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Netflix’s Blame! Adequately Captures the Spirit of Tsutomu Nihei’s Cyberpunk Manga (Review)

But those hoping to see lots of the manga’s vast, dystopian weirdness may be slightly disappointed.
Blame, Tsutomu Nihei

I was initially excited when Netflix announced they were turning Tsutomu Nihei’s cyberpunk/transhumanist manga Blame! into an anime movie (Netflix had previously adapted Nihei’s Knights of Sidonia); I’m always on the lookout for good cyberpunk fare. But then I started reading Vertical Comics’ excellent Blame! reissue, and I grew a little worried.

Netflix had done a decent job with Knights of Sidonia (though the first season was far better than the second one), and the Blame! adaptation was even teased in Knights of Sidonia’s second season. But as I actually read Blame! — widely regarded as Nihei’s finest work — it became clear that Nihei’s manga was so strange and epic that any adaptation would be hard-pressed to accurately capture its compellingly dystopic world. (Blame! had been turned into an OVA directed by Shintaro Inokawa back in 2003, but that resembled an experimental art film more than a coherent narrative.)

To Netflix’s credit, their adaptation does justice to the spirit of Blame! — but only because it largely ignores Nihei’s original storyline.

The story’s core details remain the same. It’s still set in the far distant future, in a vast city that’s constantly changing and growing. And in this city, the remaining pockets of humanity are still hunted by the Safeguard, artificial lifeforms programmed to defend the city at all costs. And yes, a solitary, taciturn warrior named Killy is still searching tirelessly for the “Net Terminal Genes” that will allow humanity to regain control of the city.

But whereas Killy is the manga’s main character, he exists more on the movie’s periphery. To be sure, he still strikes a cool pose in his black suit, and he still deals out massive amounts of damage (all impressively animated, of course) with his Gravitational Beam Emitter pistol. But the movie focuses less on Killy’s quest, and more on the plight of a small human tribe called the Electrofishers, who initially appear in the manga’s second volume. The movie is essentially a revised version of that volume, including how Killy meets the Electrofishers, discovers his partner Cibo (a brilliant scientist whose research might help Killy’s quest), and defends the Electrofishers from the Safeguard’s deadly new weapon.

Some Blame! fans will no doubt quibble with the movie’s liberties. At the same time, Blame! — for all of its minimal dialog and characterization — is a pretty massive work to adapt due to the scope of Nihei’s imagination and vision. As such, and I realize this may seem like faint praise, Netflix’s adaptation did as good a job as one could expect without tumbling inescapably down the rabbit hole. (If this helps, Blame! is actually quite reminiscent of the classic western Shane, all cyberpunk and dystopic aesthetics notwithstanding.)

Still, I did miss the weirdness of Nihei’s manga while watching Blame! In Nihei’s dark future, humans endlessly augment themselves into all manner of nightmarish forms (e.g., the Silicon Life) and Killy and his companions sometimes even find themselves in alternate dimensions and timelines. One of the clearest throwbacks to the manga’s weirdness — and subsequently, one of my favorite scenes in the movie — occurs when Cibo accesses the Netsphere, an internet-like VR environment where time flows differently, and must survive a Safeguard attack in a rather surprising manner.

Polygon Pictures, who also produced Knights of Sidonia, uses the same CG animation techniques on Blame! and their work is solid enough. But Polygon’s CG is too smooth and polished to really capture either the wild expanse of Nihei’s environments or the gritty details of his artwork. Put simply, no vista or sight in the movie ever evokes the mixture of dread and awe that Nihei constantly, and easily, evokes in the frames and spreads of his manga.

Still, Netflix’s anime works where it counts. It’s a surprisingly slow-moving (in a good way!) film that, despite missing many of Nihei’s stranger flourishes, still relies on atmosphere more than action. (Yuugo Kanno’s haunting score definitely helps in this regard.) It still tries to immerse you in one of the stranger worlds in anime and manga with subtlety and ambiguity (e.g., the abilities of the Electrofishers’ suits, the behavior of the Safeguard, Killy’s backstory).

Let’s face it: Netflix could’ve really dumbed Blame! down and made it more of a generic action title, or ramped up the connection that seems to form between Killy and a young Electrofisher named Zuru. That they didn’t is a definite mark in the movie’s favor (and evidence of Nihei’s role as creative consultant). Not to take away from Netflix and Polygon’s efforts, but my greatest hope is that the anime version of Blame! proves tantalizing enough to pique viewers’ curiosity and get them to seek out the Blame! manga, and see Nihei’s aesthetic and truly out-there concepts in their full glory.

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