BLAME! (ブラム!, Hiroyuki Seshita, 2017)

blame posterCities. The pinnacle of human achievement and an almost living monument to civilisation. Does the same principle of human collective settlement also relate to the digital realm or will increasing interconnectedness eventually destroy everything we’ve built? Following their landmark CGI adaptation of Tsutomu Nihei’s Knights of Sidonia, Polygon Pictures return to source by adapting the author’s debut work BLAME! into a feature length animated movie. Like Sidonia, BLAME! (ブラム!) takes place many years after a climactic event has led to the fall of human civilisation – an event so long in the past as to have become mere myth to the small number of humans still clinging on to life in a now inhospitable terrain, but BLAME!’s dystopia is very much one created by man, losing control of its technology in its ever advancing hubris.

As the young girl who offers the opening monologue tells us, no one knows how all of this happened. Once, a long time ago, humans lived in a city but a virus came and they lost the ability to communicate with the environment in which they lived. The city began to grow, and the “Safeguard” system decided that humans were “illegal immigrants” in their own land. The exterminators swooped in to wipe them out but a small band of humans has managed to survive a few hundred years in a kind of safe zone protected by a perimeter wall the city’s systems are prevented from monitoring.

The rapid expansion of the city has also meant a reduction in vegetation and the surviving humans are running low on food. An intrepid team of children ventures out into the wasteland in search of sustenance, but they’re spotted and targeted for elimination. A mysterious figure appears on the horizon and saves them. The man calls himself a “human” and is disappointed to realise none of the children are carriers of the “Net Terminal Gene” which he is seeking. Killy (Takahiro Sakurai) claims that the Net Terminal Gene will enable the humans to take back control of the city’s systems, halt the excessive building program and call off the Safeguard attack dogs.

Killy’s appearance brings new hope to the villagers, trapped within their perimeter stronghold but facing the prospect of staying and starving or taking their chances with Safeguard. Concentrating on action rather than philosophising little time is given over to considering how humanity lives though it’s certainly puzzling that there is so little reaction when the band of children returns home much depleted in numbers. Indeed, aside from Pops (Kazuhiro Yamaji), the de facto leader of the community, no other “adults” appear.

Using Killy as a kind of deflective shield, the gang press on until they find an abandoned robot, Cibo (Kana Hanazawa), who tells them about an “Automated Factory” in which she can generate both an abundant food source and a synthetic tablet which will allow them to get back into the city’s systems. What ensues is a deadly firefight as the system fights back. Cibo pleads with The Authority in the digital realm while Killy and the villagers hold back the forces of order with firepower from the outside.

Killy remains a man of few words, his language dulled through inactivity and his expression inscrutable, but the villagers, perhaps lulled into a false sense of security thanks to long years of isolation, never question his motives or reliability. Likewise, Cibo clearly knows more than she lets on but offers the only lead so far on a way back to a less precarious way of life. Killy’s sudden appearance becomes a mythic event, a point of transition in the history of the post-apocalyptic world, but also seems to be without resolution as the closing coda implies.

Like Sidonia, the animation quality is at times variable but often excels in its highly detailed backgrounds, allowing production design to smooth over any narrative gaps. What BLAME! lacks in terms of plot and character complexity it makes up for in world building though it is difficult to ignore the feeling of the loss born of condensing something far larger into an easily digestible whole. Nevertheless, BLAME! does what it sets out to do with quiet brilliance in detailing what might be the first of many adventures of the wanderer known as Killy as he explores a world ruined beyond repair looking for the key to unlock a brighter future.


Netflix trailer (Japanese with English subtitles/captions)

Gantz:O (ガンツ:オー, Yasushi Kawamura, 2016)

Gantz-oHiroya Oku’s long running manga series Gantz has already been adapted as a TV anime as well as two very successful live action films from Shinsuke Sato. Gantz:O (ガンツ:オー) is the first feature length animated treatment of the series and makes use of 3D CGI and motion capture for a hyperrealistic approach to alien killing action. “O” for Osaka rather than “0” for zero, the movie is inspired by the spin-off Osaka arc of the manga shifting the action south from the regular setting of central Tokyo.

Kicking off in Shibuya, the first scene features the demise of the franchise’s protagonist, Kei Kurono (Yuki Kaji), as he defeats one of the giant monsters terrorising the city and saves his friends but fails to save himself. A quick geographical cut takes us Osaka where there are reports of another disturbance, but the major threat turns out to be a depressingly commonplace one as a lone madman goes on a stabbing spree at a Tokyo train station.

17 year old high school student Masaru Kato (Daisuke Ono) gets himself mixed up in the incident when he ignores the crowds of people running in the opposite direction and comes to the aid of an injured old man. Sadly, Kato is repeatedly stabbed by the attacker and “dies” at the scene only to be resurrected in front of Gantz. Introduced to fellow players Suzuki (Shuuichi Ikeda) – an old man who “died” of a stroke, Reika (Saori Hayami) – an idol who was “killed” in a car crash, and the sardonic teenager Nishi (Tomohiro Kaku), Kato learns that he’s been given a second chance at life as a warrior in Gantz’s survival game in which he must fight off huge monsters within the time limit or die for real.

The entirety of Gantz:O revolves around this one climactic battle in the Osaka streets as Kato, Suzuki, Reika, and Nishi come into contact with the much more successful (but definitely less “nice”) Osaka detachment as backup in the fight against these fearsome monsters. As such, the main draw is furious action filled with bizarre scenes of carnage as the gang take down a collection of strange creatures often inspired by traditional folklore such as the huge winged tengu or shapeshifting priest-like boss. The visuals are extremely impressive displaying extreme fluidity of motion almost akin to live action photography.

Aesthetics are the key as the movie’s other elements are more or less inconsequential. As a bonus episode in the Gantz world, this is only to be expected and O makes no real attempt to do anything other than focus on the monster killing action. Thus character development is often shallow or non-existent, falling into genre clichés of cool heroes and depressed, brokenhearted women.

The question of self preservation vs altruism is central to the Gantz universe which begins from a position of nihilism and narcissistic self determination but gradually opens up to the importance of protecting one’s comrades, friends, family, and fellow human beings. Kato is the selfless hero the gang have been awaiting – his “death” results directly from his reckless attempt to help an injured person and his instinct is always to help those in need no matter the personal cost. His determination to save the lives of strangers is directly contrasted with his responsibility to the younger brother who is entirely dependent on him and would be lost should Kato lose his life. The film is ambivalent towards this dilemma as it constantly harks back to the people waiting for these secret warriors to come home, at once critical of them for risking their lives and acknowledging the fact that someone has to fight these monsters or everyone will die.

Despite the exposition heavy opening, Gantz:O does little to explain its world to the uninitiated and provides no logical explanations for its machinations leaving newcomers to the franchise with a host of unanswered questions but then all Gantz really wants to do is sell the message of altruism whilst destroying odd looking monsters in various bloody ways. Depressingly sexist, if edging away from the franchise’s nihilistic baseline, Gantz:O is an impressive visual spectacle but remains an essentially hollow, inconsequential addition to the Gantz canon.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Silent Voice (聲の形, Naoko Yamada, 2016)

silent-voiceChildren – not always the most tolerant bunch. For every kind and innocent film in which youngsters band together to overcome their differences and head off on a grand world saving mission, there are a fair few in which all of the other kids gang up on the one who doesn’t quite fit in. Given Japan’s generally conformist outlook, this phenomenon is all the more pronounced and you only have to look back to the filmography of famously child friendly director Hiroshi Shimizu to discover a dozen tales of broken hearted children suddenly finding that their friends just won’t play with them anymore. Where A Silent Voice (聲の形, Koe no Katachi) differs is in its gentle acceptance that the bully is also a victim, capable of redemption but requiring both external and internal forgiveness.

Classmates Shoko (Saori Hayami) and Shoya (Miyu Irino/Mayu Matsuoka) are almost mirror images of each other, sharing the first syllable of their names (at least phonetically) but representing two entirely opposite poles. Before Shoko transferred into his school, Shoya was the class clown, behaving disruptively and acting as the leader of a group of mean kids who, if not exactly bullies, certainly exert a degree of superiority over their meeker classmates. Shoko, hard of hearing, remains necessarily quiet, communicating through messages written on a notepad. Though some of the other pupils are fascinated by the novelty of someone like Shoko suddenly appearing, delighting in writing messages back and for and eagerly embracing the opportunity to learn sign language in order to communicate with her more easily, the mean kids, with Shoya as the ringleader, delight in making her life a misery just because they can.

Though some of the other children object to the way Shoya and the others are behaving, they do little to defend their new friend. Some of the more impressionable kids even halfheartedly join in, perhaps feeling bad about it but also enjoying being part of the angsty pre-teen group of nasty kids, but when it all gets too much and Shoko decides to move on everyone is suddenly struck with remorse and a need to blame someone else for the harm they’ve caused. Hence, Shoya gets a taste of his own medicine, ostracised by his peers as the lowlife who hounded a deaf girl out of school. Who’d want to hang around with someone like that?

Humbled, the stigma follows Shoya on into his next school as feelings of guilt and self loathing intensify until he reaches a point at which he can’t go on. Intending to finally end it all, Shoya unexpectedly runs into Shoko again and eventually manages to make a kind of motion towards an apology, attempting to make friends after all this time and making use of the sign language he’s taught himself to show his sincerity.

Isolated both by the continuing rumours of his primary school days and an intense personal feeling of unworthiness, Shoya finds it impossible to interact with his fellow students whose faces are each covered by a large blue cross. Bonding first with another lonely outcast, Shoya’s world begins to open up again but the spectre of his past continues to haunt him. Reconnecting with some of the other kids from primary school he finds that not everyone remembers things the same way they’ve become engraved in his mind. Though a few are anxious to atone, one of his former friends, Naoka (Yuki Kaneko), takes a different approach to the problem in continuing to blame Shoko – for the “attention” her condition attracts, the “requirement” for others to modify their behaviour to suit her, for simply existing in the first place enabling the behaviour which took place (about which Naoka remains unrepentant), and being the root cause that her merry band of friends fell apart.

If it seems like the tale disproportionately focuses on Shoya’s guilt and and redemption rather than Shoko’s suffering the balance shifts back towards the end as the pair truly mirror each other with another suicide attempt forming the climax of the second act. Shoko responds to her often cruel treatment with nothing other than friendliness, smiling with hands outstretched even whilst continuing to receive nothing but rejection. Though she may seem all smiles and sweetness, her overly genial persona is itself an act as she tries to overcompensate for the “burden” she feels herself to be causing through her need for “special treatment”. Eventually, Shoko snaps – firstly in primary school as her well meaning attempts to bring Shoya over to her side fail once again, and then later in a much more final way as she decides that there is nothing left for her in a world which fails to accommodate for difference.

The story of a girl who struggles to be heard, and a boy who refuses to listen, A Silent Voice is a quiet plea for the power of mutual understanding and reconciliation. Director Naoko Yamada and screenwriter Reiko Yoshida bring the same kind of quirky slice of life humour which made K-On and Tamako Market so enjoyable along with the raw visual beauty which has come to define Kyoto Animation to this often dark tale, perfectly integrating the more dramatic elements into the otherwise warm and forgiving world in a believable and natural way. Nuanced, complicated and defiantly refusing total resolution, A Silent Voice is one of the more interesting animated projects to come out of Japan in recent times and further marks out Yamada as one of its most important animation auteurs.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)