Wednesday, May 31, 2017

ANIME: "BLAME!" Deserves Flattening

A lot of the anime I watch now, I watch because it's run on Crunchyroll and I need to be aware of our product. But some of what comes out is is just hammered home so heavily in the newsroom that skipping out becomes pretty much psychologically impossible. You get at least three stories a week in on it, and you end up feeling sort of obligated to watch this show you've been banging on about for months.

To be fair, BLAME! is Kind of a Big Deal. Based on the manga that made creator Tsutomi Nihei (Knights of Sidonia) a star, it's deep cyberpunk that explored machine takeovers and the line between reality and virtual reality a year before The Matrix hit our screens. The manga was originally ten volumes, and also launched a seven-episode ONA in 2003.

This new big-screen version of BLAME! (which, yes, is pronounced "Blam") is staffed largely by the team doing Nihei's series Knights of Sidonia. That means familiar voices and a very familiar animation style: i.e., cel-shaded 3D. When the news first dropped that it would be 3DCG and not traditional animation like the ONA, there was a bit of an uproar among fans. I ignored it, largely because as much as I love me some 2D, I don't believe there's anything inherently "lesser" or "less good" about 3D. Beautiful things can be done with it, it can serve a variety of purposes, and some of the most beautiful pieces of animation ever created have been 3DCG.

That said... I really wish this had been 2D.

First things first, though, for those not ready to delve into ten volumes of manga or warm up their Netflix. BLAME! takes place in the far-distant future, in a giant structure known as the City. Running the City is -- or was -- a virtual world known as the Netsphere, which humans possessing something called Net Terminal Genes could interface with. To prevent WiFi-enabled humans from getting out of line, beings called Safeguards were created to eliminate anyone who interfaced with the Netsphere illegally.

But Things Got Screwy. The City got too big when its mechanical Builders wouldn't stop building, the Netsphere and the Authority within it lost control, and the Safeguards somehow went from "kill all humans who shouldn't be interfacing with the Netsphere" to "kill all humans who can't interface with the Netsphere." And since Net Terminal Genes have essentially died off, this basically means Kill All Humans.

Enter Killy, our sour-faced hero with a Big Gun. He's traveling between the levels of the City to find someone with the Genes. He has a run-in with a group of scavengers called the Electro-Fishers (including our heroine, Zulu), who are currently hunted and starving. Then he finds a millennia-old rotting corpse torso named Cibo and teams up with her to save the Electro-Fishers from destruction.

No really. She's my favourite character and everything. I promise she doesn't look like this for the whole movie, though.

The movie itself is pretty awesome. You don't have to know the story of the manga to get into it, but the speed and style of exposition means newcomers to the universe might benefit from having the Wiki entry open. The film also doesn't even remotely make an attempt to cover everything, simply focusing on Killy and Cibo's run-in with the Electro-Fishers. The ending is open-ended but satisfying for a one-shot, and works to raise interest for those unfamiliar with the manga.

Even so, I do feel this is definitely one that's more for the existing fans... not because it alienates other fans or because it isn't of interest (it is), but because the pacing seems to speak to viewers who know what's up.

While the voice acting (especially Kana Hanazawa as Cibo) and action and music and script were all fantastic... the visuals felt odd. The character designs themselves are great, but the partial cel-shading and addition of Gritty Look made it all feel a bit odd. At first I wondered if that was a stylistic choice to fit the subject matter; but Nihei's Knights of Sidonia looks much the same, so it seems to just be What The Studio Does.

Apparently What the Studio Does is also drop frames here and there to look more 2D. I have a very sensitive eye for 3D pacing (which makes fake people in live-action movies a misery for me), and for me the whole thing just looked like a two-hour cut scene played on a computer that wasn't overclocked enough for the game. It felt Off and Weird, and not in an immersive or artistic way.

That said, I know that nine times out of 10, that kind of opinion ends up being largely a product of subjective taste. So can I say it looks bad? No. Clearly there are people who like this aesthetic, or there wouldn't be a whole studio doing it. But it felt odd to me.

I took a look at the ONA and found myself wishing the new film had been done in that style of 2D animation. It was evocative of some of that genuinely grungy, grimy, almost liminal animation Japan was turning out starting in the late 80s and spilling over into the 90s. There was an element of Take the X Train to it, which I thought would have served well here.

But. That didn't ruin the movie. Honestly, it didn't. It was still engaging, gritty, action-packed, violent, scary, weird, and awesome. Even with my awareness that they have ten volumes of manga to work with, a stand-alone film felt right for this iteration. Will it go down as a cinematic masterpiece? Probably not. Will it go down as a good afternoon? If you like some explodey cyberpunk, sure.

BLAME! is available to watch on Netflix for a limited time.
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