“What’s it about?”
When I recommend BLAME! – the admittedly a tad obscure manga by Tsutomu Nihei – to someone, I tend to get that dreaded question asked to me. I hate having to answer that question, not because I find the premise of the book difficult to explain (which, let’s be honest, it kind of is), but because the plot and the setting is not really that important to me when discussing the work. In a similar way to how Hideaki Anno’s seminal work Neon Genesis Evangelion uses its lore as an excuse to develop its characters and unveils a plot that doesn’t really care about answering a whole lot of questions, BLAME!’s extremely convoluted lore is just a facade, purposefully confusing and ambiguous so as to leave the plot as flexible as possible for creativity’s sake.
So, BLAME! is about a guy with a gun who needs to find something called a Net Terminal Gene. That’s most of the story, actually; a man of few words looking for something that is not explained right away as he travels through The City, a hostile artificial construction that apparently knows no end, and he only really starts to interact with other characters in a meaningful way around halfway through the story. For me, though, the best part about the work is the art, and it was what originally drew me to it. And I’m not just talking about the character design and action scenes, although those are both great as well. The thing that takes my breath away the most about Nihei’s artwork are his backgrounds. Basically, the Net Terminal Gene – the thing that gave humans control over the robots they created to build for them – became extinct, and the builders went rogue, building for no reason and with no direction, creating an ever-expanding city that no longer tries to be hospitable to humans. This is the reason Killy, our main character, is looking for the Gene, but it’s also the excuse Nihei used to design the world of his manga the way he did: a never-ending, claustrophobic maze of brutal, alienating architecture created for no real reason.
This is what always makes me shiver when re-reading the book. The idea that everything we’re seeing is not really created with any sort function in mind, it’s just made because that’s the only thing the builders know how to do, and without a human overseeing their work they just keep going. The chaotic, uncontrollable growth of The City is what makes it so hostile to Killy, to all the other humans in the story, and by extension, to the reader. Our mind is built to seek patterns where they don’t exist, so seeing a world so devoid of purpose, so chaotic and formless and vast that even the people who live in it don’t know how big it is makes us feel uneasy.
There’s a concept that has been circling the web for a while now, one I find very interesting but I don’t think many people really understand. “Liminal place” has become synonymous with the depiction, often photographical, of eerie, uncanny locations, which are either abandoned or simply devoid of people at the moment the photograph was taken. The popularity of this term and the pictures associated to it comes from the fact that a number of people claim to feel nostalgic when seeing these abandoned places, most of them featuring human architecture or at least some kind of vestigial remainder of humanity, such as a sign or a concrete road. The term used to describe these pictures, however, comes from the Latin term limen, meaning “passage through a sensory threshold,” and the English word liminal defines something that is transitional, temporary, that surrounds a person. Thus, the term “liminal place” works as a way to define places that are often overlooked or ignored because of their transitory nature, such as the space around you on a long car trip or a set of stairs you’re just using to get somewhere else. We don’t pay attention to them because our minds are not designed to store information about them, because we’re not going to need it. That’s why when faced with the image of those places as actual, fixed points in space and time in the form of a photograph it can feel so uncanny but familiar at the same time: we’re used to noticing these architectural patterns out of the corner of our eye but not so familiarized with them that we understand why they feel so familiar.
BLAME! turns that feeling up to eleven because everything the reader is seeing is not even made with any kind of purpose in mind. There are staircases that go nowhere, bridges that become impossible to traverse after a while because of their impossible geometry, buildings so massive you can’t even see the top, so devoid of any kind of features that they convey absolutely nothing besides sheer size. And Killy is just walking through the city, abandoning place after place in search of the Gene, so we don’t really get to really explore these spaces as much as our minds might want to. This also reflects on the other characters, because the vast majority of the people Killy meets in his journey either die after a few chapters or just go their own way, never to be seen again. And I mean that, because The City is so massive and incomprehensible that characters can only speculate about its real size. BLAME! is, for all intents and purposes, a liminal manga.
But BLAME! is not the only work where I’ve seen this idea taken to its logical extreme. The free-to-play video game NaissanceE is very transparently inspired by the works of Tsutomu Nihei, and the concept its architecture tries to convey is basically the same, although without any characters that can explain the lore to the player. In fact, there is absolutely no lore for the entirety of the game, which just drops the player into a hostile environment with no context and only the implied mission of continuing forward, making almost the entire experience liminal. The player doesn’t really get to go from point A to point B, because they’re never told what point B is in the first place, so even if they get to look around and admire the hauntingly beautiful, sometimes chaotic architecture of the world, they’re never in the same place for very long, and they’re compelled to continue forward even when they don’t exactly know what they’re looking for.
The world of NaissanceE is purposefully designed to be alienating and hostile to the player, as if it wasn’t really built to be traversed in the way our character does, to the point where you can’t really tell where the limits are in terms of what you can and cannot do. For example, there is a section of the game that forces you to take fall damage in order to advance, because the world wants you to know you’re not welcome, this place wasn’t built for you, and sometimes the architectural choices, much like in BLAME!, seem arbitrary and counter-intuitive. The mere idea of an entirely arbitrary artificial space is eerie and uncanny because we’re not really used to that: every space created by mankind serves a purpose, and when faced with the idea of something apparently built by some kind of lifeform that just doesn’t conform to our idea of usefulness, our brains freak out. This is why the pictures of liminal spaces that feature man-made structures are the most unsettling: nature was not really made for a reason, it just is because it is, it exists because it was shaped by fundamental forces in our planet, but a world that feels entirely arbitrary and at the same time artificially created is something we as a species are not used to experiencing. Killy’s objective in the story is, in fact, to use the Gene to take back control and stop the builders from constructing further. His entire purpose is to turn the world back into a paradise for humankind, so his fight is not against the many creatures he finds in his journey, or against the agents that try to stop him to keep the world in chaos, but against the world as a whole, as an entity that must be rebuilt in order to make life possible once more.
This absolutely dehumanizing alienation shapes Killy’s development from the very beginning. He becomes less and less social as he advances through the grey, blocky world he’s forced to traverse to find what he’s looking for, turning into a virtually emotionless person by the end of the story after being faced with so many dehumanizing experiences in a world that doesn’t really want him around. It’s one thing to be persecuted and hated by your enemies, that’s a very common experience for most protagonists, but in Killy’s case, the world itself is unwelcoming and cold and lacks humanity. It’s a sci-fi world that ignores our classic understanding of dystopian societies, because even at their worst the worlds of Akira, Blade Runner, or Metropolis are shaped by a very recognizable humanity, but in this case Killy’s enemy is not only the society (if we can call it that) that rose from the ashes of the old world, the entire physical structure is turned against him in a way I haven’t seen in any other piece of media.
The only comparison I can draw besides NaissanceE is the massive supercomputer AM from Harlan Ellison’s short story I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. AM is an artificial intelligence so vast that the main characters take days, months, weeks to traverse its interior in search for a simple can of food. The AI itself is also evil, and it wants to psychologically and physically torture the characters by turning its own insides into a cruel, punishing world that allows it to permanently haunt the protagonists. But even then, AM’s wrath and spite against people is undoubtedly and recognizably human, and it shapes the world as it sees fit to serve a purpose. (BLAME!’s The City is the complete opposite to that idea, and to some extent it can even be more terrifying, knowing that the torture you’re facing is not really planned by any one individual, it’s just a fact of the universe.)
And, like the players in NaissanceE and the main characters from I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, Killy doesn’t really know when he’ll get to the end, because even he doesn’t know which physical space, which of the many, many layers of formless concrete and metal which are barely being held together by the decaying, corrupted infrastructure of the world holds the very specific and rare item he’s looking for. His quest also feeds into this silent conversation between the architecture of the manga and its inhabitants, because the Gene will allow the denizens of The City to take back control and stop the uncontrolled growth that is turning the world into an unrecognizable, hostile amalgam of man-made materials. That’s the hope Killy holds onto even through his brutal dehumanization; the idea that, if he succeeds, he can turn this unpleasant, hostile world into a pragmatic, useful one that allows humans to thrive once more. And sure, there are beings and organizations trying to stop him from achieving this end, but his most powerful obstacle will always be the world around him.