When the first anime series in the “Blade Runner” franchise premieres on cable TV’s Cartoon Network and online streamer Crunchyroll Nov. 13, it will close the circle on nearly 40 years of cultural cross-pollination.
British director Ridley Scott’s 1982 original, a Hollywood live-action movie set in a futuristic Los Angeles, features several neo-noirish nods to a dystopian urban Japan. Signs in Japanese flash above neon-lit alleyways lined with cramped standing food stalls. Snatches of Japanese dialogue are heard on the streets and from the radio in Los Angeles police officer Gaff’s hovercraft (the brilliantly designed “spinner”), and in the voiceover accompanying an indelible image of a geisha, popping a pill on a gigantic skyscraper video projection.
Even today, seeing Japanese culture embedded so deeply in the mise-en-scene of a mainstream Hollywood film is startling. In 1982, it must’ve been revolutionary.
It certainly didn’t go unnoticed in Japan. While initially “Blade Runner” was not a box-office hit on either side of the Pacific, it was revered by those who understood its heady blend of sleek high-tech environs with low and grimy street culture, a visual icon of the emerging cyberpunk sci-fi subgenre.
Over time, “Blade Runner” was tagged as a “cult classic.” And oh, what a cult it was, particularly in Japan.
A generation of anime artists was shaped by the film’s daring and gritty aesthetic, and would go on to create some of Japan’s consecrated anime classics such as “Akira,” “Ghost in the Shell” and “Cowboy Bebop” — titles that are now so popular and renowned that they have been or are being remade in Hollywood. Talk about circles.
“Akira” director Katsuhiko Otomo and “Ghost in the Shell” director Mamoru Oshii have both cited “Blade Runner” as a key source of inspiration for their conceptual designs, and “Cowboy Bebop” creator Shinichiro Watanabe has seen Scott’s film over 20 times.
“It was the feel of the world in ‘Blade Runner’ that surprised me the most,” Watanabe says, commenting on the film’s mix of futuristic surrealism and grim urbanism. “With ‘Star Wars,’ the story takes place in a world different from where we actually live. But ‘Blade Runner’ takes place in our reality, and the visual design is so cool in every scene.”
In 2003, Hollywood and anime had their first successful cross-pollination project with “The Animatrix,” a collection of animated short films by Japanese artists based on the Wachowskis’ “The Matrix,” which was itself an homage to sci-fi anime, particularly “Ghost in the Shell.” The commercial and critical success of “The Animatrix” omnibus DVD collection, to which Watanabe contributed two short films, led to a growing feeding frenzy over Hollywood-anime remixes, resulting most recently in “Star Wars: Visions,” released Sept. 22 on Disney’s streaming platform.
The frenzy didn’t mean much to Watanabe, who declined time and again to adapt Hollywood films to anime, preferring to create his own original works. But he couldn’t refuse when an opportunity to expand upon the “Blade Runner” world arrived in 2017, courtesy of producer Joseph Chou, founder and president of Tokyo-based CG anime studio Sola Digital Arts Inc. Watanabe was invited to create one of three short films introducing the franchise’s live-action sequel, “Blade Runner 2049.”
Watanabe’s short “Black Out 2022” is a fitting precursor to the forthcoming series, “Blade Runner: Black Lotus.” Its Los Angeles cityscape is on fire. Cars burn in the streets, riots run amok. Databases identify the undesirables: dolls, replicants, anyone not like “us.” Its hero is a Black man, Iggy, and his counterpart is a young female replicant. They have been used and exploited by institutional power, and now they are ready to rebel.
“Human history is a history of discrimination against weaker people,” Watanabe says. “I needed to show that.”
Capturing and re-creating that discrimination while making the design look cool in “Black Lotus” was the job of the multinational creative team at Chou’s Tokyo studio, where anime remixes of legacy titles like “Lord of the Rings” and “Ultraman” are currently in the works.
Watanabe signed on as the creative producer, but veteran directors Shinji Aramaki and Kenji Kamiyama helmed the series, bringing together artists and production companies from Japan, Asia, Europe and North America.
This time, the lead “Blade Runner” character is Elle, a young woman with Asian features and martial arts fighting skills. Her environs shift between the California desert and burning LA skyline, and her best friend is the meek but reliable Miu. Both are replicants and subject to discrimination and assault. Their human ally is a dissolute programmer named Jay, who behaves in a distinctly Japanese manner.
“Jay definitely feels more Japanese in personality,” Kamiyama tells me. “He treats Elle with a classic naniwa bushi spirit of loyalty, duty and compassion. He’s kind of a kakkoii (cool, reserved) character. Like Ken Takakura in ‘Black Rain,’ he’s brooding and dark. Scott used Takakura for that kind of quiet figure, who acts a little rogue but inside his mind and his heart is always thinking of the other, always considerate.”
As an animated series, “Black Lotus” is the next step in a nearly 40-year-old franchise that still commands respect. Some anime fans, however, are suspicious of the current pile-on of Hollywood studios gunning for transcultural collaborations. Is anime all about money now?
Chou insists that there’s a way of creating such projects while maintaining the integrity of Japan’s anime traditions. Competing with Hollywood is a doomed scenario: CG costs money, and anime studios operate on much smaller budgets. But if you can’t make CG properties, how can you make something fresh?
“‘Black Lotus’ is the first project where we tried to tackle the dilemma of making cheap CG and awesome 2D anime,” Chou says. “What’s the balance here visually?”
On a visit to Sola’s Tokyo studio, I watched artists from France, the Middle East and Japan spend hours fixing the look of steam rising from a city rooftop in the “Blade Runner” universe. “The city is the character,” Chou says. “We can achieve that, and we can grow the story.”
“Black Lotus” closes the circle in 2021 by reinventing the Los Angeles of the original “Blade Runner” — with its neon Japanese signs, noodle stalls, pill-popping geisha and all — at an anime studio in downtown Tokyo.
“Blade Runner: Black Lotus” will be available worldwide on Crunchyroll from Nov. 13. Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” and a professor at Waseda University.
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