To say that the cyberpunk genre as a whole owes an immeasurable debt to Blade Runner feels like an understatement. Before either William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Bruce Sterling’s Mirrorshades anthology, or even the novel by Bruce Bethke from which the genre would go on to derive its very name, Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? laid the foundation for the visual language that defines so much of cyberpunk to this day.
That visual language would go on to inspire not only a generation of filmmakers, but animators as well, as Blade Runner’s indelible cultural footprint was seen and felt through innumerable references throughout some of the most popular works of Japanese animation. From iconic films like 1995’s Ghost in the Shell and 2001’s Metropolis, to lesser known but no less influential works like Mobile Police Patlabor and the 1987 OVA (original video animation) Bubblegum Crisis, the popularity and maturation of anime as globally recognized artform and the aesthetic precedent of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner are inextricably bound to one another. The idea of an anime not only inspired, but explicitly set in the universe of the 1982 sci-fi noir then was never truly a question of “if,” but rather only a matter of “when.”
Nearly four decades after Scott’s film first premiered in theaters, and only four years following the release of Denis Villeneuve’s 2017 follow-up, the inevitability of a Blade Runner anime has finally been realized. A 13-episode CG animated series directed by Shinji Aramaki (Appleseed) and Kenji Kamiyama (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex), Blade Runner: Black Lotus may not be the anime that fans of the series had hoped for or imagined when it was announced back in 2018, but it nonetheless proves itself worthy of the distinction.
Set in the year 2032 — 13 years after the events of Blade Runner and 17 years before the 2017’s Blade Runner 2049 — Black Lotus centers on the story of Elle, a young woman who awakens in an abandoned building in the desert with a lotus tattoo on her shoulder and no memory of how she got there. Mercilessly hunted for sport by a group of gunmen, Elle finds herself mysteriously unable to do any harm to people chasing her. Though she does not immediately understand herself, Blade Runner fans will recognize why Elle cannot fight back: she is in fact a “replicant,” a synthetic android created to impersonate and serve humans who, after the events of Blade Runner, were prevented from doing harm to humans even in self-defense. And yet, something unexpectedly is triggered deep inside of Elle’s programming, allowing her the ability and strength to overpower and kill her would-be executioner before fleeing aboard an self-driving delivery truck bound for Los Angeles in search of refuge and answers to her own mysterious nature.
In the hands of Aramaki and Kamiya, the first and second episode of Blade Runner: Black Lotus already boast a marked improvement over the directors’ previous series Ghost in the Shell:SAC_2045 in terms of its visuals and action. The atmospheric composition of select scenes, like Elle illuminated in the green fluorescent glow of an automated delivery truck’s headlights or the climatic courtyard fight at the end of second episode wherein Elle brandishes a katana while lit in ethereal neon red, are particularly striking, as are the numerous easter eggs and iconic locations seen throughout Elle’s introduction to the city. Of the returning characters featured in Blade Runner: Black Lotus, the most prominent one seen in the series’ initial two episodes is Doc Badger, the pawn shop owner portrayed by Barkhad Abdi in 2017’s Blade Runner 2049, who aids Elle in her attempt to navigate the strange and unfamiliar world she finds herself in in exchange for protection against a local gang of lowlifes. The structure of the first two episodes, which jumps forward and back between Elle’s awakening in the desert and several days after her arrival in Los Angeles, may be a bit confusing for some audiences, but this temporary confusion is ultimately in service of placing the viewer in the perspective of Elle herself as she sifts through the stimuli of the world around her. But Elle’s journey of personal discovery renders her not all that dissimilar from Officer K in Blade Runner 2049 or even Deckard from the original Blade Runner; protagonists searching for charity and purpose in their own existence, all while parsing the question of what constitutes as “real” in their own lives. The plot of the opening episodes of Blade Runner: Black Lotus takes a bit to ramp up as it establishes Elle’s quest for answers as well the state of the world itself, but eventually settles into an engrossing sci-fi neo-noir revenge story as the series progresses. Aramaki and Kamiyama understand what makes Blade Runner such an enduring and resonant universe, both visually and thematically. And Blade Runner: Black Lotus homes in on those attributes through a replicant’s search for meaning — and revenge — rendered through an interpretation of an alternate-future Los Angeles in the midst of becoming the dark, post-anthropocene metropolis glimpsed in Blade Runner 2049.
As an anime, Blade Runner: Black Lotus will obviously invoke pointed comparisons not only to Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049, but to Cowboy Bebop director Shinichirō Watanabe’s anime short Blade Runner Black Out 2022. The short set a nigh impossibly high bar for any other Blade Runner-affiliated anime that would succeed it, amassing an impressive roster of collaborators to work on the film that basically boiled down to a who’s who list of anime luminaries including the likes of Shūkō Murase (Mobile Suit Gundam: Hathaway), Hiroyuki Okiura (Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade), Shinya Ohira (Ping Pong), and even future Black Lotus director Aramaki. Admittedly, it feels mildly unfair to compare the two, as the level of energy and coordination required to reconvene this same group of highly-talented animators years later to produce a 13-episode anime would alone render such a project itself virtually impossible. Truthfully, it feels like a minor miracle that Blade Runner Black Out 2022 even happened at all.
To be frank, Blade Runner: Black Lotus doesn’t look nearly as impressive as Black Out 2022. There’s nothing here that compares to Shinya Ohira’s impressionistic interpretation of the battlefields of Calantha, or the climactic shootout between a pair of replicants against Tyrell security forces animated by Okiura and Bahi JD. And while that undoubtedly will come as a disappointment to some viewers, it nonetheless makes an argument for its own existence as the series progresses on the strength of an aesthetic that combines photo realistic environments with bold stylistic lighting choices and composition, its engrossing action and gorgeous establishing shots, and its appropriately subdued and eerie synth score that feels evocative of Vangelis’ iconic work on the 1982 original. The one exception of this last point being the anime’s use of EDM pop tracks like Alessia Cara’s “Feel You Now” or Daya’s “Evil” which play over the series’ opening and closing titles, and while these music choices themselves might prove irksome to die-hard Blade Runner purists, their relegation to the bookends of the episodes themselves renders them more or less inoffensive attempt to broaden the palette of the franchise as a whole. Its ambitions aside, Blade Runner Black Lotus amounts to a worthy addition to the Blade Runner series that’s as much of an entertaining individual story on its own as it is a prequel further embellishing the groundwork for the world glimpsed in Blade Runner 2049.
While it may be easy to discount the series at glance, both Blade Runner fans and even those new to the franchise might be taken aback by what Blade Runner: Black Lotus has to offer. Much like the humanoid replicants, appearances can be deceiving.