The world of Japanese anime once again edges just a little closer to the world of American industrial entertainment. And I’m beginning to worry about it.

Thankfully, so far, the collision of the two hasn’t become a detriment overall. I have serious concerns about the impact I do see on these anime works by the American film industry, but so far the good outweighs the bad. Cyberpunk: Edgerunners is the latest and greatest example of this. 

This anime, a collaboration between the American behemoth Netflix and the prolific Studio Trigger that has produced anime greats like Kill la Kill and Darling in the Franxx, is very good. Any detractions I can find in it caused by the influences of the American arts are secondary to the quality of the work overall. So in the end I like this show, and definitely recommend it, though I’m not as gaga over it as it seems certain elements of the anime world are.

Some R-rated material follows, as this show does have a very mature rating, and some of that requires discussion as part of this review. Be advised as always.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Characters

Rating: 7

Good but not great. They all are a little too similar. This is one of the big negative effects that the American filmmaking world can have on Japanese anime.

On one hand, I get it. All these people are “cyberpunks,” humans whose bodies are modified with cybernetic parts. Apart from the detached rich, most of them are lowlife criminals, and the rest are poor and uneducated and thrust into a dark dog-eats-dog world. You’d figure a lot of them would be tough guys and speak and act in tough guy ways. But still, while we’re accustomed to that kind of thing in anime, we’re not accustomed to seeing so much similarity among characters. Revy in Black Lagoon will speak in short sentences like everyone else around her, but her personality is clearly distinct. For whatever reason, I felt like Maine, Lucy, Dorio, most of the bad guys, even David, were all too similar. Where there were differences I felt like there was strong Japanese anime character undertones. Where they were similar I felt like there were more American undertones.

This is more of an opinion than something based on anything objective, but having had experience both Japanese anime and American filmmaking and TV, I see the kind of diverse creativity in the characters coming from the Japanese side and the one-size-fits-all, paint-everything-with-the-same-brush—dare I say unimaginative?—character elements coming from the American influences. This is less of a fault (though it could be termed such) on the American side than it is a compliment to the Japanese, who usually manage to create immensely different and entertaining kinds of characters all in the same show. Similarities are usually heavily overshadowed by distinctive features.

Perhaps an example will help. Take Lucy versus Kiwi here. I like both these characters, but look at their similarities and differences. Their differences in personality are slight, as are their visual appearances (build, height, dimensions, even haircut). Their biggest visual difference is simply the mask on Kiwi’s face. That’s the American element I’m talking about. American productions tends to go for obvious “differences” to differentiate characters, not realizing that within their writing they incorporate a lot of the same elements into different characters, causing them all to seem too similar. If it weren’t for the Japanese input into these characters, notably the voice acting, these two in particular would have seemed almost exactly the same.

One of several memorable moments shared between David and Lucy.

That similarity causes the characters to resonate less with audiences. They make less of an impact on us. We remember them less. I like Lucy and I love how Aoi Yuuki brings her to life (more on that in a second), but she is still very similar to all the other characters. These characters did not touch my heart in the way I thought they should have, individually or collectively. This show was pretty sad yet I hardly ever felt much sympathy for any of the characters. They don’t have the impact they should.

Impact Hawk? What do you mean? I mean they would strike you in such a way that you remember the character. They would evoke feelings. Let’s play a game quickly. Who was your favorite character in this series? Some of you will say Lucy (me), some Kiwi or Maine, some Dorio (also me), some will love the MC David. But how many of you would say Rebecca? A lot of you. How do I know? Because she is most people’s favorite character from this series. You may have seen some of the controversy between the public and Trigger regarding the “loli” character Rebecca. Trigger insisted she stay because they knew how popular she was.

Why is she the majority favorite? Because she’s evocative. She’s wild. She’s crazy, She’s different from everybody else. And also—just a little more Japanese style.

Here’s my hypothesis about this: given she’s a “loli” character, I bet you money Netflix didn’t have a lot of input on her character. They have neither the experience with such character types nor the will to do so given their Western fear of this kind of controversy. So Trigger would get all the say on this character’s design. Look what happens: she becomes the most distinctive character, the most memorable character, in this series. Coincidence?

“The loli stays.”

The power of Japanese voice acting ensured a great deal of distinctiveness remained between these characters despite it all. Aoi Yuuki (Tanya, The Saga of Tanya the Evil; Mami, Rent-a-Girlfriend; Tsuyu, MHA) does a great job once again as Lucy. I don’t think this was her greatest performance ever, but she’s always high quality. As much as I like her quirky voices—her versatility is top-tier—I like this sullen, sinister, apathetic, yet sympathetic voice too. It’s hard not to like any character she plays. A fellow that calls himself KENN plays the other lead here, David. KENN hasn’t had many major roles in his time other than Akihito Kanbara from Beyond the Boundary, but he does good job here. Nothing to get super excited about, but he’s a good match for Aoi Yuuki here, and they have a lot of dialogue together, so it’s nice.

Netflix and Trigger put together a really nice supporting cast as well. Kenjirou Tsuda (Kento Nanami, Jujustu Kaisen; Tatsu, Gokushufudo; Kai Chisaki, MHA) makes another appearance, lending his sinister tone to Ripperdoc. He’s always instantly recognizable, thereby making his characters distinctive always. Hiroki Touchi, probably best recognized as Pantherlilly in Fairy Tail, supplies the deep voice for Maine. Kakashi’s (Naruto) VA, Kazuhiko Inoue, plays the threatening Faraday, and does a really good job at it. Wataru Takagi (Onizuka, GTO) also makes an appearance as Pilar. A nice set of guys for these character roles.

The girls are great too. Rebecca couldn’t get much more distinctive than she already is, but Tomoyo Kurosawa managed to cement that uniqueness. You probably all recognize her most from Land of the Lustrous as the MC Phosphophyllite. She’s great; so much energy. Dorio—I like the hulking Dorio and her badass outfit—is played by Michiki Kaiden, who hasn’t done many roles, though most notably as character bit parts in Attack on Titan. She has a nice deep voice. You know I love the deep voices. Which is why I was thrilled when I learned Takako Honda, who voices Irene Belserion from Fairy Tail, was playing Kiwi. Finally, Gloria Martinez, David’s mother, only around for a short time, is played by Yurika Hino. She hasn’t had a lot of big roles, but the true anime fan will remember Katerina from Cowboy Bebop and her brief exchanges with Spike in the memorable first episode of that legendary series. It’s a fun set of VAs who’ve played their share of slick, tough girls. I like it.

I like it. Sometimes that’s all there is to it. I decry the American influences, but I like it. To quickly sidetrack, not all American influences are a bad thing—I never mind if anime grows, regardless of the input. Some of those influences are bad outright however, and anime is that last place I’d want to see them. But no matter. To borrow from an American film: are you not entertained? Sufficiently, I say, by these characters to be satisfied.

Artwork

Rating: 8

Like most Netflix colabs, the drawing and animation in this show are top-tier.

Regardless of what detractions American influences might cause on anime, their effects on the drawings and animation themselves aren’t one of them. Going back to Violet Evergarden, an early Netflix collaboration with the Japanese anime industry, the artwork for these shows has always been amazing. To this day I’ve never seen artwork as beautiful as Violet Evergarden’s. Cyberpunk: Edgerunners continues that young tradition, and does not disappoint.

The positives are obvious. Before any American influences come into play, you already have a very distinctive style coming from the artists at Studio Trigger. It’s easy to see Kill la Kill’s infamous style in some of these characters, notably Rebecca, and in the objects and structures and even the action sequences. Lucy herself has a lot of the same style elements as Zero Two and Ichigo from Darling in the Franxx, something that was pointed out to me by some anime fans I discussed this show with. Her eyes have those interesting bits of dark color in places around the edges very much like Zero Two’s, and her hairstyle is nearly equivalent to Ichigo’s. Look up those images and juxtapose them if you can’t recall DitF. I don’t want to say any of this is simply copying those shows—they are Trigger’s property after all—but the similarities are remarkable. I like those similarities actually. They make the style recognizably Trigger’s, and you can’t go wrong with that style. It’s perfect for this kind of futuristic, edgy anime.

Add to this all the experience and resources that a vast company like Netflix can bring to bear on a production and you’re set up for a magnificent display. The sheen and the colors, the sheer impact of the visuals on our brains and eyes, in this anime are astounding. It is a visual wonderland, a dream made real. It might not be the most beautiful artwork every created, but it is visually impressive. Such is the power of all those resources from a massive company like Netflix being poured into a creative powerhouse like Studio Trigger.

This would stir any heart.

There were some really nice visual moments as well, and of multiple kinds. I thought the moon VR scene that Lucy and David shared was very nicely done. It was definitely supposed to be a significant scene and the visuals helped make that point. Then there were wild scenes like Lucy escaping the ambulance with David laid out on the stretcher. It was impossibly insane but amazing to watch—in more ways than one. I expected nice artwork given the Netflix-Trigger thing, but I didn’t necessarily expect wow-factor scenes like these and others, so I was happily surprised by these sequences.

But like other parts of this anime, I have some significant issues with some of the artwork decisions as well. A lot of this has to do with American influences once again. For all the good they contribute to quality, American influences are right on the edge of causing major problems in this artwork area. I have two main objections, both of which have to do with decisions to incorporate too many egregious elements into the visuals. 

There are a lot of naked cyborgs in this show.

Don’t go there Hawk. Anime, particularly seinen, is full of naked people. No it’s not—not unless American companies are involved. Black Lagoon, Berserk, Ghost in a Shell, Cowboy Bebop—they all share similarities to Cyberpunk: Edgerunners in genre, style, theme, and even an element of adult sexiness. None of them have this American style of egregious nudity that CyberEdge has. They have nudity, and it’s unnecessary, but it’s not as rampant as in this anime. Seeing Revy’s back—and a little more—once in the shower isn’t nearly the same as the VR sex scenes and the lounging nude Lucy we regularly see in this series. The Black Lagoon shower scene adds to Revy’s character, even if it’s unnecessary. The rampant nudity in CyberEdge detracts from the show overall. That’s the difference.

“Reality is often disappointing.”

Nor will I digress into a discussion on ecchi anime. Because this show isn’t supposed to be ecchi. Not anymore than any American fiction media aimed at adults that has exactly this same senseless nudity in it is. This is strictly an American influence. Ecchi anime is ecchi anime, like it or hate it. This is not ecchi anime. It’s sci-fi cyberpunk anime with excessive nudity. I have a problem with that.

My second problem is the violence itself. There are a lot of components to this. First, it’s egregious. A lot of heads are blown on off in this show, and not in a metaphorical way. A lot of blood is spewed, once even with a notable accompanying sound. And there’s way too much of it. We get it that the world of this anime is harsh and a lot of bad things are happening in it. We don’t need to see that much violence to realize the ugliness and the toughness of this world. It smells of bloodlust.

That bloodlust is the kind that’s, once again, rampant in American media that’s targeted at adults. I’m not even going to go into any more details about this. I don’t like it. I don’t want to see it. Especially as an influence on anime. Say what you will about the problems of anime, the problems of this kind in American art are much worse, to a point where aesthetic value is being almost totally lost. I won’t have it in anime.

But Japanese anime comes to the rescue. I say that, but the kind of blurring through incomprehensible action we see here that masks a lot of the violence in these scenes is prevalent in both Hollywood and Japan. Depending on the content ratings a studio is aiming for or the target audience they have in mind, filmmakers in both America and Japan will incorporate different levels of blurring into action sequences to affect how much of the violence audiences can see. Thankfully some of that is incorporated into this anime.

Not a violent moment, but the blood is very intentional even here.

In America, usually this is done with cinematography and visual effects, most often in live-action features or TV series. Japan has learned to do this effectively with animation. Well, “effectively” is the right term, but you’ll also regularly hear me decry animators blurring action sequences to reduce the need for extreme detail in the work involved in creating those sequences. Regardless, in this case the busy imagery often reduces the amount of violence we see in some sequences. This works to reduce the violence levels a little, even if the show overall is excessively violent visually. I suppose anything is better than nothing in that regard. 

The only bad part about this blurry action is that, when combined with the colorfulness of the artwork, certain sequences become almost completely incomprehensible at times. There were definitely moments when I had no idea what I was looking at in some of these scenes. So while this would, of course, completely remove any visual violence, it pretty much removes anything else worth seeing from the scene as well. I presume this was done accidentally, but it’s still a knock against the artwork.

Those detractions are big ones, enough to overall affect my opinion of the artwork. Beauty is always impacted by ugliness, and some ugliness was incorporated into this show excessively, to the point that the beauty of the artwork itself was affected very negatively. This show would be visually astounding, a one hundred percent positive experience, if it weren’t for these bits of ugliness. The nudity is one thing—even though egregious, that’s supposed to be pretty. The violence is not. So overall I can’t put this show in the top-tiers of anime artwork history. That’s disappointing, because without those detractions I probably would have, such is the power of the art style itself. It goes to show you that there’s more to art, more to beauty, than simply the appearance of things.

Story

Rating: 6

In a future time, the world has taken a turn for the worse. The gap between the wealthy and the poor is wide, and not many inhabit the realm in between. The wealthy have everything. The poor live paycheck to paycheck, if that, life dragging them down to various levels of depression and often criminality. Technology is the only thing that has advanced. Technology now allows for the creation of all manner of cybernetic implants for the human body. Most enhance strength or add skills. Thereby the rich and the poor alike vie against their fellow man in battles of strength, the rich for resources and arms races, the poor for the simple means to stay alive another day or reach for impossible dreams.

Haven’t we seen all this before? It’s Mad Max in a city with a bunch of Frankys (One Piece) running around living badly one way or another. Ghost in a Shell? Trigun? Cowboy Bebop? Alita: Battle Angel?

I can’t accuse it of being original, that’s for sure. But so what? Most people love this genre. And, as you can see, it has generated quite a handful of legendary anime over the years. It’s edgy, it’s wild, it’s primal yet techy, it’s harsh, but above all it’s fertile ground for lots of fun.

The story mostly seemed to take a back seat to artwork and the characters. While one could say the story had unexpected moments or plot twists, those mostly revolved around characters, often a tragic death. The writers seemed to make little attempt to make the story itself capture our interest. We’ve all seen this kind of story before. We know how it goes. This story never grew beyond that. Perhaps this is something that is more of a negative for a longtime and experienced anime fan as opposed to a younger fan who isn’t familiar with this type of story. Either way though, the story isn’t highly developed.

I like Dorio.

There are no obvious themes running through the story. I don’t require this of stories. In fact most anime stories don’t have a lot of undercurrents in them. Those that do often are of better quality than others, but not always. An intricate or layered plot featuring lots of themes or underlying threads, whatever you want to call them, doesn’t automatically make a story better. But, in this case, this kind of genre calls out for those themes. 

Anime is all about humanity, and this genre easily lends itself to all kinds of explorations of our humanity. You’ve got humans trying to human while becoming less human—essentially. Mecha is laced with these kinds of themes, as are stories about the interactions between humans and AIs (see any major mecha anime, and something like Vivy: Fluorite Eye’s Song for the latter). It would make sense to incorporate themes about the human experience into this cyberpunk kind of show. How easy it would be for a writer to toy with the humanness of his characters in a story where they slowly jettison their organic parts in favor of mechanical ones! More complicated themes than this are possible even. I don’t see anything like that in this story.

The fact that I don’t see any such themes in this story means the writers either didn’t include them or didn’t make them apparent enough for audiences to pick up on. If the latter, well, that’s a tricky road. The balance between making a theme obvious and disguising it within a story is often the difference between an average story and a really good one. There’s some chance this was the case here. We do have the “cybermadness” thing going on, ascribed in the story to the slow overtaking of the brain caused by too many cybernetic parts being attached to the body, increasing the need for immunosuppressants to keep the body functioning, a need that increases over time according to the story, ultimately resulting in the individuals losing their mind and going on rampages. So this “cybermadness” has a physical explanation in the story, but its possible that, as a plot element, it contains an undercurrent of the degradation of the humanity of these characters, and perhaps some such thread winds through the whole story in interesting and insightful ways. But I do not see it easily, and I’m good at finding such things if those themes really are intended to be there.

David falling in love, probably while falling in reality. Both we be equally impossible to avoid in this situation.

I don’t require “themes” or a lot of writing between the lines, as they say, to like an anime. I would gladly put this anime in the “purely entertainment” category and so write off any search for complicated story elements undergirding it all. It’s just that I feel the weight of the show plus the particular genre presents an obvious opportunity to explore some perhaps more complex human elements, and yet that seems to be missing entirely from this anime.

The main plotline itself wasn’t super original either, though, once again, it works well enough here. Boy who has lived a sad and somewhat outcast life finds his special item and his special someone and simultaneously finds out he himself is special too. Adventures and new friends–and enemies–and joys and tragedies hitherto unknown result. We’ve all seen this a million times before. It’s never not trite at this point, but again, I get it here. People generally like underdog stories and it serves the overall tale well enough here.

One thing I thought the writers handled mostly successfully was the lingo. Like many shows of this kind, the dialogue contained a lot of made-up words, usually nouns to describe the cybernetic components and whatnot, but also a handful of other words that were more or less a kind of street dialect. Hard sidetrack on this really quick before I get into it: given my knowledge of Japanese (limited but experiential), I feel more of these words were mixed into the English subs than into the original Japanese dialogue. Netflix English subs are notoriously bad—as in inaccurate, intentionally or otherwise—and this was no exception, with much of the Japanese dialogue that I outright recognized being translated into words that weren’t even remotely present. But on top of this you had the lingo, and while I often could hear unexpected “Japanese” words or some transliterated version of the English lingo words, I often felt much of the lingo was present in English where the Japanese might have been more normal. Anyway.

Chromed up and mad at the world.

On one hand I thought this was a nice attempt at writing. There were a lot of these words, and they mixed nicely into the dialogue. It really was like these characters were speaking in a dialect that had evolved beyond our recognition (almost), smoothly using all kinds of words that had full meaning to them but little to us. On the other hand, the obvious was inescapable: I spent more than two episodes trying to figure out what on Earth these boys and girls were talking about, and it often left me rather lost within the show. 

While this is a tough hand to be dealt to audiences by the writers, I also felt that it wasn’t that hard to navigate. Believe it or not, I have seen shows with lots of “new words” like this where I still am lost in some of the terms when I finish the series. I can’t even recall a specific show like this because of how unmemorable those shows become; I simply recollect that I’ve seen anime like this. So yes I was a little lost in the lingo for a couple of episodes, but that’s as long as it lasted. I was good after that for the duration. I’m not quite sure how the writers managed to make the meaning of all the terms apparent that quickly, but I know they did, and that’s a success.

So: the story is one of a type, but one of a very successful type. The story misses on some opportunities to become a little more central and complex, but also this isn’t a terrible thing. The dialogue is predictably confusing given the genre but nicely explains itself in a relatively short time, where often such efforts leave the audience confused for much longer periods of time. So other than the misses I wish weren’t misses this story works perfectly fine. It’s not the driving force in the anime but doesn’t have to be. It’s satisfactory in a positive sense.

Overall: 7

I should note, and probably should have done so earlier, that this anime was sourced from a video game. That game was produced by a Polish company, CD Rekt Project, but for Western, English speaking markets (primarily, as is customary for most big gaming platform games). The game is based on the work of a dude named Mike Pondsmith, an American video game creator. Some of this could explain the “American influences” I perceive in this anime. The music is a good example: a lot of the songs are in English and come directly from the video game. So perhaps this means that the Netflixes of the world aren’t impacting the world of anime in general in as bad as way as I imagine. But then again, I doubt that explains most of those influences I perceive about this show.

I’m left with mixed feelings about this show, but mixed feelings that have a very positive feel. It’s an odd sensation. I look back at this show and go over it in my mind, and I’m amazed by the wonderful imagery and all it brings to mind, I’m very glad that Netflix and major anime studios continue to create successful productions, and I find myself remembering lots about lots of different parts of this show. Above all, memorability speaks about the quality of an anime more than anything else, and this show is easily memorable.

But on the other hand, I see the various American arts influences mentioned throughout above seeping into the world of anime, and I feel very apprehensive. American influence is strong in the world. If the USA wants something, she usually finds a way to get it. In the entertainment industry, I fear that influence on anime. 

The eye makeup running with Lucy’s tears speaks to a level of detail and care which makes me very happy to see.

I love the growing popularity of anime in America. It’s been a long time coming, but it’s finally gathering a lot of steam. No longer is Naruto the only anime people have ever heard of. Netflix and other major production and distribution companies have extensive anime libraries now, and increasingly are becoming involved in original productions, usually colabs like this one. Anime becoming more popular in economically powerful countries like America means the anime industry will be assured of funding for a very long time. Besides all of that, I want to see the thing I love be loved by others, particularly those around me. But this comes with the risk of those aforementioned influences. Anime studios will respond to money and audience tastes, as anyone would. If America’s, shall I say, inferior artistic tastes and aesthetics have too heavy an influence on anime, anime will become less the Japanese thing we love and more an American thing that often lacks in aesthetic quality. 

I worry because I see this happening more and more. Violet Evergarden, mentioned as an early Netlfix colab, is very “anime.” Compared to Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, the differences in how each is influenced are pretty obvious. There seems to be an obvious progression here. There’s only so far I want that progression to go.

But let me refocus again here as I wrap this up. Put all that aside, I like this show. It’s fun, it’s visceral, it’s powerful in some ways, and is even a little beautiful in the midst of it all. The positives of these kinds of colabs are very good positives, and they shine brightly in shows like this. So while I wouldn’t go around saying this show “saved anime” like I saw somewhere, I will say it is a very nice piece in the growing world of anime. I think it does more good for the world of anime than it does harm. I would definitely recommend it, with the ratings caveats such a show entails. You won’t be able to put it down once you start it, and you’ll remember it long after Lucy’s final visit to the moon.

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