In the second season of Netflix’s science-fiction anime Knights of Sidonia, there’s a scene where the main characters gather around a television to watch another sci-fi anime. In it, a man named Killy, clad entirely in black, uses an obscenely powerful gun to destroy a strange, masked robot. One of the viewers, a human / alien hybrid named Tsumugi, becomes visibly distressed. “What happens to Killy after this?” she worries. “It all depends on our support,” one of her friends answers.
For many viewers, it was a charming but not especially important scene. But for fans of Tsutomu Nihei — the creator of the manga Knights of Sidonia is based on — it was thrilling. Killy is actually the star of Nihei’s first published work, the dark and gritty manga Blame!. His appearance in Sidonia lasts less than two minutes, but it made a strong impression. “People were talking about this piece so much that we decided ‘Why don’t we do a movie?’” explains director Hiroyuki Seshita.
That film, called simply Blame!, releases on Netflix and in Japanese theaters on May 20th, 2017. For the most part, it’s being created by the same team, including Seshita, who returned to direct, and Nihei, who was involved with the movie from its earliest stages. The Blame! manga debuted 20 years ago, and it’s a story that has been updated and changed in many ways to better suit the new medium. “It’s a body of work that [Nihei] restructured and redesigned and reconceptualized,” says Seshita.
Blame! takes place in the distant future, where humanity largely struggles to survive in a perpetually growing city-structure filled with dangerous robots called safeguards. The sheer size of the city — no one actually knows how big it is — means small groups of people have evolved in isolation, rarely interacting with each other. Killy serves as a sort of science-fiction gunslinger, travelling the countless levels of the city in search of humans carrying a rare gene that can help control the robots and restore humanity’s place. It’s a dark, hard futuristic tale filled with sprawling industrial wastes and disturbing humanoid killing machines.
Though Knights of Sidonia and Blame! come from the same creator, and take place in the same, loosely connected universe, they take different approaches to storytelling. Sidonia is a character-heavy drama, with lots of humor and relationship-building to balance out the bleaker tale, where the last remnants of humanity are fighting a war against a seemingly invincible alien foe. Blame! is much starker and more mysterious. Killy rarely talks, and there’s little explicit exposition. Sometimes many pages go by without words, and supporting characters rarely stick around for long. Much of the storytelling is purely visual. Readers learn about the powerful machines by witnessing them in battle, and see how humanity lives by observing their squalid villages. It’s the kind of story that benefits from repeated readings to pick up all of the details.
This minimalist storytelling helps give the Blame! manga a distinct flavor, but it also makes it much less approachable compared to Nihei’s later works — and that’s something the team wanted to avoid with the film. “He knows that the original that he put together 20 years ago was a very complicated, intricate storyline that was aimed very much at anime and sci-fi fans,” Seshita says of Nihei. “Sometimes it was hard to follow. For the movie adaptation, what Mr. Nihei wished for was to make something that was more accessible to a wider audience. Which was exactly what we wanted if we were going to put a movie together. That was very important for us to move forward.”
The Blame! film gets around this by largely telling the story from the perspective of the human settlers of a small, isolated village. Desperate and running out of food, a group of townsfolk come across Killy after being chased by murderous safeguards while scrounging for supplies. Their stories intertwine when they learn of a factory that can potentially create both a large supply of food and a synthetic version of the gene Killy is searching for. Instead of breezing past these characters like in the manga, the film takes its time, giving the audience a chance to know and care for them.
It’s still nowhere near as charming or lighthearted as Knights of Sidonia. There isn’t much humor to the story. Killy is as quiet and solemn as ever, and there are plenty of long shots that show the impossibly huge scale of the city and its myriad levels of vast emptiness. But the new human characters help ground the story. They add an emotional weight as it becomes clear just how bad things have become, and what Killy is ultimately fighting to preserve.
Fans can still expect to see plenty of well-choreographed action sequences, unsettling robots scurrying to destroy humans, and far-out technologies like augmented humans and self-replicating food. And perhaps most important is the city itself, a strange place that’s in a state of both decay and growth, as the machines expand and rebuild it in their image. It’s every bit as stark and awe-inspiring in the film as in the manga. “Blame! wouldn’t be Blame! without that huge, massive structure,” says co-director and CG supervisor Tadahiro Yoshihira.
One likely key reason the Blame! film captures the essence of the manga is because Nihei was so involved in the creation process. “He was there from the beginning,” Yoshihira says. “He has a huge understanding of what we’re trying to create visually, so there have been a lot of creative discussions.” Seshita adds that “[Nihei] looked back at what he had created 20 years ago, and he basically told us what he wanted to depict now.”
The resulting film manages a very difficult and careful balancing act. On one hand, it’s a fantastic piece of fan service, giving long-time readers a chance to see the world of Blame! in a new way. But it’s also an ideal place to start for those unfamiliar with Nihei’s works, which also include another loosely connected cyberpunk manga series called Biomega. “The movie is more like a door that welcomes people into this world,” says Seshita.