Akudama Drive: Last Minute Pivot

I have already written about anime that start off slow and then finish spectacularly, helping recontextualize everything that we had seen so far. You cannot have the gut-wrenching emotional highs of Re:Zero without watching Subaru be an idiot for 15 episodes, and you can’t appreciate the rich characters of Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu without first being exposed to the equally rich history of rakugo. However, that is not the opinion I hold about Akudama Drive, studio Pierrot’s stylish cyberpunk heist thriller.

How Akudama Drive Became Such a Popular Anime | CBR

Akudama Drive is an odd little show. It shows promise throughout, including charming character interactions, a keen sense of aesthetic, and some absolutely gorgeous character designs, but there is something missing. It has all these positive qualities on their own, but for the first eleven episodes, nothing about it elevates those qualities above the ‘okay’ that the entire show seems geared for.

So I was legitimately shocked when the twelfth and final episode performed one of the swiftest turns in quality I’ve ever seen in anime, and for the better. This isn’t a last act flopping in the mud like Darling in the Franxx, this was a so-so anime that got its act together in its last act, and it left me stunned. How did this mid move to a masterpiece? That’s what I’m here to find out.

And just a little side note: I considered writing this about Fate Apocrypha, but I wrote about Fate recently, plus Akudama came out a lot more recently. Apocrypha might have one of the saggiest middles in anime, but the beginning is just as strong as the ending, so I leaned towards a show that only really gets good closer to the end. Oh, and major spoilers for all 12 episodes of Akudama Drive.

Akudama Drive Opening Theme – STEAL!! - YouTube

Akudama Drive takes place in the Kansai region of Japan, which has been consolidated into one sprawling metropolis, ala Blade Runner and most cyberpunk fiction. In Kansai, there is an elite class of criminals called Akudama, superhumans who are known only by their job titles, like Brawler, Courier, Hacker, etc. Some of the most wanted Akudama alive are summoned by a mysterious client with a huge payout, to retrieve two genetically engineered children being shipped off to neighboring Kanto and safely deliver them.

In addition to these Super-S Rank criminals are Hoodlum and Swindler, two nobodies who have somehow managed to stumble into the heist of the century by committing minor crimes. Swindler, our protagonist, was accidentally labeled as an Akudama due to a bureaucratic error after being arrested because the tokoyaki stand she met Courier at only accepted cash. With an explosive collar on her neck and a group of dangerous criminals expecting her to be a mastermind of similar caliber, she finds herself embracing her newfound title just to survive, and growing attached to her two charges, children known simply as Brother and Sister.

Truthfully, every character in the show is kind of one-note. Brawler is dumb and strong, Courier is calm and cool, Doctor is sexual and sadistic, and Cutthroat really likes the color red. The personality traits assigned to these characters are fun, sure, but after one or two episodes, you know how pretty much every character is going to react in any given situation, and that includes the betrayals. A show with this many shady crooks needs to be less predictable on who is trustworthy and who isn’t, but no, you can guess who is going to be a problem later down the road almost immediately.

The story is standard ensemble heist material, whether you’re thinking of an Ocean’s 11 type or more of a Suicide Squad angle that the series really embraces. The action is polished enough to make up for how by the numbers the plot is, but the majority of the narrative fails to underwhelm or overwhelm. I am left with a sense of being whelmed.

The big standout of these first eleven episodes is the fight between Brawler and the state executioner, Master. The two have built up a sort-of rivalry over the first six episodes, and while it lacks the time investment and character development to have a proper showdown of two diametrically opposed forces that cannot coexist, it’s fun. The characters and voice actors have enough chemistry together to pull off some weak material, while the action is the best in the entire show. Kind of a shame that they waited until episode six to blow the budget, but it is gorgeously executed, and it doesn’t feel like they had to skimp out on the finale to pull it off. It also fuels Hoodlum’s character arc in the next four or so episodes, which in turn drives a large part of the last act, so I can at least partially forgive it upstaging the actual climax of the show.

Akudama Drive - 06 [Brother] - Star Crossed Anime

The twelfth episode centers on Courier and Swindler trying to spirit Brother and Sister out of Kansai while avoiding the legions of executioners. They’ve been betrayed by Doctor and Cutthroat, while the rest of their allies are either dead or in tatters. On top of that, the citizens of Kansai have grown tired of the executioners failing to stop the Akudama from running amok, and have begun to riot. After being cornered by executioners and hit with a barrage of explosives, Swindler is badly injured and the walls are closing in.

In case you missed my spoiler warning early, Swindler dies. She walks out to where the executioners are waiting, discretely recording as she claims to be an ordinary person and begging for help. The executioners who know better dismiss her pleas and immediately kill her, but by that point the footage of an ostensibly innocent girl getting butchered by state police has already been aired across Kansai. It’s not groundbreaking to kill off your main character, especially when you do it in front of a crucifix made of rubble, but Swindler’s last act is the culmination of a character arc that’s been building from the first episode.

Swindler’s been doing a poor job of convincing the Akudama that she was one of them, but her defiant last stand involves duping an entire city. Courier manages to escape with the children thanks to her sacrifice, but is cornered in the heart of Kansai, and when hope seems lost, the rioters turn their attention to the executioners who they believe have started cutting down civilians. Swindler’s pleading that she is an ordinary girl is cut in between a scene where she reassures Brother and Sister by defiantly declaring that she’s the Super-S Rank Akudama Swindler, and the double-sided nature of both her title and her life up until this point become apparent.

Thanks to the intervention of the rioters, Courier is able to get the children out of the city before the executioners come down on them again. Gravely wounded, Courier sends them on ahead to move through the mountains that constitute the border of Kansai as he eliminates the remaining airships, and succumbing to his injuries in the process. Just as in Swindler’s death, Courier’s is a response to the question Swindler first posed to him early on in their mission, whether or not he would sacrifice his life to complete a job, or retreat at the cost of success.

It’s all simple writing that manages to be incredibly effective, and it is elevated by the solid animation and the stirring soundtrack. By executing several character arcs well, you can turn an unremarkable series into something with real emotional heft. The story gains focus and becomes a tragic tale of claiming identity and finding a cause worth fighting for. It’s not revolutionary, and it might be cliched, but the reason these tropes have been done to death is because they work.

Akudama Drive Episode 5 – AngryAnimeBitches Anime Blog

Now, the question is if this finale changes my opinion of the show over all. The season one finale of Rakugo Shinjuu perfectly changes the context in which the audience views the first twelve episodes, and thus improves my opinion of the piece as a whole. Akudama Drive’s finale does not manage to do that; it doesn’t change how I see the first eleven episodes, but it does serve as a worthy ending to the series I had been watching. There’s no other character arcs of importance, as Hoodlum’s is cut off too quickly, while Brawler is more of a foil to Master, who doesn’t get the time necessary to have a proper arc.

However, this open-ended bittersweet ending is actually more cathartic than if the writers had given us a definitive answer on what happened to Brother and Sister. It helps that the audience probably cares the most about Swindler and Courier, so having their deaths be the best written part of the show hits quite hard while the others merely induce a shrug. To be honest, I forgot that Cutthroat died until glancing at the wiki while writing this essay, and that his relationship with Swindler leading up to his death was a major plot point.

The finale does not make up for the fact that this show would have seriously benefitted from better character writing, a more engaging story, and just a bit more time in the oven to polish up its animation. In the end, it probably just takes a 6/10 anime and brings it up to a 7.

Akudama Drive Episode 5 Discussion & Gallery - Anime Shelter

I love cyberpunk as a genre, but it seems that I have just been doomed to be unimpressed with the recent forays, at least the ones from 2020. That includes the half-baked Cyberpunk 2077, the too-short and underwritten Dorohedoro, which might get an essay soon enough, or Akudama Drive.

It feels as though the writers had a clear beginning and ending in mind, which is why they complement each other so well. Still, the middle is a majority of the series, and once you get past the initial introduction of the Akudama, the beginning isnt’t anything special either. The segment where they all rescue Cutthroat from execution is fun and well-animated, but that, in addition to Brawler vs. Master, are the only things I look back fondly on with Akudama Drive. I only caught up on it last week and I can barely describe what happened there without a reference book.

I am pleased that it got such a good ending, because if the ending had maintained that same so-so level of quality, it wouldn’t have even made for a good Lesson in Disappointment. It would have just been one of those seasonal shows that broadcasts and disappears as soon as the last episode is done without so much as a ripple in the larger discussion in anime. For a twelve episode anime that I chewed through slowly for the better part of a week, I could have done a lot worse. They managed to pull a good story from remains of a mediocre one, and that pivot is the most impressive thing about Akudama Drive.

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