I started to think about trashy fiction when I was talking with some folks on Jon Spencer Reviews’ discord. In particular, Voyager, Redblinky, Scott and I were talking about Akudama Drive.
As we talked about it, it became pretty clear that the general consensus on the show was that it was OK. The characters are little more than cardboard cutouts. The plot is thin. While they didn’t really explain what they thought was good about the show, it became pretty clear that they didn’t love it.
That’s when it dawned on me that there must be something wrong with me.
See, I watched Akudama Drive on a whim after hearing Scott mention it during one of his Mecha March questions. Thinking that it may be a mecha show, I decided I would give it a shot.
And I love it.
I don’t mean that I loved it in the ironic way people flock to slasher flicks or Troma films. I loved it as a fun story with fun characters that delivered punches and had a couple of fun winks at the audience if you were paying attention.
This got me thinking. What is wrong with me? And I don’t mean that something is fundamentally broken with me because I love Akudama Drive. I mean, it’s rated on MAL at a 7.7, and on AniList, it’s at 76 percent, and I rate it at a 9 out of 10 or a 5 out of 5.
I stand by that ranking. I would argue that Akudama Drive does everything it sets out to do and does it with near-perfect pacing. The show wrote me a check with “I don’t give a damn” and proceeded to cash it by the end of the last episode.
That said, I can agree with criticisms that the characters are pretty thin. None of the characters actually have a name. They are only referred to by their job. Even Swindler is called Ordinary Person in the credits.
We learn very little about their backstories, and sometimes their entire motivation is “I just want something that challenges me.”
So how can I defend that this is a near-perfect show? Is it because I think there is some hidden message that makes this show more than the sum of its parts? No. Although I’m sure you can find one there.
Do I think there is some hidden depth or subtext people are missing? No. Really, the most subtle thing this show does is have Swindler swindle people through the power of earnestness and friendship.
No. What I love about this show is that it’s trash. It’s terrific, well-constructed and has stellar pacing, but it’s trash.
But that begs the questions, “What do I mean by trash?” and “How can trash be great?”
Here’s where I need to make my standard disclaimer. I am not a literature historian. I am a guy that has a blog and is endeavoring to explain what I believe are the foundations of the trashy fiction that I like.
It’s helpful to put that fence around it because there are multiple different types of trashy fiction. From what I hear from romance fans, the Harlequin imprint is full of trashy stories. Then there are trashy ecchi anime and games. All of these trashy genres have different rules and tropes that make them unique.
The type of trashy stories I particularly like have their roots in pulp magazines. The name is a reference to the cheap paper the magazines were printed on. In particular, they were the successors to the Penny Dreadfuls and featured adventure, science fiction, horror and detective (or crime) stories.
Among some of the most famous authors to write stories in the pulps include Edgar Rice Burroughs (of John Carter and Tarzan fame) and Robert E. Howard (of Conan fame.) Probably more importantly for our purposes, it also featured writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and featured stories like The Shadow.
Basically, you can find the roots of hard-boiled fiction (and more largely modern crime fiction) in pulp magazines. Although, you can argue that Dumas’ Three Musketeers could be the foundation for current adventure/crime stories. Again, I’m not a historian. This is just my interpretation.
It’s important about pulp stories aren’t trying to tell a deep story with complex characters. This is not Dickens or even F. Scott Fitzgerald. The dirty cities and the mean streets are just facts; they aren’t trying to convey a wider societal gap or serve as a recrimination of classism.
They are stories that are meant to entertain, and as someone who has read Red Harvest and Farewell, My Lovely, I can agree that the stories that rose from this time most certainly do that.
For me, this is one of the most crucial elements of trashy fiction. It has to be earnest. When I engage in a piece of schlock, I don’t want to have to think about the larger world. I don’t want a story about the human condition. I just want enough plot and character to take me away from everyday life.
That doesn’t mean that I think these stories are mindless or bland. In fact, they’re the opposite. They’re compelling and generally hook me emotionally (especially in the case of Chandler.) I just don’t think there is a bunch more there than meets the eye.
Pulp in the movies
So I’m not going to even pretend to know about the transition of pulp into the movies. It could be Noir Film or neo-Noir film, or it could be the monster films of the 1950s, or it could be a bunch of things.
What is clear is that pulp has made multiple appearances in movies. Whether it’s Death Wish or Attack of The Killer Tomatoes, I still find the defining characteristic of pulp is its earnestness. These are not stories that are trying to do more than be pure escapism.
In a lot of cases, they are marked by over-the-top sex or violence and many times both. That is the line between stories that I think of as really pulpy and stories that are just escapist.
Let’s face it, while John Wick is a superhero, I wouldn’t classify his movies as superhero movies or even really popcorn movies.
Talking about John Wick, I want to talk about what I think of as modern pulp movies. (Now, other people might think of them also as modern pulp, but I’m not going to make any assumptions.)
Starting with movies like Shoot ’em Up and Crank, there has been a resurgence of over-the-top violent film. They are more about snappy dialogue and well-choreographed action scenes.
These movies also introduce an element that I find just as important as their earnestness. They are self-aware. Now I don’t mean that they’re throwing up giant neon arrows pointing out how ridiculous the movie is. In fact, it’s pretty much the opposite. The stories understand just how silly they are, but instead of explaining it, they lean into it instead.
This can be done by creating a frankly silly mythos around our characters. For instance, the Continental in John Wick simply couldn’t exist in the real world, but all of the characters treat it like it makes perfect sense.
Or it can be done by only providing a smattering of character development. In Shoot ’em Up, Clive Owen’s and Paul Giamatti’s characters are so over the top, they aren’t really believable, but the movie creators seem aware of this and lean into it rather than try to explain it away.
This combination of self-awareness and earnestness turns what would be a bad story into something that I love.
I don’t understand my reaction to this combination. It seems to bypass the analytical part of my mind and taps directly into the lizard part of my brain that just wants to see things explode.
Why Akudama Drive is actually good
When you’re looking at Akudama Drive, you can’t look at it with the same criteria you would judge something like Psycho-Pass or Serial Experiments Lain. No. I judge it by the same standards I use for shows like Gantz or Black Lagoon.
Right from the start, Akudama Drive tells you precisely what you’re in for. The lyrics of the opening theme song say, “Don’t take this seriously. We don’t care.” I mean, the refrain is literally, “I don’t give a damn,” or “I don’t give a dang.”
Here is a translation.
This is only the first of many items that tell you how you’re supposed to take this show. The fact that none of the characters have an actual name lets you know that the creators know this show is pulp.
They really take this a step further. The Doctor literally gets cut in half but somehow stitches herself back together. Courier has grappling hooks that shoot out of his motorcycle.
On top of this, each episode (except the last one) is named after a movie. Many of the episodes are named after action movies, a couple after sci-fi movies and at least one after a crime movie. This use of movie titles may be a little bit pretentious, considering they name the last episode Akudama Drive, but it still conveys to me that the creators are aware that this show is ridiculous.
That said, all of the characters are wholly invested in the world. The audience may be in on the joke, but the characters are earnest.
For me, this created a situation where it bypassed my analytical mind and went straight to that part of me that wants to see good fights. The music and the visuals feed directly into this. The show rarely slows down, and when it does, it uses that time to slip in a few character-building moments.
This combination actually left me with emotional reactions each time a character reached the end of their arc. The only real surprise (for me) comes at the beginning of its last episode.
Do I think the characters are deep or compelling? Not really. Do I believe there is enough depth to keep me invested? Yes, sir, I do.
Near as I can figure out, it’s that combination of self-awareness and earnestness that makes me love this show. That and I love how Swindler swindles people through friendship because I feel like that may be the most self-aware thing in the entire show.
Anyway, this is why I love trashy action/crime shows. What do you think?
As always, thanks for reading.