Tsutomu Nihei's BLAME! has almost no story to speak of, virtually no characterization, and generally consists of little more than atmosphere, mood, and bursts of spectacular violence. Those are the reasons it works. This is storytelling that plays like an experiment in how little you need to say or show to keep the reader riveted, and from what I can tell the experiment is a success. Sometimes less really is more.
Nihei has two other major works I have enjoyed: Biomega, a chase-and-shoot story that plays like BLAME! but with slightly more formal storytelling; and Knights of Sidonia, the generation-ship, mecha-space-battle epic that's appeared in English in both its TV anime and manga incarnations. BLAME! (pronounced "Blam!") was Nihei's debut, and it's easy to see in it all the seeds of his later work: his fondness for cavernous, rotting technological spaces; his affinity for grotesque, H.R. Giger-esque bio-mechanical beings; and his willingness to put visuals and tone before plot and personality.
For a long time it was difficult to experience any of this, since the original edition of BLAME! in English was by way of the now-defunct Tokyopop and in paperback-sized volumes that reduced the comic's welter of details to a murky web of palm-sized screentone. Vertical Comics has undone all of that by way of a magnificent two-volume large-format edition, newly retranslated and with higher production values across the board.
To walk the earth (or what's left of it)
BLAME! is set in some kind of industrial megaplex, sprawling for uncountable miles in all directions. Endless levels of corridors, rooms, compartments, and pavilions are connected by rotting bridges, gaping doorframes, and collapsing corridors. Stalking through this maze is Kirii ("Killy" in earlier translations), a black-clad, dead-eyed young man, the prototype for most of Nihei's protagonists. Every now and then a monster-like being attacks him, and he dispatches it with a gun that apparently shoots gravity beams. One of the running gags of the series is that whenever Kirii shoots something, it, and everything behind it, and everything behind that, all have holes punched in them big enough for Mack trucks to drive through. No kill like overkill.
Kirii is on a quest. Somewhere in this dead megalopolis are human beings with the "Net Terminal Gene", a quirk that allows them to access the digital infrastructure, or "Netsphere", of the world. With it, Kirii might be able to unseat the sinister "Administration" that holds sway over all. Most of the other beings he encounters are not human, but bizarre human-machine hybrids, or the self-guided machines that expand and repair the megalopolis in all directions, overwriting and absorbing everything in their path.
Kirii's picaresque journey leads him to encounter one set of enemies and uneasy allies after another. The few humans he meets regard him with suspicion and disdain. Some provide him with help or direction, but the main purpose of Kirii's interactions with them is less to provide him with people to interact with than it is to provide the audience with contextual clues about the world. At one point we learn Kirii came from somewhere "at least five thousand strata down" from where he is now. In another, surprisingly soulful moment, Kirii pulls out an old book and reads a quote featuring the word "land", and his poignant response is, "What's 'land'?" "Sky", "ocean", and "sun" also seem to be unknowns in this steel deathscape.
Eventually, Kirii encounters something like population, in a segment of the city that resembles nothing so much as a run-down shopping mall — Logan's Blade Run(ner). Being around other humans doesn't cause him to alter his stride in the slightest; he doesn't slow down to make friends or savor human contact in any way. The mission is everything, and he is the mission. He's not even interested in helping the slave-workers in the employ of a massive conglomerate break free from their oppressors — although, to be fair, they barely try to sell him on the idea before just attempting to clobber Kirii over the head and steal his super-gun.
In spite of Kirii's disconnectedness, he does end up with a compatriot of sorts by the end of the first book. This is Cibo, a scientist banished to a swamplike sublevel, willing to pair her know-how with Kirii's wits and reflexes. She needs a new body first, though, and the way she obtains one — and the truth unveiled from that — provides the action climax for the first volume.
Even if Nihei provides a nominal nod towards story, character, and plot by the end of the first book, it's the imagery and the flavor of BLAME! that make it what it is, and make it worth the while. There is a term in art history, capriccio, used for depictions of architectoral fantasy and ruin, and it fits what we see in BLAME! as well. One artist in particular whose work has been tagged with that label, the 18th-century Italian Giovanni Battista Piranesi, had a series of works named "Carceri" ("Prisons") that play like like dress rehearsals for the even colder and more Brutalist environments of BLAME!. And while I mentioned Giger previously as a point of reference, it's not just because of the monsterlike designs he popularized by way of Alien, although the "silicon beings" that populate some levels of the BLAME! city are clearly in that vein. I thought also of his landscape-like paintings — the "New York" series in particular, and his early drawing "Stairs" — as models of inspiration for the endlessly descending and ascending walls of BLAME!'s world.
Beyond the visuals, another mood or state of mind started to present itself, especially on my second reading. A while back I rewatched a number of Sergio Leone's Westerns — Once Upon A Time In The West and The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly in particular — and what most stayed with me from those films was the sense of ghost-town desolation that hung over everything. It wasn't much of a stretch to see how BLAME! could be seen as a cyberpunk riff on the Western, since it shares a lot of thematic similarities with that genre: A lone gunman stalks through a violent and desolate world, surviving mainly by his wits, his reflexes, and his perpetual distrust of anyone who's not him. What few allies he makes are allies of convenience; in the end, he will always walk away alone. We'll have to see how the story, such as it is, follows this formula through the second volume, but for now my money is on Kirii being a solo act to the end.
I've deliberately avoided reading too much about what happens in the rest of the story. What little I do know, and what I've read here, though bring to mind yet another figure not out of comics or pop culture or even the visual arts, but mythology. Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to roll a boulder to the top of a hill every day, only to have it roll back down and force him to begin again. Kirii is condemned to walk his world alone, never to become a part of the human race he is so determined to save. In that light, maybe what we have here is better thought of not as science fiction or even action-adventure, but tragedy. Who among us would dare walk in Kirii's boots?