Tsutomu Nihei is a powerful drug and it needs to be cut with something if you're not to obliterate your brain when taking a hit. Knights of Sidonia, his most popular work with a Netflix-sponsored CGI adaptation, is Skimmed Nihei - almost homoeopathically watered-down to be palatable for public consumption with mecha and ecchi locker-room scenes just like in your favourite Japanese anime. The earlier story Biomega brings us back partway along this process to Nihei Squash, a cordial of his monstrous figures and heavy-impact action diluted by a straightforward save-the-world plot. It's a big step again from that to Blame! - Nihei's first manga and the concentrated, unadulterated Pure Nihei. It's his vision before it was filtered and his style before it was sanded down to a smooth category - strong stuff.
Although Nihei has been a continuously active presence on both Japanese and British store-shelves his earlier work has long been out of print - the last release of Blame in English was in 2007 by the defunct publisher Tokyopop, and so the only chance you'd have of reading the story in the last decade would be chancing across a random number yellowing and crinkling in a box of remainders in the back room of a Forbidden Planet. There's poetry there - the cold congealed rinds and loose skin slumped from an industry wasted out from the Noughties anime and manga glut like the hollowed vastness of the manga's backdrops. In advance of the film version of Blame!, recently announced for 2017, Vertical has brought over the Master Edition of the Blame! manga for a timely re-release. It's the full-flavour and full-fat Nihei - are we going to be shooting into an amazing high or are we trapped in one really bad trip?
The world of Blame takes the concept of urban sprawl to a whole new extreme. Not just the world, but seemingly all of existence is ensorcelled within the bounds of The City - an impossibly giant, literally cosmic structure stretching out for billions (Trillions? Quadrillions? More?) of miles in every direction. It takes weeks to climb to another storey, while endless shafts, stairwells, pipes, vents and cables knot around each other to no destination, pumping nothing, carrying nothing, transmitting nothing, coring out piloti which plunge through scaffolds as cavernously vacant as the negative space of missing planets.
Mankind still exists in this cold architectural hell but the race, and its mutant degenerations which have incubated in the damp canyon-cracks pitting The City's concrete tectonics, is small and scattered. Subhuman communities cling on like clumps of weeds and patches of mould in the nooks, crannies and voided shadows that conceal them from the roving hordes of The Administration, whose cybernetic legions stalk the halls of The City eradicating all they come across, sweeping and polishing the floors treaded by no-one.
Even the people who live in The City don't know how big it is or how many live outside their own sectors, but one man who's making the long, perilous journeys across chasms and over mountains between these settlements is Kyrii. A lone figure wandering without support in the friendless chambers, he braves the dangerous floors with a mission to discover another human who bears the Net Terminal Gene - an enigmatic piece of bioengineering which may be key in repairing The City - but it's a vanishingly difficult task when genetic integrity has long atrophied in the poisoned remnants of the species - and The Administration is snapping at his heels to destroy any human that he finds.
Blame! is not going to win any awards for its story - the hero has a MacGuffin to aim at and he takes down baddies who get in his way, and that's pretty much all there is to it - but even so, starting in media res with no backstory strengthens the storytelling by putting the reader in a questing mood to work out circumstances alongside Kyrii's own search. What does let Blame break out from the pack is its setting and atmosphere. The City is truly unlike anything else seen in manga, and you can tell how it's from the pen of an uncompromised Nihei when you compare these pages to the shots in the trailer for the upcoming Blame! movie - the studio has added in a big-eyed moé-chan heroine that may be more marketable but definitely doesn't fit in the manga's style. There's no such indulgence in the manga - it has a style that a part of me wants to call cyberpunk but I really ought not to as that term comes with a lot of baggage of tropes and expectations that is inappropriate for Blame If it has to be compared to anything it would feel more familiar with related Warhammer 40,000 than Bubblegum Crisis, from the sheer vastness of the environment. Vaulted galleries stretch out to stygian distance; geometric cathedrals concrete over the roof of heaven; bottomless shafts descend to a vanishing point so tiny that they could pierce the page. There is more to this scenery than simply 'being big' as well - Nihei doesn't just stick a yardstick with a load of extra zeroes on it in the corner of the page to tell you that a place is kinda huge but there's an intricacy of detail from the mists of distant towers to the starfalls of blinking lights and the rounded features of eroded statues that gives it true depth. What's also impressive is the level of invention on display - you'd expect that the theme of "empty buildings" would get a bit old after a few hundred pages but credit to Nihei for continuing to show a wide variety of scenery, with every backdrop demonstrating a new cityscape. This eye for detail is on the small scale as well as the large. Characters hefting oversized machinery are practically enmeshed in a yarn-ball of tubes and cabling (also giving scenes with them an analogue, tactile feel that suits the roughed-up worn-down texture of the environments) and there are glints of subtler storytelling too - for instance, a giant worm attacks Kyrii's allies at one point and there are arrows and warning stripes running down it to indicate that it's actually some biomechanical servitor that's gone haywire after generations of neglect.
This also leads into how The City is not only impressively huge, it's also affectingly melancholy. The intricacies of Nihei's eye for detail don't just factor into the technology but every crease and wrinkle of care and worry you can see in the characters. Kyrii is confronted by gargoyle grotesques which seem to have rotted from the old stones and slump towards him as undead rock, while warped, bent homunculi skitter after him with pinched, ill-fitting skin like they've been put together in the inelegant kitbash of some incompetent journeyman who has forgotten the skills of the masters - morlocks are creeping up from the halls below. For the actual humans that still remain, eking out a wretched existence on whatever moisture condenses on the walls of the City and whatever slime slicks down the pipes, people look thin, bent and tired. Little things count - on a smaller scale of the crumbling megaliths, a woman scratches her head as she sits back down to her desk and dirt and dandruff flake off her scalp. A girl's shoes have large, crude stitching like they've been re-soled multiple times. Even when Kyrii encounters a band of 'natives' (for want of a better word) living wild in the ducts, people who you would expect to have adapted to life there, in a brilliant twist of expectations when the panels zoom in on their faces you realise that what at first appeared to be lines of tribal face-paint are actually just the cracks, scabs and sores of dried, withered skin. Decrepitude and desolation creep in around the gutters - junk and kipple gather in the corners like dust, rust streaks down the edges of portholes like tears, gantries creak and yaw with fatigued moans, and a superb sequence in chapter two which sets out early to readers both the massiveness and dilapidation of The City (and its depressing familiarity) has some giant maggots eating a huge wall slab - only to break it and send it and themselves plummeting into the abyss while Kyrii sits unmoved as the creatures' guts spill, splatter and spindle on the pipes around him.
When all of this is brought together in the book of Blame the result is scant plot but buckets of atmosphere. There is a macabre majesty to Kyrii's world where The City speaks in resounding seismic echoes - entire chapters are given over to silent interludes of Kyrii wandering the corridors (the longest period without a word of dialogue is a full 42 pages), and as your eye hops from panel to panel the footfalls hit the beat of moodiness pulsing through the powerlines. There is, in a way, a literary quality to Blame - if dog-eared school editions of books like Kidnapped and Wuthering Heights ask you to imagine the untamed wilds behind the pages (I once read a graphic novel of the former which reduced the entire book to less than fifty pages as so much of it is a Highlands travelogue to be told in scenic landsacpes), then the pages of Blame! are laden, soaked through and heavy with grim, awesome feeling.
What's enables me to see all this in the first place though is that the new Master Edition of Blame is an outsized edition that's significantly larger than a regular manga. It can't be emphasised enough how crucial this reprint is to better enjoying Blame - while it does make a copy significantly more expensive it provides sufficient resolution to bring out the detail that would otherwise be lost in the confines of a regular manga (particularly given the cheap printing of Blame's early original editions). It's a big canvas for big art and a worthwhile investment - and Blame certainly warrants it more than the egregious cash-in that was the Colossal Edition of Attack on Titan.
It's not all meaningful tableaus, though - Blame! is an action-adventure and there are plenty of bloody battles to propel you through the pages too. Nihei has certain poses that he's fond of - a body frozen mid-flight in a ragdoll tangle of powdered vertebrae after being punted a hundred yards by a superhuman Administration exterminator, or someone narrowly dodging a stitched line of impacts as a cannon lets rip on full auto - appear time and time again, but they do work! Sound effects are cleverly interwoven into the action - the "vwoom" of a rising elevator has a kanji character's shank stretched out to show its continuous hum up the cable - ripples of fractured concrete make for wincing impacts - and looming shadows of plummeting buildings and giant monsters give their smashing descent a breathless moment of dread anticipation. It all pales in comparison, though, to the unmatchable Graviton Beam Emitter.
The Graviton Beam Emitter that Kyrii wields is often included in listicles across the internet as one of the Great Sci-Fi Weapons - and these plaudits are entirely deserved. This dinky little deringer packs a punch that makes the Noisy Cricket barely a feather-touch - a tiny beam that can nonetheless bisect anything like a hot knife through butter, before transforming into a block-levelling firestorm at its destination. It's more than just a compact BFG-9000, though - it doesn't just do high damage like a video-game weapon with a big ATK value, it's a godlike physics-warping tool of utter negation that twists reality around it (at one point he fires it as a sort of improvised shield so its space-distorting effects deflect incoming fire away from him - that this also annihilates a district a few miles away is eh, just one of those things). Blame leaves no uncertain impression.
For all its drama and power though, the action does get slowed down somewhat by the awkward fact that Kyrii is a bit of a titch and other characters often mistake him for a child. I think what Nihei was probably trying to go for here was to emphasise the unreality of Blame - the ill-fitting shape of an alien hero in an alien world - but it plainly doesn't work. Having your grimly taciturn lone wanderer severing limbs, crushing skulls, getting slammed into concrete by razor-shelled android armies and annihilating entire cities with his Nuke Pistol be a guy who just about makes three feet if you stick up his hair and who is barely able to reach up to the top of a desk counter like an underfed pasty hobbit just looks plain dumb. It's as stupid as Yoda ping-ponging around the set like Flubber in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (and sit down at the back, that wasn't "lol awesome" it was a cheap belittling of a character who had been the calm spiritual core of the series). It's a shame which undermines some of the action but Nihei seems to have realised his mistake and works hard to correct it - camera positioning means that Kyrii's size isn't often apparent (whether he's three feet or thirty feet tall it's still minute in the caverns of The City) and he definitely seems to have been stretched out a bit in the last page of this volume - the new cover illustration on the Master Edition also tries to adjust your perspective before you go in by making Kyrii look a lot taller than he actually his (as well as hair that's more like Knights of Sidonia's Nagate than Kyrii's stringier, unruly mop in the manga).
Not that there's all that much text to change in the first place (translator Melissa Tanaka has pulled perhaps the easiest gig in her career) but the release does have a new translation which makes some adjustments from the previous edition - "Kyrii" was originally called "Killy". The Kyrii we have here isn't a correction, rather a transliteration of his name's Japanese characters of "Kirii", so if anything it's an error - a significant one too, as "Killy" is relevant to the eventual reveal of the character's back-story later in the series. Although that said maybe making a new mistake where none existed before may be appropriate because it goes back to the very title of the manga, an accidental Engrish mangling of the gun-report sound effect "Blam!" (the title's kanji read 'Buramu').
While it may be unfair to complain about things outside the manga, I am also a little disappointed that what is after all mean to be the "Master Edition" of this manga doesn't include any extra detail. Blame is Nihei's most idiosyncratic work and so a creator interview, some development sketches, a publication retrospective and so on would really have tied a bow on the package and been a completing statement of helping us not just read Blame! but understand it as well. It doesn't detract from the manga itself but it does perhaps stop you from feeling that it's the 100% definitive release.
These quibbles though aren't something that you can blame Blame for much of, though. Blame is a unique electric fantasy of brooding, gothic imagination suffusing deep shadows with forbidding, compelling awe for an evocative odyssey into a world of dark grandeur.
Writer/Artist: Tsutomu Nihei