by Steve Jones,
How would you rate episode 1 of
Akudama Drive ?
How would you rate episode 2 of
Akudama Drive ?
What do you get when you cross five super criminals, two not-so-super criminals, a whole lot of neon lighting, and a talking cat!?! I'm still not entirely sure, but Akudama Drive is poised to deliver the answer as rambunctiously as possible. This anime-original production is the first television series produced by game developer Too Kyo Games, a new studio founded in part by Danganronpa writer Kazutaka Kodaka. He also provided the original concept for Akudama Drive. So it's unsurprising that we're immediately inundated with Danganronpa hallmarks: from the original character designs by Rui Komatsuzaki, to the scenario involving a cadre of eccentric geniuses stuck working together for a mysterious robot animal. At times, this feels like more of a Danganronpa anime than any of the actual Danganronpa anime. If you're me, that's a good thing! If you don't have any patience for Kodaka's shenanigans, then maybe I can still help you understand why this appeals to me.
Akudama Drive's premiere is a lot of things, but it's first and foremost a declaration of aesthetic intent. This isn't a look you stumble into out of convenience. The boisterous pop art flavor of Danganronpa accents the setting and character introductions well—always on the cliff's edge of garishness, but not quite teetering over into the hot pink abyss. Complementing that, it's impossible not to draw visual comparisons to Blade Runner (both original and 2049), and the show's producers have also not been shy about the influence of Quentin Tarantino's films on the scenario. Just compare the plot of Reservoir Dogs to the anime's second episode, which is also called Reservoir Dogs. I'm always a little wary of anime leaning too hard into Hollywood—to an extent, I look to anime as an escape from the increasingly monolithic Hollywood monoculture—but Akudama Drive has tempered those fears with its fearless eccentricity and edginess. Its aesthetic potpourri makes it both easy to poke fun at and impossible to take seriously, and I love that! One of the main characters leaps into and singlehandedly commandeers a blimp. Another character sews up her injuries too fast to be killed. This is supposed to be absurd and fun.
To speak seriously for a paragraph, however, I am very intrigued by all of the world-building these first two episodes have laid down. There's a lot going on—and certainly a lot we're still not privy to—but we can start to suss out some of Akudama Drive's thematic ambitions from what we've seen so far. First off, we're inundated with images and advertisements heralding the police and carceral state as one of power and theater. Criminals are ranked as if they were athletes, and executions are broadcast live like gladiatorial events. A heavily automated criminal justice system assumes arrestees to be guilty, and any resistance to that is further proof of that guilt. Maybe all that reminds you of something? There's also the matter of the past civil war between the Kansai and Kanto regions of Japan, and the resulting present stratification. Within Kansai, social classes are segregated into different parts of the city, while the whole of Kansai and all its spoils are at the beck-and-call of Kanto. I'm sure there's probably local political commentary here that I won't pick up on, but broadly speaking, a war-torn state rebuilt and remade to serve the whims of the victor is hardly an unfamiliar concept. I imagine that particulars of the war and the power dynamics will grow clearer as our “heroes” hijack the Shinkansen and, presumably, find their way into Kanto.
On that note, Akudama Drive has done an excellent job setting the stage for its high-speed and needlessly-deadly train heist. I've already detailed the strengths of its setting, but by now, we're also familiar enough to know these characters' personalities and the ways in which they will inevitably clash. Like the early stages of a Danganronpa game, these are (for the most part) larger-than-life figures defined almost exclusively by a single thing they're ridiculously talented at. Akudama Drive even takes that a step further by just naming the characters after their crime-of-choice. These aren't complicated, sympathetic people, but they sure are fun to watch! Brawler is easily the life of the party at this point in time, fisticuffing his way into and out of every situation, whether it calls for that or not. Naturally, I'm fond of the problematically oversexed yet hilariously immortal Doctor (voiced by Dangranronpa veteran Megumi Ogata). However, everyone (excluding Hoodlum and Swindler, of course) seems equipped to make every action scene a beautiful bloodbath, and that's the kind of shlocky ultraviolence I'm here for. I mean, the second episode made a sign glitch out so the letters could spell “G o R e” beneath the bloody handprints staining it. There's no place for good taste here, so Akudama Drive might as well seek refuge in audacity and embrace the edginess. Be the most cringe you can be.
Since this is my first review for this show, I also want to throw in a small caveat. While I'm a big fan of the Danganronpa series, I am terrible at making predictions and solving mysteries. I figured out 11037 easily enough, of course (I mean, a child could solve that one), but some of those later trials in later games just utterly destroyed me, mentally and emotionally. So please forgive me if I don't theorycraft about future episodes a whole lot. I'm mostly here for the ride. That said, I don't trust our protagonist as far as I can dye her perfect little hair highlights. Nothing raises a red flag like Kodaka naming someone “Ordinary Person,” and I'm half-expecting her to somehow be the person behind the robot kitty. Maybe she's a supervillain who wiped her memory so she could be an objective observer of the Akudama's skills. Maybe she actually is so powerful a Swindler that she swindled herself into forgetting she's a swindler. Maybe this is all just a double-reverse red herring. Maybe I'm also dumb, but these are the kind of things you start thinking after a few Danganronpa games' worth of plot twists.
Akudama Drive hits with the force of a prizefighter soaked in combustible technicolor goop. This pair of confidently obnoxious episodes overloads the senses and promises an aesthetically-rich cyberpunk crime thriller full of lightsaber jitte, motorcycle railguns, and barrels of blood. I'm having a blast so far, but we'll have to see how well Akudama Drive can sustain this momentum and/or its glossy production values. Whether it zips forth with the high-speed certainty of the Shinkansen, or whether it derails into a spectacular trainwreck, I still hope you'll join me on this ride. Just don't sit next to Cutthroat.
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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