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Friday, October 28, 2016

A Different Type of "DD": Comparing Both Vampire Hunter D Anime

In terms of iconic Japanese horror authors, there may be none more prolific than Hideyuki Kikuchi. From the moment his debut novel, Demon City Shinjuku, saw its first release in Japan in 1982, the man was identified as something special, and in the years since the now-67 years old university student of Kazuo Koike has created a truly iconic catalog of Japanese prose, & even manga, dealing with either horror, the occult, or any combination of the two. Titles like Wicked City, Darkside Blues, A Wind Named Amnesia, & the novel adaptation of Leda: The Fantastic Adventure of Yohko are likely all familiar with older anime & manga fans due to nearly all of them having received an anime adaptation of some sort (or were an anime first in Leda's case), but out of all of Kikuchi's work, there is probably one series that trumps them all, and it stars a man known only be a single letter.

Debuting back in 1983, Vampire Hunter D features Kikuchi's celebrated writing as well as artwork done by the similarly legendary Yoshitaka Amano, with the two working together often in general. The novel series takes place in the extremely far future, 12,090 AD is often stated, after a nuclear war in 1999 destroyed humanity, with vampires having taking over as the apex species of Earth. In the ten millennia since then, though, the "Nobility" (as the vampires call themselves) have slowly started dying off, with professional killers called Vampire Hunters becoming more & more popular among the human populace. The most successful, powerful, & beautiful of them all, though, is a man known as "D", though his status as a dhampir/dunpeal (i.e. a half-vampire) makes him hated by his professional rivals. VHD has gone on to be a highly inspirational novel series in Japan, & still sees new works to this very day. Currently, there are 43 novels comprising 30 stories, and that's not including the various spin-offs, side stories, & even prequels that have been made or are still being made. Naturally, this would result in anime adaptations, but so far there have only been two... And they are honestly pretty different from each other.

The first anime, simply titled Vampire Hunter D, was an 80-minute OVA (though it did receive a theatrical release) from 1985 that was based on the self-titled first novel from 1983 & was animated by Ashi Pro (now Production Reed), with direction by Toyoo Ashida. After that the novel series continued with fervor, but animation would elude the enigmatic D until 2000. Due to the OVA becoming a massive cult favorite around the world during the 90s, especially in North America, it was decided to make a new movie as a Japanese/American co-production. The end result was Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, a 100-minute theatrical film based on the third novel, 1985's Demon Deathchase, with animation by Madhouse & direction by Yoshiaki Kawajiri. This movie has since gone on the be considered one of the finest anime movies in existence, and with both OVA & movie having been given HD remastered releases on Blu-Ray in North America last year, not to mention with a new animated series being in the works, I think it would be fun to compare these two anime productions. I'm not exactly trying to find out which one is "better", though I guess I'll crown a "victor" at the end for the hell of it, but rather I just want to see why these two anime are so different & what each one brings to the table, both in their (partially restricted) Japanese & (multiple) English forms.

No ability to grab BD screens, so it's old DVD images for the OVA.
Sorry if that disappoints you.

-Basic Plot-
The OVA's plot has D get hired by Doris Lang, the daughter of a deceased werewolf hunter who has been chosen (i.e. bitten on the neck) by Count Magnus Lee, the Noble who lives near her village, to be his new wife. Naturally, she doesn't want to be turned, but Lee won't take "No" for an answer, even if his own daughter Larmica is against bringing in a "dirty human" into her family to be her mother, & Lee's personal guard Rei, who can warp the area around his body, has his own reasons for helping Lee. The story here is a relatively simple one, fitting as a first tale from a relatively new author (I believe this was only Kikuchi's second novel), establishing the world as one where humans work together on a general basis, but are also ready & willing to throw one of their own to the wolves once she's "chosen" by a vampire. The basic concept of the plot here is very much focused on the environment of 12,090 AD Earth, showing how the Nobles still try to hold on to their old ways & traditions, even though the world has changed around them; overall, it's a very atmospheric story.

Bloodlust, on the other hand, sees D hired to rescue a young woman named Charlotte Elbourne, who has been whisked away by Baron Meier Link, a Noble who is known to not attack humans. For this job, though, D has competition in the form of the Marcus Brothers, a group of hunters known for their ruthlessness. Also complicating matters, though, is that Charlotte apparently left with Meier Link on her own accord, as they want nothing more than to go to the "City of the Night", where they can be together without persecution. Helping Meier reach Castle Chaythe, which is owned by the "Bloody Countess" Carmilla & allows access to the City, is a trio of mutants from Barbarois: Caroline (a shape shifter), Benge (who can move & kill through shadows), & Machira (a werewolf). The story here is essentially a giant chase, with D & the Marcus Brothers constantly trying to figure out where Meier Link is going, and then trying to stop him once they can catch up. The basic concept here is definitely much more kinetic & action-styled than what came before; overall, it's a very exciting story.

For the most part, D himself is the same across both anime (as in super stoic & almost emotionless at times), which can apparently also apply to all of the novels as a whole, but there are some aspects of him to make note of in each anime. The D we see in the OVA is shown to be a little more potentially conflicted with his status as a dhampir at points, like when Doris comes to him with the idea of the two of them running off & living together, as she's fallen in love with him. At this point D almost succumbs to his thirst for human blood, but manages to stave himself off. His constant partner "Left Hand", a parasite that inhabits his left hand's palm in the form of a face, doesn't help in any way, either, as he constantly tries to urge him to give in to his vampiric half. When adding in the fact that he's even "killed" at one point, the D shown here is somewhat more human than the force of nature that he's usually identified as.

In comparison, the D shown in Bloodlust comes off as a fair bit more experienced, with him never even showing a hint of him succumbing to this, well, thirsting bloodlust. At the same time, though, D is shown as being very susceptible to becoming weak by being in sunlight for too long, even getting so weakened that he nearly becomes unable to fight Caroline properly & has to bury himself into the ground as soon as possible; this is never brought up as a factor in the OVA, as D is shown in sunlight with little trouble. At the same time, though, this D is also showcased as a nigh unstoppable force when not suffering from his natural weaknesses, as shown by the fact that he has next to no trouble matching up with his foe, if not outright decimating immediately. Including the fact that even his very visual style & skin tone is more inhuman, the D shown here is a true force to be reckoned with.

-Main Villain-
For the OVA, we have Count Magnus Lee, who is obviously meant to be a combination of the two most iconic portrayals of Dracula, Bela Lugosi from the Universal films & Christopher Lee from Hammer's various movies. Lee is your mostly standard regal vampire, one who thinks himself as naturally superior to normal humans due to his long life of at least 10,000 years, which would make him one of the original Nobility that came about when vampires took over the world. He's arrogant & self-serving, only wishing to marry Doris to break his boredom, as he tends to do every few hundred years. In his mind, anything or anyone that can stop him is either one of his own kind, & therefore would never go after him, or is non-existent. Overall, he's a little generic in that regard, but still manages to deliver on his character type well.

For Bloodlust, there are technically two villains, but the main one (so to speak) is Baron Meier Link, but at the same time it's tough to really call him a "villain" due to his reasons for his actions, as well as how he's portrayed as the story continues. Meier is recognized as "only" being about 5,000 years old, and more or less tired of life on Earth, which is what prompts his kidnapping of Charlotte. Compared to the blatantly evil Lee, Meier is much more mysterious, and as the story goes on he even becomes someone you root for when you realize that his actions are pure. Instead, the real villain in the movie would be Carmilla, the head of Castle Chaythe who has her own reasons for welcoming in Meier & Charlotte. Sadly, though, Carmilla's effect as villain only goes so far. This is because she literally only appears in the last 30 minutes of the movie, where she's introduced, suddenly made into the villain, & both D & Meier have to take her out; she's more of a standard villain, like Lee, but with much less to work with.

-Supporting Cast-
The OVA's secondary cast, both in terms of "heroes" & "villains", is fairly small & all related to either lead female Doris Lang or Magnus Lee. Doris is confident in herself, but knows that she's more or less in above her head when it comes to taking care of Lee, and is willing to go to any lengths to get help; she even offers her body to D if he'll take the job (D, obviously, only wants the money). Still, even when faced with little hope, she puts her faith in not just D but also those around her, both friend & foe. Her "villain" counterpart would be Larmica, who is similarly self-confident, even when her own past & origin winds up contradicting what she's always believed to be true. Both Doris & D show kindness to her & know that she's nowhere near as evil as her father, but her belief in who she has always felt she was is unshakable. On the human's side there are Dan, Doris' little brother, Dr. Ferringo, the local doctor who helps in any way (& is an obvious reference to Lou Ferrigno), & Greco, the local mayor's son who always has his way. While Dan & Ferringo are more or less your standard emotional support for the most part, Greco is interesting in that he's essentially a secondary villain who plots to screw over either side to get his revenge on Doris, simply because she always denies his advances. Finally, there's Rei, who is probably the most developed of the supporting cast. His sole reason for helping Lee is that he was promised to be given eternal life for his services, and takes any & all betrayal of that deal (because of course Lee was never going to keep his side) very seriously. In a weird way, you kind of understand where Rei is coming from, and only wish that he was on Doris & D's side, as he would have likely been treated somewhat better.

Bloodlust's supporting cast, in comparison, is mostly made up of characters who comprise little groups that are antagonistic against each other. Standing with Meier for most of the story is Charlotte, who is honestly nothing more than the human equivalent to a MacGuffin, i.e. a plot device, with the most of her "development" happening near the very end; hell, she didn't even have a name in the original novel! The same can mostly be said of the Barbarois trio, but at least all three of them have their own abilities, are given their own moments to shine, and have actual personalities. This leaves the Marcus Brothers, who are easily the best of the supporting bunch. Leader Borgoff is cocky, yet cautious, with his main weakness being his loving nature towards his family. Kyle is an energetic show-off that can hold his own, but his attentiveness can also be his Achilles' heel. Nolt is a giant brute of a man with a white cross painted on his face, delivering on the quiet giant character type, even helping his brothers when he's at the end of his life. Grove is a sickly man who never leaves the armored truck, but when needed can let his spirit leave his body & do outstanding destruction; naturally, though, this damages his own spirit. Finally, there's Leila, the sole female of the group who was taken in by the Marcus' due to her dedication to killing all vampires after her parents were killed by them when she was a child. In effect, Bloodlust is sometimes more about Leila's evolution from a warrior with a hardened heart to a woman who still has the chance at living a happy life.

-Visuals & Music-
Both anime are very much products of their times, though this factoid does result in at least one odd comparison. The late Toyoo Ashida, the OVA's director, was a relatively new face as the head of a production, with his only prior directorial work at the time being the still-airing Fist of the North Star TV anime. With that in mind, it's no surprise that the OVA features a good amount of gore when things get violent. Visually, it honestly isn't one of the greatest looking examples of the 80s OVA boom, with a couple of animation errors that the high-definition remaster really makes more noticeable, but overall it still looks very good to this day; if you're familiar with Ashida's work on Fist of the North Star, then you know how VHD looks. Interestingly enough, Yoshitaka Amano himself did the character designs for this OVA, which is pretty cool & does make everything look fairly sleek for its time. The music was all composed by Tetsuya Komuro, co-founder of TM Network, & is focused strongly on fitting certain emotions when needed (triumphant, scary, foreboding, etc.). TM Network also did the ending theme, "Your Song", which is a really nice song on its own, which is no surprise as the group is an iconic prototype of modern J-Pop, but it's upbeat & cheery sound just clashes heavily with Vampire Hunter D's entire aesthetic.

When Bloodlust was being made, Yoshiaki Kawajiri had already established himself as an action anime expert, having directed Lensman, Wicked City, Demon City Shinjuku, Cyber City Oedo 808, & Ninja Scroll, among many others. In fact, by the time VHD returned to anime, Kawajiri had become good friends with Kikuchi, which was why he had adapted many of Kikuchi's works. When combined with the talent over at studio Madhouse, this makes Bloodlust one of Kawajiri's most iconic & overall best work. Everything just animates extremely smooth & slick, & the visuals on the whole simply match the aesthetic that Kikuchi & Amano have in mind for VHD. There are tons of still shots that just look excellent, making everything look like a work of art at times. The character designs by Yutaka Minowa, adapted by those Amano did for the movie, are likewise intensely sleek & stylish; to this day, Minowa's take on the VHD world is how most fans visualize it. The music by Marco D'Ambrosio is generally fast-paced & intense, matching either the fights or the chases perfectly; definitely a very American feel in many ways. While the original English audio track uses a simple instrumental for the end credits, the Japanese dub has a licensed song, "Tooku Made" by Do As Infinity. Similar to TM Network's theme for the OVA, Do As Infinity's song is also upbeat & hopeful, but at least one can give an understandable argument that it fits the theme of love between Meier Link & Charlotte perfectly; their ideal land, where they can love without being hunted, is truly "so far away".

-Voice Cast-
The OVA has the traditional Japanese voice track, as well as two separate English dubs, though the latest release from Sentai is missing one of these. It first saw release in 1992 through Carl Macek's Streamline Pictures. When Urban Vision re-released the OVA on DVD (& VHS) in 2000, it included a 5.1 remixed version of Streamline's dub alongside the original Japanese audio. For the longest time, this was the last release of the OVA in general, minus a repackage or two in Japan. In fact, neither the OVA nor Bloodlust have even been given HD remastered Blu-Ray releases in Japan. Anyway, when Sentai announced this new remastered release, it was announced that a new English dub would be included, but at the expense of the Streamline dub. This isn't even the first time Sentai hasn't included an old Streamline dub, as it's re-releases of both Nadia: Secret of Blue Water & the 90s Gatchaman OVA both lack their original Streamline dubs (though Nadia's unfinished dub has never seen a DVD release in general), which is just sad from an archiving perspective. I can't even vouch if it's a right issue, as Discotek & even FUNimation have generally included Streamline dubs in its re-releases whenever possible. Luckily, I decided to keep Urban Vision's DVD, so I can cover all three audio tracks here.

Said Streamline dub, directed by Carl Macek, stars Michael McConnohie as D, who (though solid) sounds a bit too straightforward, sadly, & lacks any of the mystery & stoicism of the character; he also voices Left Hand, which doesn't really work (the parasite should sound old as hell). Barbara Goodson's Doris is pretty good, if maybe a shy too old sounding for a young woman who's likely only in the late-teens or early 20s. Jeff Winkless' Count Lee & Edie Mirman's "Lamica" (way to lose the reference), though, really go heavy with the stereotypical vampire accent, and while their performances are generally fine, they wind up sounding a little too heavy-handed; the same can be said for Steve Bulen's Greco, as well. Kerrigan Mahan plays "Ray", and is a solid choice on the whole; also, no accent. Steven Kramer voices Dr. Fehring (again, losing the reference) nicely & without any silly accent. Finally, there's some original music in this dub, which isn't bad but feels like a case of not understanding that music doesn't have to always be playing to be effective. Overall, the Streamline dub may not exactly be a classic like some others from the company are, but there's still a good amount of fun to be had here, and it would have been nice to see included in Sentai's re-release.

The Japanese cast is headed up by the late Kaneto Shiozawa, who simply nailed D down perfectly; the man who was just a perfect fit for stoic, mysterious people like this. The late Ichiro Nagai backed him up as Left Hand, delivering a perfect, parasitic take on the "cranky old man" type. Doris is performed by Michie Tomizawa, delivering a good, if standard, performance. Rei is voiced by the late Kazuyuki Sogabe, matching the hired hand's cockiness well, especially when he's shown to be the fool. Another now-deceased performance comes from Seizo Katou, whose Count Lee works very well. The rest of the major cast is done by Satoko Kito (Larmica), Yusaku Yara (Greco), & Motomu Kiyokawa (Dr. Feringo), who also do well in their roles. Sadly, the original Japanese track may work best now as a reminder of talented voice actors that are no longer alive to give us more great performances.

Finally, the Sentai dub by Matt Greenfield (a rare recent dub by him) stars John Gremillion & Andy McAvin as D & Left Hand, respectively. Gremillion handles D somewhat straight-to-the-point, but with an inkling of emotion that shows that he truly cares for humans, while McAvin does something different then the rest by playing up the parasite as a more monstrous being than an ancient one. McAvin also voices Rei, who gives the character more of a monstrous gruff than I'd expect. Doris is played by Luci Christian, who gives the female lead a ton of spunk & a much younger sounding voice than Gooodson. Brittney Karbowski's Larmica is well acted, but she can't seem to maintain a consistent sound, bouncing between an accent & no accent in the same line often. David Wald voices Count Lee & gives the villain a very fitting deep & dark tone; it's easy to see why he voiced Duke Togo in the Golgo 13 TV anime's dub. Finally, Jay Hickman's Greco tries to be Southern, but sounds a little too much like he wants to be a jive-talking fool from the 70s, though. The rest of the dub is rounded out by the likes of John Swasey (Dr. Feringo) & Shannon Emerick (Dan), who also do well with their roles. Personally, Greenfield's Sentai dub is a stronger product than Macek's Streamline dub, but at the same time one could argue that it plays it safe & doesn't try to be more than simply a solid dub. As much as Streamline's dub comes off as somewhat cheesy, at least the cast there tried to feature some variety.

Bloodlust, on the other hand, was made with English as the main audio track, so that's how 90% of its fans recognize it; even the Japanese theatrical release was English with Japanese subtitles. Interestingly enough, this movie is essentially a case where what we get here in America is nothing that was intended or expected. The English voice work that we have was never meant to be the final product, but rather was simply a proof-of-concept dub to shop over to major companies, with the intent of re-dubbing it with a Hollywood cast, which never happened. In Japan, Bloodlust did eventually receive a Japanese dub, but it's one that has never been released in North America. Urban Vision did announce plans to re-release the film as a "Special Edition" that would be dual-audio, but it never happened, and when Discotek announced the license rescue, we eventually found out that the Japanese licensors will not allow the Japanese dub to be seen "outside of Japan". That, however, is a good bit of bull, as the Japanese dub was allowed to be included in other countries' releases of the film, like the Hungarian DVD I bought back in 2008 when I was visiting family. Therefore, I can actually cover both the original English cast as well as the Japanese dub.

D is performed by Andrew Philpot & Hideyuki Tanaka, with the two differing somewhat in their portrayals. Philpot has a more subdued & mysterious D, easily the best of the English bunch, while Tanaka is more like his usual syle, only more serious in tone. Left Hand is voiced by Mike McShane & Ichiro Nagai (yes, a reprisal!), and both focus on making the parasite sound possibly older than D himself, especially the late Nagai. Meier Link is voiced by John Rafter Lee & Kouichi Yamadera, with both going for a very serious & rarely unfaltering character; Lee sounds more regal, while Yamadera is more aged & experienced. Leila has both Pamela Segall & Megumi Hayashibara to her voice, & both actually deliver somewhat different performances. While Hayashibara sounds more or less like what you'd think she'd sound in a very serious role, which works great, Segall actually almost sounds outright masculine at times, almost as if her character was trying to hide her femininity as much as possible. Charlotte is performed by Wendee Lee & Emi Shinohara, and both do more or less what you'd expect from such a plot device-like character. As for the Marcus Brothers, we have Alex Fernandez & Hochu Ohtsuka as Kyle (both very enjoyable in their energies), John DiMaggio & Ryuzaburo Otomo as Nolt, Matt McKenzie & Yusaku Yara as Borgoff, & [ADR director] Jack Fletcher & Toshihiko Seki as Grove (both sound appropriately sickly, with Seki almost sounding unrecognizable at times). Overall, the English cast does a really good job for what was not meant to be the final product, while the Japanese dub is a very solid one, with some nontraditional performances, and it's a shame that it's not allowed to be available in North America.

On a quick aside, the Hungarian dub isn't too shabby, either. Glad I got my DVD back in 2008, though it is odd that the original English is not included in any way, making this a DVD with two dubs but no original audio track. Also, "Tooku Made" is literally only heard on the Japanese track during the credits; the Hungarian track uses the same instrumental as the English audio. Maybe the whole licensing restriction thing does have some weight to it, after all...

-Overall Execution-
Finally, we have the general but most important category, which is how each anime actually tells their respective stories. For the OVA, the focus is very much on delivering an atmospheric mood more than anything else. While there is action, it's only focused upon in specific moments, like when D breaks into Lee's castle to take back Doris after she's kidnapped early on, & has to take on Rei's mutant cohorts; I don't bring them up in the Supporting Cast section because they are only important for this part of the story. Instead, the story is more about the characters & how they deal with their respective conflicts, whether it's Doris' reluctance to let herself be turned, Larmica's dedication to what she's always thought was true, Rei's hope to be rewarded for his actions, Greco's petty vengeance, or even D's own dhampir nature (though this last one is only showcased a little). Being an OVA from the 80s, though, this is definitely an extremely gory anime, with pretty much every slash from a sword delivering not just blood but also guts. Lee's supernatural power also has no reservations when it comes to desecrating the human body, and considering how the action only appears at times, it gives each & every moment of gore more effect.

Bloodlust plays up the suspense & kinetic nature of the basic plot, and Kawajiri's directorial style works extremely well with it. That being said, however, it must be stated that, against all expectations, Bloodlust is nowhere near as gory as the OVA. Sure, there's a fair amount of blood, befitting the subtitle, but there's next to no real gore in all of the violence, which is shocking considering that Kawajiri is infamous for being unflinching in showing hyper-violence. Not just that, but the actual battles between the characters come in two disappointing flavors, extremely short or outright not shown, especially when D is involved. The only fight to actually have some sense of pace to it would be Benge's bits with the Marcus Brothers, with Caroline's fight with D being a close second. Machira gets a momentary spotlight with the Marcus', but his fight with D is literally ignored, with the only thing the viewer seeing is Machira's death soliloquy; it likely wasn't a long fight, but showing none of it is just odd.

Interestingly enough, though, both anime feature moments where an ally is turned into a vampire off-screen, and both of them instantly become fanatically evil & loyal to those who turn them. While the loyalty makes sense from a conceptual point of view, as they've thrown away their prior humanity in the process, the fact that both characters become so suddenly evil to those they cared for just a few moments ago just feels a bit awkward.

Originally, I had planned on pitting the two Vampire Hunter D anime productions against each other, but after watching them (Bloodlust was for the first time in nearly a decade) I realized that doing so would be kind of silly. The general consensus is that the movie is the better product, & if you really want me to choose then I'll have to agree. That being said, these two anime are such diametrically different stories, with the only main similarity being that they both come from a novel series written by Hideyuki Kikuchi. The Vampire Hunter D OVA is a slow-paced character drama that features bits of hyper-violence strewn about, while Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust is a fast-paced chase story that features a lot more action, though it's oddly nowhere near as gory as what came 15 years before it. Both do have their own unique flaws, though, like how odd the OVA can feel a bit odd at times from a storytelling perspective (which more than likely affected the original novel, too, as it was the first book), or how the movie's final third in Castle Chaythe kind of feels like a case of Kikuchi tossing in a way to actually give the story an ending, after realizing that he had no proper villain by humanizing Meier Link; Carmilla's inclusion really feels sudden & ill-fitting. Regardless, Vampire Hunter D's history in anime has so far been extremely solid, and hopefully the upcoming all-CG Resurrection TV series can maintain that level of quality.

As for non-anime adaptations, though, there is one product that I can properly review, and just in time for Halloween, too.

1 comment:

  1. I really hope they [whichever group it was who bought the rights to VHD] can balance the gothic horror with all the weirder sci-fi elements (aliens, tech, etc). I know the intention is to keep Kawajiri onbard as they sort out what format/network to release the new series on. I just hope: A) it actually comes to fruition, B) it has a decent budget, and C) the team allows for a greater marriage between Kawajiri's hyper-flourishes of sexuality and violence and the wealth of tone and mythology depicted in the light novels.