Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust

In my days of skipping optional cross country practice to watch Sci-Fi Channel's Saturday Morning Anime and laughing way too hard at the sales department pairing My Buddy ads with Akira, I must've watched the Vampire Hunter D OAV about a dozen times. Adding in a couple viewings of the unedited version with the world's most "meh" gratuitous shower scene, and it's mostly something I can't really separate from my adolescent nostalgia. It wasn't the best thing in the world. The animation was occasionally lacking, the main character is not showing up the Dos Equis guy any time soon, and its post-apocalyptic world was limited. But it worked. It felt like the old B-movies that only had enough money to film for two weeks, but somehow did enough solid work all around to make up for its shortcomings. In fact, similar to the Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing vampire movies that inspired the author of the original Vampire Hunter D novel series to write them in the first place. It has to be doing something right if it got re-issued after 30 years.

But that's not what we're talking about here. Twelve years after the release of the OAV, fan interest, the original novel series author Hideyuki Kikuchi's desire to see a more extravagant adaptation of his work, and other factors led to studio Madhouse starting production with a Vampire Hunter D motion picture directed by the legend Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Who'd already adapted some of Kikuchi's other work with Wicked City). Intended on being released in American theaters with the English dub as its original language track, 2001's Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust is comparable to Mad Max Fury Road as a gorgeous entry to an old property that manages to sustain admirable drama within a work that's at its core a pure action movie. While not as good as Fury Road with its plot getting bottlenecked with unnecessary foreshadowing and too much talking, it's still a testament that this movie not only holds up nearly 15 years after its release in a medium that often is not kind to time, but is equal or superior to most of its contemporaries.

Half-human, half-vampire dunpeal (A mistranslation of the word dhampir) D is a stoic, imposing bounty hunter who rides a black, robotic horse through the post-apocalyptic wasteland ripped apart by creatures of the night that took over the world at some point (The movie never tells you this, but it's circa 12,000 AD, FYI). By the start of the movie, the tide has turned, vampires are going the way of the dinosaur, and the world just seems empty and wounded. In this adventure, D is hired by the rich father of Charlotte, a maiden who was kidnapped in the night by one of the last powerful vampire nobles, Baron Meier Link. Charlotte's father also took to hiring vampire hunting team the Markus Brothers, whose ranks ironically include female hunter Leila, so D has to compete with them as well as take on Meier's many guardians and the hazards of the journey itself.

After this brief setup, the movie is essentially one long chase sequence. Fitting, since it's adapted from the third novel, Demon Deathchase. D or the hunters take on Meier's bodyguards which include a werewolf with a wolf's face in his stomach and a woman who can turn into whatever material she touches. Between the battles, D has an uneven relationship with his competing hunters as they understandably want their paychecks after going through hell and back. The most love/hate interaction is with Leila, who is prejudiced to anyone with vampire blood, yet finds nothing particularly dislikable about D. As they make their way to the more distant and strange monster outposts in the world, they find out the real reasons behind why Charlotte was taken, where they're going, and what plans Meier has. To elaborate would be to spoil, but let's just say you won't expect how certain science fiction elements are implemented into the story.

The very first thing I noticed is simply how beautiful this movie still is. It is one of the rare mixes of insanely detailed designs and wonderfully fluid animation.  If the OAV's vision only slightly touched upon the post-apocalyptic aspects of the universe, Bloodlust amps it up to 11, folding glorious landscapes of a ruined future into the gothic look of the supernatural world and the western stylings of the human civilizations. D still looks like the Yoshitaka Amano illustrations from the source material, but the rest of the cast fit distinctly into Kawajiri works. Bulky men with extremely strong jawlines mixed with women and their poofy/bizarre hairstyles (If they're poofy AND blonde, all the better). It's a style that's distinctly linked to the late 80s/early 90s era of bloody and brutal anime, but given just enough softer touches to make the quieter character moments not seem out of place.

Kawajiri and Madhouse have been pros at smooth and exciting action for decades and this is one of their best. Since Ninja Scroll, the director has been one of the few people who have been able to handle superpowers that feel like they carry just the right amount of weight. They are neither so overbearingly broken that the clashes are dull or filled with cheats in the script to snuff out the tension. These are brawls with powerful humans and creatures and it feels like the strongest, sneakiest, or the best win. It's weird how rare that is in cinema in general. The stable of hunters and monsters create a diverse array of scenes, such as a man stricken to a hospital bed who can project himself with deadly magic and an assassin who literally picks off his prey from the shadows. For something that keeps the classic vampire traits mostly intact (The more powerful ones can pretty much smash any crucifix before it does anything, though), the variety of action here is commendable. If you ever wanted any kind of Castlevania movie, this is probably as good as you're going to get.

One aspect I'll randomly address is how perverse it gets. If you've seen Wicked City or Ninja Scroll, you'll know Kawajiri occasionally has at times a taste towards some very sexually explicit material involving rape and really unsettling female monsters. Bloodlust is extremely tame in in this regard. The main romantic relationship is far more of an emotional bond than a sexual one, and the creatures this time around don't really have a sexy slant. It's more like one of his other East/West collaborations, the "Program" short from The Animatrix, in how relatively chaste it is. It's an odd thing to bring up, but if you've been in a screening of Ninja Scroll with normal people and had them literally walking out in the middle of it clomping their feet as loud as they could to let the people screening it (i.e. me) know how displeased they were to be shown such filth, it's information more people would like to know than you'd expect.

From a writing standpoint, the script (Also by Kawajiri) is very workmanlike. Outside of D, Leila, Meier, and Charlotte, the characters are far more defined by what they can do more than who they are. And D is on the level of Golgo 13 as far as main characters in a long-running series who don't say much and don't give out much information about themselves (Though he gets much less sex than Golgo 13). As the odd emotional crux of the whole thing, Meier and Charlotte do well enough on their own. It's highly melodramatic, but the animation, the writing, and the voice acting come together for the two and make the struggles of their relationship feel like it's plausible and sympathetic. The only misstep is a pivotal scene where Charlotte talks to Meier in the mirror that takes place in wide shot most of the time and in the rare questionable animation, they don't even move the mouths much, if at all.

The script does tend to sprinkle dull thuds of foreshadowing into the dialogue. D's only companion in life is the mouth that lives in his left hand who cracks wise and occasionally saves D from his overconfidence. At multiple points, Left Hand (Yup, the character's name is Left Hand) talks loudly about how D should worry about his Heat Syndrome problem. If you're wondering if Heat Syndrome becomes an issue later on, you haven't watched very many movies. There're also multiple scenes of people talking too much instead of taking care of business. The hunters have a vital opportunity to get Meier dead to rights in the sunlight, and they waste it taunting him in a way that makes it very clear what happens next as the sun is setting in the background. You can't say they didn't earn what happens to them....

This is one of the rare anime where the original language is INTENDED to be in English. Since it was made initially for American audiences, the English audio was done first and then the Japanese audio done a year later and made ONLY for the Japanese audience. It does get more complicated with the rumors that the first dub was only a "test" dub to get better celebrity voice talent that never worked out because the movie didn't make much money. Due to the licensing agreement, the new Blu-ray only has the English dialogue option. With the test rumor and my lack of memory from my first viewing, I was expecting the dub to be a campy mess, but it's a completely professional job with big names like Wendee Lee and John DiMaggio participating. Nobody gives a bad performance and the sound design is top notch with maniacal laughs properly echoing through the open spaces. Some lack of character attachment is more from the writing being so on-the-run than anything the English dub does. If it was the language I was intended to hear it and it's this good, I have no problems with this being my only option. The music by Marco D'Ambrosio is much more hit-and-miss, occasionally having a choir spout some creepy chanting, but also containing an equal amount of tinny synth orchestra that doesn't do much of anything.

Bloodlust is not only an action movie that transcends its genre, it's also a sequel that is superior to its predecessor. The animation is stunning, the action thrilling, and the climax sneakily more touching than you'd expect given standard definitions of the characters. It might be just a rung under a classic for me since it doesn't really resonate after viewing, but the act of watching it is very much a pleasure. Unlike the OAV, it fully survives the smashing of nostalgia goggles and holds its own as a standard for animated action filmmaking.


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