By Erin Caine
The last installment of prequels for the upcoming film, “Blade Runner 2049,” was released on Sept. 28 with a twist. Instead of following the live-action style of the two previous short films, the third, “Blade Runner Black Out 2022,” is a Japanese animation, helmed by legendary director Shinichiro Watanabe.
The prequels lead up to the release of “Blade Runner 2049,” a neo-noir sci-fi film directed by Denis Villeneuve. This is the sequel to the 1982 film, “Blade Runner,” directed by Ridley Scott. Scott’s son, Luke Scott, directed the first two prequels with Watanabe taking over for the third short.
Watanabe’s creative signature is apparent throughout the film’s 15-minute duration, from his memorable and self-examining protagonists to his vibrant urban venues.
A part of Watanabe’s trademark style is his use of music as an aesthetic device and a way of bending traditional genre. Over the past two decades, he’s concocted a few unlikely (and frankly brilliant) combinations: jazz and space cowboys, hip-hop and Edo-period samurai, and Icelandic post-rock set against a modern Tokyo.
For most of his musical scores, Watanabe has worked with composer Yoko Kanno, a rare and intuitive genius in her own right, and it is much to her credit that these scores are as successful and iconic as they are. Watanabe’s musical sense is undeniable.
One of the first scenes of “Black Out 2022” features angry rioters wreaking havoc across the city to a frenetic and percussive jazz instrumental. The animation matches the energy perfectly, featuring grainy and gritty backgrounds with characters shouting in the streets and breaking car windows. For the original score, Watanabe reached out to Los Angeles producer and musician Steven Ellison, known professionally as Flying Lotus. The versatility of Ellison’s style—from jazz to hip-hop to experimental electronica— lends a versatility to the story. Long, sparse synthetic sounds create a sense of futuristic awe, whereas the fast-paced hip-hop beat during the action scenes give moments an added urgency.
The mastery of craft demonstrated in a quarter of an hour is truly astounding. The animation (with the help of seasoned character designer Shukou Murase) feels similar to a live-action film, and at other moments shows a bold artistic vision. One moment is during a flashback, where one of the main characters, Iggy, recounts his experiences on a desert battlefield. The rough lines of animation, the roiling landscape, and the indistinct human forms all communicate the trauma and intensity of the memory.
As equally compelling as the animation is Watanabe’s development of his primary characters, Iggy and Trixie, who are renegade androids with a mission to prevent their kind from being wiped out—and a desire to confirm to their own humanity. Though Japanese anime is by no means a mainstream form of media in the west, Watanabe being sought out for this project may be a sign that Hollywood is beginning to look eastward for larger projects.