In anime, the notions of being special and exceeding your limits in order to get stronger are popular especially in the pages of “Shonen Jump,” where many mainstream anime find their start as manga. “Dragon Ball Z” and “Black Clover” are two poignant examples where exceeding one’s own limits is a particularly important theme and plot point, which contrasts perhaps intentionally with the reality that this isn’t something that’s always necessarily obtainable in real life; there, the consequence of exceeding your physical limits can be deadly.
“Cyberpunk: Edgerunners” directly challenges both themes. The show takes place in the futuristic world of Night City in the later half of the 21st century, which ties into the video game “Cyberpunk 2077.” It’s a world where just about everyone has already altered their physical bodies for convenience — everyone literally has sockets on their neck where currency can be stored, and where they can be plugged into (literally) virtual learning. It also presents a nightmarish capitalistic future in which the duopolistic mega corporations Arasaka and Militech reign supreme.
Even medical care has gone through an extreme amount of privatization, as only the well off can afford the top-notch care of the Trauma Team (high end EMS), while the poor are left to fend for themselves with inferior cheaper means of care. We see the consequences of this personally via the inciting incident of the show, when protagonist David Martinez’s (Zach Aguilar) mother is gravely injured in a drive-by shooting, and is initially left for dead by Trauma Team because she didn’t pay for coverage.
David starts the anime not fitting into a private school his single mother has worked long and hard to get him into. He is exceptionally bright, but his lower class status subjects him to bullying and he soon gets in trouble for modifying his school equipment. They don’t have much, but they’re making it work, until the drive-by incident. Suddenly David has to deal with past-due bills and an uncaring world, which comes to a head when his mother suddenly passes away in the hospital. Desperately searching for anything of value, he finds a Sandevistan spinal implant in his mother’s things, which he decides to install into himself in order to find a way to earn a living.
The Sandevistan gives David super-speed for a limited time, but all implants that grant superhuman abilities come with a price, either physical or mental. The show treats them like drugs, as the more “chromed up” you get, the more you can get addicted to upgrading your body, which puts you at a greater risk of going insane by succumbing to cyberpsychosis — a condition that causes people to go into a murderous rage in which they loose touch with reality.
After he uses the Sandevistan to catch a pickpocket named Lucy (Emi Lo), he befriends her, and she eventually introduces him to her crew, led by a bulky veteran edgerunner named Maine (William C. Stephens). Edgerunners are essentially mercenaries who are hired for jobs through fixers by the various factions in the city, and a lot of their work constitutes “Grand Theft Auto”-like missions involving theft of valuables, sabotage, murder, etc. Maine’s fixer is named Faraday (Giancarlo Esposito), who is a sinister man playing both sides of the Arasaka-Militech rivalry.
Maine had a business relationship with David’s mom (she moved cybernetic parts for them) and takes him in, serving as a mentor figure. Also in the crew are Dorio (Marie Westbrook), Maine’s girlfriend; Rebecca (Alex Cazares), a foul-mouthed sharpshooter; Pilar (Ian James Corlett), a perverted techie and Rebecca’s brother; and Kiwi (Stephanie Wong), who is the team’s second netrunner (it’s basically a hacker, but a lot faster) after Lucy. There is a time skip, after which Falco (Matthew Mercer), a level-headed getaway driver joins the crew.
Maine’s crew is a merry one, but the nature of their business makes it unsustainable (they’re here for a good time, not a long time). Their numbers start to dwindle until they inevitably face a mission that goes wrong and they’re in over their heads. There will be some light spoilers beyond this point.
Before the show’s timeskip, Maine succumbs to cyberpsychosis and dies, taking Dorio with him. It’s a core moment for David, as the death of his mentor forces him to step up and take over the crew, which he isn’t equipped to handle. He can’t help but follow Maine’s footsteps by bulking up via cybernetics, and he can’t see how Faraday is playing even him. Maine’s death cemented David’s fate, putting him on a dead-end path that he has no way out of.
The idea of fate and free will are ones that I thought a lot about while watching this show. David didn’t seek the life of an edgerunner out, he did so because he saw no other way to rise above his circumstances after his mother died. Becoming a criminal is one of the only ways he could find financial freedom in a city determined to pinch every nickel out of him, and it’s worth noting that he was in over his head the minute his mother died; few high schoolers can just suddenly find the means to support themselves short notice, especially when they already find themselves in a precarious situation at school.
Indeed, almost every character in this show is on a destructive path not necessarily of their own making, other than their conscious choices to stick together as a surrogate family despite flashing red flags that not everyone has each other’s best interests at heart.
One of the things that makes this show so refreshing is the fact that in the grand scheme of this world, Maine’s crew and David are unimportant. They’re all people caught up doing the dirty work in other people’s conflicts; very few have a set path or personal goal they’re working towards, with the exception of Lucy, who wants to escape Night City and go to the colony on the Moon. She’s also perhaps the only character that fully realizes that the business they’re in is unsustainable and not worth the risk of becoming a casualty over, and is something they can leave behind. Most of the other characters are aware of their own mortality and the likeliness that they don’t have much time left — it just takes one unlucky break to get killed — but they don’t see any way out of this life, or they have no desire to escape it.
For a show that features such gratuitous violence and nudity, it certainly has a lot to say about its subject matter. The adult content in this show is just window dressing for this story, though I do think there is a critique about how capitalism is driving society to be more desensitized to violence and pornography somewhere in there. This is a story about tragic, doomed characters and it is done very well, albeit some of its edges are a little rough.
One critique I have is that the show should have spent more time developing David after the timeskip — even though he evolves from a naive rookie to the hardened leader of Maine’s former crew in a very short time, he feels like a static point-of-view character; he isn’t really changed as a character by the experience. David goes through a lot of changes right after his mother dies, but from the point he joins Maine’s crew until his final appearance in the show, his outlook on life and core philosophy doesn’t change. Maine’s death only serves as a push to getting him to step up.
I would also argue that, while the violence in this show has purpose in illustrating the pointless arms race between the megacorporations, the nudity isn’t used purposefully and it is distracting. It could be cut from the show entirely and you’d essentially have the same show.
I usually only mention a show’s soundtrack or score if it stands out for better or worse, and this show shines exceptionally in both categories. Its opening theme — “This FFFire” by Franz Ferdinand — will get stuck in your head and “I Really Want to Stay at Your House” by Rosa Walton (Let’s Eat Grandma) is used skillfully to deliver some of the show’s most effective moments of emotional payoff. Its score also has a unique blend of rock and synths that feel appropriate for this world.
While I can’t say that this show convinced me to give the “Cyberpunk” game a shot, I loved its world and the story it told. I’m not counting on a Season 2, but I would be open to watching other shows set in the “Cyberpunk” world.
“Cyberpunk: Edgerunners” Season 1 (2022) gets an 8/10