Don’t you get a special tingle when cultures are filtered through an outsider’s perspective? You’ll get something enlightening once in a while, but mostly, you’ll see just how woefully misinformed we are of one another. I wouldn’t suggest that Vampire Hunter D made bloodsuckers into the 98-pound weaklings we see them as now, but as one of the first impressionable anime features, it sure helped. In a style that the latter-day “Castlevania” games would refine, this flick casts the undead as a sullen lot, which itself is fine. But teamed with a story that plays tug-of-war with its characters, Vampire Hunter D’s tale of eternal suffering comes across like an overblown case of the Mondays.
We know ghosts, werewolves, and such as products of legend, but in Vampire Hunter D, the supernatural is a very real nuisance. Pestering a village for some millennia now has been Count Magnus Lee (voice of Seizo Kato), an ancient creature of the night who’s claimed young Doris (voice of Michie Tomizawa) with a bite on the jugular. But who should conveniently blaze into town but D (voice of Kaneto Shiozawa), a professional ghoulbuster whom Doris takes on as a bodyguard. D knows a thing or two about the immortal damned, what with being half-vampire himself. But it’s this side that the soft-spoken D has to fend off whilst battling the Count, who’s not about to hand over Doris without the fight of a lifetime first.
To hijack a famous idiom, some movies are made great, and others have greatness thrust upon them. That last part applies to Vampire Hunter D, though through no fault of its own. In 1985, this was some serious stuff, as a vampire story and as a step forward in feature animation. But seeing where both have come since then makes it all the more unfortunate that Vampire Hunter D’s reputation has trounced its quality. It’s great that it tries to weave in social commentary (as Akira would three years later), but with results this messy, it’s anyone’s guess as to what point is trying to claw through the darkness. As the vampires are often referred to as “aristocrats”, you’d assume it was a dig at the upper class, but to what end? Well, as it turns out, a surplus of whiny villains and D being constantly called to rescue Doris, like a Gothicized “Super Mario Bros.”
But this being anime, the big question is how well Vampire Hunter D holds up visually. Again, this is the mid-1980s, so I didn’t expect anything overtly slick, but the animation is still far from fluid. But what the film lacks in flow, it makes up for with some downright disturbing monsters, from gargantuan lycanthropes to floating blobs of acidic protoplasm. Even then, the story tends to skim these encounters, packing in plenty but at cripplingly short lengths. Vampire Hunter D couldn’t be in less awe of itself, which is mostly the story’s doing. Time having worn the undead complacent to man’s follies is one thing, but looking like they’d prefer working on their tans is another. D hasn’t a charismatic bone in his excessively stoic body, and even the Count mainly opts to chill in his throne, lest he break a sweat mustering some true menace.
Akira is a bona fide classic, and Totoro will delight generations of kids to come, but Vampire Hunter D’s place on the anime totem is hard to place. It seems popular just because it’s been around for so long, like that song everyone at a wedding dances to but really makes them want to play double dutch with their spinal cords. Alright, so Vampire Hunter D isn’t awful enough to warrant self-mutilation, but fandom so rabid over a sauce this weak is a different tome.
Check out the Vampire Hunter D trailer here.
Read Chris Luedtke’s Vampire Hunter D review here.