BLAME!: Deeper than you’d expect
The value of an adaptation lies in its ability to attract new audiences to its source material and for that the BLAME! animated movie on Netflix does an outstanding job. While the CG may not win over everyone, there’s just the right amount of action, drama, and mystery to leave me craving for more.
BLAME! by Tsutomu Nihei is one of those manga series typically considered a nightmare to adapt. It has a slow, introspective pace that emphasizes the gigantic location over its characters, with artwork that plays so well on the page that it’s difficult to imagine in motion. For some context, my experience with the series is limited to the first volume of the US re-release.
Instead of creating a music video for Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”, the movie opens with a fully-armored group speeding along a network of pipes, so deft and nimble it’d be easy to mistake them for a hit squad. Their heads-up displays look the part too, beaming data and movement trajectories in all its sci-fi glory. It’s only when one of the members slips up a landing do we get to learn names, with Zuru being their de-facto leader. Much later, we finally get to see a face.
These are the Electro-Fishers, a group of human villagers, and BLAME! tell its story from their perspective. This is the biggest departure from the manga though the decision is sound: the group grants us dialogue, interaction, and flashes of emotion within minutes, compared to the largely silent journey of a lone wanderer. Thanks to this, we’re able to piece together bits and pieces of information about the world and their situation, never relying on unnaturally long monologues.
It turns out this was an unsanctioned, desperate hunt for food and it’s wound up in failure – the sludge pipes are dry. Yet any displays of grief are cut short when an alarm blares. As they panic at their discovery, the city’s Exterminators start teleporting in. These machines are a horrible perversion of humanity, their eerie faceplates accentuated by their fast insect-like scuttling, and they don’t hold back.
With the scene descending into chaos, a silhouette appears in the distance. By this point, the Electro-Fishers are scattered and running, with multiple Exterminators chasing after Zuru. Given the prior displays of violence it’s clear that the humans are far outmatched but, rather than worry, we’re simply waiting for the mysterious savior to make an appearance. Cue Killy and the Gravitational Beam Emitter, ingredients for one of the most kickass introductions in recent memory.
The rest of the movie follows this rollercoaster of narrative and action at a surprisingly good pace, the former painting a grim state of affairs for the remnants of humanity. What’s more, each set-piece drops clues that foreshadow what’s to come, the movie never relenting with its overhanging tension. By those merits alone, BLAME! seemed to fly past in no time at all. That’s not to say it couldn’t benefit from a little trimming in a few places, but I never found myself wondering why a scene would take some extra time – there’s always a reason.
I’m impressed by the way Killy is handled too, considering how tough silent protagonists are to pull off. His bearing and demeanor betray the staggering weight of his personal mission and of the trials he’s been through to get there. When asked about his origins, he simply responds with 6,000 levels below – a figure that’s hard to even imagine, for us and the Electro-Fishers, but merely a matter-of-fact for him. It doesn’t come across as cheesy either, Killy’s stoic façade revealing a layer of compassion when matters grow dire.
As fascinating as their individual tales are, I do believe the true star of BLAME! is the city. The movie doesn’t quite manage to capture the sense of scale as successfully as the manga but Polygon Pictures certainly pulled no punches in their attempts to recreate it, with plenty of wide shots and locations that extend into the distance. More importantly, we’re shown examples of the near-miraculous technology lost to the eons, the wondrous height of humanity’s past contrasting with their destitution – and near extinction – in the present. Salvation is so near yet so very, very far.
BLAME! utilizes a mix of 2D and 3D animation to good effect. While the art direction itself is stunning, the technical implementation of the CG leaves room to be desired. Anyone familiar with Knights of Sidonia or Ajin: Demi-Human, previous Nihei adaptations by the team, would recognize the telling dips in frame rate that don’t quite blend in with the rest of the movie. I’m masochist enough to watch the current Berserk TV series so, in all honesty, they didn’t bother me. That being said, I can see it being a distraction for some viewers.
The soundtrack didn’t quite leave an impression as strong as its visuals. In fact, I’m having difficulty recalling any sort of theme for the characters or events, though it isn’t as unfortunate since I imagine the setting calls for more ambiance than it does music. (Addendum: Killy, for example, appears to the sound of guitars or pianos, but never to a particular melody.) However, the sound design does have its moments. For one, the Gravitational Beam Emitter sounds fantastic – a whoomph of discharging energy that sells the few moments it steals the show.
All in all, it’s an entertaining viewing experience that ends on an open note, leaving the possibility of further adaptations. Although different from the manga, it still manages to retain the intrigue of the world and setting, pushing me to pick up the second volume as soon as possible. And if there’s ever going to be a second BLAME! the movie then, please, sign me right up.