I recently read through the entirety of Tsutomu Nihei’s cyberpunk manga Blame! and felt it was worth a mention here as it feels like little else I’ve encountered. In many ways it proved a challenging read, seemingly going out of the way to be bizarre and alienating; dialogue is sparse while Nihei is less inclined to provide answers than he is to spark questions. Being persistently grim and largely humour free you might accuse Blame! of lacking humanity, which makes sense given how few actual humans are in it.
The story opens with the words ‘Maybe on Earth, maybe in the future’ – effectively a statement of intent for what is often a vague story filled with uncertainty but also wonder along the way. The narrative follows a laconic man named Killy and his journey upwards through a gigantic building known as ‘the megastructure’. In a great deal of Japanese manga my strongest criticism would be that a disproportionate focus is placed upon characters, while settings are often neglected, but in this case the reverse is true as it was the environment which really drew my attention – holding my interest where the characters might have failed to.
The megastructure is depicted as being so vast that entire lifetimes could be spent wandering its corridors and surfaces. True to genre principles technology is everywhere with inescapable artificiality at every turn, yet the world of Blame! ironically comes across as a sort of endless jungle, alien and truly unknowable. It’s gradually revealed that the construction robots building this world are following orders set by long deceased masters, continually expanding with no cause or reasoning, continuing to carry out meaningless development with no one to stop them. Chaos underlying order is a common theme in cyberpunk, however the idea of technological development taken to such destructive extremes is an intriguing one, playing upon the appeal of the unknown both for fascination and horror in its audience.
Segregated tribes of distorted beings – assumedly descended from humans – occupy different compartmentalised areas, while cyborgs and the megastructure’s own biomechanical constructs lurk waiting to attack anyone (or thing) which might cross their path. There’s a palpable sense of confusion to these characters; often hopelessly bewildered with no way to perceive the bigger picture, while their cruel parodies of human form suggest even our DNA has been lost or corrupted somewhere along the line.
Which brings me to Killy again. Initially he comes across as a collection of unfortunate heroic clichés: a man of few words with a mysterious past, quick to action rather than negotiation and armed with a powerful weapon, however the story finds an unusual poignancy as we begin to piece together his origins. It turns out that rather than having a past he won’t speak of, it’s a past he actually can’t remember and never does for that matter. Searching for the possibly extinct ‘net terminal gene’ required to access the structure’s network and stop the mindless construction, it’s suggested implicitly that Killy is another early biomechanical construct – ageless with only determination to fulfil a goal set by someone centuries or even millennia ago. Just like the builders he’s living in the shadow of a deceased civilisation, carrying out an ancient task with no understanding of who it’s for or what it even means anymore.
Whole chapters of wordless exploration take place and even when other inhabitants are met little to nothing is said, however ultimately this is what proves most compelling about Blame!. Rather than being detrimental, the reliance on imagery over words lends a unique feel to the proceedings and ducks under many of the clichés which plague the genre. The art has a slightly rough, but intensely detailed style which lends itself well to the storytelling. Towering buildings, cabling and endless corridors extend as far as the eye can see, possessing a worn down textured feel giving a sense of history and decay while characters stand out being contrastingly stark and pale, with eerie almost ghostly features.
Witty dialogue and well managed exposition are all well and good, but Blame! really plays to its mediums strengths crafting a story which arguably wouldn’t work as a film or novel – a timely reminder that sometimes an image says everything. If you’re looking for a light, easily accessible read to cheer you up then look elsewhere, but when it comes to something unique, atmospheric and thought provoking Blame! delivers in force.