Tsutomu Nihei's Blame!, first published in 1998, is a masterpiece in comic story-telling. Its 2017 animated adaptation, recently released on Netflix, is nothing like it.
Blame! the manga is a sprawling, desolate exercise in environmental story-telling, about a gunman wandering the ruins of an endless cyberpunk cityscape. It doesn't have much to say, and makes a mess of it when it does, but it remains memorable because Nihei's art created a world as beautiful as it was lonely.
Blame! the animated film gets the art right and doesn't bother with the rest. And I think that was a smart move.
See, the manga ran for five years, and our hero Killy covers a lot of ground in that time as he searches "The City" for a human possessing "net terminal genes", genetic markers that will allow him to talk to the AI that controls an ever-expanding urban sprawl that feels (and is masterfully drawn) like it has no end.
To faithfully adapt the manga simply couldn't be done in a single movie. Or a trilogy. Even a full series would struggle to get it all in.
So the creative team behind this film (including Nihei himsef as writer) haven't bothered. Instead, they have plucked a single arc in Killy's overall story — the fate of a small band of humans who have survived The City's attempts to wipe them out — and focused entirely on them.
Whereas the manga tells Killy's story from his perspective, here we see events take place from the villager's point of view, with Killy entering the story as a mysterious outsider. This robs the movie of much of the manga's magic, in that both the scale of Killy's journey and its loneliness aren't given enough time breathe, but then that stuff works much better on the page than it does on the screen.
The City is big. In the manga, Killy has to cross a room that's over 140,000km long.
What we're left with then is an action survival movie, in which Killy and his robot pal Cibo race against the clock to save the human village from The Safeguard — a computer program designed to protect The City — and its robot army.
We only get to know a handful of the humans, and few of them have any sense of character at all other than being part of an interchangeable mob of "scared people who will fight the robots". As the battlefield casualties mount, you won't mourn their passing.
Killy, however, is great, a perfect realisation of his manga form. He's Clint Eastwood via T-800 (the Terminator 2 version), all stares and murderous gunplay, and what he lacks in lines of dialogue he more than makes up for with his heavy-booted presence. Even more fun is seeing his iconic Gravitational Beam Emitter in action; from the sound effects to the visuals of an unstoppable weapon tearing holes through everything it touches, it's a (sorry) blast to watch.
The Gravitational Beam Emitter is some good shit
What little we see of the world — there are sadly only glimpses of the vast scale of The City that the manga so loves to dwell on — is gorgeous, and fans of Nihei's Knights of Sidonia will instantly recognise his fascination with showing the wear and tear that human creations accumulate over the centuries.
While it's a shame that the film's humans rarely display much actual humanity, they don't really need to, because that isn't the point here. Like the manga, the point here is to create a scenario in which Killy can blow holes in the walls in a variety of very cool ways, something this movie does very well. It feels like over half of Blame! is taken up with frantic action sequences, each battle packing a breathless quality thanks to the speed of the camerawork and the desperation of the human's situation.
It all wraps up rather quickly and predictably, with one hell of a final fight scene, and that's more than you can say for the manga's bloated and confusing ending. You're left with the feeling that Blame! probably did the right thing in setting its adaptive bar so low. Anything longer with this cast would have been a bad idea, and anything trying to add in more of Killy's wanderings would have resulted in hours of footage of a guy just walking around some giant staircases.
So while it's a bit of a shame that this big-screen adaptation of a manga classic is barely an adaptation at all, it feels good to walk away from the film knowing that all it ever wanted to do was show a guy shoot a cool gun through some impressive scenery, and that's exactly what it achieved.