“Blade Runner: Black Lotus” reinvents neo-noir winks in Japan

When the first animated series in the “Blade Runner” franchise airs on cable TV’s Cartoon Network and online streamer Crunchyroll on November 13, it will close the loop of nearly 40 years of cultural cross-pollination.

British director Ridley Scott’s 1982 original, a Hollywood action film set in futuristic Los Angeles, features several neo-noir nods to dystopian urban Japan. Signs in Japanese flash above the neon-lit alleys lined with cramped food stalls. Snatches of Japanese dialogue are heard in the streets and on the radio in Los Angeles Police Officer Gaff’s hovercraft (the brilliantly crafted “spinner”), and in the voiceover accompanying an indelible image of a geisha. , popping a pill on a gigantic video projection of a skyscraper.

Even today, to see Japanese culture so deeply embedded in the directing of a mainstream Hollywood movie is surprising. In 1982, it must have been revolutionary.

It has certainly not gone unnoticed in Japan. While initially “Blade Runner” was not a box office success on either side of the Pacific, it was revered by those who understood its intoxicating mix of sleek high-tech environments with low street culture and dirty, a visual icon of the emerging cyberpunk sci-fi subgenre.

Over time, “Blade Runner” has been labeled as a “cult classic”. And oh, what a cult it was, especially in Japan.

A generation of anime artists have been shaped by the film’s bold and gritty aesthetic, and have gone on to create some of the anime classics devoted to Japan such as “Akira”, “Ghost in the Shell” and ” Cowboy Bebop ”- titles which are now so popular and famous 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 both cited “Blade Runner” as the main inspiration for their designs, and “Cowboy Bebop” creator Shinichiro Watanabe saw Scott’s film over 20 times.

“It was the feel of the world in ‘Blade Runner’ that surprised me the most,” says Watanabe, commenting on the film’s blend of futuristic surrealism and dark urbanism. “With ‘Star Wars’ the story takes place in a different world 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 the anime had their first successful cross-pollination project with “The Animatrix,” a collection of animated shorts by Japanese artists based on Wachowski’s “The Matrix,” which itself was a homage to the sci-fi anime, in particular “Ghost in the Shell”. The commercial and critical success of the omnibus DVD collection “The Animatrix”, to which Watanabe contributed two short films, has led to a growing Hollywood anime remix frenzy, most recently resulting in “Star Wars: Visions” released. on September 22 on Disney’s streaming platform.

“Blade Runner: Black Lotus” reimagines the futuristic Los Angeles of the original “Blade Runner” – with its Japanese neon signs, noodle stalls, pill geishas and all. | IMAGO PRODUCTIONS, LLC.

The frenzy didn’t mean much to Watanabe, and he repeatedly refused to adapt Hollywood films into anime, preferring to create his own original works. But he couldn’t refuse when an opportunity to expand the world of “Blade Runner” arrived in 2017, thanks to producer Joseph Chou, founder and president of Tokyo-based CG animation studio Sola Digital Arts Inc. Watanabe was invited to create one of three shorts featuring the franchise’s live-action sequel, “Blade Runner 2049”.

Watanabe’s short film “Black Out 2022” is a fitting precursor to the upcoming series, “Blade Runner: Black Lotus. “His Los Angeles cityscape is on fire. Cars burn in the streets, riots break out. Databases identify unwanted people: dolls, replicants, anyone who doesn’t like ‘us’. His hero is a black man, Iggy, and his counterpart is a young replicant, they have been used and exploited by institutional power, and now they are ready to rebel.

“The history of mankind is a story of discrimination against the weakest people,” says Watanabe. “I needed to show it.

Capturing and recreating this discrimination while making the design cool in “Black Lotus” was the work of the multinational creative team at Chou’s studio in Tokyo, where the works are currently in the works.

Watanabe signed on as a 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 main character of “Blade Runner” is Elle, a young woman with Asian features and martial arts fighting skills. Her surroundings oscillate between the California desert and the scorching rooftops of LA, and her best friend is the sweet 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 way.

Artists from all over the world worked on
Artists from all over the world worked on “Blade Runner: Black Lotus” during the pandemic at the Sola Digital Arts studio in Tokyo. | WITH THE AUTHORIZATION OF SOLA DIGITAL ARTS INC.

“Jay definitely has a more Japanese personality,” Kamiyama tells me. “He treats Elle with a classic naniwa bushi spirit of loyalty, duty and compassion. It’s kind of kakkoii character (cool, reserved). Like Ken Takakura in ‘Black Rain’, he’s dark and brooding. Scott used Takakura for that kind of calm character, who acts a bit of a thug but inside his mind and his heart is always thinking of each 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 wary of the current build-up of Hollywood studios looking for cross-cultural collaborations. Is anime all about the money now?

Chou insists that there is a way to create such projects while maintaining the integrity of Japanese 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 create CG properties, how can you create something new?

“’Black Lotus’ is the first project where we tried to solve the dilemma of creating cheap CGI and awesome 2D animes,” Chou said. “What’s the balance here visually? “

During a visit to Sola’s studio in Tokyo, I saw artists from France, the Middle East and Japan spend hours staring at the steam rising from a city rooftop in the ‘Blade Runner’ universe. “The city is the character,” says Chou. “We can do it and we can develop the story.”

“Black Lotus” comes full circle in 2021 by reimagining the Los Angeles of the original “Blade Runner” – with its Japanese neon signs, noodle stalls, geisha taking pills and all – in a downtown animation studio -City of Tokyo.

“Blade Runner: Black Lotus” will be available worldwide on Crunchyroll from November 13th. Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the US” and a professor at Waseda University.

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