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A shot of David from behind, with his robot spine lighting up and illuminating red nerves out from under it Image: Studio Trigger/Netflix

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Cyberpunk: Edgerunners blows past Cyberpunk 2077 to be its own visually ecstatic ride

The Netflix anime shines independently of the game it spins out of

As the names of its lead artists and production studio Trigger loudly announce themselves in splashy, Franz Ferdinand-scored opening credits, you more or less know what you’re in for with Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, the anime spinoff of the troubled video game Cyberpunk 2077.

Both the video game and this cartoon, created by Rafal Jaki, are based off the 1988 tabletop role-playing game Cyberpunk 2020, whose counter-culture vibe was shaped by its creator, outspoken designer Mike Pondsmith. But, in addition to the repetition on all those game’s names, there’s also a funny redundancy in the title of the animated series itself which feels like an encapsulation of the franchise’s ethos — in the world of the show, “edgerunner” is another word for “cyberpunk,” so in a sense this is called Cyberpunk: Cyberpunks. That indulgent doubling-down is indicative of what this all is: It’s Cyberpunk, but more. Better still — with the notable exception of all the jargon, knowledge of 2077 isn’t a price of entry for Edgerunners, which stands alone even as it folds in characters and concepts from the game.

Set in a nondescript year before the video game, its protagonist David Martinez and his overworked mother Gloria are at the bottom of the city’s ladder, with every aspect of their lives weighed down by exorbitant fees. David eventually has no other choice but to fall in with a gang of mercenaries — cyberpunks — after meeting a mysterious but sympathetic netrunner (a hacker, basically) called Lucy. He begins to run jobs in hope of making something of himself, and for something else that he struggles to define. Everyone’s mutual need to make something of themselves locks the populace into repeating cycles. But at least in this world, people are usually more honest about how they kill, immediate and bloody rather than the slow death of capitalism, which David experiences for himself.

Edgerunners goes all in on the vulgarity of Night City’s final boss version of capitalism, breaking down the various exploitative systems running their lives, from health care packages to in-home washing machines that require credit. Even within the home, this commodification intrudes — and there’s also something funny about a dystopian Netflix Original where everything in life has become a subscription service.

Two characters of Cyberpunk: Edgerunners sitting on the moon looking at the Earth rising Image: Studio Trigger/Netflix
A top-down image of the downtown district of Night City in Cyberpunk: Edgerunners. Image: Studio Trigger/Netflix

Sci-fi and machismo aren’t a new combination for director Hiroyuki Imaishi, who directed Gurren Lagann and, more recently, the feature film Promare. But the way he and his crew play with the rise and fall of a criminal leader in Edgerunners is distinct nonetheless. And though the series’ unpacking of this trajectory is cut a little short by its episode count, its visual storytelling manages to make up for any lost time. There’s (sometimes morbid) fun to be had with the various twists and turns in the story from Bartosz Sztybor and Masahiko Otsuka’s propulsive screenwriting, as the series goes between the violent exploitation of ’80s anime — think the work of Yoshiaki Kawajiri — and more earnest sentiment, a similar combination as in the emphatic macho posturing and genuine brotherly love in Gurren Lagann and Promare.

Romance appears as that balancing element in Edgerunners, a potential escape for David based in something real, even idealistic. The violence and commodification of the setting, the chaos and random ugliness as well as the nature of the game itself would suggest a cynical point of view. But for all their ridiculousness, Imaishi’s works have always been ruthlessly sincere — when a bright-eyed punk proclaims he’s gonna fly his love interest to the moon, in that moment he and the director damn well mean it. However, such sentiment does become dangerous, and Lucy’s attempts to keep David out of harm’s way and his corresponding attempts to fulfill her dreams end up endangering both of them. Even still, Imaishi and co. reject cynicism like the human body does cybernetic implants. It only makes the tragedy of the series’ narrative arc sting all the more.

Despite all of that, the show does choose well where to lean on storytelling that only it can do — leaning into a lot of the psychological horror of existing in the space of Night City, of risking your mind while using bodily augmentations to get an edge over other gangs, while giving a bleeding-heart romantic edge to David’s story, and actual stakes and emotional weight to the hectic gunfights he throws himself into with abandon.

A character being thrown into a glass wall which is breaking on the impact. The person who punched him is in the foreground and still mid-punch Image: Studio Trigger/Netflix
A woman sitting on the back of a couch against a window of a futuristic city. She’s lying down on her side, talking over the shoulder of a man sitting on the couch, who’s turned to look at her Image: Studio Trigger/Netflix

At the time of its release, Cyberpunk 2077 was noted to be a slightly too nostalgic take on the genre, perhaps not forward-thinking enough as it was keen to reproduce a memory of cyberpunk’s popular image. That and familiar hallmarks from the Deus Ex, Blade Runner, and Ghost in the Shell-inspired designs of Cyberpunk 2077 remain, but the visual identity of the show still feels wholly its own, and Studio Trigger’s ideas feel inventive enough to refresh this shared setting. It’s filled with so much of that idiosyncratic personality that it even feels intrusive when the obligatory Cyberpunk branding appears at the end of every episode. Still, it’s simply exciting to see the studio’s and Imaishi’s trademarks imposed on this world — like their signature face-off shot, those extreme low-angle shots of huge guys getting in each other’s faces before a fight. And it still leaves room for more delicate notes to flourish around the exaggerated machismo, whether that’s through the way the scribbles of texture on David’s face remain the most consistently human touches about him, or how the visual presentation of what would otherwise just be another in-game system or a meter to watch imbues these things with real narrative meaning.

Speaking of which, the time between the show starting and bullets exploding heads only adds up to seconds, as the show begins noisily and for the most part stays that way — a hail of bullets and brains as Imaishi layers buckets of blood on top of neon. Such violence is immediately tied in with its exploration of how everything — gore and pleasure alike — is commodified in this world: David first seen buying and viewing people’s final memories as snuff films (referred to as “braindances,” as in the game) specifically, of a “cyberpsycho” gunning down the police and then dying violently himself. The show digs into that desensitizing intersection of chrome bodies and fleshy desires, with everyone in search of constant stimulation (often literally, with much of the populace seen writhing in response to machines strapped to their crotches).

With a penchant for giddy, expressionistic and hyper-maximalist style, director Imaishi and his staff are a perfect fit for the constant overstimulation of Night City — frames packed with rich, sometimes overwhelming color, just up to the limit of being too busy to comprehend. The creators frame the exaggerated proportions of Yoh Yoshinari’s character designs through forced perspectives and plenty of wide-angle shots, especially in conversations, sidestepping typical one-two shots by flattening the faces of both participants into the same frame. It’s perfect for its cast of big, memorable personalities, all looking to become big shots in its setting of Night City — like Becca, a small girl with big metal fists and even bigger guns.

A group of augmented biker types with red eyes and machine parts, staring at the camera Image: Studio Trigger/Netflix
Three characters sitting on a club bench with laser lights illuminating in pink, blue, and purple around them; they’re all looking up, as are the people nearby Image: Studio Trigger/Netflix

More exciting still is how Trigger imagines new visual language for various in-game concepts, like bullet time, which David is empowered with through a prototype military implant in his spine. As he moves at lightning speed, the world slows down and his path through it is captured in a sequence of multicolored afterimages, stills of every previous frame of movement suspended in time. The visual representation of netrunning is a particular highlight as it tunes out the color and noise of the world, becoming a physical space that Lucy sneaks through. It’s a cyberspace appearing as an abstract world of pixelated monochrome that almost looks like the background from Death Grips’ video for “Guillotine.” On the opposite end of this feeling of empowerment through technology, the traumatizing psychological impact of these body modifications and abilities is also a visual focus, as “cyberpsychosis” is shown through glitchy visuals of character’s eyes multiplying on screen and other exciting or even disturbing manners of malfunction.

It’s not just style for the sake of it either, although with the amount that Edgerunners has, that’s enough to entertain. There’s emotional power in its presentation, perhaps best represented in its sixth episode, “Girl on Fire.” Episode director Yoshiyuki Kaneko, along with storyboarder and animation director Kai Ikarashi (who worked on an equally electric episode of SSSS.Dynazenon), capitalize on astonishing ambition in their portrayal of a fractured mind and the group splintering, and the series’ emotional tipping point for the entirety of its cast. Coupled with exhilarating quick-cutting through the chaos of gunfire and smashed skulls, it’s also the best representative of the show’s visual depth in even its quieter moments.

There’s also exciting sonic diversity in its score by Akira Yamaoka. He replicates the game’s heavy, dark EDM rhythms but also flirts with reggae and dub, dancehall, breakbeat dance music, thrash, and death metal, any of which could punctuate the next spontaneous moment of action. Which is all to say the whole series is full of exciting variance; its sleeker drawings give way to broader, chunkier lines in close-up that maintain a sense of something personal amidst a city that has lost its humanity. Those smudged textures and incredibly detailed, chaotic drawings that accentuate one character’s behemoth size, those intentionally dirtied drawings, maintain a feeling of rawness, reminders that these are humans drawn by human hands rather than anthropomorphic pieces of metal. Those same smudges of pencil also act as a rather devastating motif, particularly in episode 6 — the same marks witnessed in close-up on the face of one of David’s friends, slowly losing their mind, are also left as a lingering mark on David by the episode’s end.

There’s perhaps too little time to feel the full impact of David’s trajectory and the little tragedies of the people he runs with — a midseason turning point jumps ahead in his arc, and the episode count makes these events feel a little too compressed even as the show works overtime to sell these changes (and mostly succeeds). Regardless, it does manage to find the psychological horror in people losing themselves amidst all the metal, conjuring the grimier parts of the genre’s aesthetic history as various characters have waking, Tetsuo: The Iron Man-esque nightmares of gunmetal uncontrollably writhing its way out of open wounds.

This is perhaps the strongest point of the show: the ability to depict the psychological unmooring of its characters without feeling inauthentic. Even as he gets more absorbed in the gang he runs with, David becomes troubled by how easy it is for him to kill people, a narrative not earnestly possible within the space of a first-person shooter in which the body count remains just a number, one that ironically itself adds to the cheapness of life that it portrays. In its expansion of these ideas, Cyberpunk: Edgerunners is easily the most exciting thing to come out of the game’s redemption arc. Even if it’s hard not to wish that Imaishi and co. had a little more room to expand their take on this world, Edgerunners feels exciting and new enough as it pushes the boundaries of its exciting and hugely inventive visual representation of in-game concepts.

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