Akudama Drive Review

Title: Akudama Drive
Length: 12 x 24 minute episodes
Genre: Action, thriller, sci-fi, cyberpunk
Year of release: 2020

Remember how ‘cyberpunk’ is a port-manteau? I feel like everybody has forgotten that it’s the smashing together of cyber – near-future sci-fi stuff, that is – and punk. Punk. You know. Antiestablishmentism. A little bit of anarchy and a whole lotta anger. It’s more than mohicans and leather jackets. You’d be forgiven for forgetting that, since this recent decade or so has only produced polished cyberpunk works that forget what punk is.

Not Akudama Drive. No, Akudama Drive graffitis the meaning of punk in bright neon letters – that is, ‘fuck the police!’

And, the great thing is that even if we compartmentalise its furiously fascinating anti-authoritarian thesis, it stands up fantastically as a 12 episode anime. It’s equal parts eloquently meaningful somehow punkishly pissed off political critique, and still adrenaline pumping thriller action. And it excels at both.

That style is easily the first thing that’ll grab you. Every transition is a riot. The building blocks of frames rain down from above to literally build the next scene. It’s genius, but in more calmer takes, we’ll gently zoom out to a nearby screen that’s showing the latest in Akudama Drive’s bright, neon lit world of authoritarian population control: hand-puppets (actual puppets on sticks) having a Punch & Judy & Propaganda exposition of Kanto’s domination of Kansai – two locales divided by a nuclear warzone. It’s a ridiculously slick production, bolstered by a vivid imagination for visual screenplay.

Akudama Drive’s plot is like a rollercoaster ride with a blindfold. You feel for where it’s going and ride the inertia home, never quite sure where you’ll land but dead sure it’ll be a hoot either way. A group of criminals – known as ‘Akudama’ – are amassed in the opening episode and forced to band together for the ultimate, impossible train heist. Kansai reveres the Kanto region, and the train that runs there is like a local god – their job is to steal its cargo.

But, of course, there’s a spanner in the works. Or two. Or ten. These criminals, who go by the tags of their crime sort, are the top of their class – Courier is the ultimate deliverer of any good, no matter the legality; Doctor’s fascination with human mortality has a surgical edge to it; Cutthroat has beheaded more victims than would ever seem feasible; Hacker lets no computer go untained; Brawler is the ultimate fighting machine. But two other criminals are roped in by chance: Hoodlum, a low-time blackmailing thief, and a completely ordinary woman who is there by chance – who, due to one white lie, becomes known as ‘Swindler’, so amazing at swindling that she has even swindled the Akudama System to not even appear on any criminal database. Heh. So we have our human-ins to this otherwise nefarious ragtag group.

Akudama’s creative screenplay of fun fight choreography is rendered with high quality animation, and creates dozens of scenes like this: energetic whistle-stop-tours of personalities smashing into one another. It’s a blast.

Now, I won’t lie to you – 12 episodes, rife with a spiralling, insane plot that destroys the foundation of society, style that dominates every frame, and frickin’ awesome action scenes… yeah, it would become bloated if these characters got touching character arcs or deaths. These characters never really become more than the sum of their parts, but they don’t need to. They have just enough spunk to function, just enough of a backbone to offer insight, and just enough cool to overcome their atrocity exhibitions… though there is a bit of alarm; misogynistic subtext arises in the way that all the important female characters are either irredeemably evil or… motherly. In any case, the cast are fundamental to the series ongoing thematic arc as the series goes on, when the line between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ becomes blurred into a question: ‘who determines what is good and evil?’

There’s twists. There’s turns. There’s betrayal. There’s forgiveness. There’s failure. There’s a… lot of death, and so much gore that the TV version’s terrific fight scenes are black boxes of censorship the real oppressors are TV stations! Akudama Drive is a wild ride that results in a vicious uprising against a brutal police state, but also a sense of communal vengeance, barrelling towards an uncertain future – one that will be fought for, tooth and nail. One, big pointed finger at fascism, and a rebellious middle finger to the cops that defend it – Akudama Drive’s climax is one of the most angrily hopeful moments of 2020. No, this series doesn’t have the answers beyond its riotous time (and actual riots), but it turns its one moral question against the state into a sum greater than any of its parts.

Because, really, that’s what punk’s all about: (angrily) fighting for a better world to live in, for everybody – and it doesn’t get punkier than this.

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