The endless city extends above and below, the ceiling invisible, the canyons stretching into the abyss. I wake, with no memory of where I had come from. The shadows around me are crammed with omnipotent forces, desperate survivors, and wretched abominations. My only defense, an archaic weapon of great power and greater cost to use. All I know is I have to keep climbing, and climbing, searching for the humans who might have the rare ability to keep this constantly growing city from consuming everything and becoming truly infinite.
Wait, that’s not a hangover, that’s Blame!
I woke up this Saturday and Netflix had just released their anime adaptation of Tsutomu Nihei’s celebrated cyberpunk manga. Finally! There are few enough great pieces of art in a niche genre like cyberpunk, and Blame! is deserving of the lavish cel-shaded and hand painted treatment Netflix has given it. Click through to read my mostly glowing review.
I first read Blame! as a teenager on scanslation sites that were far from perfect, but got the job done in a period when manga were still in the fringes of comics in America. Even then the sense of scale and of the smallness of people in an indifferently oppressive city captured my imagination, and the brooding gothic atmosphere was deeply relatable for a brooding, if not gothic, teenager.
Like the Electro Fishers keep saying in Netflix’s animated effort, the settings of Blame! make it seem impossible that the cities were ever natural or hospitable environments for people. Constantly growing, full of tumble-down galleries, claustrophobic labyrinths and mind-boggling spaces, Blame! recreated in concrete passages and cable-strewn halls the fear that drove the earliest humans to climb trees and hide in caves from the darkness. No lions or bears in there, only murderous cyborgs, casually murderous Builders the size of Jaegers, and secretly murderous human beings. Most of all they’re full of the Safeguard, a digital peacekeeping entity that manifests in the material world to kill all humans, who have lost the ability to tell them they’re killing the people they were made to serve. Yes, the robot revolution happened, and it was our own paranoia that let it. Without the authority to tell them to stop, the wild, endless city expands without ceasing, higher and higher, larger and larger, threatening to become everything that ever was. But that’s what the main character, Killy is for. Armed with a wee pistol that can blast through miles of derelicts with a single shot, he climbs the infinite stairs, helping out and having adventures.
Netflix’s Blame! movie update picks up somewhere in the middle, unlike the first attempt to produce Blame! as an OVA that was released in 2003. The story joins the village of Electro Fishers, who are humans who have lost the technology to make the powerful machine suits and spear guns they use to survive in the endless city. A group of young fishers defies their elders to try and find food in the cyberpunk desert, but are nearly overwhelmed by the skeletal, eerie Safeguard robots. It is only when they meet the solitary figure of Killy that they are saved. For some mysterious reason, the Safeguards don’t appear when Killy is around. The group begins to unravel the reason why the fishers have survived for so long, and the chance and danger that awaits below the village’s concrete levels.
SPOILERS FOLLOW. PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK.
Killy in Japanese is a homonym for “Kiri,”(切る, kiru) which means to cut or to end. This is because Killy’s job is to take the immortal body of a Safeguard he’s digitally hijacked and try to find a human being somewhere in this cyberpunk dystopia who possesses the Net Terminal Gene, which, true to its name would put a stop to all this madness and reconnect humans to the digital jungle. And even if it takes him thousands of years and walking millions of levels in the weary, slow tread he has, Killy’s going to find that gene.
The Netflix production team made the right choice; the 2003 production suffered from the mystery that made the manga so attractive by beginning in the start of the manga. When you’re admiring the gorgeous monotone art that Nihei splashes across the page, it’s hard to remember that you can spend several chapters really not knowing anything about Killy or the endless city. He just walks, finding mostly abandoned ruins and monstrous entities, sometimes saving one or two people here and there.
By picking up where Killy meets the Electro Fishers, we not only find out about his mission, we also get to meet Cibo, the digital scientist, and Sanakan, the high-level Safeguard who looks a little like a killer goth ballerina. And when Cibo turns away from the villagers Sanakan cooly blasts into oblivion, we get an opportunity to see how much of Killy’s humanity remains after hundreds of years of plodding slowly up the stairs of the city, never finding what he’s looking for. There’s a reason Cibo’s body looks a like a porcelain doll, is all I’m saying.
Netflix did a great job fusing painted backdrops with the dynamism of cel shading. It looks amazing, and the sound engineering matches the oppressive feeling cyberpunks ought to have. Perhaps the only questionable choice is allowing the Electro Fishers to survive, which is a little more hopeful than Blame! manga generally allows. It’s not a particularly huge change, and it doesn’t take away from the sense of dystopia that matches the source material so well. I’m waiting with bated breath for Netflix’s next foray into Nihei’s world.