Akudama Drive: Anime Review

The Akudama of Akudama Drive; Clockwise from Top: Doctor, Courier, Brawler, Cutthroat, Hacker, Hoodlum. Not pictured: Ordinary Person/Swindler

We occasionally get new Cyberpunk anime every now and then, though usually, the protagonists of those series have some degree of… license by the establishment. The Major in Ghost in the Shell is a government agent. So are the protagonists of Cyber City Oedo 808. The Knight Sabers from Bubblegum Crisis are superhero mercenaries who contract with the government. Rare are the cyberpunk anime that have protagonists who work for hire, not only outside the law but in violation of the law. Akudama Drive is one of the series that fits that theme, and utterly nails the concept.

Akudama Drive is set in a cyberpunk dystopian Osaka. At some point in the past there was a spectacular, catastrophic war between Kansai and Kyoto, and Kansai got the bad end of it. Since then, Kansai has been rebuilt, and is a vassal of Kyoto, with television programming issuing propaganda about how great Kyoto is, and the Shinkansen – the bullet train between Kansai and Kyoto, viewed with literal religious reverence by the people.

The ultimate authority of the law is the Executioners – people with authority granted on them by Kyoto to murder any outlaw, or Akudama, on sight, in a very “Worst offenses of the samurai at the end of the Shogunate” kind of sense. They cannot designate people as Akudama themselves – only the police can do that – but once designated, they can feel free to kill them, using their service weapons – which are basically Light-jitte.

Government propaganda also generally treats Akudama as inhuman – stripping them of their identity and otherwise referring to them solely by their crimes. So, the majority of the public buys into this more or less explicitly.

The Cast of Akudama Drive
Clockwise from Top Right: Brawler, Hoodlum, Courier, Black Cat, Ordinary Person/Swindler, Cutthroat, Doctor, Hacker.

The show follows an Ordinary Person (that’s their name in the script), who ends up getting caught up in a group of Akudama – Hacker, Courier, Doctor, and Brawler, after ending up getting arrested due to trying to pay for Takoyaki with plastic at a place that only takes cash, when she had enough money to pay for the Takoyaki but didn’t want to use it because it was dropped money she wanted to return.

Ordinary Person gets caught up with a low-level Akudama – Hoodlum, when the first four break into the police station to free a fifth Akudama – Cutthroat, for a job to break into the Shinkansen in order to steal a shipment from the train. In an attempt to keep the other Akudama from killing her, she refers to herself as Swindler and goes along with the heist – though admittedly she has no choice when she, Hoodlum, and the other 5 Akudama get explosive collars put on their necks. Complete the job, they get a million Yen. Try to run, the collar goes off.

However, as the show goes on, the writing starts very aggressively interrogating the world of the setting. It starts off with the propaganda-and-worldbuilding broadcasts start saying some of the quiet stuff out loud, in terms of totalitarian dictatorships – asking the wrong questions will get you killed, in a totalitarian state (like an occupation government), the people are subordinate to the government, etc.

Then, without doing too many spoilers, at the end of the series, the show finally does the thing that I’d been annoyed a lot of other shows weren’t. For example, this past season we had Ikebukuro West Gate Park, which was an anime series about gangs and solving mysteries in the Tokyo underworld – which looked a lot like it would be a less urban fantasy Durarara – only for the first episode to end with the protagonists working with the cops to bring down the “bad guys” by planting drugs where the cops wanted them to. While the source material for that show was from the ’90s, in this age of Black Lives Matter and ACAB, that played extremely poorly.

On the other hand, Akudama Drive basically ends with what I’d basically describe as the Black Lives Matter protests escalated from “riot” to full fledged insurrection, as the people of Kansai have the wool taken from over their eyes and rise up against the Executioners.

This past year had plenty of shows that greatly lacked any self-awarness of their depiction of policing. Like Millionaire Detective, which was fun, but still uncritical about the fact that the “joke” of the series was a 1%-er using money and the badge to operate outside the limitations of the law. Or there was ID: Invaded taking suspected murderers, even before they’d actually been charged with anything (nevermind convicted), off to a de-facto black site without interrogating the concept. For Akudama Drive to end with protests against Executioner brutality escalating to the point of an actual uprising, and for that to be shown as an unquestioned favorable ending wonderful, and kind of what I wanted this year.

For all of this to happen in a serious, violent, yet still goofy Pink Mohawk cyberpunk story made all of that even better. I’m very glad I watched this show, and I’d probably consider this one of my favorite shows of the year.

Akudama Drive is currently available for streaming on Funimation. No merch for the show yet, sadly.

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