Netflix delved into original anime filmmaking with Blame! (2017), adapted from Tsutomu Nihei’s manga of the same title. Set in a distant post-apocalyptic future where the last remnants of humanity cling on to survival in a vast, machine-controlled city, it’s a refreshing take on a number of familiar sci-fi and anime tropes. Directed by Hiroyuki Seshita (Knights of Sidonia, Ajin) and produced by Polygon Pictures, a Japanese CG animation studio best known to me for their work on Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, Blame! is worth a look for any anime fan with a Netflix subscription.
I’m completely unfamiliar with the original manga, though I was surprised to discover Tsutomu Nihei was behind the brilliant “Breaking Quarantine” story in The Halo Graphic Novel. In any case, I don’t know how closely the film follows the manga; in Blame! as an anime, we’re introduced to a vast, self-replicating city under the control of artificially intelligent robotic Builders and Exterminators. Most of the film focuses on a village of human stragglers eking out an existence in a safe zone within the city, venturing out only to forage for food (apparently some form of ‘sludge’, which sounds fantastically unappealing). These human survivors need full suits of armour and high-velocity spear guns, barely maintained, to sneak past robotic sentries and fight the machines. On one excursion, led by a young woman named Zuru (Sora Amamiya), they stumble across the unfortunately-named Killy – a wanderer who helps them fend off an attack and is the first outsider they’ve met in generations.
It’s easy to draw parallels in the set-up between Blame! and other sci-fi stories like The Matrix, The Terminator and Battlestar Galactica where humanity has lost a war against the machines. The Matrix parallels only become stronger when Killy explains – if his stilted, taciturn speech can be called explanation – that he’s searching for humans with the ‘Net Terminal gene’, which would allow them to jack into the city’s systems and control the machines again. It was a contagion in a bygone era that wiped out the gene and pit the city against its human inhabitants. Killy (Takahiro Sakurai, Psycho-Pass’ Makishima) as a character is kind of a non-starter; he seems to be designed as a stoic, nearly silent protagonist in the lone gunslinger archetype. He is, frankly, boring. Fortunately, he’s surrounded by other characters who are much more compelling: amongst them Zuru, Cibo (a benevolent robotic or transhuman character voiced by Kana Hanazawa, Durarara!!), and the village elder ‘Pop’ (Kazuhiro Yamaji, the Yakuza series’ Makoto Date).
There’s a lot that Blame! either doesn’t explain or only hints at, particularly in the true nature of Killy and Cibo, but it creates a solid enough framework upon which to hang a story. Once the various characters have been introduced, the focus switches to their attempt to get a network access terminal that might allow them to take control of the city once again – something that the villagers can barely understand; they just see it as a way out of their increasingly dire situation as they run out of food, surrounded by robotic monsters. That desperate struggle to access the network and survive the retaliation of the machines sets up some epic action for the final act. It’s not a film that dwells on the philosophical questions of man vs. machine or even of survival in the face of overwhelming odds, but sometimes, that’s okay.
It’s worth noting that Blame! is a CG-anime, something I’m not normally a huge fan of. Even here, characters can end up looking a little bit uncanny valley when they move. I suspect it’s something to do with the way CG renders a character through every frame of animation versus traditional, hand drawn animation that relies on a few key frames and then ‘in betweens’ to create the illusion of movement when played at full speed. It’s much more noticeable on humanoid characters than on robots and vehicles, where it has become increasingly popular in anime production over the last few decades. After a while, though, I mostly stopped noticing it.
Hopefully, Blame! is not the last adaptation of Nihei’s manga to hit Netflix. It sounds like there are other, unconnected stories starring Killy that could be adapted – which is a little bit of a shame, as I’d be more interested in seeing more of Zuru and her village. On the other hand, this gives me more hope for Godzilla: Monster Planet due later this year. Like Blame!, it’s directed by Seshita and produced by Polygon Pictures for Netflix. Fingers crossed it’s as good.
Blame! / BLAME! (ブラム!)
Director: Hiroyuki Seshita
Global Release Date: 20th May 2017
Version Watched: 106 min (Netflix)