It’s amazing the difference a gap of almost two decades makes to a concept!
Over the course of twenty-four hours, I’ve given both the Vampire Hunter D movies a viewing, taking in the leaps and bounds made in animation and story concept from 1985 to 2001. The animé flicks, featuring the titular and main character of a human-vampire hybrid (or Dunpeal) hunting down the bloodsucking line of his family tree, are reminiscent of the live-action Blade trilogy produced Stateside – indeed in terms of origins, both movie franchises share the distinction of being comic book/ manga spin-offs. However, unlike the Blade franchise, which bled into anaemia with time, the big screen adventures of the brooding Dunpeal have, if anything, acquired much more in the way of fresh blood and vitality….
Set some ten millennia in the future, the first film depicts a planet overrun by vampires and mutants, with humanity struggling for survival in small pockets (so far, so Fist of the North Star, some might say; and they’d be right to draw that comparison, seeing as Toyo Ashida – the director of this first flick – also oversaw the Fist (animé) movie released around the same time). The most fearsome of the vamps, a fellow named Magnus Lee (an ode to old Hammer flicks perhaps), sets his eye – and fangs – on a delectable human girl, the spirited hunter Doris; cursed to become a bloodsucker’s bride, the girl seeks out our hero – the enigmatic D – convinced that his skill and power can slay the Count before his sinister lovebite takes effect. The story truly plays out like a spaghetti western with haemophiliac, Hammeresque overtones (similar to how FOTNS followed the same template, but with Mad Max and Bruce Lee adorning the surface), with lots of one-to-one duelling, speeches about vampiric nobility and Gothic architecture adorning the landscape; all a lot of fun, but ultimately too swift and fleeting in direction to really be savoured. What we have is a very straightforward good-versus-evil conflict, given a small touch of ambiguity by the hero’s moments of blood craving. It has to be said that, even for an 80s animé action flick, the running time is too short to fully allow the story to breathe – throw in the swiftly jolted on, clinched, hero-rides-into-the-sunset ending and the frustration grows that little bit more….
Fast forward to 2001 – faster than you can say volte-face and we have the fearless vampire killer returning for a new adventure, subtitled Bloodlust which, despite its moniker, is far from simplistic. This time the reins of production have been passed to the superb Madhouse studio, the masterminds behind such works as Demon City Shinjuku (a.k.a Monster City), Wicked City, Cyber City Oedo (Notice a theme here?) and Ninja Scroll, as well as a segment of The Animatrix – I really have to say that, even with such an impressive back catalogue, this is the best thing that Yoshiaki Kawajiri and his crew have put their names to! Certainly amongst the cream of the crop – both aesthetically and story-wise – as far as animé movies go, this perfectly captures the elegance and tragedy the vampiric concept calls for. Whilst things start off in a similar vein to the last instalment, with the titular D being hired to rescue another damsel-in-distress from the clutches of a vampire, the story is taken down more interesting avenues by Kawajiri and Co; as one watches the superbly-animated story unfold, it soon becomes apparent that everyone’s initial perceptions of the situation fail to stand up to reality. The level of ambiguity revealed in Bloodlust – only hinted at in the first film – lends credence to my theory that the best vamp characters are the ones portrayed in a sympathetic, conflicted and/or honourable light, as opposed to the generic predators of night we’re so used to.
With more characters – and thus more perspectives – thrown into the mix, Bloodlust is a richer, more savoury film than its predecessor. All the major players (with the possible exception of D) are given credible, personal reasons for their actions and the supporting cast, as ever, are an inspired mix of the sinister, sublime and surreal. Watching this film, one can see the commonalities between it and other Madhouse productions; you have the lone hero, capable female fighter, comical-yet-resourceful sidekick and ruthlessly consumptive foe – loved staples of works such as Wicked City and Ninja Scroll; also, the climax of the adventure, in concept and execution, suspiciously resembles the climax to the third of theCyber City adventures (also titled Bloodlust in its Western release). It really has to be said that one of the joys of following an auteur’s work is watching his (or her) recurring themes acquire a different shape with each new production.
A special mention must go to the dub work, which is something of a rarity for the animé medium – beyond being bloody good (no pun intended), it has the honour of being one of the few dubs originally recorded in English (as opposed to most Western dub jobs which are just taped over the Japanese); natural and sophisticated the script and acting display none of the (at times endearing) clunkiness you’d hear in 90% of Western animé releases; certainly, it’s a whole staircase up from the dub offered for the previous D film!
What stops the film from being perfect is the lack of backstory concerning some of the supporting cast (particularly Grove); nowttheless, Bloodlust is an exquisite piece of film-making heartily recommended to anyone who likes vamps, animé, or just fucking good cinema!
If you’re new to the works of Kawajiri, pick it up, but be warned – you could find yourself scouring through his back catalogue for more….