Black Lotus Bosses Promise Fights Fit for Live-Action

Blade Runner: Black Lotus revisits the cyberpunk, neo-noir world of the Blade Runner franchise but through the lens of anime. The dark and vibrant aesthetic that helped make the original movie so popular translates well to the small screen. But Black Lotus doesn't just replicate the source material, it expands upon it. Following a woman replicant through the grungy world and armed with a katana paints an entirely new picture of this world.

At a roundtable interview attended by CBR and other outlets, Blade Runner: Black Lotus co-directors Shinji Aramaki and Kenji Kamiyama along with executive producer and translator Joseph Chou discussed the importance of revisiting the flagship of the cyberpunk genre through anime. They also dived into the difficulties and joy of expanding a beloved franchise.

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The group of creators began by addressing why they chose to tell this particular Blade Runner story with animation. "Well, for one thing, they were asked," Chou stated, translating for Aramaki and Kamiyama. "One of the points of doing it this way was also maybe an opportunity to try and expand the franchise for new audiences as well. That's something that they thought was important for them as well."

But Chou also had his own personal reasons for being excited about translating Blade Runner into animation. "I've been trying to do this for more than 15 years. I got to be part of the Animatrix project way back when," Chou continued. "After that was a big hit, I was at the time part of Warner Brothers. We were searching very hard for what could be the next one, and the natural thing that came was Blade Runner. The reason I kept staying on -- even after I went independent and I really chased everybody who was supposed to have the rights, for a long, long time -- was because Blade Runner actually had a huge impact on the anime industry."

Chou described how Blade Runner inspired anime classics like Akira or Ghost in the Shell, which both Aramaki and Kamiyama worked on previously. "These popular cyberpunk anime that also turned around and influenced The Matrix and other films," he explained. "It really started from Blade Runner. It's just the best match ever. To me it's like, well, we need to pay our tribute as well. I thought it was just a perfect medium to try and adapt this franchise. Obviously, the live-action films are wonderful by themselves; but we thought, 'Okay, by doing it in anime with Japanese creators who were heavily impacted by these films, it would be perfect to take that on.'"

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The directors then discussed what aspects of the established Blade Runner canon they wanted to ensure shined through in Blade Runner: Black Lotus. "By marrying sci-fi and the hard-boiled genre, it really simply created a whole new genre of sci-fi called cyberpunk," they said. "There are tropes that follow the genre. However, if you're trying to do something in animation, you really need to get at the essence of the subject matter that you're trying to deal with -- otherwise, it's really easy to fail. Especially in the medium of animation, you really need to get to the point of what the story is about and deliver that to the audience."

"That's something that was difficult," Chou said. "Even though it's a well-known film, and [the directors] were heavily impacted by it, how do you distill it down? What is the essence of Blade Runner? It's a question that you have to constantly think about. Basically, there's a list of things that you have to hit, and is it the look? Is it the theme? Is it the story? Is that the character? All these things that [the directors] needed to boil down and make sure that it is Blade Runner in its simplest terms, that's something that they were really trying to hit as creators."

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The directors also discussed how changing established cyberpunk visual cues could impact how audiences view the show. Chou translated, "If we throw a girl in there with a katana, how can we convince people that it is a Blade Runner?" The team had to carefully consider how to appeal to established and new audiences alike. Chou continued, "Can we expand, or at least offer an entry point to a younger audience or an audience who hasn't experienced in real-time as they did, or who are not traditional fans, existing fans of the Blade Runner? So they really needed to hit that as well -- staying true, but at the same time also possibly act as a gateway for people to enter into this world and really immerse themselves in Blade Runner and them wanting to experience the films that they have never seen before. That's something that they really need to think about."

The Blade Runner: Black Lotus creative team also discussed the risks of bringing in new components to the universe. Chou shared, "Being handed the keys to the kingdom is one thing, but if you do something completely new and different then it risks no longer being Blade Runner. That was the most difficult thing, by the way, trying to do this project. We really needed to figure out, 'Okay, so what is Blade Runner? What is the essence of Blade Runner? How do we make sure that it stays in that universe?' -- to do that, we really needed to identify what made Blade Runner attractive to people."

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Chou continued, "But at the same time, the new and innovative thing that they could have added to this was, it's fine to open the door and try to really get at what it is, but then how can we add our touches?... How do we make it more easily digestible to the contemporary audience so that they would want to enter into this world -- people who have not experienced this before? So if anything was new and innovative that was being introduced here, it was an attempt to draw that audience but without really going out of bounds, because once you kind of get out of that line then there'll be finger-pointing right there and saying, 'That's not Blade Runner.' So it's a fine line. It was a fine line. That is the high wire they had to walk on."

Chou then spoke about how his previous work on the Animatrix informed Blade Runner: Black Lotus. "I think when I first joined Warner Brothers -- back when as a junior executive in training, out of school, basically -- at the time, I was really wondering about my place," Chou shared. "What would be my place in this giant organization or even the industry that I'm entering into? One thing I was very passionate about was obviously Japanese anime and the possibility of the medium. I think when I was in college, I noticed that it was taking off and I saw bits and pieces of it in the video shops that I would visit, but then by the time I entered Warner Brothers, DVD had taken off and that created a whole new industry, a whole new business and a whole new way of doing business. Home entertainment basically took on a new meaning."

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"So I had some knowledge that I carried with me when I walked in the door," Chou continued. "But literally, I had nothing to do with starting it, it was on. The Wachowski [sisters] wanted to do it and it was on -- I just walked into it, and I'm like, 'Oh!' It was interesting because I was the only one who would really understand within the marketing organization who's who and what this director means and what the studio means and whatnot. So I naturally gravitated to it and I got involved."

"After, it became a massive hit, on the strength of the entire hype for The Matrix that was built up leading up to Reloaded," Chou continued. "It was a very special work because what it did was it introduced anime into the mainstream consciousness. Still, I think it is the most sold anime ever... It was very edgy, but it really showed the best of what these animators can do. It wasn't just kid drama. It wasn't just a Pokémon. It was this that we can offer the world. But obviously, that already started with Ghost in the Shell and these types of titles, Akira and these types of titles, they started making smart, but it really culminated with that and it really made a mainstream impact."

"To me, it was interesting because it really was a full circle in a way because Blade Runner started the circle. It impacted all these cyberpunk anime, and then it impacted Matrix and then the creators wanted to do the anime and then it sort of fed back. When you trace back the history of it, Blade Runner was the beginning of it all. So the reason I would look at it as something I would need to pay homage to or really need to live up to is the level of artistry that came with it. But also at the same time, it was an homage to Japanese anime, interestingly. For us, I think it's really a payback, it's our tribute back. So it's a very significant project, not because we like to do it and not because it's a good business -- it really is a terrible business, was a terrible business, I can tell you."

Chou elaborated on what made this particular production difficult, which unsurprisingly was related to the ongoing global pandemic. "We struggled a lot through this production with COVID," he said. "We are not well after this. We really went all out on this just because it's something that we were very passionate about. It's something that draws passion out of the creators like these two gentlemen here [indicating Aramaki and Kamiyama]."

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But despite the difficulty of the task, Chou didn't have to work hard to sell the directors on the series. He shared, "I had these two directors wanting to take it on, but I didn't need to convince them at all. It's just one of those things, 'Blade Runner series,' and it was like, 'Done, we're doing it.' There's no question. Even our crew, through COVID -- I don't wanna get too dramatic, but we were literally risking our lives, because everybody showed up. Everybody showed up, and we had to shut down for a month when things got really scary. But after that, it went on for another year, but people just showed up. We were working nights and weekends and it didn't matter. We had to get it done. Now, I know we could have done even better and I know we could even do better than this. But given the fight that we had to fight, I think we're very proud of where we have arrived. We hope it contributes to the franchise and we hope it might continue -- maybe not with us but maybe with us. That really is up to the rights holders and the producers, but it's something we hope that shows our passion at least."

Aramaki and Kamiyama also had a pre-established passion for cyberpunk. Chou translated, "For their generation, it's something that impacted them very, very deeply. Obviously without it Ghost in the Shell wouldn't exist. It's something that has impacted [Kamiyama] and basically colored him permanently, and it's something that bleeds out. We're not just fans, we're beyond fans. It's something that really impacted us as creators. So no question it was an important influence on us."

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"When [Aramaki] just entered the anime industry, which is long ago, the film just came out -- he saw it in theaters, one of the probably few people who has done that. But it was so completely shocking: the level of detail, the designs, the world. It's not just gleaming white, shiny buildings. It's a dirty, grungy world and rains and it's just visually the coolest thing ever. The theme that he talked about, it's just the pinnacle of anything that he's seen before. He did a lot of anime actually that was trying to do what he saw."

Aramaki also talked about buying the original Blade Runner movie. "That's probably the first movie he bought and he had it on a loop -- he would just play on forever and it's the coolest thing to just have it on the TV." Chou asked Aramki whether he bought the film on VHS or Betamax -- "Sure enough, it was Betamax, so that's how all this is. He's pretty sure Kenji did the same thing and all the animators back then did the same thing. For him to get in there and touch this world and be in the driver's seat, it's something incredible. It was something incredible for him. So yes, it was a huge opportunity for him. It wasn't a question for him at all."

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Finally, the creative team provided insight into how they decided on which camera movements to animate specifically for the epic fight sequences of Blade Runner: Black Lotus. "When it comes to this project, obviously we were using the motion capture technology for CG animation, so it was possible to approach it like a live-action film. But the medium -- not just the franchise, but the medium itself renders itself easily to the live-action type of camera movements. Something that they were very conscious of was not to do these dramatic, stylistic camera choices that the usual anime would do, but rather something straight on, something more feet-on-the-ground, stay on subject. That type of camera work was something they were very conscious of because doing it like a live-action film was actually closer in their minds than trying to do this like anime per se when it came to the camera. That kind of thought informed a lot of choices that they made when they were doing action sequences."

Co-directed by Shinji Aramaki and Kenji Kamiyama and executive produced by Joseph Chou, Blade Runner: Black Lotus premieres on Adult Swim's Toonami block Nov. 13 at midnight ET/PT and will stream on Crunchyroll at the same time.

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E.L. Meszaros (266 Articles Published)

E.L. is a writer who unironically believes that most things are games. She is currently a graduate student in the history of the exact sciences in antiquity, and *has thoughts* about ancient math and modern astrology alongside good tutorialization and immersion. She has shared these thoughts (and her writing) with digital venues like Eidolon, Lady Science and First Person Scholar. In her downtime, E.L. enjoys puzzle games, ARGs, lyric TTRPGs, handstands and trapeze. You can follow her (and recommend GM-less storytelling games) on Twitter.

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