of confidence! Few shows in recent memory have come screaming out of the starting gate as loud, proud, and rowdy as this premiere, and it definitely gets your attention. The first thing that caught my eye – besides the neon glare of the cyberpunk city the story takes place in – was Akudama's eagerness for stylish shifts in art and animation, crafting almost comic book-esque intros for its central cast to show off their unique skills. The second was when Courier ramped his high-tech motorcycle off a car and then used grappling hooks to Spider-man his way through the city while still on the motorcycle. That's the kind of ludicrously dumb sci-fi nonsense I can get on board with, and that it's delivered with this stone-faced dude not even batting an eyelash makes it all the better.
That's more or less the mix of this entire first episode: ludicrous, high concept, and often crass ideas delivered with so much energy and seriousness from the characters that you either immediately follow along or are totally repelled. I described it on Twitter as a cyberpunk anime starring only the dumb characters from Danganronpa, and considering they got both the original character designer Rui Komatsuzaki and Danganronpa 3 screenwriter Norimitsu Kaihō, that's not an accident. The same combination of high-concept craziness, bizarre coincidences, and purposeful raunchiness is present throughout this premiere, especially once most of our main cast are assembled in a room and ready to murder each other just because they're all too impulsive and stupid to, y'know, not do that. The kicker is when our unnamed, ordinary heroine winds up bluffing her way into their ranks just to avoid getting killed onsite, frantically declaring herself “Swindler” and then dumb lucking her way into surviving the ensuing giant robot battle.
Granted, all that energy threatens to topple over at any moment. This premiere keeps itself upright through sheer momentum, and any dip in direction, animation quality, or just too much down time between bonkers action could spell doom. Similarly, while having a cast full of dumb-as-rocks idiots constantly at each other's throats is funny for a while, that could also lose steam real fast and just become an unpleasant ensemble of idiots that make any given scene torture to sit through. I'm sure for at least some viewers that's the case already, and I can't blame them. Akudama is peddling in a very volatile style of writing and humor that, by design, is going to send some folks running to the hills before watching another minute of it. But for now at least, I'm on board this cyberpunk railgun motorcycle, and I'm ready to see it crash through some walls.
discuss this in the forum (198 posts) |
this article has been modified since it was originally posted; see change history