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Hellsing Ultimate (2006-2012)

We all know that with vampire tales you can't keep a good (or bad) vampire down for long As Buffy once said "you always come back". With many successful shows there are often sequels or re-imaginings. Anime is rife with such things - look at Gundam which in some cases retells the stories but just changes the names (as in Gundam Seed) or even a favourite of mine, Ghost in the Shell.

In 2001 the Hellsing anime was released as a 13 episode series. In 2006 Hellsing Ultimate, a 10 episode OVA (original video animation) started that would take 6 years to complete. Is it a straight retelling of Hellsing (the anime) only with a bigger budget, is it its own thing, a self contained entry into the Hellsing universe or a faithful adaptation of the manga? The only certainty in all of this is that there will be guns, big hats and a copious amount of crimson across the screen.

The Hellsing Ultimate OVA was released from 2006 to 2012. During that time period the work has been worked on by three studios Satelight (who did a sci-fi favourite of mine Noein and also Bodacious Space Pirates), Madhouse (Tatami Galaxy and Perfect Blue to name but a few) and Graphinica (Fractale). Each studio has had a different director attached to the work. Each episode clocks in at around 40-50 minutes each which lets the creative teams play with an obviously increased budget which is thankfully present on the screen.

To answer that question above in the intro, the first few episodes of Hellsing Ultimate re-treads familiar ground (the introduction of Seras Victoria, the attack on the Hellsing HQ) but with extra gore. Following that it quickly builds on the HQ attack through a story that spans the remainder of this OVA series. It turns out that it follows the manga by Kouta Hirano pretty closely. As such it feels very much like its own thing - it has its own tempo and importantly, personality. It is definitely its own entity and can be enjoyed as a standalone piece of entertainment.

One of the niggles I had with Hellsing was that the villains and monsters didn't really feel ... threatening. I know Alucard (again voiced by Crispin Freeman) et al. would come good in the end. I wanted a more capable adversary who presented a greater threat to Alucard and Seras. I wanted a bit a bit more tension in the story. Hellsing (the 2001 anime) hints at something bigger but never quite delivers (I now know this is because it was working from an incomplete story). In Hellsing Ultime Alucard and Sir Integra Fairbrook Wingates Hellsing are up against an adversary who has spent over 50 years plotting from the shadows and arranging their pieces across the global chess-board and building a highly capable army with fearsome generals.

Each episode is quite self-contained and builds on the one before it. The story is set mostly over a few days so as characters have to get to different locations and are spread about a wider cast is used to tell the story. I quite enjoyed meeting a new team of people and all the villains. It was done at a nice pace and scenes got a bit more time to breathe.

The animation quality is pretty even across the series. I was a concern that it would be variable as each studio took over the task. The major character designs are solid throughout and I really like the strong heavy lines they use with all the characters. I also really like how bodies and faces are distorted at times as if viewed with an extreme close up or pin-cushion, fish-eye or barrel lens. This gives a bit of cover for when, at times, the characters go a bit off-model. The style just gives the OVAs a distinct look and sets it apart from other anime.
The only real variation across the studios is in the backgrounds and some of the bridging scenes as they play with new animation technology - there is a great example of a copy-paste of digital models for one of the army scenes. It works but you get the sense it was an experiment to get the job done.

As Alucard releases the lock on his abilities Hellsing Ultimate has done so too. The set-piece sequences are big, bold and engaging. I winced and grimaced at some of the injuries and laughed at the more slapstick moments. Alucard and Seras no longer rely on their exquisitely rendered weapons (more later). They bite, rip, rend bodies and generally spill as much blood as their opponents. As Alucard says he is a monster so he acts like one. After one episode I found myself saying that I had just watched something that Deadman Wonderland wanted to be. All of the action scenes go all out which for an action anime you can't fault.

As the opponents become more powerful so how they are dispatched become equally more innovative, nasty and ridiculous. This is all accompanied by a really effective soundtrack by Hayato Matsuo - which mixes opera, music with "imperial overtones" and rock/metal. To be fair the sound design is well put together. It manages to just about match with what we see on screen so even if you don't see it, you can imagine what is going on.

Amid a lot of action the different characters are given episodes dedicated to them - Hellsing Ultimate definitely has more of a team-feel rather than the Alucard show of the 2001 series. I quite enjoyed seeing some of the other characters get in and out of situations. In general, there was quite and a lot of action but the moments of quiet did break it up so you had some contrast in tempo. There are even a few *very* black comedic moments in it. A favourite was two vampires playing a tasting game and describing the flavours of their dinner.

So why do I find myself so conflicted with this show? It is a horror-inflected hyper-violent anime with everything that goes with it. If I was watching this as a teenager (early or late, it doesn't matter) it is likely I would have had a different reaction to the show. But I'm not and I do find some of the content problematic (there is a better word but I am struggling to find it).

I'm o.k. with the fan-service given to the weapons - the loving camera angles, the slow reveal after it has been teased and the slow-motion slide recoil (we have all seen anime where the male and/or female cast are viewed the same way). The set-piece sequences are (hyper-)violent and animated in excruciatingly fine detail and are quite fun to watch because they are obviously ridiculous and over the top. Outside of the major set pieces the constant, relentless violence doesn't offend but can become boring, its earlier gross novelty replaced by a sense of "oh, o.k. ..." What really bothered and still bothers me is the show's attitude to its female cast and the sexualised violence that is on display at times. It doesn't happen often but when it does it is gratuitous, unnecessary and just plain horrible.

Seras is groped by some the male cast (monsters and humans), is threatened and we see a scene from her past as to "why she is the way she is". Perhaps this is not that different from say, Games of Thrones but live action or animated, if it is just there to shock or make it "adult" that kind of content is not something I want to see. I did not find it entertaining and it didn't work within the story. Entertainment that does include this kind of content (Perfect Blue is an example) where it is integrated or a foundation of the story which provides a mirror for society (I think Perfect Blue does more and more) I have a different response to. In those cases, I reflect much and ask questions of myself. In the case of Hellsing Ultimate, I wanted to turn it off. 

Other problematic elements are the soldiers of the Pope decked out like members of the KKK. I'm trying not to read too much into that design choice but you would have thought *someone* would have pointed out the similarities in appearance. It felt very much like one of those anime from the 90s that would be written about in a national newspaper (as some were in the UK).

Hellsing Ultimate has some blistering action set pieces and nicely plotted and paced story. There is the sense throughout that all will not be well by the end of the series. As an action-horror show it is great fun and it would be all the better without the "edgy" or nasty content. That puts me in a quandary as to how to grade it. There are anime out there that have scenes that dominate the discussion about them (like Royal Space Force: Wings of Honneamise or Perfect Blue) but whilst horrible work within the story they are telling. Here these elements could be taken away and it would make no difference apart from to the run time.

 FORMAT: Blu-Ray  FROM: Manga Entertainment RATING: 18 [UK] RUNNING TIME : 10 Episodes [TV Series]

IN A NUTSHELL: Blistering action set-pieces awash with crimson is the landscape against which ancient foes and rivals make their stand. 

*Review disc supplied by Manga Entertainment UK*