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Hellsing (2001)

Something is not quite right in England. There are outbreaks of ghouls and vampires. For some reason the number of vampires is on the rise. Could they be being artificially created? If so, for what purpose? Luckily for Great Britain there is Hellsing, an organisation who is there to combat and keep the public unaware of the threats that are out there ... and eliminate them.

Hellsing is based on the manga of the same written by Kouta Hirano. The anime adaption was directed by Umanosuke Iida (who has worked on on storyboards for shows like Cowboy Bebop and directed episodes of 1990s Devilman) and was adapted from the manga by Chiaki Konoka. Konoka was responsible for writing the screenplay for several episodes in RahXephon but more importantly for the series structure and screenplay for Serial Experiments Lain, an icon of late 90s anime that still holds up today.

Hellsing tells the tale of the Hellsing Organisation whose purpose is to combat vampires, ghouls and other supernatural things that threaten the queen and country of England. It is pretty almost a paramilitary organisation in that is it not clear how much of its activities are sanctioned by the UK government. Up its sleeve though is its trump card. The original vampire Alucard is one of their hunters and the organisation is headed up by one of the offspring of Van Hellsing, Sir Integra Hellsing.

From the off we are dropped right into the story which is set in England sometime in the late 1990s where vampires are causing trouble. The armed police are sent in and, well, don't fare too well being almost annihilated and subsequently turned into ghouls. When all looks lost Hellsing arrive and Alucard, their "secret" weapon save the day. Being a vampire himself Alucard has a questionable moral compass and does what is needed to get the job done ... irrespective of the collateral damage. From here Hellsing and Alucard have run-ins with MI5, reality TV, remnants of World War 2 Nazis and an armed organisation from the Vatican. This is not a subtle story!

The studio behind Hellsing is Gonzo and they do a decent enough job here. The animation is perfectly serviceable and conveys the story well. There are quite a few static-pan shots with dialog over the top which work to progress the story. I can't help but feel a bit cheated when I see these as you feel something else should have been possible, but I am aware of the constraints of TV anime, especially in the early 2000s.

I have mixed feelings towards some of the past work Gonzo has put out. Samurai 7 was great but the animation quality dipped midway through and Kiddy Grade was a horrible mix of poor animation, cheap CGI and questionable "character design". I have not been keen on the way in which they render the female characters within their shows. Crudely their designs and animation work is gravity defying and at other times defies the laws of physics. This is particularly true of Seras Victoria a member of the police force who Alucard turns into a vampire (those questionable morals on display in episode 1). She is squeezed into a mini-dress with thigh-high socks whilst her colleagues are in combat fatigues and uniforms more suitable for their day job. I know it's entertainment and likely the same in the manga but all things together it just jarred.

However, they do a great job with Alucard. He looks cool with his blood red overcoat, wide-brimmed hat, yellow lens shades and pale skin, he is unmissable when out and about. They show his vampiric powers well and there is a hint of a willful teenager about him especially when he is reprimanded by Sir Integra. It is clear Sir Integra is in charge - not an inch of the outfit is out of place, very rarely ruffled and always the dominant person in the room. Integra is someone you would probably not see but whose presence you would feel from the power and confidence that oozes from them.

In 2006-12 the series was remade as Hellsing Ultimate (by Satelite and Madhouse) which more closely followed the original manga. These episodes were longer, around 45 minutes in length and had higher production values. As a result it doesn't quite show its age and whilst characters like Alucard, Sir Integra and Seras look the same in both, it doesn't feel like an early 2000s Gonzo studio production. Whilst I find some of the design work a bit distasteful (I'm a lot older than the target audience) the work isn't cheap, poorly animated or contrary to the laws of physics, unlike the  2001 Gonzo effort.

My favourite thing in Hellsing, and for me its greatest strength, was the mood it had permeating everything. Every frame had dark shadowy corners that felt as if they were hiding something. Early on there is a scene in an operating theatre and I kept expecting something to jump out at me. We have kind of been conditioned, especially in supernatural-related shows, to be wary of shadows and dark corners and this plays to that. I found it quite eerie.

It was not just the darkness in each frame that contributed to the unsettled feeling. Some of the colours on show were pretty garish and when juxtaposed against forests of city-scapes you knew something was not right. Silhouetted trees against a blood red sky is rarely a backdrop for happy events.

Whilst the colour and mood of Hellsing reminded me a lot of the animated Spawn series, a show that used copious amounts of shadow and I remember this dark feeling suffusing each scene. That said the closest thing I can compare Hellsing to is Black Lagoon. Both are action oriented shows with a decent set of stories and with different factions vying for power at their core. Both follow an episode of the week format which then builds into a longer story and they feature some unsavoury story and visual elements. When Gonzo put the effort in there are some cool action sequences between Alucard and his enemies, especially those who can go almost go toe-to-toe with him. There are times you wonder if and how Alucard might survive these encounters.

As with Black Lagoon you can just turn the brain off and enjoy Hellsing for all its dread-infused, garish action glory.  Although, if you do that you might miss some of the set-ups early on for later events. Characters that would normally be thrown away come back both alive and dead. There were a few times I thought I recognised a character, or had seen them before. The different threads used to weave the individual stories come together quite nicely for the final narrative. It's not exceptional but it is well told.

The final comparison I would make to Black Lagoon is the questionable morality on display. When the law is broken or someone is wronged justice needs to be served in the series. Seras (a bit like Rock) still holds on to the "human" law (her old life) for when humans commit crimes. Integra has a different view and has to balance the needs of Hellsing, the needs of the public and justice. I enjoyed how this was done in Black Lagoon and seeing how this could have played out in Hellsing would have been interesting.

One marmite feature of the series is the English dub. All the characters have that kind of stereotype accent that those overseas think the English have. To be fair the accents of the Scottish characters don't fair well. Imagine Dick Van-Dyke in Mary Poppins doing all the voices and you are pretty much there. On the one hand this is a bit like nails on a chalk-board but as everyone in the show has them it doesn't fell out of place. I respect the attempt to "localise" it and I found it quite endearing once I got my ear in to the show.

Hellsing is a bit of anime fun. I enjoyed the story - it's nothing new but it is done with commitment, follow through and it knows that it is good entertainment. Alucard and Sir Integra were fun to hang out with. The former because he seemed to be loving un-death the latter because they were so serious in ridicuous situations it was funny. Its greatest strength was the mood that pervades everything. There is something unsettling about blood red skies over the English countryside and the childlike laughter of vampires enjoying their ... lifestyle. The animation quality is O.K. and apart from the central characters, the character designs are very much like the work of Gonzo of the time so it hasn't dated well. That said the pure entertainment and its mood make it very watchable and at 13 episodes it whizzes past.


IN A NUTSHELL: Hellsing is fang-tastic fun. Equal parts moody, action, story and supernatural horror it is solidly entertaining.