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Blade Runner: Black Lotus: Reanimating A Cyberpunk Classic

“We had to make sure that it was recognisable as Blade Runner,” says Joseph Chou, producer of the new CG anime series, Blade Runner: Black Lotus. He’s speaking alongside the show’s cast and crew in a virtual event before the series launches internationally on Adult Swim and Crunchyroll. Chou stresses that with a great franchise comes great responsibility.

“It wasn’t really about what we were trying to do; it was ‘What might be expected of us?,’” Chou says. “When it comes to CG, we have a spectrum going from ‘very toon’ to photo-real, but neither of those was a good choice and we had to have a look that was evocative and unique. At the same time it had to be familiar; somebody coming in would have to say, ‘Yes, that’s Blade Runner.'"

Judging by the early episodes, the show’s studio Sola Digital Arts has managed that comfortably. The series reproduces everything from Blade Runner’s beloved flying cop cars to the giant lights rippling like sunspots through cavernous shadows. “Blade Runner was a revolutionary movie,” says the show’s co-director Kenji Kamiyama. “The neon signs, the dark alleys, the rain-soaked streets.

“It wasn’t the squeaky-clean sci-fi that we were used to back then,” Kamiyama says. “It really was a huge shock, especially to lots of anime creators. There were also a lot of Japanese-language signs, which was interesting from Japan’s perspective. They weren’t necessarily correct Japanese, but that was very endearing. The city, the environment, the look is a major character in Blade Runner, and that’s one of the things you have to think about when tackling it.”

His co-director Shinji Aramaki’s first comments strike a similar note, about staying true to the franchise. “We constantly had to think about Will this be accepted by the Blade Runner fans?... We struggled with it, that whole balance.” Later, though, Aramaki points up how the series must go beyond what the franchise has done already.

“Blade Runner is a wonderful franchise to play in, but what is the point of the series? That’s something I had to think about. One of the things I thought was to expand – not just try to be faithful. You have to deliver the essence of Blade Runner, but if you’re trying it in a new medium, maybe one thing you should do is to expand the drama, and serve as an entry point (for new viewers).”

The last remark suggests Aramaki doesn’t see Black Lotus just as a spinoff. The series should attract Blade Runner fans to anime, but could it do the reverse? Aramaki points out the original film is more than thirty years old. “There are viewers who have not experienced this… What new thing could we contribute to the franchise?”

One thing Black Lotus adds is a female protagonist. Even Blade Runner fans criticise how badly the women are treated in the live-action films – a contrast to cyperpunk-flavoured anime, where women are often the leads. The protagonist in Black Lotus is called Elle (pronounced “L”), voiced in English by Jessica Henwick, who was the martial artist Colleen Wing in Iron Fist and Luke Cage.

Jessica Henwick (voice of Elle)

“Elle is a young woman,” Henwick says, “who wakes up with no memory of her past and the only clue she has is a black lotus tattooed on her shoulder. The show follows her trying to piece together who she is and why so many people are out to get her.”

“She starts as such a baby,” Henwick says. “She doesn’t know who she is, the world she’s come into, the history of Replicants… I tried to capture this feeling of naivety and freshness and make sure I was tracking her arc, going from someone with very little voice to someone who is self-assured, who knows who she is and what she wants.”

“It’s a huge honour to be the first female protagonist in the Blade Runner universe,” Henwick confirms. “I’m such a big fan of the films. You can’t quantify how much of a pop-culture moment Blade Runner was, and how much it changed the landscape. I feel very lucky to be a part of it now, and to bring a female protagonist to it.”

“The female Replicant struggles,” says Aramaki of Elle. He suggests those struggles “can be understood as a gender issue, a discrimination issue… It’s the first time to have a female protagonist for the franchise. In trying to create a piece of entertainment, these kinds of themes naturally came out. The way the world is, she has to struggle against all these challenges and I guess that naturally came to reflect what’s going on in the world these days.”
As well as Elle, one of the main characters is Joseph, a junkyard owner voiced in English by Will Yun Lee. “Elle sparks everything in him,” Lee says. “The character starts off as a spare parts guy who knows a lot about Replicants, and is a master of salvaging pre-Black Out memories.” (The catastrophic Los Angeles Black Out happened earlier in the Blade Runner timeline, as shown in the short anime Blade Runner Black Out 2022.) “The funny thing is that he’s trying to forget everything through drinking, just checking out of the world. When Elle comes into his life, guilt, trauma, all these things come into play… He has this very special relationship with Elle.”

Kamiyama stresses, though, that the themes of Black Lotus go beyond individual characters. “The films are (each) about one character’s personal journey, and you can’t have the entire series just doing that, because you’d run out of story. We had to bring in some other factors, make it bigger. It’s not just about the Replicants, it’s not just about the Blade Runner. Let’s talk about the structure of their conflict, corporations against individuals. So we thought about bringing that into the centre.”

On how Blade Runner’s world resonates today, Kamiyama says, “For me, the thing in Blade Runner that was most poignant was a giant corporation using technology to take control of society. At the same time, that raises the question of what is the worth, the meaning, of human life. That wasn’t something I wanted to tackle directly, but it came naturally because of how the story is set up.”

Henwick reveals directing Blade Runner: Black Lotus was especially gruelling for the directors, who had to contend with international time zones. “Hats off to Kamiyama and Aramaki, because they were getting up at three and four in morning to record with me.” Henwick was in Germany at the time, filming another new instalment of a cyberpunk franchise with shades of Blade Runner – The Matrix Resurrections. 

“We were having to co-ordinate between Japan, Germany and Los Angeles,” Henwick remembers. “Kamiyama and Aramaki would get up in the middle of the night, and they wouldn’t complain at all; they really felt the brunt.”

Both Kamiyama and Aramaki have worked in SF anime for two decades. Anime fans know Kamiyama as the director of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex in the 2000s. (It was a TV version of Ghost in the Shell, previously created as a manga by Masamune Shirow and as an animated film by Mamoru Oshii.) The series was revived in CG form in 2020, as Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045. This revival had very similar credits to Black Lotus, with Aramaki joining Kamiyama as joint directors, and the CG animation made by Sola Digital Arts, which also animates Black Lotus.

 “Ghost in the Shell was inspired by the genre that was really spun out of Blade Runner,” Kamiyama says. “But I did Ghost in the Shell first and then came into this world, which is quite an interesting way to do it. The questions of identity and memory were covered in the world of Ghost in the Shell as well. They originated in Blade Runner, but I had to find an angle to present them interestingly in this version I got to direct.”

Episodes 1 & 2 of Blade Runner: Black Lotus premiere on November 13 on Adult Swim and Crunchyroll.

Andrew Osmond is the author of the book on the original 1995 Ghost in the Shell film, published by Arrow Books. He’s also a journalist specialising in animation and has a website at anime-etc.net