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The best Blade Runner anime would have nothing to do with Blade Runner

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Image: Alcon Entertainment

The world of Blade Runner is getting an anime series, raising an important question: does the world of Blade Runner need an anime series?

Sure, the animated short Blade Runner: Blackout, which helped set up last year’s Blade Runner 2049, was pretty good, but a full-fledged series just seems gratuitous. For one thing, there are virtually infinite anime homages to Blade Runner Bubblegum Crisis borrowed everything from the film’s character names to its iconic menacing pyramid. For another, there’s a much better series waiting to happen: an anime adaptation of Blade Runner’s namesake novel, The Bladerunner.

The Bladerunner inspired Blade Runner’s title thanks to an offhand reference by screenwriter Hampton Fancher, but the similarities end there. The novel was published in 1974 by science fiction writer Alan E. Nourse, then turned into a never-produced screenplay called Blade Runner: A Movie, written by William S. Burroughs in 1979. Put both versions together, and you’ve got the ingredients for a killer post-apocalyptic series about a black market delivery boy fighting a deadly pandemic against the backdrop of a holy war over medical care.

Allow me to explain, with some significant spoilers for the series.

Blade Runner Nourse and Burroughs titles via Neon Dystopia

The Bladerunner is set in New York City in the futuristic year 2009. America is recovering from an overpopulation crisis and a nationwide riot, and the government has implemented a draconian new health care program: anyone who visits a hospital must submit to sterilization, since they’ve proven themselves unfit to reproduce.

Forbidden underground clinics spring up, served by teenage “bladerunners” who smuggle medical supplies around New York, which has been divided by a gigantic wall. Hospital administrators see the clinics as a threat to a coldly scientific eugenics regime. Religious fanatics believe they’re thwarting God’s will. Crime lords consider them good business.

Burroughs’ version adds a dose of over-the-top cinematic spectacle. The streets of his New York are filled with rubble, leftover from a civil war between militant Christians and social deviants. The subway has been partially flooded and turned into an “underground Venice.” Zoo animals roam the city, and abandoned skyscrapers are occupied by aerial gangs who travel by hang-glider and high-rise catwalk. If you’re thinking that filming this would be ludicrously expensive, well, so did Hollywood producers. But talented animators could handle it easily.

We discover this world through a small cast of outlaw medical practitioners: brilliant surgeon Doc; his level-headed assistant Molly; and Billy, a street-smart bladerunner with a malformed foot that’s shut him out of more respectable work. Police are closing in on the trio, but they stay one step ahead by fooling the city’s advanced surveillance systems. And when a virus sweeps through the city, they’re the only ones who can stop it.

The Bladerunner deals with perennially relevant themes like government surveillance and economic inequality. It also holds the seeds of compelling interpersonal drama, like Doc’s constantly deferred promises to operate on Billy’s foot, or Doc and Molly’s double lives as official hospital staff. (Burroughs’ version also gives Billy a bladerunner boyfriend.) The book’s plot is somewhat rote, but its premise is perfect for an arc-driven episodic story about a makeshift family of altruistic criminals.

A few elements feel particularly well-suited for science fiction anime. The Bladerunner’s antagonists espouse the kind of idealistic extremism that drives countless anime plots; it’s ripe for philosophical monologues delivered by Eugenics Control administrators and “Naturist” fanatics. And if you like (or hate) bizarre, mystical Gainax Endings in the vein of Neon Genesis Evangelion, you’ll love (or really hate) Burroughs’ surreal final sequence, where an aphrodisiac virus from a crystal skull somehow sends Billy to the year 1914.

Most importantly, The Bladerunner delivers a lot of cyberpunk’s best elements — like its complex, gritty social systems and its fascination with the human body — without the genre’s tired aesthetic tropes. The book’s technology is futuristic but clumsy, its streets are refreshingly free of neon and holograms, and there’s not a cybernetically enhanced mercenary in sight. It would work equally well as ‘70s retro-futurism, stylistically contemporary science fiction, or an anachronistic blend of both.

You probably couldn’t really get away with calling this series The Bladerunner. But I’d still love to see someone explore Nourse and Burroughs’ weird, spectacular, high-concept world. Maybe the showrunners could steal one of Ridley Scott’s old working titles for Blade Runner — in which case, I’ll eagerly await Adult Swim and Crunchyroll’s next anime series: Dangerous Days.