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[MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD]
The Blade Runner universe is today considered a staple of science fiction, with the original 1982 film viewed as a landmark moment within the genre, and Blade Runner 2049 managing to make the story as relevant and beautiful as ever. From their ability to psychologically and philosophically tackle what it means to be human, to their unmistakable cyberpunk style, both movies stand as immense achievements for their directors and crew in movie history. The original film’s influence in particular impacting creators all across the world to this very day, with one major result being the visual style of the Japanese animated film Ghost in the Shell. More broadly, it is clear that Blade Runner resonated greatly with Japanese audiences, in part due to the Japanese influences present throughout the movie itself. Thus, we’re presented with a uniquely full circle experience to now see the likes of Shinji Aramaki and Kenji Kamiyama tackling the Blade Runner universe themselves in Blade Runner: Black Lotus.
Listening to Aramaki and Kamiyama through the various panels that have been released for the series thus far, it is clear that above all else these two great men have an immense passion and respect for the Blade Runner property. Their goal seemed to be to create something that could clearly be identified as a Blade Runner series, while also crafting their own worthy story and contribution to something that once upon a time influenced their own work. Of course, this would be no simple feat, but Aramaki and Kamiyama seemed well up to the task with the help of executive producer Joseph Chou, who has past experience blending American properties with Japanese influences, such as with The Animatrix and Blade Runner: Black Out 2022. After viewing the first two episodes of the series, this team has relatively accomplished their goals already, creating a show that can appeal to both Blade Runner and anime fans alike.
Starting with the first episode, “City of Angels,” the viewer is introduced to Elle, a woman suffering from amnesia who is trying to find her way home with an unknown, locked device. Above all else, this episode seems designed to introduce new fans to the world and to prove to those who know the Blade Runner universe that it will be faithfully recreated. Although memory loss is likely to be viewed as a trope by this point, it is interestingly used here as a plot device that benefits those with the least knowledge of the world, allowing the audience to learn alongside Elle. For example, having her walk around and take in Los Angeles, uncertain of her destination, the viewer is able to experience the classic Blade Runner signage and city architecture, as well as the famous umbrellas that continue to shine. Similarly, when Elle stops at an outdoor noodle bar to ask a question, we are introduced to our first instance of Blade Runner Cityspeak. To fans of the movies, this plays like a notable easter egg or confirmation that they are watching a faithful Blade Runner anime, while new fans are able to learn these established Blade Runner ideas step by step with Elle.
That said, the series makes it clear that those with greater knowledge of the Blade Runner universe franchise have more to benefit. The best example of this in the first episode is the presence of Doc Badger, who to new fans may come off as just a quirky pawnshop owner, but to those familiar with Blade Runner 2049, is a clear connection to that film with our first character connecting this series to the greater film universe at large. Additionally, it is also evidence of the care taken into creating this anime, as the voice actor for said character is none other than Barkhad Abdi, who plays him in the movie as well. Comparably, viewers are also treated to a Coca-Cola sign this episode, which to some may come off as unusual product placement, but fans of Blade Runner are familiar with the common usage of real-world brands throughout, where if anything this anime may have benefited from more. Ultimately, inclusions such as these seem very much designed for the enjoyment of Blade Runner fans, while for newcomers, they still play as unique elements of character and world building.
Nevertheless, other than the references and connections to the films establishing Blade Runner: Black Lotus as a true Blade Runner property, it is impossible to talk about the first episode without acknowledging the CGI art-style. For many that have seen the trailers for the series, this alone has been a dealbreaker, if not just something that is already souring their experiences as they dive into the series. Yet, watching the episode, it becomes clear that the decision to use CGI was an active choice to best depict backgrounds, lighting, weather, and the like. In other words, the creators potentially sacrificed the ability to create realistic, better-looking character designs in favor of being able to best produce the Blade Runner aesthetic. Honestly, despite fears about CGI, many of the city backgrounds, whether that’s glowing signage, patterned architecture, etc., genuinely pop, resulting in some beautiful Blade Runner-esque scenery. Ultimately, it would have been impossible for the team to get this level of detail and background variety without spending a small fortune that was likely not at their disposal. That said, this may then leave viewers wondering whether that was worth it at the cost of characters not always looking ideal, a desert environment not looking as polished by comparison to the city, and so on, in favor of these fantastic Los Angeles views.
Lastly, a major moment featured in this episode is when Elle confronts a gang in a cemetery under gorgeous red lighting. Not only does this scene allow the viewer to fully take in the fighting style of this anime, but also the cinematography of the series itself. In terms of the fighting, the use of motion capture allows the contact and violence between characters to flow in a natural, realistic fashion. For example, watching Elle glide across one person to the next, or using her sword to chop someone’s hand off, displays very smooth animation. Also, there’s a lot of different camera work used to show off this fight from a variety of angles, with one particularly notable shot involving a pan across the cemetery that allows the viewer to take in the carnage and aftermath all at once.
Next, in the second episode, “All We Are Not,” Blade Runner: Black Lotus follows Elle as she confronts Senator Bannister and comes to the terrifying realization that she is a replicant. More generally, this episode manages to expand on many of elements discussed above, while also turning more attention to the story itself. With regard to references, the viewer gets a closer look at the classic Blade Runner flying police cars, the noodle bar seen in the first episode, and more signage and views of Los Angeles in a wonderful chase scene, while also being introduced to other Blade Runner 2049 connections, particularly Niander Wallace Jr., the Wallace Corporation, and research into the impact of memories in replicants. The latter connections in particular could easily go over the heads of new viewers, yet are presented in an understandable way that simply sets them up. However, something else worth mentioning for fans of the movie is that Niander Wallace Jr., played here by Wes Bentley and not Jared Leto, who played Wallace in 2049, is seemingly not blind. Although the cause of his blindness was never made fully apparent in the film, causing a debate amongst fans, this appears to have ruled out blindness from birth, potentially giving the viewer something to look forward to depending on the events to follow.
When it comes to the art style, lovely backgrounds continue to be on display, whether that’s the hotel where Senator Bannister is staying, the traffic-filled street that Elle drives the cab down, or the back alley at the end of the episode. The alley in particularly features a lot of unique fixtures that provide a sense of realism, while also displaying varying light sources that contribute to Elle’s panicked state. Similarly, the viewer is also treated to more fighting scenes, and while though early altercations mirror what was seen in the cemetery, it is the scene between Bannister and Elle that is particularly striking. Bannister manages to put up more of a fight than any of the previous characters, yet after Elle nearly gauges his eyes out, she chokes him and pushes him off the balcony to his death. Then, if this wasn’t already a greater violent shift for the series than was previously presented, it was wonderfully paired alongside a boxing match in order to add to the tension. The music also particularly thrives here, mimicking the subtle, yet powerful sounds that Blade Runner is known for. Ultimately, the anime does manage to honor the old sound that you would expect in the Blade Runner universe, but also, such as in the case of the opening, adds something that may end up inspiring a new generation.
However, despite all of these compliments in favor of the artistic direction in recreating and showcasing the Blade Runner world, the story does leave one wanting more. In a lot of ways, we are looking at a pretty standard revenge story, using flashbacks to bring clarity and turning the violence around on the oppressors. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but the audience may be in search of something deeper. That said, one of the best scenes across both episodes, when Elle comes to the realization that she’s a replicant, expands on her character and story in a uniquely Blade Runner fashion. Additionally, killing Senator Bannister both wraps up the revenge in part, but also fundamentally changes her as a character. Thus, what another show could taken a whole season developing, this anime dealt with earlier than expected, and now ponders, what next? In other words, with the first two episodes instead focusing on set up, it may just be too early to tell where the series is headed and how strong its plot will be. With many mysteries still left open, but revenge already handed out so early, there’s no telling how Elle’s replicant story will pan out.
All in all, Blade Runner: Black Lotus appears to be delivering the Blade Runner vibe that truly honors the overarching universe, whether that’s the signage in the background or the psychological pain of finding out you are a replicant. Yet, despite some interesting mysterious plot points, the story does take a back seat that may leave something to be desired. Only time will tell if the plot will rise to the occasion and be just as worth of the Blade Runner name as the impressive visuals featured throughout.
Season 1 Episodes 1 and 2: “City of Angels” and “All We Are Not” (7.5/10)
Blade Runner: Black Lotus continues this Saturday on Toonami at midnight with “The Human Condition”