Last month, while recapping some of the more notable anime of 2020, I made mention s series called Akudama Drive. It was the winner of my Most Underrated Anime of 2020 award and I emphatically praised it. I said it would be getting a Weeb Analysis of its own because I had way too much to talk about that couldn’t be contained to just a few measly paragraphs. In that month, I’ve been trying hard to figure out exactly how to approach a series like Akudama Drive. How can I properly convey just how insane of a ride it is? And I don’t mean insane as in “how is this even functional.” Rather “this should not be as good as it is” insane.
Original anime productions are a rarity in the anime industry. Then again original ideas are becoming all too rare in most media regardless. When the options are between reproducing or recreating an established series, even if the results would be diminishing and it might not get a huge crowd, at least there’s the guarantee that it will get a crowd. Original productions, on the other hand, are complete wild cards that may strike a homerun or fail miserably. Established franchises are just safer, but Akudama Drive is anything but safe.
Akudama Drive is also unique in that it’s a production between two vastly different studios. Studio Pierrot, who are known for their Shonen titles like Bleach, Yu Yu Hakusho, and Naruto, are the ones responsible for animating it. However, the series is more associated with another company. Akudama Drive was imagined by fledging new video games company called Too Kyo Games. From what I can gather, they function sort of like an IP creating company that pitch ideas. Those ideas are then picked up and developed by other studios or companies. Because of this, the main man behind the series, and one of the founders of Too Kyo Games, is Kazutaka Kodaka. Aka, the creator of the massively successful Danganronpa franchise, one of my favorite video game series.
That’s right, the Danganronpa team is back in a Quentin Tarantino-like cyberpunk thrill ride. Do I have your attention yet?
The series begins in the city of Kansai in a dystopian future. The people of Kansai have been subjugated by the people of the neighboring prefecture Kanto and criminals, known as Akudama, are causing chaos in the streets of Kansai. An ordinary girl encounters one of the more infamous Akudama, known as Courier, which inadvertently leads to her having to interact with a group of deadly Akudama. Five Akudama were hired by a robot cat to steal a package set to travel to Kanto. What that package is, isn’t explained to them, just to do it and they’ll get paid handsomely. Needless to say, getting a group of dangerous, egomaniacal criminals together to commit a crime is a recipe for absolutely nothing going wrong, and our ordinary girl, pretending to be an Akudama named Swindler, won’t get discovered and executed by the Akudamas themselves or the Executioners hunting them down.
When you break it down into its smallest components, Akudama Drive starts off as a heist thriller. It’s not dissimilar from The Great Pretender, but here the creators don’t even attempt to hide how dangerous and ruthless our protagonists are. At least in The Great Pretender, the show paints our protagonists as Robin Hood-esque heroes. Here, our protagonists are all blatantly criminals and revel in it. Courier eviscerates people dispassionately with his killer motorcycle. Brawler is a moron which inhuman endurance. Doctor is a sociopath purely interested in selfish gains. Hacker is a bored child who wants to cause chaos to entertain himself. Cutthroat is a literal mass murdered on death row. The only two normal people involved in this heist are Swindler, who pretends to be an Akudama, and Hoodlum, who is a petty criminal who also gets roped into this.
The show makes it a point to continuously mention that our seven protagonists are not good guys. That being said, Akudama Drive continuously attempts, and succeeds at that, to paint them in a positive light. By that, I mean that no, they show never tries to depict any of them as good people (except for Swindler). Mass murders are gonna mass murder after all. But when compared to the systems of government and society around them, the Akudama are virtuous knights in comparison. As the series progresses, the layers of society are peeled back to see that the world of Akudama Drive is a prototypical authoritarian state run by the imperialistic Kanto with the Executioners their foot soldiers.
Kanto, as an entity, remains unseen for a majority of the series, always dictating their will to the Executioners. These militant soldier’s sole purpose is to maintain order for the people of Kanto by any means necessary. The Executioners rank above the police and will do whatever it takes to restore order to Kansai, and by whatever it takes, I mean whatever it takes. You’re not just called Executioners because it sounds like an edgy title. Heads will roll and if you’re deemed a threat to the state, they will come for you.
The Executioners are probably the most fascinating thing about Akudama Drive and where a majority of the analysis of the show hinges on. Sure, the Akudama themselves all feel like valuable and developed characters by the time the show ends, but BOY OH BOY the series has a lot to say on the nature of the police within society. The Executioners are the ones who truly enforce the laws in Kansai, focused entirely on maintaining “law & order.” But what exactly does a militaristic group like the Executioners define as “law & order” in the first place? In short, subservience to the state.
As the show continues, the definition of what an Akudama means gets blurred more and more. At first, we’re led to believe that an Akudama is a super-criminal like Cutthroat, who decapitated over 1,000 people and is on death row. He’s an Akudama, but then again, so is Swindler. Swindler is just an innocent girl who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. But to the Executioners it’s irrelevant. She must be eliminated because she threatens their carefully maintained order.
Eventually, protesters are labeled as Akudama, fit to be executed in order to maintain the peace that Kanto wants so badly. The Executioners have no qualms with murdering anyone to maintain that peace, but because they have the power to decide who is an Akudama or not, they essentially have free reign to abuse their power in the name of peace. To the Executioners, might is right. If you are against the status quo, you are an Akudama.
Our protagonists are criminals, that much is a fact, but Akudama Drive posits that if the system is corrupt, if a society is genuinely beyond redemption and its citizens suffer, then the definition of crime is meaningless. Swindler begins the series as someone who is staunchly against the Akudama, afraid to even be in the presence of one of them. By the end of the series, after seeing the nature of Kansai, the Executioners, and the purpose of the cat’s mission, she comes to terms that society itself is broken. Yet she doesn’t give up hope.
One of her companions towards the end of the series is a pair of siblings named Brother and Sister. Look the series isn’t that great at naming characters, alright? We never learn anyone’s name, just their crime. It’s neat, but it’s weird writing about characters with no name. Swindler does whatever she can to protect the two of them despite the persecution she faces for it. When faced with becoming an actual Akudama, she chooses to go down a path of no return because, in her heart, she knows that what she’s doing is right. She must protect the siblings because if not, then two innocent children will suffer at the hands of Kanto and she can’t allow that.
Her arc is actually kind of wonderful from a visual standpoint as each of the Akudama, when they’re introduced in the first episode, all have over-the-top intro sequences. Bright neon colors appear with some wacky animation before their title is stylishly revealed. But Swindler doesn’t get one. Because she’s not a real Akudama. But there is a moment in the series where she accepts her place in the world as a criminal and her vocal opposition to the system around her. It’s only then that she gets her Akudama intro, flourishes and all. It’s a brilliant moment that just makes me smile from ear to ear every time I even think about it.
There are so many other little tidbits in Akudama Drive that are worth analyzing or parsing over in excruciating detail. We could always talk about the steady diet of educational propaganda that is fed to the masses at every turn. We could have a deep discussion about the nature of stolen innocence in media if we want to. Or perhaps we could look at the series treatment of honor and loyalty within the Executioner’s ranks. But for as much as I may love to dive into the themes of the show, none of that would make any difference if the series itself wasn’t fun to watch.
There’s no real subtle way to say this, but holy hell guys, this show is an action masterpiece. Almost every episode has an action set piece behind it that somehow, someway, manages to top the previous episode’s spectacle. Akudama Drive is pure eye candy with some absolutely immaculate animation. Some of the highlights are a brutal fight scene between Brawler and an Executioner in the remains of an old theme park in the rain, a tense nightmare sequence ripped straight from The Shining with Cutthroat giving his best Jack Torrance impression, to motorcycles shooting freaking laser beams while driving up radio towers. The setpieces are ridiculous, but damnit are they thrilling. Screw trying to analyze Akudama Drive, half of the time I just want to turn my brain off and just marvel at the gloriously stupid action.
Because make no mistake, this can be a stupid show. A very stupid show. Usually, these stupid moments come from the series also trying to one-up itself at nearly every point. In this regard, I feel that the team at Too Kyo Games struggled to really iron out the plot. Pierrot pulled their part with the stunning animation, but the connective tissue, at times, is flimsy. Take Brother and his overall goal; he wants to escape Kansai and Kanto by flying to the moon. Good idea, but OH NO, THE MOON IS GONE. How and why the moon doesn’t exist anymore is never given a satisfying answer and it’s only brought up once. You would think that the destruction of the moon might be a little bit important, but nope! It’s a dystopia, so the show hand waves criticism away.
If you’re a fan of Kodaka’s writing skills, this should be no surprise to you. While he’s excellent after crafting smaller, individual stories his long-term stories tend to suffer a bit from the leaps of logic. For as much as I may love Danganronpa, it’s a perfect example of what I’m getting at. The characters he creates are wonderful, but the stories surrounding them can be messy. Kodaka has a destination he needs to get the characters too, but the process of getting there is tricky. Sometimes the end result may not even be worth it and sow even more confusion. All you need to do is reference the ending of Danganronpa V3 to get what I’m saying.
This may be a somewhat unintentional nod to Quentin Tarantino, as he was one of the main inspirations behind the series with his unique style and structure, but Tarantino’s scripts are always tight and purposeful. Regardless of how they’re structured, nearly every scene or character serves some kind of a purpose. Flashing back to the times before the heist in Reservoir Dogs and the jumbled up narrative of Pulp Fiction come to mind. While the structure may be difficult to understand, the plots really aren’t. When placed in chronological order, things are actually pretty simple to follow. There’s a method to the madness, but Tarantino never comes across as mad. His scripts all are logical, but Kodaka’s are wild and crazy. Again, he just casually DESTROYED THE MOON, because, plot.
We’re made aware very early on in Reservoir Dogs there’s a traitor in the film. We know what the secret is and have to keep our eyes open for it. Shortly after, the film outright tells us who it is and moves on with us now knowing that fact. Akudama Drive isn’t as tight or as concise in that regard. We’re not left to ponder any real mysteries except for the cliffhangers at the end of each episode. The show isn’t interested in long-term mysteries, but when gigantic reveals happen, they somehow feel anticlimactic. It tries to ape the story and style of Tarantino film but only manages the style part. It’s a mile-a-minute thrill ride that doesn’t care if you read into its deeper themes. It just wants you to be impressed by it.
But the series excels at aping the Tarantino style. By far. If Tarantino ever decided to make a sci-fi movie, I’m almost certain it would look like Akudama Drive. Even its visceral theming of anti-police and anti-establishment rage would be right up his alley. Akudama Drive isn’t subtle in its metaphors, but it has the conviction to shout them from the rooftops. I’m almost impressed with how headstrong it is and unafraid to go places. This is the kind of ambition I can dig. It’s a series that discusses topics few anime titles do but does so in a concise way. By the time the twelve episodes are done, we’ve reached an almost perfect ending. A thrilling conclusion as the world crumbles around our heroes.
Sure, the series could continue, but we don’t really need it to. We don’t need to see what happens to Kansai and Kanto after the explosive finale because it doesn’t really matter. We don’t need to have the moral shoved down our throats to learn some kind of meaning. That’s made all too clear by the implications of the scenes and the showstopping action setpieces. There’s plenty there to read further if you wish, but it’s not required. The best kind of shows I like to talk about are ones that can be enjoyed on multiple levels. You can watch Akudama Drive for its takedown of police brutality, or you can watch it for the bonkers action. Both are acceptable in my eyes.
Because the series came out at the tail end of 2020, most people had no idea it existed. It’s an anime original title after all that isn’t associated with a big franchise. It may be tangentially associated with another series, but only weirdos like me really know that stuff. Then again, I keep an eye on every major show the releases each season, but I know I’m the minority of that. But once you give it a watch it’ll be impossible not to stop watching Akudama Drive and analyze what it has to say on the police. You know for a fact that if this show aired last summer it would have been eerily topical, but that’s not meant to be. Instead, we have a brilliant gem of a series that most overlooked. Then again, maybe after reading this, you’ll decide to give it a look-see. One can hope.