It’s been nearly four decades since the cyberpunk genre began to take shape, and it’s been sadly strip-mined of its urgency and turned into a retro aesthetic that is served to audiences by the same multi-billion-dollar corporations that the genre was built to criticize. Sure, the neon lights shining in the rain, and the urban futurism still looks cool, but there’s rarely anything new or of value being said in most modern cyberpunk stories.

So it is a genuine pleasure to see Akudama Drive live up to its cyberpunk roots and so blatantly speak out against certain institutions while still checking all the cyberpunk boxes you’ve come to expect. 

The show takes place in Kansai, Japan, long after a civil war against Kanto resulted in a nuclear wasteland separating the two regions. Kanto became an unreachable utopia for the citizens of the authoritarian Kansai (now called Kantou since they lost the war). In Kansai, criminals are branded “Akudama,” and when the most dangerous and skilled Akudama get together for a big and mysterious job, an ordinary girl gets caught up in a web of violence and deception that will forever change Kansai.

What starts out as essentially a riff on Suicide Squad quickly evolves into a high-stakes, high-octane, very politically-active cyberpunk love letter to cinema with some bold and timely commentary. So grab your best trenchcoat and cybernetic implant, because we’re headed out to the neon-lit alleyways of Akudama Drive.

What Makes It Great

When I compare this show to Suicide Squad or Reservoir Dogs, it is not just a superficial inspiration. Akudama Drive is heavily inspired by the Hollywood films of the ’80s and ’90s, particularly Blade Runner and the works of Quentin Tarantino. And it shows. Every episode title is based on a famous movie, from Se7en and Reservoir Dogs, to The City of Lost Children and The Shining, and there are tons of homages and visual cues to these films. Like in Reservoir Dogs, all the characters in Akudama Drive go by nicknames, but rather than colors, here it’s everyone’s job: brawler, swindler, hacker, cutthroat, and more. 

Like the best heist movies, the first half of Akudama Drive is pure adrenaline, as we see this ragtag group of criminals with very different styles and motivations work together to get into the most heavily-guarded place in Kansai. But the show doesn’t stop there, as the story goes through a massive tonal shift halfway through, and becomes much more interested in exploring the political ramifications of its dystopia. The show remains fun and twisty throughout, and every episode masters the art of the cliffhanger so that you remain glued to the screen for all 12 chapters. Perhaps most striking is the way the show manages to change tones and go from heist to horror. 

Yes, horror. As the show changes focus, its violence shifts from just brawling fun, to gnarly and bloody. The action is always stunning, thanks to the beautiful background work of the show (a fight inside an arcade and then an amusement part is particularly dazzling). Heads get decapitated, bodies are smashed and maimed, and episode 9 is one huge homage to Kubrick’s The Shining, filled with blood and tension while also including one of the best riffs on the “Here’s Johnny” scene in recent memory.

What It Adds to the Conversation

A big problem with modern cyberpunk is that it’s often used as just window dressing, as a visual aesthetic rather than a framework for a story. Akudama Drive quickly puts your worries at ease by wearing its message on its sleeveless leather jacket, and it is all boiled down to the show’s title. 

As we find out in the first episode, Akudama is the term used for the worst of criminals, those who get prison sentences spanning hundreds if not thousands of years. But as the story progresses, it becomes clear that Akudama is just a blanket term for whoever doesn’t fit into the vision of Kansai that Kanto wants — whether you’re a ruthless serial killer, or someone who couldn’t pay 500 yen worth of street food. This is a dystopian world where people gather to watch a serial killer get executed, and where riots are started because people don’t think the cops are killing enough people.

Speaking of cops, this is where the show is at its boldest. The Akudama are hunted down and killed on-site by the show’s lightsaber-wielding police, called Executioners. Akudama Drive is unapologetically and unequivocally critical of the police, especially the system of militarized police, and it is a bold yet welcome choice that definitely hits hard in 2021. The show is interested in exploring the power of words and how easily they are corrupted and abused by systems of authority. It’s not just that the cops are called Executioners, it’s that the cops get to define who is a criminal by a simple flick of a switch, with impunity and no oversight at all. That’s the problem. Akudama Drive, which is credited to Danganronpa creator Kazutaka Kodaka, has no doubt that a system that can so easily brand those it deems “unfit” to be dangerous criminals will inevitably abuse its power. 

This isn’t even my interpretation of the show’s subtext – this is the actual text. One episode literally has its exposition-delivery characters say that the cops will start killing normal citizens whenever they feel like it if they continue to be unchecked. There’s also a moment where someone is shot and killed right in front of a cross, with blood splashing all over it while police drones fly around, surrounded by the crumbles of a bombing attack they caused, in an episode that was released on Christmas Eve. How much clearer does this show have to get?

Though the characters in Akudama Drive don’t really get much in terms of depth or development, they still get something resembling an arc. The same cannot be said of the Executioners. The only character with something resembling characterization finds their story end abruptly and unceremoniously, without redemption or an ounce of sympathy because they remain a tool for a corrupt organization. Blade Runner may have become the de-facto poster child of the cyberpunk genre and there are shades of it in here, but Akudama Drive has a lot more in common with Akira, the seminal work of ’80s anime that is all about authorities abusing their power, corruption, and social unrest. 

Why Non-Anime Fans Should Check It Out

Do you want a brand-new cyberpunk story, with great and dynamic action, stunning background visuals, tons of twists and turns, but without glitches and bugs? Want some timely social commentary on top? Then Akudama Drive is the show for you. 

A short and self-contained series that requires no previous knowledge of its genre (and honestly, at this point, who can be completely unaware of the tropes of cyberpunk?), this is a relevant, universal story and one of the biggest anime surprises of 2020.

Watch This If You Like: Akira, Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, Suicide Squad, Reservoir Dogs

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Akudama Drive is streaming on Hulu and Funimation.

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