2020 has been an interesting year for the staff of Too Kyo Games, the newly formed game studio featuring former alumni of Spike Chunsoft’s murder mystery visual novel series Danganronpa (which itself has also seen some interesting recent developments). The studio has already released its first major project earlier this year, an interactive choose-your-own-adventure game called Death Come True, and they have another couple of games coming down the road with World’s End Club and Tribe Nine. In the meantime, we now have their second major project now available to the public: Akudama Drive, an original anime TV series produced in collaboration with Studio Pierrot, with the original story concept credited to Danganronpa series writer Kazutaka Kodaka alongside character design work from Cindy H. Yamauchi, adapting designs from Danganronpa veteran Rui Komatsuzaki. The series was originally meant to air over the summer, but then this thing called coronavirus happened (maybe you heard of it), but now the series has finally made it to air, so let’s see what Pierrot and Too Kyo have in store.
Episode 1 – “SE7EN”
The Kansai region is your typical cyberpunk dystopia: the region might be coated in neon-lit signs and have advanced technology powering its entire infrastructure, but the horizon is still coated in a sepia-tone miasma with slummy conditions running rampant. In addition, the region finds itself plagued by powerful criminals called “Akudama” that are in constant pursuit by the government and police forces. The story opens proper on an ordinary girl going about her business throughout Kansai up until the point where she decides to swing by a Takoyaki stand for some food. At the same time, a mysterious motorcyclist shows up and orders as well, accidentally dropping some loose change before walking away with his food. The girl tries to return the money to the motorcyclist, but he simply brushes her off before driving away as her own order is prepared. The stand unfortunately only accepts cash payments, and while she does have the exact change on hand, the girl still wants to return the money to the man, which leads to her getting arrested.
We then cut back to the motorcyclist using his advanced vehicle to swing through the city and make a delivery, during which he’s identified as an Akudama named “Courier.” Once the delivery is made, he’s then ordered by an unidentified source to deliver a suitcase to a police station.
The show then cuts to a montage introducing us to several other Akudama who are being summoned for the purpose of freeing another Akudama identified as “Cutthroat” who is headed towards a public execution. The criminals introduced include:
Brawler, a physically powerful fighter who’s in the middle of taking on an army of police robots.
Hacker, who’s caught in the middle of breaking into a bank’s security when summoned.
Doctor, who’s healing up an injured patient in her own special way… before killing everyone surrounding her on the bus.
Back at the police station, the girl is trying to argue with a police robot over her situation before being interrupted by the arrival of Brawler and the other Akudama. The girl takes notice of a stray cat roaming through the station and chases after it to try and protect it from the ensuing chaos. The criminals all converge and meet each other inside fully prepared to square up with each other over their mission when the girl interrupts the moment in her pursuit of the cat. They all question her presence there and, thinking on the spot, she introduces herself as an unregistered Akudama named “Swindler” which convinces them to back off momentarily. There’s only a momentary respite as a police tank breaks into the area and blasts at its targets, opening a hole into the lower levels of the prison and introducing us to one more Akudama, a petty criminal dubbed “Hoodlum.”
The group eventually makes it to the execution platform where Cutthroat is set to be killed, and eventually they manage to pool their talents together to take out the police tank and free Cutthroat. Once freed, he takes the suitcase from Courier and opens it up, revealing a bunch of collars that affix themselves to the Akudama. These collars will kill them all if they attempt to forcibly remove it, and as the crew is processing what’s going on, they are suddenly caught off guard by the presence of Swindler’s cat, who begins speaking to them.
Episode 2 – “Reservoir Dogs”
Picking up from last time, the talking black cat informs the Akudama that they’ve all been summoned together on purpose for a significantly important job, one that promises a payout of a billion yen to all of them. The team leaves the execution station and makes their way to a more secure location so they can learn more of their mission. Their personalities already begin to come together and clash in offbeat ways, most noticeably when the crew attempts to highjack an air transport to make it to their destination. Cutthroat, displaying a strangely childish demeanor through an obsession with the color red, goes around slamming his hand on the red buttons within their transport, causing the group to crash-land unexpectedly in an unknown building. Thankfully, they’re able to take up shelter in a glamorous room on the highest floor, complete with beautiful furniture and even its own bar. Once they have a moment of peace, the black cat sets up the preliminary details of this mission.
The Akudama have been summoned to break into a vault that’s hidden aboard the Shinkansen, a heavily guarded train that serves as the sole method of transportation between the desolate Kansai region and the much more extravagant Kanto region, which holds financial power over Kansai after a war between the two regions which even culminated in a bomb drop. There’s a 20-minute interval where the train stops at Kansai Station to load up cargo for transport, and this is the lone opportunity that our team will have to get on board and reach their target. The meeting is interrupted by the sudden and explosive arrival of two members of the Kansai Police’s execution department, Master and Pupil. The Akudama engage in a heated physical conflict with the executioners, with Brawler being the main one to take them on until Courier is able to use his motorcycle to blast away the two of them, affording the team an opportunity to escape and meet back up in an abandoned factory where their planning continues.
Episode 3 – “Mission: Impossible”
The black cat resumes its briefing of the heist plant to the Akudama. During the time interval where the Shinkansen is paused, the station’s robotic security is swapped out for human guards, affording them an opportunity to sneak inside. From there, the platform where the train is parked has to be accessed via an elevator that can only be activated by simultaneously pressing two buttons, located on different floors. For this to work, the group is split into two teams: one consisting of Swindler, Cutthroat, and Hacker, and the other consisting of Brawler, Hoodlum, and Doctor. Unfortunately, Courier is not able to get near the train because of an electromagnetic barrier blocking the tracks that has to be disabled. The loading area in front of the train has a plasma shield that will zap any unregistered cargo, preventing him from getting near the train until Hacker can disable it. In addition, there’s no way for the teams to communicate directly without getting caught, so they have to rely on perfect timing to activate the switches in sync. With the stakes of the plan laid out, the team soon gets to work.
Starting at the entrance of the station, Swindler poses as a cargo transporter and manages to make her way past the guard and into the station proper. After Hacker hacks the surveillance systems to wipe their presence from the cameras, the teams split off with 5 minutes to make it to their destinations. Swindler, Hacker, and Cutthroat make their way to the switch above the elevator, while Doctor, Brawler, and Hoodlum make their way to the switch below.
The two teams finally reach the rooms where the switches are, but they are greeted by a major obstacle in the form of a hall of energy shields blocking them from direct access. They attempt to figure out a way past the obstacle with only 3 minutes left to go, and both groups come across distinct weaknesses: Cutthroat tosses one of his knives into the frontmost shield and breaks through it, while Brawler learns that the arches which produce the shields can be grabbed from the side. He proceeds to pick them up and smash all the arches in the way, while Cutthroat tosses more knives in the same spot which breaks through each subsequent shield layer. Unfortunately, with 30 seconds left, Cutthroat runs out of knives right as the last shield is broken through. Thinking on her feet, Swindler grabs one of Hacker’s drones and tosses it at the knife, which is the last push they need to activate the switch at the same time that Hoodlum manages to press the other switch and summon the elevator.
The groups finally make their way to the Shinkansen proper as Courier waits on the tracks for his opportunity to get aboard. Hacker gets to work breaking into the plasma shield’s code as Hoodlum proceeds to activate a device given to him by the black cat. The device is, to be expected, an EMP bomb that ripples out through the entire Kansai region. While this helps Courier potentially sneak abord, unfortunately Hacker wasn’t able to fully finish his work in time, having been stopped just shy of altering the weight check for the plasma shield. He himself is too heavy to sneak on board through a cargo box, and so Swindler volunteers herself, managing to successfully get past the barrier. Once inside, she’s able to open up the manual entrance and help get all the Akudama inside and right in front of the vault they’ve been targeting.
So a lot of hype has naturally surrounded this series due to its connections to the popular Danganronpa series, and what’s interesting is that while its direct connections to the franchise in terms of creative staff is not as prevalent as one would expect (Kodaka only came up with the story and Komatsuzaki is only credited as “original character designer”), it’s surprising how much of the creative DNA of that series finds its way into Akudama Drive. Summing up the basic premise of the show in a brief statement on its own makes it sound highly similar to Danganronpa i.e. “a group of eccentric individuals identified by their unique talents and skills are brought together by a talking animal for sketchy reasons.” To be fair, there is quite a bit more to the series than just echoing the spirit of a previous franchise. As the creators have spoken about in the run-up to release, the series is meant to be along the lines of a cyberpunk Tarantino story, ostensibly Ghost In The Shell and Blade Runner but by way of something like Reservoir Dogs. The Tarantino influence is rather obvious on its face as not only is the premise of criminals identified by codenames coming together for a heist pretty much the exact plot of the aforementioned film, but the second episode is even named Reservoir Dogs.
The driving force of the series is of course our seven criminal leads, and the series is very much having a blast so far with its central characters. Going back into Danganronpa for a second, the Akudama all have these very distinct well-defined personalities that carry their own quirks and absurdities. While some characters have a fairly no-nonsense serious attitudes about the situations at hand like the silently intense Courier or the intelligently observant Hacker, someone like Brawler neatly fits the stereotype of a muscle head who’s always looking for a fight, drawing the ire of the rest of the group who declares him a “shit head.” Then there’s the incredibly wacky Hoodlum, who’s literally just a D-list criminal in this universe who’s constantly expressing panic and false bravado in the face of conflict, with only Brawler really believing any of his boasting and schtick as the two form a bizarre sort of friendship across the series thus far. Pushing things into even further bizarre territory is Cutthroat, who’s built up to be this massively dangerous threat throughout the first episode, and while it does deliver on that build-up as we see him lay waste to security guards with ease, this is counteracted by an off-putting child-like personality, especially his obsession with the color red that, as we see in episode 2, gets the team into unnecessary trouble.
There’s the equally eccentric Doctor who has her own unique bloodlust and can even play off getting decapitated like she’s a character in a Monty Python sketch (she’s able to just stitch her head back on… sure), and then there’s our proper lead: Swindler. She appropriately functions as the audience surrogate, kind of like a Makoto Naegi-type character who’s not ostensibly unique in any way finding herself surrounded by these talented criminals as she’s just trying to figure out how to survive and get by. She winds up getting roped into the plot by coincidences arising from her own otherwise decent nature, trying to return Courier’s dropped money and also her fondness for rescuing cats, as our introduction to her sees her trying to rescue a feline from being run over by a random car in the middle of the street. Slowly but surely though, she becomes accustomed to the criminal proceedings, finding herself going along with the plans and being surprisingly helpful at several points during sequences like the heist. The personalities are accentuated by some fun voice work, including Shunsuke Takeuchi (Gonta Gokuhara in Danganronpa V3) capturing the intense brash demeanor of Brawler, Subaru Kimura (Beat in The World Ends With You) bringing a fun spastic chaotic energy to Hoodlum, and Megumi Ogata’s (Makoto and Nagito in the Danganronpa series) menacingly sultry performance as Doctor, among other highlights.
Speaking of personalities, the series shines quite a bit once the basic character dynamics are established and the actual Shinkansen heist gets underway. The second and third episodes do a great job setting up the stakes of the mission that it genuinely makes you want to see just how everything plays out. The obstacles and potential solutions are laid out in fairly clear terms while leaving just enough room for other obstacles to enter in and ramp up the stakes further like with the energy shields in the switches or the plasma shield’s weight check. To once again invoke Danganronpa, part of the fun of those games is seeing the way those characters and their eccentric personalities express themselves as they come together to try and solve a shared problem, and we definitely see that once the elevator switches come into play. Both sets of teams find completely different workarounds to solve the same issue, with Cutthroat’s playful curiosity and Brawler’s head-on aggressive demeanor both unveil different weaknesses in the same security system. The ticking timer is a genuinely nail-biting element to the heist, and the payoff is both satisfying and hilarious, mainly when Hoodlum slams face-first into the switch.
The show’s visuals are some of the best that 2020 has to offer. The character design work from Yamauchi and Komatsuzaki are incredibly striking and unique, playing into the characters’ personalities and archetypes alongside some great animation work. Brawler has the expected physically imposing presence which is improved by his intense jumping and running speeds, and even some more playful moments like the boxer shuffle in the elevator switch hallway. Cutthroat jumps around and sways from side to side with this unnervingly gleeful expression on his face like an overgrown child. And of course Hoodlum is the most fun to watch as he’s constantly doing something visually humorous in any shot he’s in, whether it’s his comically panicked expressions and the slapstick-heavy ways in which he poses and moves from scene to scene. All the characters are incredibly expressive, aiding in fleshing out their personalities.
The world design and the action are equally excellent, getting a strong sense of the culture of the Kansai region with its dingy filthy alleyways contrasting well against the expecting neon candy-colored vibes of the traditional cyberpunk aesthetic. Given the undercurrent of class conflict gestured at through the conflict of Kanto and Kansai, we get to see pieces of this throughout the landscape, most notably when the team arrives at the Kansai station, with the entrance they arrive at being incredibly overdesigned to the point of gaudy, the exact kind of tackiness embodied by those with way more money than they probably deserve. The action sequences are these phenomenally impressive setpieces with great visuals and creative choreography, with the coolest moments coming from Courier and his infinitely badass motorcycle. Our first major action beat shows his motorcycle riding through the heights of Kansai’s skyscrapers, using hookshots to swing from building to building like Spider-Man. During the sequence where the Akudama face off against the robot police tank, Courier brings the giant screens crashing down by cutting them down with his vehicle and destroying the tank with some laser blasts, with the latter also coming to play during the fight in against the executioners. That particular fight also has some great visuals as well, with Brawler taking on Pupil as the lighting of the room changes from neon oceanic blue to intense glowing red based on the action beats at play. It may be a little on the nose, but it certainly leaves an impression.
There’s some excellent worldbuilding at play in the margins through its visuals and dialogue. Throughout the first episode, the world constantly advertises Cutthroat’s execution like it’s a public sporting event on signs and everything. When Swindler first lands in prison, we see a sign behind her showing off the various Akudama who come into play in the story, and we catch a glimpse of one called “Sniper” who doesn’t show up, making for either potential foreshadowing or just some decent flavor detail. Episodes 2 and 3 are interrupted partway through by these backstory shorts from these puppet characters named Bunny and Shark that are effectively played as propaganda, putting a happy face on whatever conflict exists between the Kansai and Kanto regions, like the detonation of a bomb and the financial control the latter has over the former. There’s dialogue peppered throughout the story that does a solid job hinting at the greater mysteries lying in the story and its characters, such as Hacker’s expressed desire to escape the slums of Kansai and into the Kanto region. There’s an intriguing moment in the second episode where the black cat is conversing with the Akudama, implying that this isn’t the first time its ever gathered together a group of criminals like this. This conversation is echoed at the beginning of episode 3 when the executioners confront their boss about failing to catch the Akudama, additionally stating that criminals gathering together isn’t uncommon, but that this is the first time criminals of such high-ranking stature have been brought together. There’s a lot of intrigue and mystery to help carry the plot alongside the fantastic animation and character work, which definitely has me wanting to watch more. Even the music is really varied and excellent, mixing up elements of jazz, hard rock, and electronic that’s exciting, pulse-pounding, and quite suspenseful at points (and the OP from SPARK!!SOUND!!SHOW!! is a banger, too). Akudama Drive immediately establishes itself as a must-watch show so far, and it comes highly recommended.
New episodes of Akudama Drive premiere every Thursday and can be streamed exclusively on Funimation.