The essence of Cyberpunk as a genre is fighting against the hopelessness of an utterly crapsack world. The first two episodes of Netflix’s Cyberpunk: Edgerunners drives this home in spectacular fashion, with the focus on protagonist David Martinez, a young man living in the thoroughly corrupt and decadent Night City (the default setting for the Cyberpunk TTRPG and the setting for the videogame Cyberpunk 2077, which this series ties in to).
Spoilers ahead for the first two episodes of Cyberpunk: Edgerunners.
The genre of Cyberpunk has been around for almost forty years at this point, largely based on the works of authors like William Gibson (with his novel Neuromancer) and the visual aesthetics of Japanese manga/anime of works such as Akira (created by Katsuhiro Otomo). In the first few minutes of Cyberpunk: Edgerunners first episode, titled “Let You Down”, we as the audience are introduced to the violent nature of this setting with a cyberpyscho (someone who has undergone a psychotic break that may or may not be due to excessive cybernetic implants in their body) takes down a multitude of police officers in seconds. Prominently focused in the rampage is a cybernetic implant attached to the perpetrator’s spinal column, which is later revealed to be a Sandevistan implant (a cybernetic enhancement that greatly increases the user’s physical speed). The beauty and horror of the rampage is center stage and Studio Trigger does not shy away from the abject body horror of the situation.
We then cut to the introduction to our protagonist, David Martinez, as well as his mother who are living hand-to-mouth in one of the megabuilding structures that dot Night City. Despite not having the means to pay for a full washing machine cycle, David is enrolled at the prestigious Arasaka Academy, a school run by the megacorporation Arasaka to train the next generation of corporate executives. It’s Gloria Martinez’s dream that David uses the Academy to enter the corporate world and escape the abject poverty that pervades their daily existence. We also learn that Gloria works for Trauma Team (a megacorporation dealing with healthcare that also serves as body disposal for crime scenes). We also discover that she stole the Sandevistan implant the cyberpyscho was using during his rampage, most likely to sell it on the black market to make enough money for David’s tuition. David doesn’t fit in with his other students, who are all the sons and daughters of corporate executives. One student in particular, Katsuo, takes perverse pleasure in using his cybernetics to physically assault David.
To make matters worse, David and his mother are caught in the middle of a drive-by attack on the freeway when a group of gangbangers from the Animals gang attempt to attack a corporate executive also on the highway. The resulting crash leaves Gloria near-death and David badly injured. Since Gloria doesn’t have Trauma Team insurance (despite working for the company), she is left on the road. David takes her to a back-alley doctor but due to substandard care, Gloria dies from her injuries. Upon returning to their apartment with his mother’s ashes, David finds that he’s been locked out due to the rent not being paid. Basically, everything bad that could happen does happen to David during the course of the first episode. At his wit’s end, David tries to sell the Sandevistan implant his mother stole but gets nowhere. After the beatdown from Katsuo, David turns to a ripperdoc (a doctor that specializes in implanting cyberware into people’s bodies), stating under no uncertain terms he wants the Sandevistan drive implanted in his body.
The second episode, titled “Like A Boy”, picks up immediately after David’s declaration to get chromed up (slang for installing cybernetic implants). The process is gory and deeply unsettling, which fits the amplified body horror nature of the Cyberpunk TTRPG and video game. Transhumanism is a staple of the genre and we see in the first few minutes of the episode that there is a cost involved. With his new implant, David returns to the Arasaka Academy and confronts Katsuo, soundly kicking the bully’s ass. This catches the attention of Katsuo’s father, a high-level executive in the Arasaka Corporation, who as it turns out was the manufacturer of the Sandevistan implant used by the cyberpyscho in the first episode.
While aimlessly riding the metro train, David encounters Lucy, an edgerunner who is inconspicuously stealing data chips from the passengers to later sell on the black market. When she attempts to steal from David, he uses his Sandevistan implant to catch her. The two quickly strike up a deal to work together and snatch more data chips, with David using his new implant repeatedly. This overuse causes his body to start breaking down, with him passing out after getting a hellacious nosebleed. When a Trauma Team ambulance worker tries to take David hostage so she can sell the Sandevistan implant (which is shown to be a military-grade implant, thus worth quite a lot of money on the black market), Lucy absconds with David while he’s still attached to the gurney, showing that she is a thrill-seeker as well as a criminal.
The pair end up back at Lucy’s apartment in another megabuilding and commiserate over their dreams. For Lucy, she wants out of Night City, intent on moving to the moon (which has been colonized at this point in this alternate world). The two share a braindance (a virtual reality simulation that looks and feels real), bonding over the experience. After all of the hardships that David endured in the first episode, it feels wonderful to see him have a moment of bliss with someone he seems to share a genuine connection.
But this is Cyberpunk and there are no such things as happy endings in a Cyberpunk story. David is ripped out of the braindance by a group of edgerunners, with Lucy watching. It becomes clear quickly that they want the implant David has in his body and they’re willing to rip it out of him to get it.
Having been a fan of this genre for years and being a fan of the tabletop game the anime is based on (see my other essays on Cyberpunk Red), I thoroughly enjoyed the first two episodes of this anime series. Viscerally violent, Cyberpunk: Edgerunners doesn’t shy away from the gaudy and decrepit nature of Night City. This is a world where life is cheap, the downtrodden are kept in near total poverty to appease the megacorporations’ schemes, and people like David and his mother Gloria are constantly fighting an uphill battle just to survive, let alone thrive. But by becoming an edgerunner (aka a cyberpunk), David has the chance to buck the system, even if it’s only for a little while. In this kind of universe, that’s the really the only chance anyone really has.
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