Netflix has just launched the first season of Altered Carbon, the original series based on the novel series by sci-fi author Richard K. Morgan. The series is run by Laeta Kalogridis, the screenwriter best known for her work on Shutter Island, Terminator: Genisys, Avatar, and the upcoming Alita: Battle Angel adaptation.
Based on the trailer footage and story details, it's clear that Altered Carbon is a sci-fi noir thriller that will easily appeal to the Blade Runner crowd. However, after watching the series we can now say: Netflix's Altered Carbon is also a great watch for anime fans.
The premise of Altered Carbon takes us into a cyberpunk-style future, in which human consciousness (or soul, if you will) can be preserved onto digital files known as "stacks," and transferred to different bodies ("sleeves") -- either new bodies or cloned versions of their old ones. The rub is that only the top wealthy elite can afford such immortality, making them the perennial ruling class, living high above the dystopian world in extravagant colonies above the clouds.
Into this world comes Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman), the last member of an elite military rebel group known as Envoys, who has been disembodied for over 200 years. Takeshi's Envoy deductive powers make him a perfect sleuth for the world's wealthiest man, Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) who was mysteriously murdered in his own home, only to be resurrected by digital backup with no memory of the incident.
If this premise sounds like it easily be the basis for an anime or manga series - you're not wrong. It has shades of everything from Ghost In The Shell and Battle Angel to Cowboy Bebop. In many ways, it's the best live-action Western series yet to capture the spirit of the anime genre.
Aside from the obvious element of a half-Asian main character, Altered Carbon comes with a lot of Eastern culture influences that liken it to the anime genre.
Some of the those influences are obvious and on the nose, like samurai and ninja-style katana sword fights, or obvious religious/spiritual iconography; other influences are more subtle and thematic. In general, Altered Carbon mixes narrative, themes, atmosphere, and action together in a mix that is much more "anime-ish" than your typical Western action noir, and fans of the genre will enjoy that fealty.
Anime is known for a particular hero archetype that often gives us brooding, damaged, smart, and deadly hero types, a lot of times colored with tints of classic film Noir detectives. Those heroes often come with a collection of color and offbeat sidekicks and/or companions - and Altered Carbon delivers on both fronts.
The group of actors who form the Takeshi Kovacs performance (Joel Kinnaman, Will Yun Lee, Byron Mann) all nail the brooding Cybperpunk Noir detective/soldier type - but the real standouts are in the sidekicks. Tech-enhanced detective Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda) is as badass as Takeshi, and there are some very sci-fi / anime-style characters on the digital A.I. front, such as the scene-stealing Poe (an A.I. hotel whose clerk is modeled after Edgar Allan Poe). Envoy leader Quellcrist Falconer is totally anime in spirit - form her name to her Eastern-style philosophies on combat and perception.
Heroes are only as good as their villains, and anime specializes in some offbeat villain types that can at once be terrifying, creepy, and often funny. Altered Carbon doesn't disappoint in this area, either, with a mix of Cyberpunk gangsters, ninja-like serial killer zealots, and a one-woman army, complete with blazing energy blaster and samurai sword.
More than the surface picture, the performances of the villain characters feels more anime than sci-fi, with actors like Dichen Lachman (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and Trieu Tran making their villains wonderfully weird and creepy and cool, like they walked right off of an anime screen.
Anime is defined by (among many other things) a cultural attention to detail and aesthetic that is elaborately detailed. One way that Netflix's Altered Carbon makes the jump from being a sci-fi novel to something that feels much more anime-inspired is through that same aesthetic detail, as you can see above.
There's equally elaborate time spent crafting atmosphere, even at the expense of narrative thrust at certain points. The investment in both atmosphere and aesthetic detail is something anime fans will appreciate, and it definitely gives Altered Carbon a rare East-meets-West appeal.
Along with the very premise of Altered Carbon's story being aligned with so much anime, its thematic arch seems to echo the genre quite a bit, as well. It's rare for Hollywood blockbusters or action thrillers to spend much time on heavy rumination over philosophical quandaries like the nature of the soul, but Altered Carbon certainly does. And, like anime, these ponderings are their own sect of the story, with the hero working out his own mind in heavy voice-over monologue.
Other themes like family and duty are also clearly influenced by the Eastern story form, offering nice substance with all the flash.
Let's end with the real question: does Altered Carbon offer anything like the kind of action anime can? And the answer is: pretty much!
Altered Carbon may have some of the slower more depth-heavy elements of anime, but it also offers a number of thrilling action sequences that would be right at home in the genre. Some of these sequences look like they were pulled straight from anime, with a mix of futuristic cyperpunk gunfights, martial arts throwdowns, and 'sword and gun' showdowns. It's violent, thrilling, and gorgeous stuff to see in a TV series, and probably the best live-action action in the spirit of anime that we've seen.
Altered Carbon is now streaming on Netflix.