by Steve Jones,
How would you rate episode 12 of
Akudama Drive ?
Consider this landing stuck. Akudama Drive brings its wild journey to a halt in about the most satisfying way I could have hoped, wrapping up the story and its component themes in a bold and thought-provoking place. Of course, one shouldn't conflate “satisfying” with “happy,” as this finale leans fully into death, destruction, violence, and vengeance. However, there's also a silver lining of hope to this melancholic swan song. I find myself in the rare position of being as excited to talk about this series in the context of its ending as I was in the context of its beginning. Akudama Drive never lost its luster, and I hope you'll bear with me as I try to unpack its absurd alchemy one last time.
On a presentational level, Akudama Drive's final episode floors it. The storyboarding is bold and beautiful, the action scenes are ambitious, and the animators go above and beyond instilling character into our heroes' desperate last stand. Overall, this series has been notable for punching noticeably above its weight class. This isn't a huge blockbuster production like Demon Slayer or My Hero Academia, but each episode has been put together with a level of pluck that makes the inevitable shortcuts and shortcomings perfectly workable. And, speaking personally, I'd usually choose aesthetic competence and confidence over technical wizardry. This finale is full of deliberately striking still or nearly still images, with compositions that use color, light, and blocking in tandem to reflect the mood of the scene. For instance, a lesser series might have stopped at the obvious Christ-like imagery of Swindler's self-sacrifice, but Akudama Drive enhances the scene with the eye-catching red blood splatter, the stark spotlighting from the drones, and the contrast with the surrounding crumbling inferno. It's a lot, and that's why it's so good.
I also love the commitment to structural playfulness that I'd expect from a bunch of Danganronpa alumni. Swindler's ultimate embrace of her Akudama status comes paired with a pop-art character introduction mirroring those of the other Akudama that we saw in the premiere. This didn't have to be there for us to understand the full arc of her character development, but it's a fun and in-character way for the show to bookend it. Similarly, you might have noticed that the OP has been updated several times over the course of the show to incorporate changes like Swindler's Character Development Haircut™, and to highlight the final resting places of the deceased characters. These details might seem like nothing more but Easter Eggs, but in aggregate they're evidence of the level of intent with which Akudama Drive was constructed. The creators knew what they wanted to do, how they wanted to do it, and for the most part it looks like they were allowed and able to do so. Those are the basic building blocks of any good piece of art, but they can still be shockingly rare to find.
I think one of the best pieces of evidence for Akudama Drive's sharp focus and intent is a subplot that might seem unfinished to a lot of viewers. The show made a big deal about the Executioner Pupil and her arc from hapless rookie to hardened crime fighter, peering behind the curtains of the Executioners and humanizing them in a way that made sense. Her time in the story ends abruptly here, with her Junior fatally wounded by an orphaned child, who proceeds to ask the Executioners why they killed her parents as a shaken Pupil pins her tiny body to the ground. That's it. It's a haunting and perfect note to end on.
There was a time when I was concerned with how Akudama Drive would handle its final say on the Executioners, but this finale and its unequivocal hatred of cops fully assuaged those fears. Their story ends with their Boss frothing at the mouth for permission to kill unarmed citizens engaged in protest. No matter what Pupil's intentions were, or what her relationship to her old Master was, this is what she staked her life on. This is the ending she deserves—staring, horrified, into the hardened eyes of a little girl who will in all likelihood be branded an Akudama for immediate execution. This is what cops are as an institution, and they deserve no sympathy or well-rounded character arc for it. It's beyond reformation. If anything is going to call itself “cyberpunk,” this is the bare minimum amount of revolutionary messaging I want out of it.
That's a pretty big bummer in an episode full of them, but at least the other bummers tend to be far more triumphant. Swindler's sacrifice arrives with the full fanfare of revolt, swindling the masses one final time for the sake of her friends and for the sake of Kansai's future. Hacker, similarly, leaves a series of trojan horse parting gifts aiding Swindler and Courier in their escort of the two children out of Kansai. And Courier gets to do some of the coolest shit in the show to date, which is saying a lot! His motorcycle ride up and out of the collapsing radio tower is one of the most ambitious and unhinged action concepts in recent memory. It's absurd for a television production to try to pull that off, so I give it full marks and beyond for effort alone. Using his prosthetic arm to stabilize his broken railgun for one final finishing blow is also just pitch-perfect action film climax bullshit. It rules so, so hard. Sorry, I can't be more eloquent than that.
Akudama Drive's finale makes a clear distinction between the fate of Kansai and the fate of Brother and Sister, and the latter is much more important both to the protagonists and to the show's overall messaging. I don't begrudge the series for leaving Kansai's fate up in the air, either. With Kanto gone, Kansai is now a police state with a deeply indoctrinated populace who have only just begun en masse to explore the language and action of meaningful resistance. If I knew how that was going to resolve, let's just say I'd have a lot less anxiety about the United States' future. Therefore, I think it's wise to instead focus on and conclude with Brother and Sister's emancipation from Kansai entirely. To me, it has shades of Utena's ending (specifically the movie's), with two figures traversing an apocalyptic landscape towards an unseen and uncertain future that, in spite of the circumstances, contains all the hope in the world. Sometimes the best way to deal with an oppressive system is to leave it. We don't know what Shikoku holds for Brother and Sister. Maybe it's a haven. Maybe it's the same. Maybe it's nothing. What's important, however, is that these two children have each other to love and rely on no matter what stands in their way, and that in itself is a future worth fighting for.
I really loved my time with Akudama Drive. It's a uniquely satisfying single-cour original anime experience with bold cyberpunk flair, cinematic influences, and anti-establishment themes that resonate powerfully within this hell year of 2020. There's also a hot lady doctor who murders people, and the show's palette is drenched in neon and blood. It has a little something for everyone, and I'm more than a little surprised it never exploded in popularity this season. Still, with the show now completed, I hope the praises for it reach the eyes and ears of more people in the mood to take a spin on a consistently entertaining and delightfully ridiculous ride with good politics to boot. Thanks for joining me in these reviews, and don't let your friends get swindled into missing one of 2020's finest anime.
Akudama Drive is currently streaming on Funimation.
Steve is, most unfortunately, still in vtuber hell over on Twitter. We're all praying for his salvation.
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