A particular kind of anime fan will likely have a ball with Blame!, a 2017 feature film based on a Tsutomi Nihei manga. Produced with fluid and impressively detailed computer-generated animation, it offers a serious science fiction story backed up with some nail-biting action sequences.
The film depicts a far future environment, where a catastrophe in the distant past has robbed humanity of its ability to control its robotic cities and for those cities to expand and rebuild in a chaotic fashion. Now humans live in shrinking communities of survivors and refugees, scavenging for supplies while under threat from killer robots. A chance meeting between the young scavenger Zuru and a mysterious super-soldier named Killy sparks off hope for salvation – along with the risk of total annihilation.
There is some excellent world-building that under-pins Blame! (reportedly to be pronounced as ‘blam’) that creates an environment that is both striking and emotionally effective. It presents itself as a runaway world of empty skyscrapers, walkways, and industrial factories, and stretches to what seem like infinite length. It has been built and rebuilt like a mechanical Escher drawing. It makes the world seem nonsensical, and when populated with human-killing death machines creates a particularly grim and hopeless existence. How the world developed so dreadfully is a matter for small references and implied back story.
The Wachowskis’ Matrix comes immediately to mind – itself heavily inspired by anime – but so too does Christian Duguay’s 1995 science fiction film Screamers, given its own empty industrial settings and roughly assembled killer robots. At the very least the film feels both cine-literate and well aware of anime’s own stylistic conventions. There is more than a small amount of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (1988) in the action scenes, that more than once reach near-apocalyptic levels.
Where it gains in overall atmosphere and production design, it loses out on character. Most characters are thinly drawn and overly familiar: the brooding stranger, the gruff commander, and the idealistic young woman all feature in a way seen many time before in Japanese animation. Voice performances are solid, but to be honest they are not working with a great deal. This is a film for design and atmosphere, overlaid with some interesting science fiction concepts, and the personalities of its inhabitants almost feel like after-thoughts.
Anime has generally struggled in adapting its hand-drawn style to CGI; what is achieved here is pretty close to best practice, taking advantage of its mostly mechanical environments and robotic suits. Clever lighting and cel-shaded effects almost give it a hand-drawn aesthetic. In much the same way that it took Hollywood until Tangled (2010) to bring back the hand-crafted fluidity of traditional pen-and-ink animation to CGI, so this film feels like an important step forward has been made. Director Hiroyuki Seshita (Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters, Knights of Sidonia) has much here of which he can be very proud.
Blame! will not be to every viewer’s taste, given its favouring ideas and environments over heart and character, but it tells an interesting science fiction story and avoids any of the egregiously sexualised ‘fan service’ that regularly taints otherwise strong anime films and series. For its target audience it’s a smart and well considered piece of work.