The growing presence of technology has given rise to the cyberpunk genre, which, crossed with Japanese anime, has produced such gems as Akira (1988), Ghost in the Shell (1995), and Serial Experiments Lain (1998). These classic examples all explore how technology can be used to subjugate people and control humanity, as well as uncovering one’s own sense of self and identity in an increasingly digitally-connected world. Now, over two decades after the release of these stories, has emerged Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, based on the 2020 video game Cyberpunk 2077, a stunning new Netflix original anime which serves as a delightful contribution to this passionate subgenre.
Cyberpunk: Edgerunners follows the story of a bright but financially unstable seventeen-year-old named David, whose single mother works tirelessly so that she can afford to send him to an elite academy which conditions young people into becoming “corporate slaves” for a massive global conglomerate known as “Arasaka”. Unfortunately for young David, his mother is eventually eliminated by corporate mercenaries. Following this event, and an altercation with the son of one of Arasaka’s corporate executives, David vows vengeance against Arasaka and the academy and decides to join a covert group of rebels to find purpose in his life.
Edgerunners deploys countless gore-filled action scenes with stunning visual effects and animation to deliver a very corporeal experience that kept me on the edge of my seat. Edgerunners uses bright colours and flashing imagery to capture the mood of a late-stage capitalist society, in which everyone is at the mercy of digital technologies and constant stimulation. The scenes in which David augments his physical body with mechanical implants (known in the show as “chroming”) uses this imagery especially well to convey how technology is taking over his base physical self and thus rendering him increasingly dependent on his enhancements. Through this, the cyberpunk archetype of the mechanically augmented “post-human” conveys how technology can be either effective or deeply detrimental.
The show also features numerous sequences in which a character succumbs to the dramatic effects of digitally altering their consciousness through chroming and thus entering a state of “cyberpsychosis”. The show conveys these moments by featuring psychedelic and intense imagery, as well as having the screen corrupted by static and juxtaposing all this against gory fight sequences. David’s transition into a fully-augmented human demonstrates how, like a drug, dependence on technology has a numbing effect which will not let its users know there is something wrong until it is too late. Juxtaposing this imagery against the backdrop of sinister companies controlling society, Edgerunners suggests that the numbing effects of technology can be used to satisfy the goals of monopolistic transnational corporations. I personally found the themes addressed in the show very eye-opening, but it is how they are captured through the show’s animation, soundtrack, and storytelling that is especially inspiring.
In addition to the hyper-philosophical technology-oriented story, Edgerunners features a number of likable and well-developed characters who add some humanity to the series. David, Lucy, Maine, Kiwi, Dorio, and Rebecca have all faced a number of traumas in their lives, and thus have their own motives in wanting to live as rebels. Their witty dialogue and banter as well as their more serious and heartfelt moments effectively allows us to become invested in these nuanced characters and in their journeys. Despite the cyberpunk themes of the anime, these human characterizations ground the abstract notions presented by the show in a more emotional and relatable context.
Cyberpunk: Edgerunners is an emotionally relevant series that was both thrilling and insightful. For this reason, it is an effective contribution to the cyberpunk genre, and is definitely an important anime not to be missed. So please, give this anime miniseries a watch-through, both for its insights on technology and humanity, and for its action-packed binge-worthiness.