Content Warning: Discussion of police brutality/murder, carceral violence, racism
Spoilers for Akudama Drive
“An attempt to create a new conceptual terrain for imagining alternatives to imprisonment involves the ideological work of questioning why “criminals” have been constituted as a class and, indeed, a class of human beings undeserving of the civil and human rights accorded to others.”Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete?
When Akudama Drive first aired in the fall of 2020, it came across as an all-style, low-substance cyberpunk action show most interested in showing off its slick, frantic animation. With a cast mostly of “dangerous criminals” identified by the crimes they’ve committed instead of their names, I assumed its dystopian setting would act as little more than set dressing in a story that ultimately reinforces, rather than challenges, the stigmatization of criminalized people. I have rarely been happier to be proven wrong. Echoing the calls of the prison abolition movement, Akudama Drive delivers a powerful and subversive statement against the criminal legal system, one that goes beyond slogans like All Cops Are Bastards and questions the basis of our conception of justice.
Instead of a more neutral term for criminals, the creators chose the word “akudama,” which literally means “bad guy” or “villain,” in order to critically examine its nature as a social class, one that is distinct from the group of people who have broken the law and carries with it a harsh value judgement. The branding of one as Akudama is the arrest by police. Once a person is handcuffed in public view, thrown into a police car, and the media publishes their mug shots, they are filed under “criminals” in our minds, presumption of innocence be damned. Likewise, one becomes an Akudama the instant the police declare it to be so, before Executioners begin their investigation, let alone sentence them.
While one could read Akudama Drive solely as a statement against police brutality (and it certainly is one, in part), this is not where its main focus lies. It does not fully examine the structures that both protect cops from the law and trains them to abuse their power. In fact, it features very few regular cops at all, choosing to make its main antagonists the Execution Department, an embodiment of state violence in general and a stand-in for prosecutors and judges in particular. In Akudama Drive’s Kansai, police can brand citizens as Akudama, while Executioners have full discretion to investigate, sentence and execute Akudama as they see fit.
The protagonist, Ordinary Person, does not have a name. Neither do any of the citizens, identified merely by a number and addressed by their job title. This is a common trope in dystopian fiction, but here it serves an unusual purpose: it dehumanizes not citizens by denying them a name, but criminalized people by granting them one.
Akudama have a name forced upon them, and their entire selfhood becomes defined by their social status. When you are a nameless ordinary person among thousands, the thought of a Brawler, Hacker, or Cutthroat becomes alien and terrifying. So alien, that despite the knowledge that one becomes Akudama by decision of the police, it is subconsciously understood as an innate, immutable attribute.
Pupil confidently explains that “Akudama don’t have hearts, that’s why they have to die.” Both he and the protagonist express confusion upon learning that “regular people” they consider part of their in-group have now been branded as Akudama, because it conflicts with that implicit understanding. Surely, an Ordinary Person may break a rule or two, but that was for justifiable reasons; they are still a good person and have nothing to fear from the law. So when in the latter half of the series, the protagonist manages to escape back home after she and several Akudama saved a child from being sacrificed by the state, she confidently uses her government issued seal to purchase takoyaki.
When it triggers an Akudama alert, her immediate reaction is that it must be a mistake. When the camera moves to superimpose her wanted hologram over her face and she notices nothing but fear in the face of the people around her, she is the one experiencing true terror. A new identity was forced upon her, one that is alien to her peers, and she must run.
Now known to all as Swindler, with no home and no resources, she and Sister shelter in a garbage treatment plant and steal canned food from its pantry to survive. Having lost her place in society, she is seen as easy prey by human traffickers, and the same woman who was too principled to even use a single dropped coin has now killed two men just to survive. Likewise, Hoodlum, who was sentenced to 4 years for mere theft and blackmail, and could not get himself to kill even to avenge his precious friend, turns to drugs and finds himself coerced into assisting Doctor’s murder spree. Thus the carceral system creates more of the very misery and crime it claims to prevent.
A Self-Sustaining Machine
“The carceral system has always used sensationalized cases and the specter of unthinkable harm to create new mechanisms of disposability. Those mechanisms are what feed bodies to hungry dungeon economies while we are distracted by our own fears of “bad people” and what they might do if they aren’t contained.”Mariame Kaba & Kelly Hayes, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us
Executioners show no respect for the value of their victims’ lives, and they don’t need to; after all, they’re only killing Akudama, the “dregs of society,” and ordinary people will cheer them on and celebrate the illusion of safety. They are humans like any other and surely weren’t born without empathy, but even when the head of the police force feels some reluctance to order the mass execution of unarmed protesters for political convenience, it is quickly quashed by pressure from above to obtain “results.”
The amount of compassion Executioners show seems inversely proportional to their seniority. Boss and her elite Executioners show especially callous disregard for human life, treating the murder of protesters as just another chore. Pupil shows some sympathy to some Akudama but shuts those feelings down in order to follow through on her superiors’ order. When Junior is horrified to learn of the mass murder of the people they have a sworn duty to protect, Pupil’s the one who teaches him he must not think that way.
Had Kansai continued its status quo, it wouldn’t have taken long for Junior to become the one to pass this systematic dehumanization on to the newest recruit. This eventual numbing to and perpetuation of unjust laws is what it means to say all cops are bastards, as eventually the only choices are either to uphold injustice or leave the job.
From Ordinary Person to Swindler
As Ordinary Person, she was no different from any other citizen. She never had to think much about Akudama, and if she did, they were the Other, dangerous people which must be either killed or detained, lest they bring society down with them. Her happiness was simply leaving work on time and diving into bed.
When she got drawn into Black Cat’s plot, she was initially passive, terrified of the Akudama who she thought to be so unlike her, and wished only to come back to her ordinary life. As she gets to know them, and as she is herself branded Akudama, she comes to realize that the concept of Akudama is nothing but a tool of oppression, it is the moral exclusion of anyone the state deems to be inconvenient, allowing it to do with them as they please without fear of public backlash.
When she cuts her hair and starts to accept her new identity as Swindler after her narrow escape from the city, her role changes from passive to active, and she sets her mind on a single goal: guaranteeing the safety and freedom of the two siblings. She reclaims the word Akudama to mean people who stick to their ideals and see their goals through no matter what, and the identity forced upon her becomes her strength.
In her final moments, back to back cuts show her declaring herself to be an Ordinary Person and Swindler, respectively. She knows now that the distinction between those two is a lie, but she still remembers how she used to think. She understands that she only has minutes to live, so in order to save the children, she swindles the Executioners who do not know they are being watched. Mixing in some lies to make her story more immediately relatable, she plays the part of a victim of their most recent massacre in order to convey this one truth to the city: Executioners are murdering human beings.
The Execution Department becomes a victim of its own vision of justice. In order to have Justice, Evil must be crushed, and if Executioners are now exposed as evil, there is only one course for the people to take. When the Chief is finally forced to confront the truth that he is complicit in the murder of thousands, he too can only think of one road to take.
Trapped within the framework of punitive justice, he sentences himself to death and commits suicide on the spot. It happens in mere seconds, without background music or any sort of emphasis, and the camera immediately moves back to Courier, Brother and Sister without giving any weight to Chief’s death. It is framed as an unimportant, pointless act, one that does nothing to repair the harm he caused.
It is, in fact, the last we see of police, Executioners and the city. One can assume that many, if not all Executioners died at the hands of their victims’ families and friends, but this story does not care to show it, and focuses its gaze entirely on the children.
Building Something New
Indeed, when Swindler uttered in her final breath “Serves you right,” she was not gloating about the Executioners’ imminent demise. Her spite, her righteous rage at the world that destroyed her life is directed toward one single goal: giving the kids a chance to build a better home. She dies smiling, knowing that she provided enough distraction for them to escape, and that is her revenge.
Akudama Drive does not offer direct solutions or alternatives to police and prison, as that is far out of its scope. Most people, when first learning about the prison abolition movement, initially dismiss it as an unrealistic fantasy, asking what should be done with unrepentant and truly evil people. Akudama Drive places stereotypes of how people imagine “dangerous criminals” front and center, yet still confidently rejects the core belief that allows the oppression of millions to continue: the lie that there exists a class of people who are not quite people, whose existence is inherently a threat to peace, and who can be killed or locked into cages without us considering it a human rights issue, as long as regular people believe to be safe.
When we have spent our whole life in a world built around a flawed and destructive definition of justice, it is difficult to fully envision a different world, but we must still work toward it, because what we have now is unacceptable. Brother and Sister’s destination is described only as “a mystical place that nobody’s heard about, let alone been to”, and the show’s quiet and contemplative but hopeful final scenes seem to echo Ursula Le Guin’s short story:
“The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.“
This is where I had planned for this article to end. However, as I was writing it, Derek Chauvin’s guilty verdict fell, and Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, infamously stated “Thank you, George Floyd, for sacrificing your life for justice. […] your name will always be synonymous with justice.” This shouldn’t need to be said, but let’s make this clear: George Floyd was not a cartoon character, he did not choose a heroic sacrifice under a cross, he was murdered. Many have said this already.
We must also insist that what was obtained with this verdict is not good enough, it is not justice, it is not anything even close to providing true justice. It does nothing to repair the families and communities broken by his murder, and it does nothing to prevent it from happening again. Hours before the verdict, Ma’Khia Bryant was shot and killed by police. The very next day, Andrew Brown was shot and killed by police.
It is currently an acceptable topic of debate to argue over how much blame we should pin on 16 year old Ma’Khia Bryant for her own death. News reports are being published about Andrew Brown’s rap sheet, as though it has any relevance to how we should feel about his being shot in the back of the head.
We will not fix this by attempting to adjust where the line lies between innocent and criminal, between human being and dangerous caged animal. This will not stop and we will not have justice until we reject all state violence, defund the police, divest from the prison industrial complex and invest in restorative and transformative justice.