Reviews of Blame (1997) and related work
Nihei Tsutomu (writer-artist).
Read in 2020.
Read in the 2016–2017 Vertical Comics “Master Edition” release, translated from the 2015 Kodansha Shinsōban release.
It appears that a far-future human society automated the construction of “the City”, a Dyson sphere that eventually absorbed and repurposed all matter in the solar system. In the post-scarcity society of the City at its peak, a genetically modified human race had privileged access to the Net. This race, viewing itself as the only legitimate humanity, controlled the City through the Net, including the technology to manipulate matter at a distance and to fork time. At some point, an engineered disease was introduced through ubiquitous cornucopia machines. It disabled the Net Terminal Gene, separating the rulers from the source of their power and intelligence. As a byproduct of the attack, the City’s automatic security safeguards began to identify the inhabitants of the City as intruders, trapping and killing them in their trillions.
None of that is stated. It is one possible interpretation of a post-apocalyptic state of affairs, ongoing for untold thousands of years, where even non-human forms of life in the City are marginal. We see this world mainly through a quest to cooperate with a restricted, ethereal Administration—an automated IETF—to find an intact Net Terminal Gene somewhere in a world where land is not remembered, and stop the City’s growth.
Nihei’s next job after this was to draw Wolverine for Marvel. You might not expect it from my synopsis, but his Blame, an original work, is primarily a superhero action comic. The baser half of its dual nature is evident in its title, ｢ブラム｣, the Japanese transcription of the English interjection “blam”, stylized with an exclamation mark. I have removed that mark here, risking confusion with the pilot project Blame (1995), which did not have it. Anyway, it’s not about blame, which would be transcribed ｢ブレーム｣. I do not know why Nihei picked “Blame” for the official English typography, but it certainly wasn’t for any good reason. The comic’s main character, named “Kyrii” in the Vertical edition, is also known as “Killy” in English, from the similarly ambiguous phonetic Japanese ｢キリイ｣. That’s all pretty dumb.
The series starts off schlocky, being little more than an inexpertly drawn MacGuffin-chaser killing creatures out of Hellraiser (1987) with an improbably effective gun, in what the 2003 ONA calls a “cyber dungeon”: Endless, more carefully drawn cityscapes without a sky. The action, though central, is hampered by confusing composition. It’s hard to tell who is doing what.
Problems with the presention are serious in part because it’s style over substance throughout. All the hypertechnology follows Clarke’s third law, being effectively magical, even anthropocentric stuff. Genetic and nanotechnological technobabble serve to excuse Nihei’s fondness for trying to express visually how all the main characters are superhumanly fast, strong and resilient. Regular humans are outmatched in all the battles and, unfortunately, there is no other form of conflict. Aside from the unique hyperurban environment, it is not a promising start.
The tale grew in the telling and Nihei grew as an artist, surpassing the similar Battle Angel Alita (1990). In the last few volumes, half a decade into production, Blame is lyrical, more Angel’s Egg (1985) than Wolverine. It’s even got cross imagery and a flying fish. The badass Cenobite lookalikes are still there but the character designs and panel compositions are greatly improved. The focus shifts to the sheer scale of Kyrii’s journey. Like Alpha in Yokohama Kaidashi Kikō’s radically different apocalypse, he is immortal. When it’s no longer about fighting, the comic builds a memorable symbol of adversity and perseverance in a world distinguished from YKK by cynicism and total ecological holocaust.
This is far-future SF, not cyberpunk, but the wired Netsphere and its offshoot shadow realms are loosely based on William Gibson’s cyberspace. Humanity being cut off by its own DRM scheme resembles Case’s nerve-burning fall in Neuromancer (1984). As it is to Case, the Net in Blame is numinous, pulling double duty as something like the restored land of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1982). The biomechanical designs range from the organic futurism of Katō Naoyuki’s paintings to the Freudian-Jungian horrors of H. R. Giger and Alejandro Jodorowsky, but Blame is coldly chaste; there is no sex. The greyscale urban perspectives far outdo Mœbius’s more nostalgic The Long Tomorrow (1976). For all its flaws, Blame is a considerable improvement upon the themes and motifs of The Night Land (1912).
The terseness of Blame may have helped it age with more dignity than most actual cyberpunk set in the nearer future. More developed characters might have been a distraction from its symbolism, but I don’t think so. I also don’t think a normal amount of exposition would have hurt Blame, unless of course the author’s true intentions were bad. Certainly, some of what is said is bad: A literal gene, being duplicated in every cell, would make a terrible private key for authentication. I do think the Dyson-sphere interpretation is more beautiful than what is actually said on the page. In that interpretation, I consider this a major work in the subgenre of post-post-scarcity apocalypses: The story of a “man” literally walking, perhaps from somewhere near Earth, out past the hole left in the City by the absence of a consumed Jupiter, with no chance of fully grasping that vastness. Ultimately, it is a powerful and unique creative effort.
‣ Blame (2003)
Seen in 2020.
Short scenes from the comic, apparently for people who’ve already read it. The only significant changes to the plot are bad. For instance, the sixth episode interprets the woman appearing in the second chapter of the comic—and never thereafter—to be one of the incarnations of Cibo, which is an unreasonable attempt at retconning for elegance, akin to John of Patmos pretending in Revelation (ca. 95 CE) that a snake was an unrelated evil god all along. This ONA also adapts the scene of Cibo’s experiment with a synthetic terminal user, but it makes the user naked, which she was not in the comic. It’s cheaply produced, somewhat in the style of Æon Flux (1991). Movement is minimal and the voice acting is poor. It’s pointless.
References here: Texhnolyze (2003).
‣ Blame Academy (2004)
Nihei Tsutomu (writer-artist).
Read in 2022.
A zany high-school version of the setting.
‣ Blame (2017)
Seen in 2019.
Mysterious superman saves teenage Electro-Fisher scavengers from safeguards free of human control.
It’s basically faithful to Nihei Tsutomu’s vision, but instead of the beautiful wanderings, weird biomechanical creatures and superhero fisticuffs, the emphasis is on more human-scale action—and especially a bunch of generic teen adventurers—in awfully stiff low-frame-rate cel-shaded 3D CG.
The plot is put together from a number of different sequences in the first two thirds of the comic, and greatly compressed. The factory sequence, which replaces the original’s incongruous East Asia Heavy Industry spaceship, is great. Of the rest, only the abrupt pyrotechnics and background art hold my interest.
There is one brief scene in the comic where Kyrii (“Killy” in Netflix’s subtitles for this film) finds a bag of those food bars and eats part of one bar. It doesn’t blow up in his face, and food scarcely makes any other appearances in the original. It was a good choice to make food important in this adaptation, while also providing more exposition. A movie built even more closely around the resource problem and the factory, with a budget for animation, would easily have been very good.