Whatever preamble I was going to write about how good the Dangan Ronpa series is, and that because this show is coming from the same creative team makes it alone worth checking out, has gone right out the window upon first viewing of Akudama Drive Episode 1. It’s been such a long time since the beginning of a series has blown me away like this right out of the gate, and I can’t say it was expected. With the first two offerings by Dangan Ronpa creator Kazutaka Kodaka’s new studio Too Kyo Games, the interactive movie Death Come True and the only partially complete World’s End Club, not quite hitting as hard as his signature franchise, admittedly worries had set in about what this series would actually be. Third time really is the charm because this gorgeous and edgy romp through a semi-futuristic Osaka is exactly what I wanted from the team.
You certainly don’t have to be a Dangan Ronpa fan to appreciate what Akudama Drive episode 1 brings to the table, but if you are you’ll notice some similarities. For one thing, it’s not only Kazutaka Kodaka working on this anime but the highly stylized Rui Komatsuzaki, who played a huge part in giving the game series its visual identity, comes along for the ride providing great character designs along the way. Wanton violence, routine death, and yes even specifically grand executions are intentionally played up here just like they were in Dangan Ronpa. We even have an ‘everybody’s lives are on the line because of bomb necklaces everyone’s wearing’ set-up which the Dangan Ronpa 3 anime also utilized, although here the Akudamas aren’t killing each other. Well, not yet at least but we wouldn’t rule this out. The signature Komatsuzaki characters and the blood certainly make for a look, but that’s not all the show’s going for with its visual spectacle.
Kazutaka Kodaka decided to throw caution to the wind and press the big ‘make it like Blade Runner’ switch that constantly exists inside of all of our hands. I kind of wish I could say its brand of Cyberpunk visuals was more influenced by anime’s Ghost In The Shell, which ultimately would just be adding a middle man, but blue and pink hues to the giant holographic girls (and fish) it’s unabashedly cribbing from the beloved film. Thankfully, Akudama Drive Episode 1 does a great job with its environments and when coupled with Komatsuzaki’s distinct characters, all splashed with blood, it makes for the most unique looking anime of the season.
We’ve gotten this far without detailing what Akudama Drive actually is; A group of highly dangerous criminals called Akudama, all having names like ‘Hoodlum’ and ‘Brawler’ who can be found running around cyber dystopian Kansai, are tasked with rescuing ‘Cutthroat’ from a broadcast public execution. A young girl with no previous criminal record gets caught up with this group of Akudama and as a means of survival becomes ‘Swindler’ under false pretenses by the end of Akudama Drive Episode 1. While they’re by no means good guys and do seemingly take pleasure in their slaughter, like any proper dystopian world they do exist in a militarized police hell-state where Cop HQ is gigantic with copious amounts of neon signage making sure everyone knows they’re under watch.
Akudama Drive Episode 1 splurges on its background videos and animation, which leads to a slightly less polished looking Episode 2. However, even the second episode kicks it up during a particularly impressive battle sequence with the Akudama facing off against police specialists simply named Master and Pupil where a hotel room is torn to shreds. For the heaps of praise I’m gushing on about how the show looks, the writing is every bit up to stuff. Kodaka knows how to do both plot and dialogue almost better than anybody; Small touches like courier repeatedly and specifically calling people ‘Shitheads’ to personality quirks like cutthroat killing seemingly because he just likes the color red keeps the cast fresh even if on paper Akudama Drive isn’t anything completely new, at least in its first two episodes.
Akudama Drive Episode 1 set the neon-lit stage and episode 2 burst through it leaving a pile of corpses in its wake. If we didn’t sweeten the deal enough already, there’s even a talking cat who’s manipulating the Akudama behind the scenes. What more could you want from an anime really? With Dangan Ronpa on indefinite hold and in an era where good original anime are harder and harder to come, Akudama Drive has started off as a surprisingly great late 2020 entry. Of course, you can’t judge an entire show by two episodes but with Kodaka known for his meaty narratives and truly out of this world climaxes, I’ve got absolute faith he’ll drive the series to victory. Sorry for the pun.
You can watch Akudama Drive on Funimation.