Disaster Report: Hellsing

There are few things more thrilling for a manga fan than to see one of their favorite series make the jump to television.  It’s not just the joy that comes from seeing the story and characters you enjoyed previously come to life, there’s also the delight of new viewers becoming new readers and fellow fans and the occasional satisfaction in seeing these adaptations become critical, if not commercial successes.  More than a few of us are enjoying this feeling right now as we watch this season’s adaptations of The Ancient Magus’ Bride and Land of the Lustrous.  That being said, for every successful adaptation there are countless others that simply miss the mark.  Few of those shows can be said to be as disappointing as the 2001 anime adaptation of Kouta Hirano’s Hellsing.

Hellsing is the story of the Hellsing Organization, a secret military force led by the steely Sir Integra Fairbook Wingates Hellsing.  Her goal is to protect England from both supernatural forces and the ever-present threat of the Catholic Church, all in the name of Queen and Country.  Her secret weapon is Alucard, an immensely powerful vampire who takes no greater delight than doing battle with what he sees as lesser beings.  He is assisted by Seres Victoria, a former policewoman turned vampire and Hellsing operative, as well as Walter, Integra’s butler and master of the garrote wire.  Ultimately all of their skills and strength are put to the test when a mysterious figure known as the Major unleashes an army of supernaturally enhanced Nazi ghouls upon England, resulting in an orgy of psychedelic violence that threatens not only London but the world itself.

Hellsing is not a terribly deep work as far as manga goes, but there’s something irresistible about Hirano’s commitment to outrageous action pieces, wild leering faces, and the occasional bit of oddball or morbid humor.  It certainly worked for me, as it was one of the first manga I ever read and one I still enjoy to this date.  It was popular right from its start back in 1997, so it’s not shocking that four years later it would be picked up by Studio GONZO for a single season of anime.  The problem was only two volumes worth of manga had been published by the time the anime went into production.  Worse still, there was no overarching plot to tie them together, as Hellsing’s story didn’t properly start until Volume Three.

Then there was the fact that Studio Gonzo was working on it.  While they were nearly a decade old at this point, they were still relatively new at producing anime on their own and were already garnering a reputation for shows that started to drag visually and narratively after the first few episodes.  Still, they were bringing in some talented staff, including Umanosuke Iida, who had previously the majority of the Mobile Suit Gundam: 08th MS Team OVAs.  They also hired Chiaki Konaka as the main screenwriter, who was at this point known for his work on Serial Experiments Lain and The Big O.  Perhaps it was thought that their talent could compensate for the lack of source material and any animation shortcomings.  In retrospect, their presence would be something of a mixed bag.

Hellsing is at its strongest when it sticks to the books.  All the notable moments from the first two volumes are there: Seras Victoria’s rebirth as a vampire, Alucard’s initial fight with the supernatural Vatican priest Alexander Anderson, the flashback detailing how Alucard became Integra’s servant, and the assault on Hellsing Manor by the vampiric Valentine Brothers.  Even when stretched out generously, though, these stories only covered half of this show’s thirteen episodes.  The rest of the time is spent on Konaka’s original content, and when it makes that shift the show’s spirits sink. 

Konaka was a talented screenwriter in his day, but you would have to work hard to find a worse match for this sort of material than him.  People like Hellsing because it’s outrageous, irreverent, and positively gleeful in its ultraviolence.  In comparison, Konaka’s additions are too serious, too small-scale, too dull and too dreary to mesh with the other half of the show.  In any other show, these stories would be mostly mediocre; here they might as well be boredom incarnate.  Things do ramp up near the end as he tries to tie it all together to a conspiracy involving “freak” chips, an army of artificial vampires, and a creation known only as Incognito, but it simply can’t compare to the glorious, gore-ious heights of Hirano’s original work.

Of course, the character design for Incognito doesn’t help things. Seriously, look at that thing!  That’s not a vision of horror, that’s a rejected design for a minor villain from one of the lesser Dragon Ball Z movies!  The only thing more ridiculous than this character design is how the entire show ends.  Quite plainly, it doesn’t.  While Incognito is defeated in the end, none of the questions about who was controlling Incognito or making the freak chips are ever answered.  Even if you enjoyed the original content for some reason, this move has to feel like an insult to injury.  I can only guess if this happened either because the staff was confident they would eventually get a second season to address them or simply didn’t care at that point.  I’m not sure which option is worse.

It doesn’t help that the show doesn’t really know what to do with its main cast.  They certainly have no idea what to do with Walter or Alucard outside of battle, so the former is barely seen and the latter mostly monologues to himself.  Integra spends most of the show on the sidelines before she ends up getting turned into a damsel for one of her vampires to save.  While she’s not entirely helpless, it’s quite the unpleasant change from the determined, cool and intelligent commander that I so greatly admired in the manga.  The only character who gets any sort of improvement is Seras.  She’s rather neglected in the manga outside of her relationship with Pip Bernadotte, but here the writers try to turn her into a protagonist and give her a proper arc.   She struggles with her transition into undeath, as well as her confidence as a soldier.  There are even some feminist undertones thrown in, as we see time and again how men on both sides of the conflict underestimate Seras because of her looks and gender.  While they drag out her indecisiveness a little too long for her and the show’s own good, she grows enough as a character to reach a mildly satisfying conclusion, arguably the only one to be found on the entire show.

The visuals are just as uneven as the writing.  It’s clear that GONZO didn’t have much money to spare for the animation and had to spread it thinly outside of the more notable action scenes.  It goes out of its way to frame conversations so as to avoid showing a character’s mouth (and sometimes their faces) to avoid having to animate lip flaps.  Walk cycles are noticeably jerky and fights can shift on a dime from fluid animation to barely animated, Photoshop-heavy stills.  The show tries to compensate for the garishly bright color palatte of early digipainting by washing out the color palattes of the human characters and making the show as shadowy as possible for maximum moodiness.  This ended up backfiring, as the end result ended up looking washed out and muddy on DVD and only rarely captures the rich shadows and wildness of the original art.  Later high-definition releases the color issues to some degree, but not enough to save the show.  This is a production that’s simply not capable of capturing the original manga’s style nor capable enough to forge one of its own.

The most frustrating thing about the show is that it’s not completely incompetent.  There are quite a few stylish shots and sequences scattered throughout, particularly in the early episodes and in the finale.  The score, created by the experimental rock musician Yasushi Ishi, is full of jangly, sleezy tunes that are a delight to listen to on their own.  It was one of the rare shows where the dub and sub voice casts are equally good, which is saying something considering how excellent the original Japanese voice cast is.  Jouji Nakata lends a certain stateliness to Alucard, Yoshiko Sakakibara gives Integra the sort of stern authority she needs, and Fumiko Orikasa makes Seras sound sweet and youthful but never childish or ditzy.  That’s a tough act to follow, but ADR director Taliesin Jaffe was more than up to the task. 

He not only cast actors who matched the original in pitch and timbre as possible, but went the extra mile in casting actual English actors in many of the major roles.  It lends the proceedings a bit of verisimilitude, and in particular I could listen to Victoria Harwood’s low, smooth, Cate Blanchett-esque performance as Integra all day.  Of course, the real standout was Crispin Freeman as Alucard.  He was already established as an anime voice actor when this dub was originally made, but back then he was known for lighter, more comedic roles such as the title character from The Irresponsible Captain Tylor or Zelgadis from Slayers.  Here he goes all out, performing the role with gusto and lending Alucard a growliness that is equal parts threatening and alluring.  This dub is quite frankly better than such an uneven and dull show deserves, and it stuck with anime watchers long after the show fell out of print.

Despite its failures, Hellsing got something that most bad anime adaptations don’t get: a second chance.  It seems that Geneon was aware of both the show’s popularity in the West and the frustration fans felt over how the story was handled.  That was why the Hellsing Ultimate OVA series was launched in 2005, which would adapt the entire story of the manga beginning to end and bring back the dub cast people loved so much.   While that series is not without its criticisms, it managed to better capture the charms of the source material and bring them to life, thoroughly overshadowing its predecessor in the process.  These days, the Hellsing TV series is nothing but a faded shadow of itself, one that is remembered only as a dud if it is remembered at all.  While I feel that its notoriety is somewhat overstated, I do believe that it is best to leave this series to rest in peace.


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