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Blade Runner's Unbelievable Influence On Anime

by Daryl Surat,

In 2017, it's very easy to forget that 1982's Blade Runner was neither a commercial success at the time of its release nor the mainstream critical darling it is nowadays. Although it derailed director Ridley Scott's film career for many years, dedicated sci-fi fans of that era instantly recognized Blade Runner's quality. The perception of “science fiction in film” was forever changed from that moment, and a similar effect was exerted in Japan upon the “maniacs” when Blade Runner came out there merely one week later. “Otaku” wasn't quite in common usage just yet, though the classic “otaku” image is certainly embodied by JF Sebastian's residence!

There's a long history of Blade Runner influencing anime, and I took it for granted that everybody just knew this stuff. It seemed so obvious, right? But this past weekend at Anime Weekend Atlanta, when I showed a packed ballroom a video consisting of the audio to the trailer of Blade Runner synced to video from two classic anime titles heavily influenced by it, barely anybody recognized what they were seeing on account that well, not many anime convention attendees have seen these titles (or Blade Runner, for that matter)! So, let's keep it simple and go over some basics, shall we? Indeed, when it comes to the Blade Runner aesthetic in anime, I think we all know the obvious go-to title:

That's right, Monster Musume with its sexy snake girl being CLEARLY inspired by Zhora the Replicant stripper and her synthetic snake combined with the powerful crushing legs of Pris UNDOUBTEDLY—wait, no that's not right…

That's the ticket! When I wrote Thirty Years Ago: The Best Anime of 1987, there was no question that I would need to mention Bubblegum Crisis first, since it was the most popular among American fans for the longest amount of time. It's also got the most obvious elements lifted wholesale from Blade Runner and various other American films, which is a large component to why it became popular here in the first place. In the future city of Mega-Tokyo—yes, this is where that old web comic got its name—the Genom corporation produces Boomers: synthetic humans that are effectively a combination of the robots from The Terminator and the Replicants of Blade Runner. Like the Tyrell Corporation, Genom operates out of a pyramid-like structure which towers over the cityscape.

One episode even involves a group of Boomers who escaped from off-world to Earth in search of a way to stave off their impending mortality, much like the Nexus 6 Replicants were. No subtle nods are at play here; the first episode opens with a performance by a musical act known as Priss and the Replicants, in which the hero Priss dons a wig to resemble Daryl Hannah's “military / leisure” Replicant character Pris from Blade Runner if she were dressed as Ellen Aim from Streets of Fire.

Police officer Leon McNichol doesn't bear any particular resemblance to Blade Runner's Leon, the Replicant who famously said “Wake up. Time to die!” but the name is no accident. Several of the designs used come courtesy of Mr. Transforming Motorcycles himself, Shinji Aramaki, who later went on to make most of the 3D CG Appleseed movies. I don't know if he's all that as a director, but it's certainly clear that he loves Blade Runner.

Bubblegum Crisis isn't quite cyberpunk despite its visual aesthetic, but perhaps the most cyberpunk anime ever made is its prequel spinoff, AD Police Files, in which Leon is still a rookie cop assigned to the task of destroying humanoid robots who have malfunctioned and gone on gruesome killing sprees. The Blade Runner similarities stand out particularly in the first episode, “The Phantom Woman,” in which a “sex bot” Boomer goes out of control and must be deactivated by way of high-powered firearms in the middle of a public street, though thematically AD Police Files focuses more directly on transhumanism compared to Blade Runner. In other words, more “cyborg” dreams than “androids,” but a big point of Blade Runner is the blurred delineation between man and machine to begin with.

That Tyrell Corporation pyramid sure does get around, huh? It's one thing to see it in Bubblegum Crisis, but my favorite unexpected Blade Runner shout-out has got to be The Vision of Escaflowne, a fantasy series about a girl transported to a land of dragons, sorcerers, catgirls, giant robots, and shirtless guys with feathery angel wings. Hmm, that description sounds like I'm just talking about every anime convention, but take a look at the headquarters of the evil Zaibach empire:

Of course, you've probably seen on your social media feeds that the Hedy Lamarr-inspired look of Sean Young's Rachael from Blade Runner when combined with 1992 “Diamonds and Pearls”-era Prince is just GREAT.

No wonder Josuke Higashikata of Jojo's Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable fame prides himself on his hairstyle so!

“I am…who?” At least one of the Replicants of Blade Runner, genetically patterned after and implanted with memories from living people, doesn't even realize that they aren't human. Certainly, Blade Runner didn't invent this concept. In 1949, nearly 20 years before Philip K. Dick wrote the novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” from which Blade Runner is adapted, the “God of Manga” Osamu Tezuka wrote the manga Metropolis which addressed several of these themes in a decidedly more kid-friendly manner. But in 2001, long after Tezuka's death came the film Osamu Tezuka's Metropolis which despite its title was written by Katsuhiro Otomo, an author best known for another groundbreaking cyberpunk classic, Akira. That film's background similarities to Blade Runner are more intentional. Aside from the city's visual aesthetic, particularly on the lower levels, the presence of “more human than human” robots who end up endeared with detectives, who this time are separate from the individuals granted impunity to destroy robots by shooting them regardless of whether any innocent bystanders are nearby. It's a phenomenal film due to be rediscovered, now that there's a region-free UK Blu-Ray which preserves the film grain, unlike prior releases. You can listen to me monologue for roughly an hour about this gem in episode 157 of the Anime World Order podcast, so let's get to the obvious one already:

When it comes to the influence of Blade Runner on anime, you can practically draw a straight line between it and 1995's Ghost in the Shell, which has in turn influenced subsequent live-action sci-fi works. Liberally adapted from Masamune Shirow's 1989 manga—himself no stranger to cyberpunk, having previously written Appleseed in 1985—the movie from director Mamoru Oshii is not only one of the single most famous anime titles ever, it's been covered so extensively over the last few years at the expense of everything else that I'm inclined to focus on other titles here. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Oshii seems to share my sentiment, pointing out that “ultimately, all movies begin as copies of others, and it's impossible to avoid consciously or unconsciously copying things from other works…Any film set in a near-future world is influenced to some degree by Blade Runner…I drew more from ‘hard-boiled’ Hollywood movies.” Granted, until Blade Runner's fusion of noir and sci-fi, few hard-boiled Hollywood movies delved upon mega-corporations, cities fusing traditional Eastern and Western aesthetics with high technology, the implantation of false memories resulting in uncertainty about one's humanity, and so on but I'm sure Oshii is just sick and tired of everybody always associating him with Ghost in the Shell rather than his Kerberos Saga so let's consider a less widely known Blade Runner homage of Oshii's done several years prior:

Mobile Police Patlabor is a far more optimistic view of the future than Blade Runner, so its influence isn't as clear-cut. But there was one extensive Blade Runner spoof sequence in the 10th OVA episode, “It's Called Amnesia” of what's released here as “The New Files.” Resident ill-tempered gun fanatic Ohta dreams of literally being Rick Deckard and wielding his trademark gun to “retire” those dastardly robots…who all happen to be his coworkers! Then, just like Deckard in Blade Runner, Ohta orders noodles in the rain and gets into an argument over the desired order quantity. Unlike Blade Runner, he shoots the stand owner (imagined as his partner turned killer robot) for daring to deny him adequate noodles. Then Ohta wakes up and the episode commences…with him having no memory of who he is while being surrounded by the dead corpses of the cast! Beats dreaming about unicorns, I guess. I should note that this episode is in fact a COMEDY, and a good one at that. Mamoru Oshii was always talented at delivering jokes, but he's more interested in dystopian government states. THANKS A LOT, BLADE RUNNER. At least a Patlabor Reboot series is in the works following the reception to the Japan Animator Expo short.


Animated shorts, of course, are what prompted this whole writeup. With the release of the sequel Blade Runner 2049, a series of short film tie-ins were produced to help span the gap between it and the original. That one of them, Blade Runner: Black Out 2022, was a Japanese cartoon is only a little surprising; there was about a decade or so where Japanese studios would create animated tie-in works for American film and videogame properties, after all. No, what WAS surprising about it is that it was actually well-made.

In the nearly 15 years since The Animatrix, it's become exceedingly clear that the Japanese don't allocate the necessary resources to these American co-productions that they should, no matter how respectable a name the studio otherwise has. Unless it's something which Japanese animators already care about, the staff assigned are typically rookies with little to no experience, AND IT SHOWS. Fortunately, the talent assembled for Black Out 2022 care about Blade Runner a lot. Chief among them is writer/director Shinichiro Watanabe of Macross Plus, Cowboy Bebop, and Space Dandy fame who noted that “Blade Runner was definitely the movie that influenced me the most as an anime director.” The animators are similarly accomplished, such as Shukou Murase who directed Witch Hunter Robin as well as Ergo Proxy which also has a premise initially focusing around the importance of blasting away humanoid robots gone bad through sentience. There's also Jin-Roh director, Metropolis key animator, and Ghost in the Shell character designer/animator Hiroyuki Okiura. Bahi JD animated the fight scene, and in my mind, I choose to envision that Shinji Aramaki begged to work on this so that he could handle the mechanical design of the iconic flying car. It's a shame that talent of this caliber couldn't have gotten as excited over Mass Effect…but then again who does?  (After Mass Effect: Andromeda!)

It may be hard for those who have never seen Blade Runner until 2017 to appreciate its vision or legacy. After all, we now more or less live in the shabby, polluted, corporate run, authoritarian surveillance state of Blade Runner as it is albeit without the flying cars and sex robots, aka THE GOOD STUFF. True Blade Runner aficionados can see that I've only skimmed the surface of what makes it great. Hardcore sci-fi anime otaku know there are countless other examples of Blade Runner references and influences in anime across the decades, both visual AND thematic. Got any that come to mind? Let's hear ‘em in the comments section!

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