Tsutomu Nihei’s Blame! Is a Beautifully Nightmarish Cyberpunk Epic (Review)

Vertical Comics’ excellent reprint captures all of the engrossing and unsettling detail in Nihei’s intricate artwork.
Blame, Vol 1 - Tsutomu Nihei

Tsutomu Nihei is perhaps best known as the creator of Knights of Sidonia, the manga that’s been adapted into an acclaimed Netflix-exclusive anime. But more than a decade before starting Knights of Sidonia, Nihei created the cyberpunk manga Blame!.

Set in the far distant future, Blame! depicts a world that’s been transformed into one vast technological structure known simply as “the City.” Technology has run amok in the City, with various artificial lifeforms and intelligences threatening to eradicate humanity, which has become increasingly augmented itself.

But even augmented, humanity’s only real hope for survival are “Net Terminal Genes,” a rare genetic trait that allows humans to access the computerized systems that control the City’s technology. Searching for these genes is the series’ protagonist, a violent loner named Killy. Armed with an insanely powerful weapon called a Gravitational Beam Emitter, and obviously augmented himself, Killy traverses the City’s ever-expanding labyrinth in search of those few individuals possessing Net Terminal Genes.

While Blame! is certainly full of action — Nihei is a master of conveying, with just a frame or two, the superhuman speed and deadliness of Killy and the City’s various other citizens — what’s more striking is the atmosphere that Nihei evokes in Blame!s pages. Largely dialog free (in the first volume, anyway, which is all I’ve read so far), much of Blame! simply consists of following Killy as he traverses the City’s vastness.

That may sound boring, but in the hands of Nihei, such a minimal narrative is completely engrossing. Nihei originally studied to be an architect, and that’s readily apparent in his illustrations of Blame!s environment, which includes vast passageways and chasms that dwarf the characters, ruined industrial settings full of futuristic-yet-decrepit technology, large population areas, and devastated war zones littered with the shells and viscera of augmented bodies.

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When Killy does encounter other characters, they’re often freakishly augmented and transformed to the point where you sometimes can’t tell who is still human and who is an artificial lifeform. Even those that look like normal humans may be revealed as something completely inhuman. As such, there’s frequently a body horror-ish undercurrent to much of Blame!.

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I’ve seen the word “transhumanist” used to describe Nihei’s work. “Transhumanism” is a term generally applied to various scientific and philosophical movements intent on surpassing existing human capabilities through technology, medicine, and engineering. (Think Ray Kurzweil’s attempts to extend the human lifespan.) As such, transhumanism can conjure up rather utopian visions of the future in which humans are no longer imprisoned by their bodily limitations, and have even melded seamlessly with artificial intelligence, robotics, and other advanced technologies.

If Nihei’s Blame! is indeed transhumanist, then it’s a nightmarish counterpoint to such inspiring visions of the future. Blame! presents the dark side of transhumanism, where human beings unencumbered by humanity readily use technology to remake themselves into walking monstrosities, gaining incredible abilities even as they doom themselves to extinction. In Blame!s world, the Singularity arrived a long time ago, but rather than usher in a new golden age, it’s left nothing but decimation in its wake.

But Blame!, to its credit, doesn’t get bogged down in manifestos or heady philosophizing. It is, first and foremost, an action/adventure story. And one told with skill, intensity, and an incredible eye for engrossing, intricate detail — albeit detail that leaves one unsettled and fascinated in equal measure.

Vertical Comics has done a fine job with their Blame! reprint. Their “Master Edition” is printed in a nice, large format that really allows you to get lost in the detail and intricacy of Nihei’s artwork. I’ve read some complaints about Vertical Comics’ new translation — e.g., Killy is now called Kyrii — but being unfamiliar with Tokyopop’s original translation, the changes didn’t bother me at all.

Put simply, if you’re a fan of dark, ultra-futuristic sci-fi with a touch of horror, then reading Blame! should pretty much be a no brainer for you.

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