Psychosis in the Shell – Cyberpunk: Edgerunners (2022) Season 1

Based, at least nominally, on the open-world RPG video game Cyberpunk 2077 (which was in turn based on a 1988 tabletop game originally just called Cyberpunk), the new Netflix anime series Cyberpunk: Edgerunners plays like it could be a gonzo extension of the Ghost in the Shell franchise, if hopped up on meth and hallucinogens. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

To be frank, Edgerunners is reminiscent of a lot of different anime and science-fiction properties you likely already know very well. You can find bits of Akira and The Matrix, and William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer (which heavily influenced the others), in it, all mashed together. Even the show’s title blatantly calls Blade Runner to mind. For that reason, it may score low on the originality scale, but the show has its own vibe, and its story and characters are interesting enough to be worth a binge. If anything, having so many other familiar reference points makes it accessible even to non-gamers who’ve never heard of Cyberpunk 2077.

Cyberpunk: Edgerunners (2022) - David Martinez
Title:Cyberpunk: Edgerunners
Number of Episodes:10
Release Date: Sept. 13, 2022
Watched On: Netflix

In the near-future dystopia of Night City, corrupt mega-corporations control almost every aspect of society and openly war with each other for dominance. Technology has progressed to a point where cybernetic enhancement is commonplace, even ubiquitous, among the populace, from the lowest street rat to the highest corporate oligarch. Some have relatively minor augmentations – brain chips that essentially put smartphones in their heads, software to boost strength and stamina, maybe an extra eyeball or two in places a human wasn’t born with – while others go full cyborg, replacing nearly the entirety of their bodies with extreme mechanical modifications.

Going too far has its risks, however, and may lead to a state called “cyberpsychosis,” in which a person basically fries their brain from the overload of cyber stimulus and (in archaic terminology) goes postal, murdering anyone in sight. This happens often enough that the city’s police have a highly-armed tactical unit devoted specifically to taking out cyberpsychos with deadly force. There’s no coming back from cyberpsychosis. Once a subject crosses that line, the only way to stop them is to put them down.

The protagonist of the story is David Martinez, a poor kid whose mother has scrimped and saved to enroll him in a corporate academy, hoping to put him on a decent career track so he can eventually make a better life for himself than she can provide on her own. David doesn’t really want to become a “corpo,” and the rich brats at the school bully him incessantly. Although he tries to fight back, David can’t afford the high-end mods the other kids have, and the glitchy bootleg junk he gets on the street makes him something of a laughingstock.

David’s life is upending after his mother dies tragically. Mysteriously, at the time of her death she was in possession of a piece of military-grade hardware called the Sandevistan, which gives its user brief bouts of super-speed. David spends all the money he has left to get it installed in his own body, initially just for the purpose of taking revenge on the bullies at school. The black market surgeon warns him that he probably won’t be able to handle it, but David’s body proves surprisingly adaptable and he takes to it easily, well beyond its design limits.

Soon after dropping out of the academy, David is inducted into a gang of edgerunners, criminals who use their cyber enhancements to perform petty thefts, smash-and-grabs, and sometimes more elaborate heists and corporate sabotage. They find David’s Sandevistan very useful. Over the course of the show’s season, we see David gain experience and advance to a position of leadership in the gang, all the while building up his body with more and more mods. Believing himself to be special and uniquely resilient, David ignores the advice and warnings of all around him and continues to integrate dangerous technology into his body, until even he can’t ignore the symptoms of cyberpsychosis encroaching into his mind.

Cyberpunk: Edgerunners (2022) - David & Rebecca

I’ve never played Cyberpunk 2077 and was barely even aware of its existence prior to watching the anime spin-off. I vaguely recall some TV ads featuring a character who looked like and was voiced by Keanu Reeves. You won’t find that here. From what I can tell, the show has few direct narrative connections to the game, and is mostly a new story set in the same universe (which, as I mentioned, could just as easily be a particularly seedy stratum of the Ghost in the Shell universe).

In fact, while the game was rendered with cutting-edge, near-photorealistic 3D CGI, the TV series makes a bold choice of being told in traditional animation, or at least the style of it. At a time when even the Ghost in the Shell franchise has moved fully to CG animation, this makes Edgerunners feel like a throwback to a more classic era of anime. That’s not to say that it looks old-fashioned or simplistic. To the contrary, the animation is very complex and densely layered.

To be clear, this a series for an adult audience. It features nudity, sex, profanity, and copious amounts of extremely graphic, gory violence. I don’t think there’s a single episode in the season without multiple bodies being ripped apart or blown to pieces in exaggerated, bloody fashion. The storytelling is also hyper-kinetic, with subtitled dialogue that frequently jumps all over the screen and interacts with the visuals in ways that often require concentration to follow. The plot gets pretty crazy and surreal, especially when the hero’s brain gets overstimulated and he starts bugging out.

Cyberpunk: Edgerunners (2022) - The Sandevistan in action

I don’t mean to belabor the comparisons to Ghost in the Shell, but Edgerunners shares a lot of DNA with that franchise, albeit for a story told in a much more extreme and over-the-top (and, frankly, less intellectual or philosophical) fashion. Even so, the show has some interesting twists of its own, fairly compelling characters, and lots of crazy-fun action.

The ten-episode season seems to tell a self-contained story and it’s unclear to me whether this is meant to be a limited series, or if Studio Trigger plans more seasons. I’ll watch again if it comes back, but (in a refreshing break from so much TV today) the show leaves no unresolved cliffhangers and ends on a satisfying note.

Video Streaming

As for the technical details, Netflix streams Cyberpunk: Edgerunners in 4K HDR at a full-screen 16:9 aspect ratio. The animation is plenty colorful, but doesn’t appear to actually have 4K worth of detail. I expect it was probably upconverted. Nevertheless, it looks good, and the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio has plenty of zing.

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