Though I am a retired anime fan, I couldn’t resist watching “Cyberpunk: Edgerunners.” Released on Sept. 13 as a Netflix Original, “Cyberpunk: Edgerunners” follows David Martinez (KENN), a teen street punk, and his life in the technology-obsessed, futuristic Night City. After the untimely death of his mother, he joins a group of criminal mercenaries called “edgerunners:” his romantic interest Lucy (Aoi Yuuki), Maine (Hiroki Touchi), Rebecca (Tomoyo Kurosawa) and more. Meanwhile, the main antagonist Faraday (Kazuhiko Inoue), a wealthy businessman seeking to climb the corporate ladder, schemes to manipulate David. Though the anime is a spin-off of the video game “Cyberpunk 2077,” it is advertised as a stand-alone series.
The show was animated by Studio Trigger and directed by Hiroyuki Imiashi, an absolute dream team that made several of my favorite anime, such as “Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann” (2007) and “Kill la Kill” (2013). After their last collaboration “Promare” in 2019, I was excited to see how their new show would blow me away. A colorful, action-packed romp through a dark, futuristic setting, “Cyberpunk: Edgerunners” delivers on adrenaline-pumping fights and beautiful artwork, yet lacks character and thematic richness.
My highest praise for this show is that it is a true visual treat. From the stylish and attractive character designs, to the radiant neon color palette, to the great environmental design, all the elements work together to create a believable and stunning cyberpunk world. I especially enjoyed the sheer variety of robot appendage designs, as it made every character and their abilities feel unique. Touches of visual flair, such as the red-colored lineart on characters represented in the net, imbues the show with an even more vibrant style.
The show is near-perfectly animated, save for the reused animation especially apparent in Episode 4 “Lucky You.” The character designs are stunningly put to motion with fluid, dynamic animation. The few occasions of visual slapstick comedy provide levity from the otherwise dark story. And of course, the action in this series is by far the biggest draw. Studio Trigger, as always, is operating at top-notch with the fight choreography and cinematography.
The fights in this show are made even more entertaining by the over-dramatic gore. Oftentimes, characters will unload endless bullets into their enemies as they explode into cartoony spurts of blood, adding to the awesome, stupid absurdity of the action. However, there are some truly gruesomely detailed moments of body horror, death and disfigurement, which further sold me on the gritty degeneracy of Night City.
The voice acting in this series is excellent as it elevates the otherwise simplistic characters. Yuuki sells Lucy’s dreamy, aloof demeanor, but ramps up the intensity during tense moments of conflict. Bubbly and zesty, Kurosawa’s performance breathed comedy and energy into the show through her portrayal of a trigger-happy madwoman. As the protagonist, KENN delivered a dynamic, varied performance, with David’s dip into cyberpsychosis in Episode 5 “All Eyez On Me” standing out as an especially poignant moment disturbingly believable agony.
The plot and characters is where this show begins to lose its appeal. The central conflict David faces is within himself, which is by far the most developed and interesting plot element. By wielding the cybernetic superspeed enhancement called Sandevistan, he falls deeper into insanity known as “cyberpsychosis.” His slow descent into hallucinations, increasingly violent behavior and self-isolation serves as a compelling character conflict.
The middle episodes about the mercenary missions were the most thrilling and entertaining, as I felt the final few episodes were bogged down by the numerous villains and subplots. Between Tanaka (Tetsuo Komura), Arasaka, Faraday, Militech, and Adam Smasher (Yukihiro Misono), I found it difficult to keep track of and care about any of the conflicting parties.
For the most part, the supporting cast are stereotypes. As the protagonist, David stands out as having a real character arc. Lucy is merely David’s manic pixie girlfriend, though she has her moments of vulnerability and anger. Otherwise, the characters lack depth and development. For example, Maine is the tough, buff hard-ass. Faraday is a rich, evil asshole. Gloria Martinez (Yurika Hino) is an overworked single mother. The side characters are utterly void of complexity.
While the design, animation and voice acting pulled me into the story, I was left with little meat to sink my teeth into, as the themes are rather bare-bones. The story offers simple ideas, such as “capitalism is bad” and “poverty is unfair.” Outside of one-note messages, the show fails to expand on these concepts, dropping its class-struggle narrative altogether once David starts earning money. For cyberpunk, critiques of capitalism are a central conceit of the genre, yet this show fails to offer anything fresh or nuanced on the subject. This makes the conflict between “corpos” and edgerunners meaningless because it lacks ideological substance. By the end, Faraday is not portrayed as evil because he exploits the working class or monopolizes resources but for kidnapping David’s girlfriend. “Cyberpunk: Edgerunners” has no real message — it is entirely hollow.
“Cyberpunk: Edgerunners” ultimately sacrifices complex characters, interesting plot and thematic exploration for its aesthetic: colorful, stylish characters with big guns. While the show may not be challenging or deep, it is nonetheless enjoyable as eye candy with excellent performances and decent character drama.