Tsutomu Nihei – Storytelling with Artchitecture, and the Door that Leapt through Time.

“[BioMega]’ll probably be the next thing I check out by Nihei. How are you liking it so far?” -A Friend

The short answer: I have no doubt in my mind that I am enjoying it, and if you like his other stuff, then I think you will enjoy it too. Given my habit of long answers, you might of expected a long answer. Do you want to hear one? Cause I got a mental essay started on my way home.
-All images are from works by Tsutomu Nihei. Great stuff.-

The Long Answer

First, let me just apologize. What follows isn’t so much directly answering your question as I won’t really get into how I am liking BioMega specifically. Some few minutes into thinking about it, my brain train derailed off of a bridge over the Grand Stream of Consciousness and has floated back to where it all began. Light train amirite? On its way back onto the tracks, I’ve taken a more reflective and personal look at the various modes of enjoyment I get from Nihei’s work, namely BLAME! (although I have yet to finish it) and a little Sidonia. I look at just what it is he does in storytelling and world building that I enjoy, and my own personal connection. And just to get it out of the way, I have always been interested in world building and storytelling in any medium and often times the handling of the medium itself and that process. The interest extends into my current vocation in architecture, but let’s leave it at that as just an idea of the context in which I sometimes experience things.

My first exposure to Nihei was Knights of Sidonia (anime). I grabbed it on a super sale. I was in need of a new spaceroboaction show and this one seemed to fit the bill, but I was also very interested in the art cards that came with the discs (yeah, I like the extra goodies). Who knows if any were drawn by Nihei, but either way, the intent was certainly to world build and that is what I wanted to see. Let’s pretend we know nothing of Sidonia and take a brief look at this world to see what kind of stuff we can gather from just a smattering of illustrations, yeah?

 


0A

In moments, this world is as open and large as it confined and small.

The outer walls extend high above from a foundation not readily apparent. There are bridges that connect to other, huge walls, but those walls don’t seem occupied. At the human scale, it is dense. There seems to be enough room for people to move, but not large machines or vehicles. Utility related things must be handled through these large, strewn about pipes. Living and support are closely entwined. The locking together of parts, the organic weaving and layering, would suggest a sort of unplanned but necessary growth over time of the built environment to support, perhaps, an unchecked growth of the population. When viewed from a larger scale, it might appear to be a living, moving castle, some castle in the sky from some fantasy or something. On the other hand, buildings seem to grow anywhere they can, and the infrastructure haphazardly follows, perhaps it is more akin to a shanty town? Or maybe like the Kowloon Walled City? That’s probably a stretch.


0f

It is a city of high walls and stacked spaces.

Well, it’s kinda Kowloonish.


0b

Basic needs are met.

There’s water, food, robots, and walking taffy. They seem happy enough, sometimes life’s OK. They’ve got some sort of uniform too, so there is some organization to this. Maybe shanty town and Kowloon weren’t great comparisons as that would imply rampant poverty and lack of government. Maybe it was just an issue of available space and direction to grow? Vertical vs Horizontal? Makes you wonder about that outer wall if they have to expand upward and not outward. Surrounded on all sides, perhaps? There aren’t a lot of people either, so maybe population isn’t that huge an issue… unless the issue is past tense, and this lack of population is the result of a decline as the city reached a balance. Cool, drawings that suggest history.


0d

And time floats on.

Ah, night and day, gotta have that. Are there seasons? Ice age? Heat wave? Thinking of the sun, I am starting to wonder about the nature of that larger wall and the source location of day light. Where are the shadows, Nihei? Is lt perpetually noon or something?

Check out those chairs in the left image, too. These folks must be really accustomed to heights.


0c

IN SPACE.

You can see that big ol wall back there again with some clouds. Also, a spaceship interior? No way that’s the inside of the building, so maybe the wall. Okay, so they are in space, and they’ve been there a long time, with limited space. It seems that for some time, they’ve continued to float on. That explains a bit of it, I think. 


0e

Space is full of mysteries, but so is this ship.

Stairs to nowhere and doors that no longer exist? Doors that vanished over time? Perhaps leapt? What hides behind this boulder? A rusty old piece of junk? Perhaps a sword that can cut through a rock? If Tenchi-ken, so ken you, space lady. 


 

So that’s Sidonia, cool. Nothing terribly specific of the coming story was revealed, but there is definitely a foundation for it. A great deal of work was put into developing some history, background, and sense of place. I can appreciate that. I intended for that to be brief, but I seem to have rambled on. This is the kind of depth of world building I enjoy in Nihei’s work. Although so much remains speculative through interpreting images, that’s the joy of it for me. Consider the process of drawing and designing; it’s like an iterative process of speculation. So much can be understood and created through drawing. Now, BLAME! yeah?

Let’s take a look at what Nihei does. Panels constantly shift between intimate and worldly scales, sizes are juxtaposed, empty silences are disrupted by moments of erupting violence and noise, finite and claustrophobic labyrinths exist within spaces of infinite falls and climbs; Nihei commands a strong understanding of relationships to pull us into the mysteries of this world. With the smallest details and the largest expanses, he tells as much story in drawings, as he does in words. We’ll jump into some Vol. 1 stuff. At this stage, it’s more about the world than the story. Actually, I think a large number of the early events are rendered completely irrelevant or even treated as though they never happened by the time you get into Vol 3. or something. All part of the process I suppose. These first two images are just for some up front context and to be put in your brain pocket for later.

002

This place is huge.

Nihei doesn’t wait to show off the size of this world. After the first turn of page, on the 3rd panel of the entire manga, you are face to space with a 2 pager. I should say “the main character Killy is,” but with the size of this drawing and its distant focal point pulling us in, I will say, we are inside of a huge, far future world, surrounded on all sides by a built environment. It is inhospitable to humans. I mean look, no handrails, that’s a big code violation in some countries.


001

This machine is huge.

Some +hundred pages in, we are introduced to the remains of a builder. It seems to have built itself into confinement, jailed on all sides by very standardized apartments, probably. This place is empty, inhospitable, it is made for humans but not with humans in mind. It is desolate. The world is a ghost town. Where are my handrails? This is a building that was constructed until the builder simply couldn’t continue. This is an endless city. We infer this from the bottomless pits, the lack of horizon, the bits of information provided by Killy regarding his 5000 strata climb. Strata, not floors or levels. If a strata is a single layer in a system comprised of layers, just how big is this thing?


Blame 001

Let’s get personal. All you need is Killy.

Page A – We’ve traveled quite a ways with Killy. We’ve run into some human(oids), although the run-ins have never lasted long. Here, Killy has just been forcibly rejected by a group. In this case, they’ve used some spear like objects to deny him from the group. The image of prison bars comes to mind suggesting a feeling of isolation. To reinforce this isolation, check out what the page itself is doing. These panels all exist within the margins of the page. Sure, sure, that’s pretty typical. Look at the next page, Panel C1 continues off of the bottom of the page to emphasize both the drop and the transition to the page after. Nihei is using the format of the medium to reinforce what is occurring in the panels. In this moment, we are confined to isolation with Killy, our eyes are kept from wandering off of the page. In the final panel, we enter the next room with a left to right motion from our prison to the opening. The motion keeps us in this panel until we deliberately move our eyes to the next page, the next area, departing page A and the place it takes place in, entirely.

Panel B – We travel with Killy, we do not wander, and it is silent for many panels. There is plenty of time to absorb the sudden loneliness in our new environment. It is some sort of utility tunnel with pipes. Killy rests by a door on one of the large pipe and eventually travels through it. Between Panel B and C1 we can think it might have been quite a walk as these pipes travel beyond the visible extents of Panel B. The pipe opens to quite the drop, the panel falls off the page and so do we. We fall into Panel C2, which spills down from the top edge of the page.


Blame 002

It’s a garage door.

Panel C2 – Suddenly, a massive space. A moment of juxtaposition. Who knows how long Killy has been traveling through the previous panels. There was never a strong sense of distance with no landmark to gauge off of, but there was a vague sense of time as 2 full pages of walking is quite a bit of time spent on walking from a reader’s perspective. For Mr. super strength and super endurance Killy, who paused to rest, it must have been quite a long time down that one way tunnel… that he will now have to travel back through to get to this new structure.

Observe the repeating doorways of the tunnels. It vanishes into the distance. We understand Killy’s height relative to the tunnel opening, so we can also develop a sense of distance to get to the bridge. There is also a roll-up door present on the face of this structure and it appears in both C2 and D2. Killy’s size can be compared to the door in D2. Again, relativity helps establish distance, and time. All the relationships between the details on this page, as well as the details of the prior page help give measure to the huge distances that Killy travels, the time spent, and just how small he is in this world. This is what I meant by “door that leapt through time.” It is not there is a door that time travels. It is more the suggestion that these little details in the composition and the architecture provide us with temporal frameworks and experiences.

Take a moment to compare the type of structures as well. Recall the image of Sidonia as well as the image of builder imprisoned by repeating apartments. One might suggest a living population, and the other, a lack of. There’s an organic growth to the new destination, giving us a hint and hope of possible humanity.

There is something strange about this shut roll-up door in D2. If humans really built this, why does it lead to nothing? You have to wonder a bit about the current purpose, history, or future intention of this door. It has signage, or perhaps a light, and projects a little from the wall. It’s a little reminiscent of a dock door for loading and unloading at warehouses.

Let’s move on. Killy walks through a huge door. Stairs, in the distance, lighting, the exaggerated height of the door, and the drop off the page suggest he’ll be climbing a bit. Look, handrails, this place is a little more people friendly, it would seem. Killy walks towards us, the panel drops down and behind us. Feels like it will be another long and linear journey, and more alone time with Killy.


Blame 003

Another garage door?

Up and center, a framed opening, but all boarded up. It looks similar to the other roll-up door in shape, just clearly smaller. Again, it opens to a fall. Perhaps this used to be further outside, a great long time ago. Time traveling..er I mean, time suggestive doors again. Handrails disappeared, whatever, time to let that go.

Panel E – Ah, being a hallway with no ceiling, and also because all heights of things have been non-standard high or infinite, you might hardly notice this coming opening is also fairly tall. It might not matter, it would stick out in our world as our people doors are usually 7-8 feet depending on the occupation of the building (likely 6′-8″ in your house), but it fits in like anything else in the world of Blame! It’s probably 9 -10 feet depending on Killy’s height? He seems kind of small, but that may just be because lately, the built environment he is in has been making him seem smaller and smaller.

Moving on, a lit doorway, large; stairs, quite wide.

Panel F- this door is as large as the one in panel E.  It’s super tall! The handle is quite high as well. It’s at Killy’s shoulder rather than his hip. He looks slightly upward. You would think he is walking up into a space. Panel escapes to the next page.


Blame 004

Relative perspectives

G1 – We are Killy. Our focal point is around the top of the counter, suggesting our eye level. These people are looking down at us. Either we are stepping up into a place, or everything in here is huge.
G2 – Killy seems a bit taken aback. The panels stay within the margins. Killy pauses in his moment of bewilderment. We pause with Killy, with the panels, within the page. Moving to the next page, the first panel extends beyond the top of the paper. The lack of a margin and upper limit is a little disorienting. The perspective also allows us to line things up horizontally, we see Killy’s head is in line with the heads of folks sitting down, but it still feels a little odd.

Blame 005

It all comes together.

H – We are finally able to place Killy in his surroundings in a way that makes sense of everything. The woman stands next to him and moves a curtain, for her sake, not Killy’s. This place is huge, and relative to that, he actually is small. The doors were tall, because the inhabitants were tall. To this woman, the door way is more like a minimum standard height. The relative space between her head and the frame is similar to the relative space between my head and the top of my bedroom door (6′-8″H). It is a door sized for more intimately sized spaces. But, for us, it is very different, different enough that we might pause, take notice, and wonder.

 

The megacity of Blame would never exist in our world, but in many ways it is familiar. Some moments may be impossibly large and expansive, but many details help ground it in the familiar realities in our minds. This helps us speculate and transport ourselves into this world for a fun experience. I think by no means does a reader have to be diligent in picking up these details to enjoy that experience. I honestly believe it happens subconsciously, and that’s the magic that can be achieved when the creators build their worlds in a way that can reach beyond what is immediately presented.  From time to time, it can be fun to speculate these possibilities, to try to understand the foundation of a structure by understanding what is readily visible and what is being held up and presented. The taller a structure, the deeper its hidden foundation.

Oh, what about that garage door to nowhere? Later, Killy hitches a ride with a trucker that drives a flying cargo ship. The ship is much larger than that old door would accommodate, and I think it sat in a hanger, but maybe some long time ago, it served a similar purpose, before the area was seemingly abandoned. Maybe these people evolved to these heights? Who knows.

Thanks for reading.


 

On a personal note.

Halfway through writing this, I finally googled up if Tsutomu Nihei had some kind of background in architecture. Whenever I read his works, I always had this feeling that his drawings were both very intentional but also very speculative. There are many panels that seem to be the product of an architectural design mindset. I was easily absorbed into the linework, the spatial relationships, the labyrinth like circulation, and the gawking depictions of scale. I didn’t look it up right away because it didn’t matter too much to know. To me, the connection was already there and I was enjoying his work. It didn’t matter if we happened share some kind of background, although it would of been cool to me. Then I saw this while flipping through a Blame! (movie) artbook:

IMG_5744.JPG

I can’t actually 100% confirm that he drew it, but I’ll believe it. He actually did study in architecture, and he worked in it for some time. It makes me happy to see the process and knowledge be used for the sake of storytelling and enjoyment. So thanks.

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