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Anime With Bite: Vampires in Japanese Animation

I quite enjoy a good vampire-based horror tale. Within the field of anime (and manga) there are a lot to choose from including Vampire Knight (vampire intrigue in a strange school), Dance in the Vampire Bund (vampire & humans co-existing), Blood Lad (vampire takes responsibility for the accidental death of a girl) and Nyampire (perhaps the cutest with a black kitty-cat becoming a vampire).  Of those that I have seen the best (which I appreciate is a subjective term) have a memorable vampire hunter and a distinctive setting.  I always struggle to pick a favourite so here are the two I would recommend to others.

In putting this list together I tried to decompose or deconstruct the vampire anime I have liked, really liked and not been fussed by.  Were there some items that made it more likely for me to think something was cool or conversely, be turned off?  I'm not suggesting a database or list-based approach to building a show (though I expect that does happen) but there will be aspects that, when combined are more likely to hit my interest buttons.

It was much easier to think of the things that turned me off.  Vampire-based comedy (like for example Rosario + Vampire ) with lots of fan-service and, ahem, flashing of "panties" is a definite no-no for me.  Vampire-romance (a-la Vampire Knight) is less of a no-no and I get why people like it (I quite enjoyed Vampire Knight when I read it but it is not one I have wanted to go back to).  I like the idea of shows or stories centred around vampire civilisations or communities but again I feel that the metaphor is wasted or done better using aliens instead.  So what do I like?

I like to see the vampire as a hunter, an alpha predator of sorts.  This can be as the villain or the hero of.  I like to see characters and vampires who are self-motivated, have a purpose, and when they are the focus of the tale, rather than a participant in someone else's.  I like to see them as a loner, trying to fit in but not quite able to (and how this might drive their behaviour).  There needs to be a sense of danger, peril or threat, these are after all top of the food chain predators.  I enjoy seeing other monsters or creatures in the same world that can give rise to some over the top action and mayhem, but that would be a bonus, not a significant driver for my enjoyment.

Given those thoughts my top vampire-based anime that I would recommend to others are, in no particular order:
  • Blood the Last Vampire (the 2000 production)
  • Vampire Hunter D (1985)
Vampire Hunter D is one of those classic anime titles that people of a certain age have seen.  I first saw it in the always entertaining trailer reel from Manga Entertainment.  It is a feature that is very much of its time - it is a very 1980s anime with all the good and bad associations.  The good is that it feels unconstrained, less built by committee and more about a story and entertainment.  The bad is that we have the obligatory girl-in-shower scene (...sigh...), limited treatment of female characters and some rather poor script and dialogue.

Vampire Hunter D opens by dropping us straight into the world, with minimal explanations and we are left to figure out that monsters roam the lands and that humanity has to do a lot to keep itself safe. Oh- and vampires are out and about and one particularly powerful one has taken a shine to a very strong-willed local woman, Dorris.  Our titular hero D is accosted by her on his approach to the town (very much like a Wild-West town) and he agrees to slay the powerful vampire, Count Magnus Lee, who lives in a castle nearby.  In doing so he will take on a variety of wildly-creative-looking monsters, all dispatched with copious amounts of red ink spraying across the frame.  This over the top and stylised violence is typical of its time and can also be a turn-off for some people.  Whilst there is a decent story within the animation, the more interesting parts are the combat sequences - at times they border on balletic and others ... more hack-'n'-slash.

It is clear that D has some kind of burning need to take on vampires and eliminate them from the ravaged Earth and there is some sort of voice egging him on or questioning what his motives are.  Whilst he is a competent hunter it is like he has to get beaten up a bit before his power comes to the fore to take on the big monsters.  It's like he is restraining himself in some way but once those restraints are off ... he is a force of nature, dispatching monsters left, right and centre.  The anime suggests that he wants companionship and to belong but his self-imposed rules and quest prevent him from doing so.  I suspect that this is covered in much more detail in the series of Vampire Hunter D novels.

The animation quality is at times, ropey, but it is a decent looking feature.  The character designs are very 80s - D is a hulking brute astride his robo-horse with his hat, cloak and long-sword and Dorris has, initially, a strong defiant quality but who very quickly is treated like the person to be rescued.  A shame as she was introduced as someone who could have been D's equal in a relationship.  As I mentioned above the monster designs, and their powers, are really diverse and interesting.  There is a real sense of creativity and fun with them.  You can see that they had some influence in features that came later - you can see a nod to Vampire Hunter D in Ninja Scroll.  At times I was reminded of Trap Door when Burt opened the door and all manner of "things" would come out.

Where this feature really excels though is in the post-apocalyptic backgrounds.  They are water-colour scenes with that wonderful heat-haze effect.  This creates an Earth that just looks desolate, fragile, and that the environment is almost rejecting humanity.

There is definitely a sense of art and craft in the backgrounds from the 80s and 90s that feels like it is missing from anime features of recent years.  I think this is a reflection of the art that accompanied the books and it would have been great, if almost impractical, to have seen this reflected in the art style of the whole feature.  That said, Vampire Hunter D is a lot of fun to watch.

I watched Blood the Last Vampire when it first appeared on DVD in the UK in 2000 and it is a short (around 45 minutes) film that I have always enjoyed.  Set around the time of Vietnam War at the Yokota Air-Force base in Japan, Saya our protagonist, joins a school at the American Air-Force base to hunt and eliminate a monster (a Chiropteran) that is hiding in the school.  Note that there is nothing in the tale that explicitly says "vampire" but the look of the chiropterans and their diet suggests some connection.  It was enough for me to think so anyway.

Blood the Last Vampire is not a flashy in-your-face production.  It is understated and moody.  There are lots of shadows and harsh light, a muted colour palette and it seems to be set in the twilight and night.  A sense of threat pervades it, you are on the hunt with her and, like Vampire Hunter D there is no exposition at all, you just have to accept what you're told and try to make up your own mind as to what is going on, what Saya is, who she works for and most importantly, who her prey is.  I don't mind that ambiguity or uncertainty around Saya because it is clearly part of the how the story is being told.  Because of that ambiguity and because we are going along with Saya there are some decent jumpy moments.

From the opening sequence on a train where Saya is hunting, you get a sense that she does not really want to do what she is doing but knows it needs to be done, that she is just following orders as well as trying to prevent something very bad from happening.  There is definitely a lot of conflict going on inside her which continues throughout the feature.  This created a set of character-based hooks that helped draw me into the story.

Saya is a lone figure in this feature.  She tries to fit in, to be unseen by her prey but ultimately stands apart.  When in the American school she is in a Japanese schoolgirl uniform compared to the others in period Western clothing. Her aloof (perhaps arrogant?) temperament is at odds with the community she has just joined, albeit temporarily.  She rejects hands of friendship and understanding from those who *want* to help her.  Her prey, the chiropterans, do a far better job of hiding in society and the transformation from "human" to chiropteran is effectively done.

There is a sense of experimentation in the character designs - it's not a typical anime style.  Saya, whilst looking quite distinctive with the school uniform is not a character to be leered at.  Adults around the school and the Air Force base are varied in ages and appearance (no generic people) and it feels as if the children were designed from series of photos from across schools - they look quite natural and unassuming.  The choice to set the story in the middle of a Halloween party provides some fun and tension - how to find a monster when everyone is dressed like one and you partly share in Saya's hunt where we do not know what is a real monster.

Saya is the focus of this tale and whilst it appears she does the bidding of others, the comments by her "superiors" to not annoy her and her way of telling them what she wants suggests she has significant power.  Her single-mindedness in wanting to get the job done, how she does it, how she improvises and how in her own way she seems to care about those in the world around her made her an interesting character.  When she meets her prey her actions are swift, almost clinical.  She understands what needs to be done.  Through all her interactions there is the sense that she is the last line of defence against something.  Equally, you get the idea that she is in someway just like her prey, a monster hiding in society or more literally, just like them?   I wanted to see more of her tale in that world (rather than the spin-offs and associated tales).

If pushed to pick a favourite or one to recommend to watch over the other I would have to go with Blood the Last Vampire.  It is definitely the more restrained of the titles here, tending to go for subtlety and mood punctuated by blood-letting and action.  Like Vampire Hunter D there is the suggestion that Saya (like D) is some kind of vampire cleansing the world of an unknown threat.  Why I would pick it over the others is not for story reasons though but more for the quality of its digital animation and its character designs.  Being released in 2000 we have had many years of advances in digital animation but the short film still holds up well

I had two very, very close also-rans in "Blood Lust", episode 3 of Cyber City Oedo 808 (1990) and Hellsing Ultimate (2006-12).  In Blood Lust one man searches for immortality and achieves it, only after experimenting on many cryogenically frozen subjects creating "vampires" in the process.  There was some stunning imagery: our first introduction to the "vampire", all mouth and fangs; the "hero" Benten's attempt to mete out justice on the villain resulting in a sequence similar to the reconstitution of the T-1000 in Terminator 2; and scenes of leaves or blossoms blowing in the wind.

Hellsing Ultimate is almost the supernatural version of Black Lagoon.  It is an over the top action extravaganza where Alucard (see what they did there?) is a vampire working for the Hellsing Organisation ... as a vampire hunter.  We have a rivalry with the Roman Catholic church, exorcists and the expected links to World War 2.  Alucard is a very powerful vampire who happens to discharge his duties with a firearm.  Switch your brain off and enjoy!