Netflix’s Blame!: A World Beyond Dystopia

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It’s not uncommon for science fiction to venture into the realm of the quasi-mythological. Tales like Zardoz and The Sword of Shannara take place in distant post-apocalyptic futures in which forgotten science is regarded with fear and superstition. In others, the depicted universe is simply so much different from our own that the only way to forge a connection with the audience is to draw parallels between it and unchanging cultural archetypes; Star Wars, its contemporary Logan’s Run and the recent Hyper Light Drifter are examples of this.

Cyberpunk is no stranger to this set of tropes, either. Most famously, The Matrix draws upon familiar Buddhist and Judeo-Christian imagery and principles. E.Y.E.: Divine Cybermancy and Ergo Proxy introduce us to worlds with archaic Bronze Age or medieval stylings and social structures, despite both taking place in our distant future. But nothing quite reaches Blame!‘s level of industrial excess.

killy blame anime netflix
Killy, as seen in Netflix’s Blame!

Based on the manga by Tsutomu Nihei, Blame! (pronounced “blam”, like the sound effect, don’t ask me why) tells the story of Killy, a lone traveler in search of a human with the Net Terminal Gene. This is a feature of the long-passed generations of humans that allowed complete control via the NetSphere, this world’s version of the internet of things, over the City: a largely abandoned, almost-purely metallic cityscape that expands and reconstructs unheeded since a pandemic rendered most humans’ Net Terminal Genes inoperable.

Equipped with a massively high-powered pistol known as a graviton beam emitter, Killy is introduced when he stumbles upon a tribe of humans struggling to survive in the City known as the Electrofishers, among which is Zuru, a young woman that provides most of the perspective through which we see the story. Killy soon discovers that none of the villagers have the Net Terminal Gene, but they recognize the term from an old legend. In an alcove beneath the village, they discover Cibo, a scientist that survived an attack from the Safeguard, the City’s malignant AI programmed to hunt down and kill all “illegal residents”, or humans who have lost their connection to the NetSphere. She promises Killy a way of artificially accessing the Net (a terminal device she and her team developed) and the Fishers a reliable food supply from an automated factory, which has the ability to create any number of things seemingly from thin air. Upon reaching the factory with Killy, Zuru, and a group of able-bodied villagers, Cibo delivers on her promises but alerts the Safeguard to her presence in the process.

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The automated factory in Blame!

In the film’s third act, as Cibo makes her attempt to connect to the NetSphere via the terminal, an android known as Sanakan infiltrates and reveals the village’s location to the Safeguard, prompting a swift invasion. In a supercharged, climactic battle, Killy, Zuru, and the other Electrofishers must fight off Sanakan and a seemingly endless horde of Safeguard automatons for as long as they can to buy Cibo and the villagers time.

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Sanakan, as depicted in Blame!

From a technical standpoint, Blame! is a fine film. Sticklers for animation may be perturbed by its use of computer-generated characters and props; in the vein of other 3D Netflix anime, they appear to have a sort of stop-motion quality, as opposed to the smooth, Pixar-esque movement viewers might be used to. However, it is my opinion that this works in the film’s favor, as most 2D anime has this same stop-motion quality, and is less noticeable due to the fact that characters are drawn instead of posed. The soundtrack, while occasionally repetitive, fits the tone of the film well, juxtaposing an electronic sound as a representation for the Safeguard with more organic instrumentation to represent the Electro-fishers. The design reflects this as well: warmer, more natural lighting is associated with the organic elements of the film, contrasted by the cold, ethereal light of the City, and occasionally vibrant splashes of red emphasize the intensity a scene carries. The action sequences are difficult to follow at times, but this seems to fit the frantic, desperate tone of the human’s plight. The voice acting in the Japanese dub is slightly superior to the English dub, though both have the tendency to be slightly overdramatic at times.

Regardless, the characterization is better than you might expect from an action sci-fi flick. Killy and Cibo are immensely entertaining as leads if only because they’re so enigmatic, constantly surprising the audience with withheld information. Killy is supposedly human, but his body is capable of incredible strength and mending itself well beyond our natural limits, and Cibo is capable of similar feats. The villagers, on the other hand, somehow keep this tale about an unrecognizable world grounded, weaving the tales of their lives in as few words as possible in a meaningful way. For myself, this made the untimely demise of the characters that are killed off feel appropriately cruel, and the bravery shown by others more impressive. I rarely feel like rooting for anyone in your garden variety action film, but Blame! uses the time we have with each character to full effect.

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Cibo, as enigmatic as ever

It should also be noted that the female and male characters are shown to have equal value. Members of both genders in the Electrofisher village fulfill similar roles, and even Killy meets his match as a superhuman in both Cibo (as an ally) and Sanakan (as an enemy). Aside from some suspect character design choices, Blame! seems to be devoid of fan service, which is always a refreshing change of pace in anime.

In terms of plot construction, Blame! executes solidly. The most impressive aspect is the world building; constantly I found myself awed by the nightmarish, frigid, ever-evolving cityscape, formed of massive towers and conduits. There may be open spaces that extend for hundreds, even thousands of kilometers, crowded with massive industrial city blocks, but never did I spot an area without a ceiling. This is a world where organic life has been all but replaced by the cold and exact nature of the synthetic. And yet, the story told is nothing if not human. The story is fraught with the errors of human memory, the lost knowledge of science replaced by superstition, which greatly adds to the mythical plot structure. For instance, Cibo is assumed by the Electro-fishers to be a ghost, and the holograms her decaying body project suggest as much. Similarly, most of the technology portrayed is both much more advanced than our own and is never completely understood or explained, thereby fulfilling a role similar to magic in fantasy novels. Killy’s own role is similar to that of a gunslinger out of a western, wandering the City in search of something he may never find, giving the tale a sort of folkish edge. My only complaint is that the story, upon conclusion, feels incomplete, as though it’s only scratched the surface of what the City has in store–an observation that is essentially moot since there is a sequel currently in production.

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Cibo’s first appearance

The film holds up fairly well as an adaptation of Tsutomu Nihei’s manga, despite changes made to the plot and certain design elements. What seems to be missing most from the film is the biomechanical aspect shared by many of the synthetic characters in the manga. The most notable change can be found in the Watchers’ design: in the manga, they are winged, grotesque monsters, and while in the film they do retain a certain insectile element, appear only as static security towers. Cibo’s precise origin is also altered, as is the overall storyline. The quasi-mythological tone is present in the manga but isn’t quite played up as much, and the writing is such that the reader never develops attachments to any of the characters since most are introduced and soon thereafter killed before a connection can be made.

Watchers Blame anime vs manga
Side-by-side comparison of the depiction of the watchers in the anime (left) and the manga (right)

Ultimately, I believe the alterations made work in the film’s favor. Tsutomu Nihei’s vision of a world without warmth remains mostly unchanged, and while the disturbing elements of the synthetic creatures have been dropped in favor of cleaner, sleeker design choices, it more than makes up for it through the horror that accompanies watching characters I’ve come to care about brutally slain by the agents of a malicious, efficient system.

What we are left with is something that hadn’t quite been attempted in a film until Blame!’s release. Of course, modern post-apocalyptic sci-fi is a dime a dozen, and you need only go so far as The Matrix to come across a cyberpunk world that has been ruined and ruled by artificial life. But Blame! gives us something different; it shows us a world that is as alien as it is merciless and disorienting. The environment itself is oppressive and limits human potential by its very nature, representing an extreme that somehow fits perfectly within and spits in the face of the cyberpunk genre’s parameters simultaneously. It’s out of control. Watch it.

BLAME! – 9/10


You can watch BLAME! over at Netflix, and you can get a copy of the incredible manga here.

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