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This Week in Anime
Akudama Drive is High-Octane Insanity

by Nicholas Dupree & Steve Jones,

Akudama Drive's premiere was full of colorful characters and neon-bathed background art. What initially seemed like nothing more than a stylish brawlfest, and Akudama Drive certainly is some of that, turned out to be waaaay more punk than anyone expected.

This series is streaming on Funimation

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network.
Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.

@Lossthief @mouse_inhouse @NickyEnchilada @vestenet

You know Steve, I keep hearing people complaining about how Cyberpunk 2077 is a broken, bug ridden, glitch of a game, but I don't know what they're talking about. This looks great!
Very katakana. Much neon. Wow.
Gotta say though, the open world could really use some work.
I haven't played it myself yet, but I have watched some VTubers do so, which I'm assuming explains the anime characters in these images. Unless—and this might sound crazy—there's a better cyberpunk story than 2077 out there right now that's much shorter, much wilder, and much more anime than this year's most hyped glitch extravaganza. Could that be?
I mean, what are the odds of that? And even if it did exist it certainly wouldn't come with a stacked pedigree of creators behind some of the weirdest, wildest interactive storytelling of the decade!
Oh wait now I remember: it's called Akudama Drive and I've only been writing about it weekly and begging more people to watch it for the past three months.
What, you knew about this? For MONTHS? And you never told me? How dare you.
Look I know for a fact I posted about Doctor on Twitter as soon as the first episode dropped. This is me we're talking about.
Just saying, you get a show with Rui Komatsuzaki designs, you should be hacking every video device on the planet to let people know.
Well this is why we're here! The season has ended, 2020 is nearly, mercifully over, and we owe it to ourselves and our audience to talk about good anime once in a while.
And let me just say up front, if you've been sleeping on this show, shame on you. You owe it to yourself to strap in on this wild ride.
Yeah, inevitably, this is going to be a very spoiler-rich TWIA, so if the prospect of an aesthetically-dense, politically-active cyberpunk story from a core team of Danganronpa alumni sounds like it might appeal to you, then get the hell out of here and start watching it. It's good! It begins with a talking cat (!?!) who wants to hijack the Shinkansen and only gets more delightfully ridiculous from there.
It's also got probably the most aesthetically aggressive premiere of anything this year. All sound and fury, starring what I can only describe as all of the dumb characters from Danganronpa.
Gone are protagonist hand-holders like "Ultimate Detective." All we've got here are the troublemakers like Best Puncher, Super Doctor, Hackerman, and Normal Dude.

I suppose the actual names are a little cooler.
So this is perhaps my one quibble with the show. I haaaaaaate when series just give everyone titles as their name. It always feels weird and unnecessary, and while it's less insulting than, say Goblin Slayer naming a character "Cow Girl" I still would like it if I didn't have to refer to everyone like I'm their inattentive boss.
It certainly makes writing up the show a bit more awkward, I'll concur with that. But it's a stylistic choice, and it fits the fact that most of these characters are defined in the context of whether or not they "contribute" to society. All of our protagonists, for instance, are criminals branded "Akudama" and are thus only addressed in-universe after whatever their crime of choice is.
Fair enough. Along with the folks you mentioned we also have a black market smuggler named Courier, a serial killer named Cutthroat, and perhaps the most villainous of them all, Twilight Sparkle Gijinka:
Named "Swindler" in the show, but only because she swindled those bangs off of a magic pony.
And also because she's actually the sole non-criminal of the cast who gets roped in entirely by accident. And in true Danganronpa fashion just has to keep up the ruse of being a devious trickster conwoman for the entire show. Whoops!
What a delicious little twist of dramatic irony! And yes, if it weren't already blazingly obvious, the original scenario for Akudama Drive is credited to Kazutaka Kodaka, creator of the Danganronpa series. He might not have written the actual screenplay here, but his fingerprints are alllll over this over-the-top bullshit.
I mean the actual screenwriter also collaborated with him on the Danganronpa 3 anime so really the whole gang's here to just cut loose.
And cut loose they do! The first episode ends with a talking robot cat putting a bunch of exploding collars on a team of 7 eccentric super criminals in order to bring them into line for the heist of the century. Monokuma would be proud.
Granted the cat's also willing to pay them, so he's not quite as terrible as that bastard bear. The collars are mainly there to keep them in line because getting a half dozen of the most wanted criminals in the world is like herding cats that are also terrorists.
That's where most of the fun of the first half comes from, too! These are people who absolutely would not work together under any other circumstances, so they wreak havoc both within their group and on Kansai at large. Like, it's pretty easy to tell where the Akudama are at any given moment: just follow all the blood and rubble.
Thankfully the good, innocent people of Kansai have their protective and reliable police force to track down these brazen criminals! So we can all rest eas- wait what are the cops called in this world?

Uh oh.
Look, what could possibly go wrong with putting a militarized law enforcement that answers to nobody but the highest powers in charge of a heavily indoctrinated population under the rule of an oppressive and totalitarian state?

Plus, they got lightsabers!
Gotta say, while All Executioners Are Bastards, they do know how to cut an intro.
Just like our Akudama friends! And in fact, it doesn't take long for the series to start drawing parallels between the Akudama and Executioners. Some of the clashes between the two also end up as some of the finest and most iconic actions scenes in the show.

Like, damn, Akudama Drive knows how to make shit look cool.
Just two dudes, being bros, having a fight to the death so powerful it levels multiple buildings as one struggles to uphold his narrow definition of justice under an authoritarian system while the other embraces the thrill and chaos of battle.
Sometimes being true to yourself means punching the ground so hard an abandoned arcade lights up.

I like, too, that Brawler and Master's fight here at the halfway point of the story not only marks a big bombastic symbolic conflation of Akudama with Executioners, but also heralds the second half's much more interesting exploration of what being an "Akudama" means, and how the Executioners control and manipulate that relationship.
Yeah, the first 6-odd episodes of AD are mostly pure adrenaline and twists. Like after the team boards the super top secret train and finds out the bounty they're trying to steal is actually a pair of creepy children straight out of The Shining.

But with Master and Brawler's showdown, it starts to become clear that the cyberpunk dystopia stuff is more than just set dressing, and the series starts really digging into the implications of its setting. Though they still make time for shit like "the moon was a PSYOP" because it's still Kodaka.
If Symphogear taught me anything, it's that you're not a real anime unless you've blown up the moon. But yeah, there's a lot of stuff going on in pretty much every episode of the show. Like, the same one with the moon revelation also contains Brother and Sister's backstory at Kyushu Planet, a.k.a. the Cyber Child Broiler, a.a.k.a. the gymnasium from Danganronpa 1.

Editor's note: If you don't know what the 'child broiler' is, go watch Penguindrum
I mean, if ever there was a fitting place to do horribly unethical things to children, it's that gym. Though Kyushu probably has a slightly higher body count than Monokuma.
Turns out all you need to do to make a pair of immortal artificial children is sacrifice thousands of other ones. Oh, and Kansai is only making Kyushu do this at the bequest of Kanto, who won a civil war that scarred Japan and left them in charge beyond a huge fallout dome that only the Shinkansen can safely travel through. Like I said, there's a lot going on here, and it would take a good couple columns to cover all of it.
Thankfully we have a pair of totally reliable and unbiased cartoon characters to explain all this to us each episode. Convenient!
It just wouldn't be a Kodaka production without obnoxious cartoon animals designed to deliver exposition. And maybe sometimes try to brainwash you.
It's a familiar device for sure, but here it's used as in-universe propaganda to put a smiley, chipper face on the frankly fucked norms Kansai operates under. It's great!
It's one of the many interlocking facets that really add up to make Kansai feel like a distinctively dystopian vision of a cyberpunk future. One of my favorite understated architectural details is how the Executioner headquarters is designed to look like a hotel on the inside. It's weirdly clinical and unsettling in a good way. Plus, it gives the episode titled "The Shining" plenty of opportunities to live up to that name.
Oh right, turns out having a literal serial killer on your team isn't a super great idea in the long-term. Again, whoops.

Heeeeeere's Cutthroat!
Unfortunately for him, by this time Twilight Swindler's had time to grow into her assumed role as the immortal kids' protective big sister, complete with a sweet new haircut, so she's not so easy to take down.
Swindler's arc from hapless citizen to hardened Akudama is one of the most satisfying components of the show. Circumstances force both her and the audience to question what it really means to be an Akudama, and she eventually lands on an answer that satisfies her. She's willing to fight every enemy, even society itself, if it means protecting the children, so that's what she does. Even when that enemy is a weird tesseract quantum supercomputer.
Yep, in classic Kodaka fashion the mysterious Kanto ruling class are a post-human computer hivemind looking to inhabit the kids' immortal bodies. Hacker is less impressed since he's already played Danganronpa 2.
Been there, done that, it all quakes in the presence of Swindler's all-powerful Character Development Haircut.

Also the combined souls of all the children Kanto sacrificed. I guess they helped too.
And okay, I gotta take back what I said last time. The Day I Became a God's goofy dolphin hacking sequence cannot compete with Hacker literally surfing the web surrounded by the souls of damned children to hack the planet.

And this ain't even the final episode! This is stuff they think they can cram into the penultimate installment in order to make time for the actual finale. This is the level of absolute bonkers material that Akudama Drive is constantly functioning at.
And okay, we gotta fucking talk about that finale. Because amongst all the Kubrick homages and psychedelic cybercrimes, the show has been continuously building up the ultimate injustice of the Executioners and their authority. As the chaos Swindler's crew causes turns the city into a panic, the Boss Cop even strongarms the mayor into declaring the citizenry all Akudama, and allowing wholesale slaughter in the sake of "peace."

Yep, the "Akudama" designation, which we knew primarily in the context of absurd super criminals with hundreds of years to their name, gets freely applied to any person merely protesting against the Executioners or their government. Because when the cops get to define who is a criminal, and do so without oversight and with impunity, they will inevitably exercise that power at their sole convenience. And if you think I'm being too on-the-nose in comparing this anime to real-life police injustice, just look.

Akudama Drive fucking goes there.
For all AD loves its wacky ultraviolence and cool fights, it was frankly stunning to see it get this fucking real. I kept waiting for it to back down or at least try to redeem Pupil, arguably the most sympathetic executioner left. But NOPE.

It's SO perfect. The only Executioner who gets humanized with an actual character arc finds herself pinning an orphan to ground as the kid begs to know why her parents were killed. That's where her story ends. No matter her intentions, she's just a tool of a fundamentally corrupt and bloodthirsty organization, and this is what she gets.
But the real kicker is that this all stems from Swindler finally full-on embracing her own title as an Akudama. After episodes of waffling over her own definition of right and wrong, she puts it all on the line in possibly the best scene of anything this year. Like, god damn.

Decides to crime so hard she gets her own Danganronpa-style introduction, 12 episodes late. It's so good. The finale also pulls out all the stops in terms of expressive and dynamic storyboarding. It's one bummer after another, but it still looks like a gorgeous, even triumphant swan song.

The closest way to describe it is a classic Gundam ending. Takes no prisoners, holds nothing back in both action and tragedy, but somewhere in this maelstrom of violence and anger and death there's just something powerfully cathartic about it all. Like I hesitate to call an ending with 95% of the named cast dead a "happy" one but god damn if it doesn't use all of it beautifully.

There's symbolic hope at the very least. Kansai's prospects are grim and up in the air, the Akudama are all dead, but Brother and Sister finally escape thanks to their sacrifice. Maybe there's nothing waiting for them. Maybe it's something even worse. But they have freedom and potential beyond the confines of Kansai's oppression, and that alone is something worth fighting for. It ain't happy, but it sure is satisfying.
Akudama Drive is absolutely bonkers, and for a show I knew nothing about before it premiered it immediately and constantly gripped me. It's pure energy and emotion in the best way, and I can't recommend it enough. Plus, how many other shows this year are out here proudly repping the femdom agenda?
True love means you and your super crime partner calling each other "shithead" as a term of endearment. And if you don't agree, guess what? You done goofed.
Learn from the ever wise Brawler.
Forever an inspiration during these dark 2020 days.
Truly aspirational.

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