What’s it about? In the not-too-distant future, Kansai Japan is filled with holograms, airships, and public executions. On the eve of the infamous Cutthroat’s execution, four wanted criminals (or “Akudama”) receive an anonymous message promising them a big payout in exchange for rescuing Cutthroat. As the quartet storm police headquarters, a well-meaning young woman stumbles upon them and, to stay alive, pretends she’s a Swindler; an Akudama just like them. Swindler keeps her life but gets caught up in the job—and it may be even more dangerous than even the real Akudama first thought.
Content Warning: Violence; police brutality; possible racial stereotyping; a lady in need of pants.
Akudama Drive comes in like a robot boxer: moving fast, swinging hard, and covered in LED lights. It is an in-your-face, non-stop cyberpunk action spectacle that is at once ridiculously cool and also just plain ridiculous. Watching it left me winded. I am both wary and excited to have it attack my eyeballs again next week.
As the length of that “what’s it about” summary may suggest, this premiere throws a lot at the viewer. It can be overwhelming, even if the base concepts are familiar to anyone who’s read or watched cyperpunk fiction in the last 30-odd years. Thankfully, it’s also stylishly executed, making it easy to sink into the story even if you’re not always sure what’s going on in it.
The world is lushly realized, a maze of neon lights and steel behemoths that uses glowing, shifting color palettes to set the tone from scene-to-scene. Characters get introduced with flashy pop-art animations; the camera is as active and off-kilter as the story itself; the fight scenes are dynamically animated chaos; and even the shifts between scenes are energetic, with buildings popping up and sliding into frame like an overzealous Powerpoint presentation.
In short, Akudama is really fun to look at. The question is whether its narrative can keep pace with its visuals.
I was pretty sure Akudama was a dystopia when all the characters got introduced based on their crimes (the only “names” they get are labels like “Courier,” “Brawler,” and “Hoodlum”) along with the hundred-years-long sentences they’d have to serve if they were ever captured. Then they cut to a massive stadium full of people cheering for a criminal to be guillotined while the police chief acted as MC, and I knew it was.
There’s some definite criticisms of the criminal justice system swirling around in this premiere, especially when our upstanding protagonist gets arrested and labeled a “Swindler” because the old lady at the takoyaki stand only accepts cash and has the cops on speed dial. But then again, the criminal characters are also perfectly willing to murder a random civilian just because she wandered into the room, so maybe this is more a case of “the hapless protagonist against the world” than a pointed criticism.
Social critique or not, the criminal justice elements could (very understandably) be too real for some folks. For me, though, the story is so thoroughly couched in balls-to-the-wall action-flick energy that it doesn’t hit as close to home as it would otherwise.
I’m not sure yet if Akudama is intentionally going for absurdity (the lightning motorcycle tricked out with grappling hooks, Cutthroat’s heterochromia, and the episode titles named after American crime films all point to “yes”), but there were definitely moments during this premiere where I thought “this show is utter nonsense if I think about it for more than 15 seconds.” The thing is, it’s also so confident that it’s easy to get swept away in its wild logic and just have fun with it.
That’s not to say Akudama isn’t without its issues, mind you. As with a lot of stories in the overlapping subgenres of cyberpunk, crime, and action, the show’s gender politics leave a lot to be desired. Only two of the seven main characters are women, and so far they slot neatly into “girl-next-door” (Swindler) and “femme fatale” (Doctor).
There’s some hope for Swindler as a dynamic lead. Her sense of right and wrong is comically strong in comparison to the rest of the asshole cast, as she risks her life to help cats and give a 500-yen coin back to someone who doesn’t even want it anymore. She has potential to interact with the other characters and grow in interesting ways.
Doctor, on the other hand…
Doctor reads pretty strongly as your standard Scary Sexy Lady, walking around in a leotard and lab coat and making pouty lips right before she stabs dudes with syringes. It definitely plays into some cultural norms about how only “bad women” own their sexuality—but also, if a show’s gonna have a fanservice female character, I’d much rather it be an adult who will 100% step on you. I’m willing to deal with it for now and see if/how they develop her going forward, but if you have a low threshold for psychopath bombshells, that might kill your interest in this one.
There’s also potentially some racial stereotyping at play, as Brawler is a large, musclebound darker-skinned man with red dreadlocks who loves to punch things. I don’t know his family background and he’s surrounded by lighter-skinned criminals who seem way more sociopathic than him, so I’m not sure how much of an issue it will be in the long run. Still, though, worth mentioning for folks at home.
To summarize: Akudama Drive is A Lot. A lot of plot, characters, style, and familiar tropes. A lot of lasers and explosions. A lot of potential to be a rip-roaring action show about a plucky protagonist surrounded by charmingly terrible murderers—and a lot of potential to be a convoluted mess of unlikable characters that uses its dystopic setting to revel in violence, genre cliches, and tired stereotypes.
I could see this being a polarizing premiere, and I don’t blame anyone who decides to tap out now. Personally, though, I was endeared enough by Swindler, dazzled enough by the visuals, and intrigued enough by the final two plot twists (which I didn’t spoil in this review so y’all will be able to experience them for yourselves) to come back again. It’s a gamble, but I’m willing to ride this wall-climbing motorcycle for now and see where it goes next.