There are not a lot of anime series explicitly based off of tabletop RPGs – Record of Grancrest War, Record of Lodoss War, Rune Soldier Louie, and Night Wizard are some of the few that come directly to mind. None of those – I should mention, are particularly based heavily on Western tabletop RPGs (aside from Lodoss starting as a D&D campaign, before moving through Tunnels & Trolls and eventually becoming a Sword World campaign). So, it is impressive to see Cyberpunk: Edgerunners to be perhaps one of the first anime series to wear the western TRPG connection right on its sleeve. Yes, the show is tied in to CD Projekt Red’s video game – but right from the jump the series credits leads off with “Based on a world created by Mike Pondsmith” – showing how much of its influences it wears on its neon sleeve tattoo. Thankfully, Studio Trigger, who animated this, also does right by its source material far more Cyberpunk 2077 did from the jump.
Set a year before the events of Cyberpunk 2077, the series follows David Martinez. David is a teenager with a poor working single mom, Gloria, who is working very hard as an EMT to pay for her son to go to Arasaka Academy so he can hopefully at least aspire to become a corpo wage slave – because the corpo wage slaves still get paid better than she does (and have actual health insurance benefits). The latter ends up becoming a considerable issue after David & Gloria get in a car accident – David survives but Gloria is badly injured, and because of the lack of insurance they can’t afford the level of care needed to keep her alive, leading to her death.
On top of this, David learns that Gloria was also secretly pinching cyberwear from dead cyberpsychos – people who had gotten overly augmented to a degree that pushed them past what their bodies and psyche can handle – which she had been selling on the side to make additional scratch to help pay the rent and David’s tuition. David discovers this by finding an experimental, military grade Sandevistan – a cybernetic upgrade that boosts your reflexes – that Gloria had set aside to sell. With David not fitting in at his school, having no source of income, and the bill collectors circling, David gets chromed up and decides to turn to crime.
Fortunately for David, he ends up hooking up not with a gang, but with Lucy, a beautiful and talented netrunner who also rocks the Motoko Kusinagi look (in the grand tradition of the tabletop game blatantly cribbing from various other works of anime, such as a bike in the original game called just the “Akira Cybercycle” that was just the bike from Akira with a Syd Mead twist.) – and in turn she ends up getting him with a crew of Edgerunners – urban mercenaries for hire.
I will say now – Cyberpunk: Edgerunners is the darkest series that Studio Trigger has ever done, and this crew – Hiroyuki Imaishi directing and Yoh Yoshinori doing character designs – in particular. Yes, there’s the over-the-top action these guys are known for, yes, it’s got some of the big stylistic flourishes – like dialog scenes with two people’s heads in very close proximity, with multiple zoom-cuts moving inwards, as they argue at each other or otherwise posture (even if it’s in a friendly manner) at each other. However, it’s also spectacularly violent. The level of blood and gore (in a very literally visceral sense) is on par with a lot of the OVAs, and some films, of the 80s and 90s. There’s even a scene in one episode where they do a darkly comic spin on one of the classic violent beats from Akira – a character blunders into a tripmine and is blown to bloody bits, with his arm (among other bits) falling from the ceiling. There’s also loads of nudity, some very much sexualized, others not.
In terms of the character writing and its story, Edgerunners is also very much a noir tragedy – the story gets across very well that these characters aren’t in a good place to begin with, and they’re in a situation where the most likely end to their lives isn’t going to involve a cushy retirement – it’s going to be a bloody end. There’s a reason why the Afterlife’s cocktail menu is made up of drinks named after various Edgerunners who went out in a blaze of glory.
Ultimately, I think Cyberpunk: Edgerunners is probably one of the best works in the Cyberpunk genre of literature. I don’t know if it will get a Hugo nomination – part of the reason why I stopped doing my fanzine was the institutional inertia against Japanese animation among the crowd that can afford to buy attending memberships to Worldcon (which is now the expensive requirement to be a voter) is exceptionally high. I don’t know if it will get an Emmy nomination – it’s a true Netflix original series, which means that it’s for the US Emmys (which have an animation category), instead of the International Emmys (which don’t) – because while Arcane got a nomination, Devilman: Crybaby (which also fit the eligibility criteria) didn’t.
Still, I think the show is a tremendous work of science fiction – I’m glad it’s spurred additional interest in the now heavily patched video game, and I hope it will also spur people to pick up Cyberpunk Red as well.
Cyberpunk: Edgerunners is currently available for streaming on Netflix. If you want to pick up Cyberpunk Red, it’s available on DriveThruRPG – and buying anything through that link supports the blog.