Vrai, Chiaki, and Mercedez look back on last season’s powerful cyberpunk showstopper, Akudama Drive!
Date Recorded: January 24th, 2021
Hosts: Vrai, Chiaki, Mercedez
0:02:07 Production info
0:03:29 General impressions
0:4:45 Danganronpa connection
0:0:06:40 Favorite characters
0:08:37 Doctor and Swindler
0:12:15 Timing, acclaim, and ACAB
0:15:21 The dub, Brawler, and blaccents
0:21:56 Uprisings and the REAL cyberpunk
0:25:52 Real politics behind Kanto vs Kansai
0:30:36 The shinkansen, the ‘60s, and national pride
0:34:32 Faceless villains exploiting the next generation
0:38:10 Sister’s arc
0:39:32 The ending
0:49:40 Japan’s justice system
0:52:45 Final thoughts
VRAI: Hello and welcome to Chatty AF, the Anime Feminist podcast. My name is Vrai. I’m the content managing editor and a writer at Anime Feminist. You can find my freelance work on Twitter @WriterVrai, or you can find the podcast I cohost about trash media @trashpod. And with me today are Chiaki and Mercedez.
MERCEDEZ: Hi, my name’s Mercedez, and I’m also an editor at Anime Feminist. I am also a localization editor and a QA for a variety of boys’ love manga and media. I’m also Anime Feminist’s resident idol lover, a title that I wear with… pride?
VRAI: It’s definitely your most illustrious title, at the end of those lists of real jobs you had.
MERCEDEZ: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a crown that only I can carry. [laughs]
CHIAKI: We appreciate you so much.
VRAI: Thank God for you. Thank God for you.
MERCEDEZ: I’ve been through the weeds this season, though. But…
VRAI: So sorry!
MERCEDEZ: You can find me on Twitter @pixelatedlenses, where I show a lot of food, talk about my partner’s cat, and try to make it.
VRAI: And this time around, we are doing a series retrospective on the winter 2020 anime Akudama Drive—which, we don’t usually do retrospectives with as quick a turnaround as this. It was good, though.
MERCEDEZ: God, Akudama Drive slaps. It is so good.
VRAI: It is quite fucking good.
MERCEDEZ: So good!
CHIAKI: It’s worth talking about right now especially, though, so I think that’s why it merits this discussion.
MERCEDEZ: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
VRAI: I won’t go exhaustively through production info, but some lists of the top creative folks that listeners at home might find interesting. It was directed by Taguchi Tomohisa, who is best known for two things I hated, the Persona 4 Golden anime and the Kino: The Beautiful World remake, as well as the Persona 3 movies, which I haven’t seen. And he is also the co-composer of the series along with Kaihou Norimitsu, who is best known for good things like School-Live, the adaptive script of Astra Lost in Space, and Danganronpa 3.
VRAI: Speaking of Danganronpa, which is probably how most people came to hear about this movie, the character designer was Komatsuzaki Rui, the Danganronpa guy, who felt especially worth noting in the list of creative story shapers for the series because, as I understand, he was tasked with basically pitching the outline of who these characters were as he created their designs. So I feel like that had a pretty significant impact on the story, just because of the way the characters are fashioned by their name and that kind of thing.
So, general impressions from you two. How did you decide to watch it? That kind of thing. I know that I didn’t watch it week to week. It was one of those things where, as we were getting ready to do the end-of-season recs list, I thought, “Eh, people like this, I hear, but I’m not super into Danganronpa. I guess I’ll give it a try before we write things up.”
And then I binged it all in like three days with my wife. And then we cried. It was good. Speaking of, this will be full of spoilers. Go away if you’re not prepared for spoilers.
MERCEDEZ: All the spoilers. You kind of can’t talk about Akudama Drive without spoiling everything.
I had wanted to watch it at the beginning of the season and then decided I was gonna relocate, so anime got put on the backburner. But then my partner was like, “We should watch this. It’s by the guy that did Danganronpa,” and I was like, “Oh, yeah! The thing that I structure my life around. Yeah, let’s watch.” And so, I binged it to episode six, and then I went week by week. And it was brutal going week by week because the wait was hard.
It’s really good. I know we’ve said Danganronpa, but that’s partially why I watched it, because I was like, “Oh yeah, Danganronpa connection? Gots to get my anime.” [laughs]
VRAI: Yeah, you’re the only one of the three of us who is familiar with Danganronpa. I bought the first two games on Steam sale a while ago and just have not done the thing. So, how is this as somebody who came in mostly familiar with those games?
MERCEDEZ: Hot take alert: this is better than Danganronpa.
VRAI: [gasps in light jest] The hottest take.
MERCEDEZ: For the simple fact that it’s not as transphobic as Danganronpa is, which… [inhales through teeth] You know. That’s not to say that Akudama Drive doesn’t have issues, but it’s a lot more polished, I would say, than Danganronpa sometimes is. I felt very satisfied at the end of this, and while I feel satisfied at the end of Danganronpa games, there’s a different level of satisfaction that I felt with Akudama Drive. But a lot of the characters also map onto Danganronpa characters.
VRAI: I have seen memes. Chiaki, we got to watch you binge this at the last second in real time because you volunteered to be the third person for this podcast.
CHIAKI: Yeah, so, I don’t watch anime unless I have to. Y’all were saying that it’s a good anime. I wanted to watch it, but I knew I wasn’t gonna watch it unless someone gave me a reason to. So, yeah, I watched it over two days, basically—five episodes one day, the rest on the other—and had a great time. It was a lot.
As far as Danganronpa goes, I have no idea what Danganronpa generally is. Everyone says I’m Chiaki Nanami when I play Overwatch, but that’s the extent I know.
CHIAKI: But whatever.
VRAI: That clearly made sense to Mercedez. I’m going to nod.
MERCEDEZ: It did. It made deep sense to me. [laughs]
CHIAKI: Oh, yeah. She’s the gamer. That’s all I know.
MERCEDEZ: And she has a cat-ear hoodie.
CHIAKI: Oh, God.
VRAI: Yeah, no, sounds about right.
CHIAKI: All right.
VRAI: Favorite characters, by the way? Because this is a very strong overall cast. It’s an excellent ensemble.
CHIAKI: For me, definitely, I really enjoyed Swindler, just how she grows as a character throughout the entire series. And ultimately, I feel like she goes from being a good person to a great person, but also simultaneously an awful person.
MERCEDEZ: I’m gonna fully reveal that it was a tie between Doctor, Cutthroat, and Swindler.
VRAI: I would like Doctor to step on me. That’s fine. I understand you.
CHIAKI: That’s fair.
MERCEDEZ: My first impression, when I saw Doctor, was that I turned to my partner and I said, “In this house, we stan big-titty pink-haired Doctor.” And she was like, “Okay.” And of course, the Danganronpa connection helped, but Doctor was my kind of trash. I mean, she kind of brought what comes to her on herself, but up until that point I was like, “Yeah, that’s my girl.” But I think Swindler probably wins out. She’s just good. She’s just real good.
VRAI: Yeah, I’d say Swindler is the best character, far and away. I think my favorites were probably Doctor and Brawler because I love me a good-hearted himbo, and him and Hoodlum were excellent boyfriends.
MERCEDEZ: Ah, the best.
CHIAKI: Brawler is Good Boy of the Century. I don’t think he actually kills anyone aside from cops.
VRAI: No, he just wants to have an excellent punching.
CHIAKI: Actually, no, he did massacre a bus, but that’s okay.
MERCEDEZ: Yeah. He was just looking for a good fight.
CHIAKI: I mean, everyone on the cast basically massacres a bus at some point, right?
MERCEDEZ: Yeah. They do a lot of killing.
VRAI: The body count of this series is quite high. On the subject of Doctor, though, because I know we noted in our premiere that Doctor is this character where you roll your eyes coming into the first episode because she essentially gets introduced titties first, but I ultimately ended up really interested in her arc versus Swindler’s, where they’re both seeking out this element of control over their life, and I thought that was a really interesting throughline.
MERCEDEZ: And I think that’s what really kept me interested in her, other than the fact that she’s voiced by Megumi Ogata [chuckles], which, like… [groans in appreciative awe] A lot of her arc is just her desperately seeking control. It’s just that the way she and Swindler go about finding control are very different and arguably destructive in very different ways. It’s just that Doctor’s utterly focused on control for herself where Swindler’s able to have a bit of perspective in how she seeks control. But it’s good. It’s just good.
VRAI: There was that one weird line of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, maybe trans-coding that I’m glad they didn’t really go anywhere with. Like, thank God. That would’ve been real bad.
MERCEDEZ: I’m not gonna lie—so, I know the Danganronpa writer, Kodaka, worked on this, also. I’m just gonna say I’m really glad that they didn’t do anything trans with this anime because he is not very kind to trans bodies at all and, over the three games he made, didn’t seem to really learn how to be kind to trans bodies.
VRAI: Very cool. A very cool thing to brace myself for if I ever get around to playing those games I bought.
MERCEDEZ: It’s for the best that it was a blink-and-you-miss-it, nothing-came-of-it line because…
VRAI: Yeah. It’s ambiguous enough that you can read it as an age thing or just an element, like a dominance thing. I don’t know. I’m going to choose to not read something as trans for this one time.
CHIAKI: You think it was the rest of the staff, too? Because I feel like a lot of teamwork went into this and maybe somebody said, “Mm, actually, let’s tone it back.”
VRAI: Yeah, because like I said up top, Taguchi, I have not enjoyed his previous projects that I’ve seen. So when I looked that up, I was floored by how much I just adored this series, top to bottom. I guess Kino Remake was pretty. It was very pretty to look at, and this series is quite lovely to look at.
MERCEDEZ: Yeah. Akudama Drive is dripping in aesthetic. It is just, top to bottom, one of the prettiest shows that came out of 2020. And there were a lot of really beautiful shows in 2020, but it’s just dripping. Cyberpunk 2077 wishes it could look half as good as Akudama Drive.
VRAI: [through laughter] Speaking of transphobia.
MERCEDEZ: Oh, ooh, yeah. Oh, God. I keep forgetting that game is just hot garbage on a PS4 disc. [laughs] It’s just not good.
VRAI: It’s still a crime to me that, because of the way the nomination process for the Crunchyroll Awards works, that excellent fight scene between Master and Brawler is the only nomination Akudama Drive got, because it hadn’t gotten to all the interesting stuff in its back half yet.
VRAI: Which I guess is why this series has only just now started to pick up acclaim. I think it was well regarded as a stylish action series in the front half, but once people got to the ending and it was so incredibly mind-blowing and conclusive, now it’s starting to generate that buzz of “Holy shit, you gotta watch this thing.”
MERCEDEZ: And I know we might be [chuckles] jumping the shark, but I also think, especially from an American’s perspective, considering the first part of this month and everything that happened in January, this show takes on a whole different vibe with its ending, considering some people decided it was a good idea to invade the Capitol and this show deals a lot with invading very important buildings.
VRAI: Yeah, so, we’ve touched a little bit on its cyberpunkiness. We might as well just go all-in on that. The ending is straight up All Cops Are Bastards: The Show.
CHIAKI: Absolutely. To quote Freyja Erlingsdottir and Paul Matijevic from Hard Wired Island (I just gotta give this little nod in because I’m working on the game as their diversity consultant), cyberpunk is anti-capitalist as a right. And it has to be relevant.
And I feel like the showrunners saw what was happening in the earlier half of 2020 and said, “Hold up. This actually might be worth touching upon. This is the big social strife at the moment.” And BLM actually went all the way to Japan. It touched Japan as well, politically.
VRAI: Yeah, you did that great interview—which we can put in the show notes for folks if they missed it—with the BLM Kansai organizer. I did wonder while watching this, because anime productions can go back two or three years, how much mobility they would have had to directly address the shitshow of 2020. Obviously, Black Lives Matter is older than that, but the particular way that the show deals with the marginalized and protests is very 2020.
MERCEDEZ: And I think, when you think about how far back the production went, DJT (I refuse to say that man’s name) was covered really widely in Japan. I remember most of the times when I got my news while I was living over there during his presidency, I got it from Japanese coworkers. He was regularly in the news.
You can’t evade the fact that he had a huge presence, and that had to be on somebody’s mind when they were making this. Somebody had to be influenced by that and the rise of—let’s get real—American fascism, coupled with what was going on in Japan from 2016 to the show coming out.
VRAI: Yeah, the parallels of all the fake news shit is pretty clear with the propaganda channel—which, every time I think of that, reminds me: I should maybe check out the dub, purely because SungWon Cho, a.k.a. ProZD, voices the shark in the English dub.
MERCEDEZ: He’s very good. He’s very good.
VRAI: Did either of you check out the dub, by the way?
VRAI: How is it?
MERCEDEZ: I really like the dub. It’s not often that I think you can say that a dub is as strong as the original, but it’s really good. It’s really, really good. It’s just as emotional. I know the dub hasn’t caught up to the end yet, but what I watched of it, I was like: it’s very enjoyable, and I highly suggest that people don’t sleep on the dub if you’re looking for some rewatch because it’s really, really good.
VRAI: Yeah, I think I might, because this seems like a show where I would enjoy just getting to soak in the visuals in the same way that I like to watch Lupin series dubbed. So, that is good to know.
We should probably, since we’re talking about the dub, touch on Brawler a little bit, because we ended up editing our initial rec of the series to clarify the language around Brawler being Black or Black-coded. I know they gave him kind of a Blaccent in the dub. Does it work for him or…?
MERCEDEZ: It actually kind of does. I don’t know how to feel about that because, I’m gonna be honest, I don’t know if the voice actor behind Brawler is Black. I think that he is. Oh! He is Black. Okay. It’s okay! It’s okay!
MERCEDEZ: It’s okay!
VRAI: No, it’s understandable because anime has done that shit a lot!
MERCEDEZ: He’s Black and he has natural hair. Shout it from the mountains. It’s okay! But it was, I think, as we all feel, worrying to hear a character have a Blaccent and not really know, “Is this a Black guy who is speaking with their natural voice who happens to be Black? Or is it, as we always fear, a white guy impersonating your ethnic group?”
VRAI: “Is this Panty and Stocking again?”
MERCEDEZ: Wait, okay, I’m sorry. Hold the phone. As a fan of Panty and Stocking, do you mean to tell me that Garter Belt was not Black? Oh, no!
VRAI: Oh, yeah, he was voiced by an extremely white man, I am sorry to let you now in real time on a podcast. I’m so sorry.
MERCEDEZ: Oh, no. Oh, no, Christopher Sabat? Okay, anyway…
VRAI: Yeah, he’s voiced by Vegeta!
VRAI: We’re all having a bad time right now.
MERCEDEZ: Oh, God. Anyway. And, I guess, to go back to the edit… So, I did rewatch it on my own time, just seeing. I was like, “Okay, well, knowing that this character has a dub voice by a Black actor, is there a way to read him as being Black?” Because I do think that’s interesting. And the conclusion I came to was kind of the same that I had when I watched, which is that I had Brawler as being Japanese-Brazilian.
VRAI: Oh. Okay.
MERCEDEZ: Because them being in Kansai, where there is a heavier population of Japanese-Brazilian residents in western Japan, I was just like, “Oh, okay, he’s kind of fighty, he’s doing these MMA kind of moves,” and I was like, “Well, there’s a long history of different martial art styles—different fighting styles that have come out of Brazil and come out of South America,” and I was like, “Oh! This is just a Japanese-Brazilian who’s coming along for the ride. That’s great.” But then I started thinking about his hair and I was like, ooh! [chuckles] Boy!
VRAI: No, but that totally makes sense, as you explained it.
MERCEDEZ: Yeah, and I mean, Brawler, as great of a character as he is, his design is kind of fraught. I think there’s a lot of ways that you could read him. I certainly think that it doesn’t help that the darker-skinned character is the one who fights and is punchy and is loud. But I also think there’s a lot of positive ways to read him, and that’s the mixed conclusion I came to, was “I don’t really know where I’m gonna fall on this, but, hey, he was voiced by a Black guy.” [laughs]
VRAI: Who, speaking of the Crunchyroll Awards, is, I think, nominated for his role in My Hero Academia. He’s been working a lot lately. Good for him.
VRAI: Yeah, I know what you mean about Brawler being the action, punch-first, head-empty, heart-full kind of guy who also dies first. Everybody dies by the end, but… yeah.
MERCEDEZ: I just also have to say… I just want everyone to know that Brawler’s voice actor is also your best cat boy, Garfiel Tinsel from Re:Zero. So, that’s a lot to take in at this moment.
MERCEDEZ: My world flipped upside down. [chuckles]
VRAI: Voice acting is a very, very small world. I had that moment with… I think it was Cutthroat, is somebody extremely prolific.
MERCEDEZ: Yeah, and I think that’s what helps the dub, is they chose really excellent people. All of the voices. Because Cutthroat is Matt Shipman, who’s also a very good voice actor. You can tell a lot of heart went into Akudama Drive from start to finish on all sides. Nobody gave 50%. Everyone who worked on it seems really, really passionate.
VRAI: Yeah, I feel like… this is something Caitlin has noted before, that Funimation can be a little bit workman-like because simuldubbing happens with so many series that you just gotta get ‘em out at a certain point. But then you have the ones, like the Sarazanmai dub is amazing. I think there are projects where people go above and beyond, and they turn out really good work.
CHIAKI: I think part of it is they’re realizing that simuldubs are something worth investing in. The English side of the dub is increasingly becoming an active role within the production. I think that’s how I see things.
VRAI: Yeah. I am definitely looking forward to the Blu-rays on this one. It might be one I pick up, because one thing that felt a little bit missing from the finale, which I generally think was quite good—and we can talk about it in more depth in a minute here…
On its police violence front, Pupil’s arc… It implies where it’s going and it gets the most important parts out, but it definitely feels like “We don’t have time for this. We have to do all these other things.” And I had read on Twitter that some of the later episodes, I think, will be getting director’s cut releases for the Blu-ray, so I am very curious to see what happens there.
CHIAKI: Yeah, I think, as I was saying with how earlier in 2020 might have influenced the production, I believe there was an interview on ANN—for the assistant director, anyway—and they were saying that the staff was very versatile in terms of working on how people wanted… There wasn’t so much a culture of “No, we can’t do that” but “How can we do this?” And so, I feel like the uprisings in 2020 really hit a note for some of these folks, and they might have changed up the last three episodes a considerable amount.
MERCEDEZ: And I’ll say one thing that occurred to me while I was watching: I think a lot of anime fans who don’t look into Japan past just pop culture don’t know that Japan has a history of uprisings. People have risen up against the government during the 20th century. People have gotten real angry and had protests and stuff. It’s not talked about a lot in North America, but that’s something that is a part of Japanese history.
And I can only assume that the creators were also of an age where they certainly would have seen that, that they’re probably drawing on some of Japan’s own tangled history with politics, as well, and Japan’s own issues with their police system, which, I think, in 2020 also showed the veneer cracking. I think that there’s a lot inside the country, too.
VRAI: Yeah, in addition to the marches in solidarity, there was definitely at least one series of marches I read about that were about specifically, in Japan, a police brutalizing of a Korean man. [Correction: The case cited involved a Kurdish man. —Ed.]
CHIAKI: And just going back a little quickly to cyberpunk, the most important thing for a story—and this is why I like Akudama and how it is cyberpunk—is that it’s not trapped in this anti-Asian cyberpunk aesthetic that developed out of the 1980s originally. So, you have a totally Japanese view of a near-future, high-tech dystopia that’s uniquely confronting the issue of police violence, which I think is as cyberpunk as you can get.
VRAI: Yeah. There have been so many great articles since Cyberpunk 2077 was unleashed at the world about how the genre has or has not with a lot of works moved past the anti-Asian sentiment it was born in. So, yeah, I agree. Extremely cool.
And, related to both of those points, the central propaganda channel lives at the intersection of that as this cyberpunk critique of the police state and also how we interact with it as Western, American fans versus an understanding that a Japanese viewer might have.
I know that there has been, including from me, a lot of wondering over what is the history of tension between Kanto and Kansai. Unto itself, how much is there seeded-in a metaphor about U.S. aggression and the atomic bombs that devastated Japan built into the no man’s land?
MERCEDEZ: Oh, the… [chuckles] I almost called it the Zero Zone, and that’s definitely not what it’s called.
CHIAKI: Well, now I’m gonna just call it the Zero Zone from now on.
MERCEDEZ: Oh, no. What is it called? I don’t remember. But I do remember having similar thoughts of “Oh, this is a really blasted landscape. This is something drawing specifically on a lived history.” What is the zone called, y’all? [chuckles] What’s it called?
CHIAKI: The Quarantine Zone?
VRAI: Yes, thank you.
CHIAKI: I feel, with this metaphor for Japan’s rivalry between Kansai, Kanto, and even Kyushu and Shikoku at the very end… Japan’s compartments, its regional rivalries is a major aspect, especially in Kansai. I think Kanto folks don’t really care as much because they’re the capital and they’re just like “Whatever, you guys are weird,” but Kansai people like me have a particular sense of pride in being from Kansai—well, I mean, my family is from Kansai, anyway.
This metaphor throughout the show, I think, goes really well with the U.S.–Japan postwar relations, just because it’s more of a geographically compact… the world within the Japanese psyche.
Everything comes from Kyushu, right? Everything is being built in Kyushu and being shipped through Kansai to Kanto. I think that can also be a metaphor for Kyushu being the rest of the world, particularly China, areas of places where manufacturing and all of the consumer products used in America are coming through Japan.
Because Japan is selling goods—TVs, PlayStations, all that kind of stuff—by producing them in a different country and then selling it as their own. I think putting it into a more compact geographic area of just Japan really makes it a little bit more accessible, and also lets you use the Shinkansen as a symbol for how everything is connected in this world.
MERCEDEZ: Yeah, I don’t think you could have told this story in, like, Tohoku. I don’t think it would have had the impact that it does, because realistically, also outside of Japan, who knows about Tohoku, other than—?
CHIAKI: I do.
MERCEDEZ: I mean, I—
MERCEDEZ: We do because we’re cool, but I think the image unfortunately for Tohoku is specifically Fukushima. And then there’s Hokkaido just doing its thing. Hokkaido is assumably just fine in this world?
CHIAKI: Hokkaido… They have some milk. They have some cheese. They’re fine. Don’t worry about it. [chuckles]
MERCEDEZ: [chuckles] That’s a really fascinating insight, though, Chiaki.
CHIAKI: I was gonna say, especially with the Shinkansen, though, it’s definitely an interesting symbol for the show, because you saw people worshiping it sort of like a god. And it kinda reflects the sense the Shinkansen had—the symbol it represented back in the ‘60s, when it was first unveiled. Because the Shinkansen began service in 1964, the same time as the Tokyo Olympics.
And all of this was culminating in this postwar recovery story. It was all about how Japan after the war has grown to prosper and become a major player again in the world. And so, I can also see that the Shinkansen in Akudama Drive is shaped like a bullet, not like the newer ones that are a little bit weird and funky goose-build or something. It looks like the older versions. So, it’s like a throwback to this sense of national pride, I feel, and the symbolism it represents.
VRAI: Sort of like cars in a lot of mid-century American stuff as this symbol of American innovation and also personal independence and mobility shit. And here, it’s interesting that you have that very “moment of progress” version of the Shinkansen and also everybody worshiping how much good it does for people, while it’s empty. It is completely empty inside.
MERCEDEZ: And it’s completely inaccessible if you don’t have special clearance. You just can’t get on it.
CHIAKI: They were even saying midway through the show, when they finally get to go to Kanto, “Wait, people ride this thing?” [chuckles]
MERCEDEZ: Yeah. There’s this really poignant moment when they’re on there, and you see a Shinkansen carriage, kind of how it looks today—if you’re in the grand class, the one row of seats; if you’re in the next, the two rows. And it’s just empty, and it’s this really funny image of…
You know, the Shinkansen is only known as a transport device, but in Akudama Drive it has ascended, but, yeah, no one gets to use this. And people can’t believe that somebody would ride in it, whereas if you told someone today that the Shinkansen was empty, they would be like, “What happened? Why isn’t it being used?
VRAI: And it becomes this Lotus Eater machine, almost, that does take people to Kanto in this infinite, bodiless form that’s very cyberpunk. We were talking about it in the Slack. Dee mentioned it as being this peak image of privilege, especially if you are somebody who deals with some kind of chronic pain or mobility issues or dysphoria or anything to do with a physical body, this idea of Kanto: they have infinite form. And they’re kind of bored about it. [mumbles as if bored]
MERCEDEZ: Yeah, Kanto is really interesting, specifically because of the body autonomy, too.
VRAI: Yeah. It’s theoretically this ultimate thing that Doctor is after, but also, that sort of ennui of… God help me, I’m about to reference Zardoz, where you have this race of immortals and all they want is the luxury of death. That is the only attainment they now seek. Zardoz is bad, actually.
CHIAKI: I feel like Kanto is the perfect cyberpunk villain, because a villain in cyberpunk is a faceless entity that you can’t actually beat, only cope with. So, ultimately, having an entire region of people who have basically just fucked off and said, “You know what? We’re just doing our own thing and we don’t even have faces anymore. Whatever.” That is a really good reveal and a really good villain, conceptually, to have.
MERCEDEZ: And I have to say, it’s really well-executed in this show. I gasped when we finally get to Kanto and you see Tokyo Tower drifting by in the background, just this detached icon of the Tokyo cityscape just floatin’. And I did not expect that the plot twist was gonna be Kanto digitized themselves. It was the coolest thing. And you’re right. It is kind of like this big, faceless villain. It’s so good.
VRAI: And there’s something so potent about the fact that—we haven’t talked much about Brother and Sister—the fact that this potent, elite class wants nothing more than to hollow out and utilize the bones of the next generation so that they can continue living their lifestyle without being inconvenienced. Like, shit.
MERCEDEZ: It’s real good. And I’m sure that someone far smarter than me has said this online, but there is something to be said about… You have Brother and Sister, who, the first time we really see them together, Brother is wearing a school uniform. It’s like a Danganronpa-ized school uniform, so it looks really cool, but it is, for all intents and purposes, a middle school-looking uniform. And you have Sister, who presents as—outside of Japan, for sure—a stereotypical image of a young Japanese girl.
And the fact that Kanto wants nothing more than to take these two children, who are individuals, and, like a lot of our societies, feed them into the machine that produces good members of society that follow the rules and sacrifice themselves, literally, for whatever the country calls for, is pretty “Oof!” I had to sit down after that.
VRAI: It’s an incredible reveal and it’s really poignant, but my wife and I did laugh really hard at the reveal that… [snickers] “You believe in the Moon?”
MERCEDEZ: Oh, my God.
MERCEDEZ: God! I screamed when they said… When the Moon reveal happens, first of all, I was like, “Excuse me?” [chuckles] “You can’t break the Moon!”
VRAI: I didn’t know this was a post-Piccolo world!
MERCEDEZ: That whole bit, I totally forgot that the Moon is just shards of rock and that they’ve been projecting a hologram so that people don’t see the Moon. Oh, my God, Akudama Drive, you pack so much in.
VRAI: I love Sister’s arc, too. I feel like it’s a secondary thing, but I just love that she’s just this very quiet anime imouto type until she actually gets away from her protective older brother—who she loves and cares about—but gets to have autonomy and talk to other women and be asked about her opinions as an individual. And then all of the men she meets thereafter are shocked that she has things to say and does a swear.
MERCEDEZ: I love that she learns that she likes tomatoes. It’s the sweetest thing.
VRAI: It’s so good!
MERCEDEZ: And I believe it’s also before she says a swear, which also is very good. [chuckles] It’s just very funny.
CHIAKI: If anyone out there is listening, just let your kids swear. That’s good.
MERCEDEZ: Yeah, let them call the adult men in their life “shit.”
MERCEDEZ: Let them do that.
CHIAKI: [laughs] Oh, yeah! Just like, “Oh, no! Shitty guy!” [laughs]
MERCEDEZ: This child won my heart. She’s so good. She’s so good. [laughs]
VRAI: She’s the best!
MERCEDEZ: She’s absolutely the best.
VRAI: [attempts to speak, falls back into laughter]
MERCEDEZ: Watching her eat tomatoes, call Courier “shitty guy,” just… Mm! Chef’s kiss!
VRAI: So, in light of that joyous thing, should we talk about the incredibly depressing ending?
MERCEDEZ: See, I didn’t— Okay, I didn’t—
VRAI: A lot of people die and there were tears. But you go. You go. This is your thing.
MERCEDEZ: Oh, it’s my thing?
CHIAKI: Go ahead.
VRAI: You put it in the show notes, so I figured… Go for it.
MERCEDEZ: I found it deeply optimistic. Yes, a lot of people die. There’s a lot to unpack. Assumably the next day, when everyone wakes up, there’s gonna be a lot to deal with. But I actually found it really optimistic. And I say that as I was sobbing on my sofa. I was laid on my side with a blanket, sobbing. I think I was clutching a juice pouch ‘cause I was thirsty.
It’s a sad ending, but there was something so powerful about… No one who sacrificed themselves died in vain. These two kids ultimately get to go on and still be people, and they get to exist outside of just being experiments, and I found it really beautiful.
And I’ll say this: Danganronpa is very good at subverting who you think is gonna die because it’s a murder game. It’s a murder/death game. But it’s also kind of bad at picking off characters that don’t necessarily deserve it. And it was really beautiful to see Kodaka, and everyone who worked on writing and scripting and directing for this, not bring any of these characters back and let them die in ways that actually felt…
Like, when Courier dies, you’re like, “I’m shattered,” but he died doing something that fit his character. He died doing the right thing, which is kind of what he wanted to do as a kid. And when Swindler dies, look, there was a part of me that was like, “My girl’s gonna come back, right?” And she doesn’t. And you just have to sit with that. But even in the midst of all of that pain, they don’t die in vain, and I think that’s what I found deeply optimistic. They’re not martyred, but—
VRAI: Well… Swindler does get shot against a giant cross.
MERCEDEZ: Yeah. I believe when that happened, I hit pause and I was like, “I need to go on a walk,” because I was like, “Really?” But you kind of go into that last episode with the feeling that Swindler knows she ain’t gonna make it out of this.
But there’s so much beauty in the fact that the system is gonna change. People rose up and the system’s gonna change. There’s a lot of flaws that have been revealed. There’s a lot of stuff they have to unpack and work towards. But these two kids, they get to live. They get to keep on existing. And that was just so deeply optimistic to me.
Not to say that… Like I said: I sobbed, juice pack, on the couch, blanket. But there was just something so powerfully joyful in seeing Sister and Brother go towards the tunnel, knowing that “Yeah, they’re gonna make it to Shikoku, and they’re gonna be okay.”
VRAI: I personally read the ending more as, maybe because it’s cyberpunk, “This society is broken and unfixable and doomed to eat itself—because the bombs go off at the end, presumably, and blow everything up—but humanity is capable of going on and there is hope and rejuvenation in life there.”
Every character is obviously named for their job title or their social role, except for Brother and Sister, who are named for their human relationships to each other. And that’s good, actually.
CHIAKI: Yeah, I feel like the ending was very noir. It ends with this question of “Where are they going from there?” But everything else lies in ruin. And it’s for them to create something new.
I’m not even sure Kansai’s gonna recover after that, because it really did seem like, literally, Rocks Falls, Everyone Dies. Kanto’s gone. The Shikoku plant is basically deactivated and destroyed. What’s left?
MERCEDEZ: Yeah. And I think that is the one part that’s left. Clearly, society has collapsed. It’s bad. That society is never gonna be fixed. And you do wonder, “Well, what’s gonna happen after this?” Because there’s never gonna be an Akudama Drive season two, and quite frankly, I don’t think there should be. I think that would actually defeat the purpose of the story and its 12-episode thesis on ACAB.
But you do kinda wonder what’s gonna happen after this, because you can’t have the same people who broke the system in the first place repair it. That’s a real struggle that we’re seeing globally, especially in America. When you come to ACAB, you can’t have people in that system repair it. Someone else has to do it, but where do you start?
VRAI: Yeah, it’s rough. Boy howdy, that moment when the footage of Swindler goes out, talking about her original name in the casting, which is Ordinary Citizen. “Oh boy, this is potent, loaded imagery, isn’t it?”
MERCEDEZ: Yeah, it was… whew! [chuckles] And I feel like I should say… I don’t know if people listening right now understand. It is very brutal, and I think it does bring up imagery of recent things that happened in 2020, and especially if you’re an American citizen and especially if you’re someone who watches American news and has followed any of the—I don’t know how to put it kindly; I don’t know why I’m trying to be nice to police—any of the police murders that have been committed on ordinary citizens.
But Swindler definitely is drawing on that imagery. Like Vrai said, Swindler gets killed and then shish-kebabbed to a cross. It’s not subtle. Nothing in Akudama Drive is subtle. [chuckles]
CHIAKI: And even less, when the uprising is happening, you have the cops declaring that all the rioters are Akudama themselves. And you see it for a flash, but everyone in the city isn’t actually named. They’re all just numbers.
And I appreciated the split second that the chief of police was like, “We can’t attack citizens.” But then you have the Executioner—which might be something really interesting to think about, which is that the Executioners, which are essentially the justice system, compared to the police, is advocating for the murder and capture of innocents.
MERCEDEZ: Yeah, they literally in that moment become judge, jury, and executioner in a way that they’re fully like, “Well, there’s a problem. The problem is the citizens, and the citizens aren’t doing what we want. So, the only solution is, yeah, we gotta fix the problem. We gotta take ‘em out.” And the horror in that moment is palpable because, once again, that’s a real thing that’s happened.
And like I said before, I know someone smarter than me has said this, but that’s part of why I find Akudama Drive interesting, because right now we are technically in a cyberpunk society. It’s just not as glamorous.
CHIAKI: If I may? If I may, we just live in the worst cyberpunk timeline. Okay, go ahead. [chuckles]
MERCEDEZ: We do, though. We do. And that’s part of why I think sometimes cyberpunk isn’t appealing right now, because it is our lived existence. Which is interesting that Akudama Drive is so appealing as a cyberpunk show, and I think it’s because it’s kind of striking at the heart of what makes living like this so unpalatable and so just like a big ol’ downer. [chuckles]
VRAI: Speaking about the Executioner scene with the chief of police, I did appreciate—I was gonna say “enjoy,” but that’s not the right word—the fact that for a second I was almost worried that they were gonna be like, “They’re good, really,” but then the guy shoots himself in the head because “you didn’t want to do this, but you still did it and you were still culpable in a lot of people’s deaths.”
And having that moment of realization, that I think a lot of anime sidestep because they want you to like the individual cop characters who are in this corrupted system, was a very bold and committed move for the script to pull.
CHIAKI: I feel like this Executioner-versus-police dichotomy, though, also plays a bit into the Japanese relationship to the courts and cops, mostly because Japan’s justice system is so well oiled and geared towards getting convictions that the police are essentially working in conjunction with the other to arrest people that are only guilty. So, I think that is also a criticism here that should be noted.
VRAI: Yeah, no, definitely. That famously touted 90% conviction rate, isn’t it?
CHIAKI: Like, 98.9 or something, yeah.
MERCEDEZ: I have to admit, the entire time I was watching… As I was watching, I couldn’t help but flash back to my own time living abroad in Japan, and I kept having the passive thought of “Hm. Wonder if the Prime Minister has seen some Akudama clips and is getting a message or something?” And I was like, “Nah, he ain’t watching it.”
The irony being that [chuckles] every time that the propaganda part would come up made me think of NHK, which is, you know… [chuckles] You can’t divorce it from all these things happening in Japan, and just the fact that, man, this show kind of really was just somebody’s thesis on “Hey, we have these problems in our country. Sure would be great if we could fix ‘em.”
It was just good. It was just really, really powerful, very satisfying. Hits different after you’ve gone through an insurrection in your country.
MERCEDEZ: Hits real different. But, you know, so it goes.
VRAI: There’s something to be said for getting to watch a show where you get the catharsis of watching everything collapse without having to die.
MERCEDEZ: Yeah. [laughs] Yeah. Yeah.
VRAI: [sighs] Yeah.
MERCEDEZ: It’ll also make you want takoyaki. This show will super make you want to eat some takoyaki.
CHIAKI: [crosstalk] I do.
VRAI: [crosstalk] I do not care for octopus, and I wanted takoyaki so bad.
VRAI: So bad.
CHIAKI: [sighs] I kinda want to…
MERCEDEZ: It’ll make you want takoyaki. It’ll make you have a solid fear of cans. Just a solid fear of cans.
CHIAKI: That was badass. I’m sorry.
MERCEDEZ: [chuckles] It was so good. It was so good. But I did open a can the other day, and I was like, “Oh, God! Don’t let it come near my face!” It’s just a really powerful show.
VRAI: Yeah, we didn’t even get into half of the really brutal, excellent— We didn’t talk about Cutthroat’s death at all, and that scene is a lot. It’s really good basic thriller shit.
MERCEDEZ: It’s just really good.
VRAI: This show is good. Did either of you have any final wrap-up thoughts? I mean, Mercedez basically already played us an excellent closer, but…
CHIAKI: Nah. We’re good?
VRAI: We’re good.
MERCEDEZ: I mean, just go watch Akudama Drive. It’s on Funimation. Their app is bad, but, you know, that’s what it means to live and suffer in 2021.
CHIAKI: Welcome to living in a cyberpunk dystopia.
VRAI: Hooray! Yeah, check our writeup for any content warnings we maybe didn’t touch on here, but do watch the show if somehow you made it all the way through this and are fine with all the spoilers, which… Eh, I feel like this show would be fine already knowing where it’s going, but it’s such a unique joy to watch unawares.
MERCEDEZ: It really is.
VRAI: I guess that about wraps us up. Thank you so much for joining us, AniFam.
If you liked what you hear, you can find more stuff from our team in your ears on Soundcloud or by going to our website, animefeminist.com. And if you really like what you heard, you could consider tossing us a dollar on Patreon, patreon.com/AnimeFeminist. We also have a Ko-fi, ko-fi.com/animefeminist, that we are using to finish up making transcripts for our podcast backlog so that these can continue to be more accessible for folks, and we are really dedicated to continuing that work, the Patreon especially. Every little dollar helps to continue to create content on the page and in your earbuds.
And that about wraps us up for this time. Thanks so much for joining us, Anime Fam, and do not ever forget that all cops are bastards.
CHIAKI: Fuck yeah.