Another Killer Seven
The combination of the long-esteemed pedigree of anime Studio Pierrot and Too Kyo Games (its founders created the Danganronpa series) resulted in exactly what I want anime to be. For as Cyber City Oedo 808 established decades ago, the absolute highest form of narrative is “cyberpunk super-criminals with bomb collars on their necks forced to undertake a suicide mission.” The “cyberpunk” part is key, otherwise you end up with the wrong Jared Leto. Such is the general premise of Akudama Drive, the best action anime overall of 2020.
In a futuristic Dotonbori (Yakuza fans will recognize that bridge), the most heinous criminals are declared “Akudama” (which basically means “bad people” but it’s left untranslated since “akudama” sounds cooler) and are subject to summary execution. A mysterious fixer with incredible wealth has assembled seven of the worst of the worst Akudama for one mega-heist. We never learn anybody’s given names, just codenames.
“Courier” is your traditional taciturn “all business” cyberpunk hero: high-tech motorcycle, metal hand, giant pistol. “Brawler” is a muscular gullible himbo whose solution to everything is to punch it. “Hacker” is a one-eyed extremely online sort who can control electronic systems. “Doctor” is a pink-haired bombshell who can almost instantly kill or resurrect anybody in proximity, including herself, thanks to near-omniscient surgery and biochemistry knowledge. “Hoodlum” is a small-time yakuza who makes outrageous false claims (which Brawler believes all of). And then there’s “Cutthroat” aka “jerk at your D&D circle who plays a Chaotic Neutral bard”: a deranged knife-wielding murderer of over 1,000 people (by episode one, anyway) who’s obsessed with red things and has the maturity of an elementary schooler.
Wait, that’s only six Akudama, isn’t it? Well, the last is the main character: an ordinary young woman incarcerated for only having credit to pay at a cash-only takoyaki stall despite having a 500 yen coin in her possession at the time (the Courier dropped it and she was trying to return it). She’s a fundamentally moral and compassionate citizen who, through pure happenstance, is branded by the system as a criminal and, in order to not be killed by these actual Akudama with centuries worth of conviction times, must now masquerade as one herself.
Through no fault of her own, the completely powerless “Swindler” now finds herself with a bomb collar around HER neck, and as the carnage and death toll skyrockets the brutal authorities can only conclude that the mastermind behind all this mayhem MUST be this illusive Swindler character! It’s darkly funny, and yet the series keeps it grounded enough to intentionally make viewers consider our actual reality; who does (and does not) get branded a “criminal” or “terrorist” when they commit foul deeds, and how news/entertainment media manufactures consent.
Akudama Drive is highly influenced by Western cinema, with every episode title save the finale named after a famous motion picture. Its Asian techno-landscape reminiscent of definitive cyberpunk works such as Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell combined with those unmistakably sharp Danganronpa-like aesthetics and tragicomic despair result in something truly original. Indeed, this is an increasingly rare instance of an original anime that was not previously a manga, light novel, videogame, etc.
The Quentin Tarantino-like character interplays patterned after Reservoir Dogs and The Hateful Eight (minus the racism) are fully on purpose, and like with those movies everything ends up going wrong. The body count is substantial, and since the streaming broadcast blacks out all of the beheadings and head/eye trauma I recommend owning it on home video. You’d want to do that regardless, as the animation is always spectacular and action choreography/camerawork always hyper-kinetic.
Akudama Drive is great fun throughout while offering strong characters, world-building, and relevant commentary on our current real-life existence. Plus, unlike so many other anime it sticks the landing fantastically.