Overview: When threatened by the robots of a murderous, sentient supercity, a group of post-apocalyptic survivors are aided by a lone wanderer hiding a terrible secret. Netflix; 2017; Not Rated; 106 minutes.
Brevity is the Soul of Decent Adaptations: As any anime expert will tell you, it’s never a good idea to try and condense a multi-volume manga series into a single feature-length film. Take Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira. The film is unquestionably a watershed moment in anime history, completely revitalizing not just the cyberpunk genre, but anime’s reputation as a serious art form outside Japan. Yet in their attempt to cover all six volumes of the original manga in just two hours, they created a film with a barely cohesive plot that makes less and less sense the more you try and figure it out. Seemingly determined to outdo Otomo, Hiroyuki Seshita’s Blame! seeks to summarize all ten volumes of Tsutomu Nihei’s beloved cyberpunk opus of the same name. Though not as well animated and likely destined to never have the same impact as Akira, one can’t help but admire Blame! for doing the impossible: telling a meaningful, moving story without sacrificing pacing or resorting to blunt-force exposition dumps. I went into the film unfamiliar with the franchise, the original manga, and the other animated versions released since the series’ original 1998-2003 run. Yet I walked away thoroughly satisfied. If this film is a reboot, it’s one of the most successful in years. Hollywood should take note.
Toto, I Don’t Think We’re in Neo-Tokyo Anymore: The film takes place in one of the most utterly original post-apocalyptic dystopias in recent memory. Centuries ago, a supercity appropriately known as “The City” went haywire and began to expand itself with automated machines and robots. Whether this happened because the City’s “Netsphere” gained sentience or developed a processing error is irrelevant. In its quest to indefinitely grow it has ordered the on-sight execution of all humans. Eons later, the City is now a ceaseless, unending procession of floors (in the manga it’s hinted that is has expanded beyond the earth, engulfing the moon as raw material and stretching all the way to Jupiter’s orbit). The few remaining survivors have formed small societies isolated by thousands and thousands of miles of No Man’s Lands where humans are murdered by monstrous Netsphere-controlled robots known as the Safeguard. So when a group of human warriors known as Electro-Fishers discover a young man named Killy in the wastes, they can’t believe it. It’s not just that he’s alive, it’s not just that he’s a human—it’s that the Electro-Fishers had never conceived the idea of other human beings existing.
Killy proves a savior to the Electro-Fishers, leading them to a food source that saves them from imminent starvation. More than that, he discovers the remains of a cyborg engineer named Cibo who helps him set up a system to hack into the Netsphere by replicating an extinct genetic marker known as Net Terminal Genes used by ancient humans to control the City. For a time they succeed in helping the Electro-Fishers, but things fall apart. [MILD SPOILERS AHEAD] The Safeguard invade the village, Killy fights them off, he helps the Electro-Fishers flee to a different level, and he sets off like a legendary ronin or cowboy into the subterranean sunset in his endless quest to find carriers of the Gene so they can retake control of the City. [SPOILERS OVER]
As with many great movies, the story is of less importance than the film’s mood, atmosphere, and tone. Blame! excels in all three areas. Nihei demonstrates a mastery of creating a palpable sense of geometric space. We, like the characters, all feel very, very small and very, very vulnerable in the midst of an inconceivable superstructure hellbent on our destruction. The City itself is a triumph of production design, balancing vertiginous openness with rusty, trashy clutter that chokes access points and hallways. It’s easy to get lost in Nihei’s worldbuilding—one of my favorite details involves the Electro-Fishers creating gagaku instruments out of repurposed scrap metal. We get the sense that we’re visiting a real survivalist colony, not just a conglomeration of survivors eking out a living. If I could compare the film to one other anime, it would probably be Mahiro Maeda’s Blue Sub 6, another story about humans fighting back against extinction from a technologically superior enemy army. Certainly both share the same cavalier attitude toward human life. Despite its ending, Blame! is not an optimistic film. Human life is cheap in this world: masses of innocent people die horrible, screaming deaths with little to no fanfare. There’s no hope of restoring the human race; the war has been lost. The only victory for the Electro-Fishers is living one more day. And Killy has no illusions of success, either. He continues on in his futile struggle to stop the City, knowing full-well he’ll never succeed. But that won’t stop him.
Overall: Despite some unfortunately janky animation—anime studios still haven’t completely figured out how to seamlessly integrate traditional 2-D animation with CGI—and a predictable plot, Blame! is an effective film. If anything, it announces Netflix as a legitimate contender in the anime industry. Let’s see what they do next.
Featured Image: Netflix