Blame! and Biomega
Manga artist Tsutomu Nihei has done some amazing work and has recently become well known globally with Netflix picking up the high budget anime, Knights of Sidonia in 2014, the accumulation of an arduous, 10 year process. I have to say that the director who Nihei chose to work with for Knights, Hiroyuki Seshita, could not have been a better choice. Ajin is an equally strange series currently on Netflix exploring Japan’s love-hate relationship with the theme of immortality, albeit in a very different way.
I think his work is also (albeit indirectly) a dissection of how video games and the internet have impacted culture, and how the external visual world of popular modern media typically displaces the internal imaginal world of novels.
Although it may be a somewhat obvious observation, by choosing to do comics instead of writing a novel, Nihei is making a very specific statement about the advantages of the fractured visual phenomenology that is manga language. I love novels equally, but it’s true that the reader has a sort of direct telepathy to the inner landscape of the artist when reading comics or manga (see Grant Morrison’s The Filth), and this is made even more effective by the fact that his art was not very wordy or unnecessarily heavy with exposition to begin with.
In a recent interview, Nihei has been candid about how sci-fi novels have been the primary influence on his world building in the manga medium. Why does he choose to work exclusively within the sci-fi genre? Basically because of a desire and fascination with technological immortality (he really, really doesn’t want to die) and also a strange but overt eroticism towards nonhuman creatures. In the same interview, he also states that working in a construction company shortly before quitting his job to take a year off and work on Blame! significantly influenced the infamous architectural design concept in his oeuvre immensely. As he says:
“To tell the truth, though, I don’t like thinking about back when I was working on Blame!. My work is pretty light on dialogue and people tend to say it’s hard to understand, and I think back then I really just wanted to do something strange. Back when I was starting out I thought of drawing manga not as work, but as a means of self-expression. I wasn’t concerned with entertaining my readers or making something that’ll actually sell, which I suppose is why I made such an opaque manga.”
Nihei also adamantly refuses to let anyone help him with completing the work he does in illustration and scripting each issue, citing that he was desperate since his early 20’s to find work he could do in complete solitude. By Japan’s usual standards for professional manga production, this is practically unheard of. It’s also worth noting that Blame! and Biomega both feature sprawling, twisted cyborg architecture and intensely odd, pithy narrative structures that threaten to swallow the bio-tech augmented (and often nonhuman) characters.
The prominent emphasis on tech in all of his work typically warps the perception of time in a very direct way—everything happens unusually fast, but the narrative depth never seems to suffer from the rapid pace. Classic sci-fi philosophy it utilized; we want to know what happens to these characters, whether they are human or not.
The first issue of Blame! appeared in 1998, right as the internet was quickly becoming a secret but steadily growing addiction for most people. Nihei’s themes are basically centered around what authors like Neil Postman and John David Ebert have called the “horror of the machine”, i.e. the way in which we relive both our fascination and death impulse simultaneously by engaging with technology in the postmodern, technocratic structure of late capitalism. Of course, predating current futurology trends Donna Haraway’s sci-fi oriented cyborg philosophy recapitulates itself any time we interact with technology. Even without William Gibson style VR, we are all cyborgs, already. Cue the current A.I. debates.
While the plotting in Nihei’s early stuff probably isn’t as deep, disturbing, or sprawling as say J.G. Ballard or Neil Stephenson, it’s clear that there is depth in these stories. The minimalistic action packed techno-dazzle in Blame! is not meant only to be a gateway to super slick, cyberpunk shootouts. All of Nihei’s works are sly meta-commentaries about the impact of technology and the digital world on culture, and especially the way that A.I. may potentially altar and impact everything in culture. Unfortunately it’s not yet clear whether or not the West is currently headed for a utopia or dystopia.
The premise for Nihei’s debut hit Blame!—running at a short 10 volumes—is worth quoting at length. For potentially new readers, it sort of sounds like a mixture of Neuromancer’s icy minimalism meets Terminator and The Matrix, with fragmented, surreal dialogue choices by David Lynch thrown in there for good measure. Even the basic plot synopsis is pretty intense:
“Killy, a silent loner possessing an incredibly powerful weapon known as a Gravitational Beam Emitter, wanders a vast technological world known as ‘The City’. He is searching for Net Terminal Genes, a (possibly) extinct genetic marker that allows humans to access the ‘Netsphere’, a sort of computerized control network for The City. The City is an endless vertical space of artificially-constructed walls, stairways and caverns, separated into massive ‘floors’ by nearly-impenetrable barriers known as ‘Megastructure’. The City is inhabited by scattered human and transhuman tribes as well as hostile cyborgs known as Silicon Creatures. The Net Terminal Genes appear to be the key to halting the unhindered, chaotic expansion of the Megastructure, as well as a way of stopping the murderous horde known as the Safeguard from destroying all humanity.”
And if the reader is still not convinced of Nihei as an underground internet prophet after that, the making of text Blame! and So On may be enough to persuade—or properly spoil potential new readers—depending.
In the above interview, Nihei also admits that he feels the most attraction to Killy as a character. The recent Knights of Sidonia protagonist, Nagate Tanikaze, is markedly different in comparison to both Killy and Zoichi Kanoe, from Blame! and Biomega respectively, who almost feel like they could be apart of the same cyborg distribution factory; cut from the same cloth that Solid Snake and Big Boss are in the Metal Gear Solid universe.
The collapsing fractured narrative is not slowed down by the super high gloss color art that the Western comics industry usually demands and Nihei still manages to find a unique style of illustration to explore within black and white illustration, reveling in the contrast in the same way Frank Miller did, with Sin City.
In comparison to Killy, Zoichi is sort of the superior version of the cyborg assassin badass archetype. I mean, he’s got a fricken awesome futuristic ninja motorcycle man, c’mon.
Even the first few pages of Biomega do sort of sizzle, the reader is thrown into the kinetic action immediately and with a dramatic increase in the overall production quality, it’s almost as if Nihei was becoming self conscious with the limitations of the manga medium itself. The basic plot synopsis will make you want to pick it up right away:
“Zoichi Kanoe plunges into the depths of 9JO-an island city in the middle of the Pacific Ocean-in search of Eon Green, a girl with the power to transmute the N5S virus. He’s not the only one looking for her, though… Agents of the Public Health Service’s Compulsory Execution Unit are also in hot pursuit. Zoichi and his transhuman allies have no time to waste; the countdown to the zombie apocalypse has begun!!!”
By making Zoichi’s badass motorcycle a central plot device, it also allows a greater amount of locations to be explored—something the slightly more contemplative predecessor Blame! cannot always get away with. Before the more operatic and “epic horns” sounded in Knights, Biomega was the graphic equivalent of a hyper-warp drive Skrillex-Autechre sandwich. There is so much tiny, glitchy information crammed into the plot, and so many mysteries about the lore of the world concerning the foundation of A.I., that the reading experience becomes a strange non-linear puzzle piece.
Knights of Sidonia
By adapting to the rigors of anime production, Nihei’s work has also evolved past the cerebral into a more emotionally formidable territory. Compared to the early manga, Knights of Sidonia has a decidedly more conventional plot in his publication history, but that’s not exactly saying much. A quick wiki check indicates that it was serialized by Kodansha in their magazine Afternoon between April 2009 and September 2015. I would imagine that the slightly more simplified illustration style gelled well with anime adaptation, and Knights remains is definitely an example of how fluid animation actually improves upon the original source material. It feels almost as if Nihei had been previously uncomfortable with readers thinking he was only an, “experimental artist”, who couldn’t possibly find an audience in the mainstream.
Knights is accessible and consistently entertaining but still decidedly avant-garde for the mech genre; which Nihei admits has never been “…even a remotely mainstream genre”, at least in Japan. It includes awkwardly cute romance scenes with the main protagonist Nagate Tanikaze and Shizuka Hoshijiro trapped in a spaceship together that has lost power and can’t connect ship comms back to home base. The female character has to strip naked in order to “photosynthesize” or recharge her body using starlight—but the pure Nagate retains his primordial innocence and promises not to look. The Link-esque “pure heroic innocence themes” a-la Adventure Time also appear later in volume 2 of the manga:
“…a couple cadets snidely reference Nagate’s inability to photosynthesize, the implication being that their comments are derogatory. Why this is the case is not entirely clear, although the term ‘photosynthesizing’ is used both in reference to the obvious, and in sexual connotations, so perhaps the insult is that he’s incapable of sexual interaction. In either event, Izana snaps at the offending group to be quiet, while Nagate numbly and blankly sits without responding to anything.”
Later, in episode 10, I found myself secretly wishing that the Knights team would consider publishing the lore book containing the history of Sidonia, which is briefly teased.
Still, with Knights I think we see that Nihei is offering some sense of potential hope for the future of humans. Even the theme song contains lyrics that feel sort of whimsical:
破壊の向こう側で 星が白く笑む / hakai no mukougawa de hoshi ga shiroku emu
Beyond this destruction, the stars are shining white
されど打開の道 遠く 遠く 遠く / saredo tagai no michi tooku tooku tooku
Still the road to break (this battle) is far, far, far away
打ち砕け KNIGHTS OF SIDONIA / uchikudake
Smash through it
Even though Cyborg, A.I. ethics, and immortality are still as prominent themes as ever, the gore and constant Doom-esque feeling of impending destruction round every bend from the early manga has vanished. The tech in Knights now features as catalysts to the overarching plot involving space dwelling humanoids who pilot Gardes—basically badass mechs that can fly at high speeds in space with plasma beams and laser swords—who are engaged in a war thwarting gigantic aliens called Gauna.
Again, the basic plot synopsis is worth quoting:
“The story is set in the year 3394, a thousand years after mankind flees from Earth after it was destroyed by a race of shapeshifting aliens – the Gauna, aboard hundreds of massive spaceships created from the remains of the planet. One such ship is the Sidonia, which has developed its own human culture closely based on that of Japan where human cloning, asexual reproduction, and human genetic engineering, such as granting humans photosynthesis, are commonplace. It is also revealed that the top echelons of this society have secretly been granted immortality. With a population of over 500,000 people, Sidonia is possibly the last human settlement remaining as the fates of the other ships are unknown.”
In space battles, these Gauna do prove to be quite pesky. It seems their organic intelligence and the fact that they are able to literally become one with the bio-organic ships they inhabit provides some advantage in battle. The concept design for the creatures recalls H.R. Giger and the Engineers in Prometheus.
Just like H.R. Giger’s freaky creature concepts for Alien, the Gauna seem to be representative of the “truly alien” chaos, the forces which threaten to oppose scientific or advancement in human civilization. They are the personification of all that prevents humans from any true evolution—they even have Lovecraftian tentacles to prove it!
We’re reminded in Season 1, Episode 8 that pilots should also be careful with using the Heigus particles which power the high-output cannon too much, as the Gauna can than reabsorb that power into themselves for fuel. These are the sort of micro-details that really make Knights still feel fresh in a market dominated by the elder Mobile Suit Gundam, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and even the slightly more postmodern take in Code Geass.
Of course, all the usual film names associated with sci-fi storytelling have tackled similar transhuman-meets-alien themes explicitly, too.
It is also fascinating to compare the manga to the anime as it’s a quintessential test of how a comic translates to film, and the real strengths of each medium. The most obvious improvement from the manga is probably best showcased in Episode 11, where the sleek action sequences burst into stellar overdrive with laser fast editing for almost the entire episode. Here, we really see how Nagate begins to evolve as a pilot and master flying his Garde efficiently in combat scenarios. It helps that there is some amazing glitch-tek sound design that really makes the space battles feel frantic and exciting.
Knights could be said to be feminist in that a lot of the central characters are females that thankfully do not play into the 2-dimensional “stronk woman” characterization. Characters like Izana Shinatose and Shizuka Hoshijiro are femininely soft and frequently unashamedly goofy, while still maintaining a sort of alien intelligence and confidence that is often greater than their male (or bear) counterparts, as is the case with the classic talking animal Nihei trope.
Supporting characters like the awesomely cool masked Captain Kobayashi also sort of outshine the more austere mannerisms of Norio Kunato in terms of raw charisma. We’re drawn into learning more about the immortal council as the narrative unfolds into Season 2, we want to know the history there.
In a way, Nihei’s Knights seems to be posing a question to the post-internet anime/manga conjunct itself; can Japan’s current art be moving, poetic, and deep while also being action packed? Can the technical budget limitations of the medium also serve the depth of world building and original storytelling within sci-fi genre conventions? That was the promise that Neon Evangelion first attempted to offer, and with Knights, Nihei seems to challenge it indirectly by taking space opera and hard sci-fi to it’s absolute most technical, austere, and surreal limits simultaneously.
Check out the super cool Heen’s Blame forum for more anime discussions.