Vampire Hunter D (1985) Review

Vampire Hunter D

Initial Release Date: 21 December 1985

Directed by Toyoo Ashida

Original work by Hideyuki Kikuchi

Once you’ve analysed several pieces coming from one region, you begin to spot genres or storylines that are rarely used there. As someone who has delved into multiple manga, anime and video games, there are very few who attempt to encapsulate the gothic vibe that Vampire Hunter D soaks itself in. Paired with romance, a popular facet of gothic literature and some action for mainstream appeal, this film covers all its bases in terms of demographic.

Attempting to incorporate elements of sci-fi also (a genre Japan knows all too well), this film is set in a post-apocalyptic future, where humanity has had its development stunted. They are now at bay of the all-powerful and cunning vampires (also known as “Nobles”), who have gained control over the world, and brought with them a cast of mythical creatures who enjoy terrorising. Our story begins in a distant mountain village, where a powerful noble, Count Magnus, has resurfaced after a long absence. While mortality is no issue for the noble, boredom is, and upon his return, becomes infatuated with a young farm girl names Doris. He intends to make her his bride, much to the dismay of her village, as a plaything for the nobles is a seal of doom. In desperation, Doris employs a vampire hunter, D, to protect her. This tall and powerful stranger has his own connection to vampires, a fact almost as strange as the mouth situated on the palm of his left hand. Based on Hideyuki Kikuchi’s novel of the same name, Vampire Hunter D is a story of hopelessness, redemption and morality. Unfortunately, it is not a story of substance.

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Vampire Hunter D is an economic adaptation of the novel it’s based on. While it tries admirably to weave a slick, western aura over a post-apocalyptic backdrop, a blend of genres and a large amount of material to condense results in an incredibly underwhelming experience. You could tell that the creator had so many ideas to add into this piece, so many interesting themes to flesh out. But in 80 minutes, all that came out was a barebones damsel in distress plot amongst an intriguing world begging to be fleshed out. Our story is told within the first ten minutes of the film, and acts as a linear steel-string. It never eases up, or becomes flexible to account for new information brought about through the plot. Knowing more about our characters meant nothing, because it never affected the story. There were also certain aspects of the story that were either never told to the audience or never explained. For one, the mouth on D’s hand is consistently tormenting him throughout the film, alluding to his inability to develop relationships with humanity. We are introduced to him very early on, so surely we would learn something about him right? Wrong. He remains this enigma throughout the first half of the film, but slowly, as the viewer grows accustomed to his presence, ride him off as just a given. It feels like a missed opportunity, and if this does show a reliance on the book, prevents it from being a standalone experience.

This won’t come as a surprise to many, but animation produced 33 years ago will probably show its age in some way. For Vampire Hunter D, any time it portrays movement, AKA the job of animation, viewers are reminded of the time it was created as opposed to the time it is set. While some character designs are interesting, they are far too complex for the type of animation the creator was going for, and often remain hollow husks in the background until they have to be animated. Along with characters struggling to come to life, other character designs, namely Doris’, are questionable. I’m going to assume the best in everyone, and just say that Doris “forgot” to cover the lower half of her body with clothes, but I wish the animators had “reminded” her to do so before the film started. This unfavourable portrayal also comes across as dated, along with tasteless. Not to mention that the young heroine not only fulfils her role as the helpless damsel that must be rescued, but she’s kidnapped three times in the film, coming in at a whopping one in every 26 minutes! Spread over the course of an entire novel, it may not be as noticeable (somehow), but I’m able to remember what happened thirty minutes prior.

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A redeeming quality of this film was its art (elements of the film that remained still), and the creatures that inhabited it. There were no conventional beasts, they all looked incredibly grotesque or disfigured. Some action anime rely on empowerment as a form of engagement, making viewers wish they could live in a world to fight evil too. While D is incredibly powerful, the darkness that envelopes this setting is simply not worth living in. Not only D, but the villagers paint their environment as a hopeless, pointless realm to exist in. In this sense, it was a truly gothic experience. But characters at the forefront ruined this perspective by being so inconsistent that any tension created in the background stayed in the background of the viewer’s mind. The film introduces us to so many disgustingly tough looking monsters, all loyal followers of Count Magnus. They constantly terrorise the village and attempt to kidnap Doris on the orders of their master. Yet, in one clumsy montage, ninety percent of them are eliminated, as D mercilessly hacks every enemy down. The awful pacing leaves no characters unharmed either, as not a single person is given time to develop before they’re either killed or kidnapped. If you absolutely loved this film, you could try and argue that this is a world where no characters are prioritised because the world is indifferent to them, but you’d truly be grasping at straws. What seemed like a decent build up left viewers with an underwhelming action sequence and an underwhelming experience.

The english voice cast also struggled with inconsistency. While the script was far less cheesy than I expected, I just couldn’t connect the voices to the characters naturally. D remained stoic at all times, yet his voice would have bursts of youthful energy. There were a series of witty jabs scattered amongst the film at the bleakest of moments, many of which I assume were originally intended to be sombre. Another example of tension being cut! Towards the end of the film, the audience is treated to a slightly longer showdown between Count Magnus and D. Instead of incapacitating his foe in five seconds, it probably takes D fifteen to get the best of the film’s main antagonist. Despite encapsulating the poor pacing in Vampire Hunter D, this scene, along with the second half of the film, tried to refresh its audience using a different genre; horror. At this stage, there weren’t any frightening moments to document, at least none that I interpreted as frightening. However, a series of gruesome deaths and masterfully painted expressions alerted me that this film can not only cause discomfort in its audience, but could actually attach emotion to characters. When you isolate these scenes, a feeling of sadness will wash over you. These moments should have been at the forefront of the movie! The action was disappointing, the characters were disappointing, this was a shining light in an otherwise dim experience.

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Being one of the west’s first forays into the world of Japanese animation, Vampire Hunter D is considered a cult classic of the horror-fantasy genre. The unearthly beauty of this film is unquestionable; a gothic romp through a western inspired story leaves a lot to the imagination. Unfortunately, inconsistent motivations and choppy transitions prohibit this watered down adaptation from being a standalone experience in my eyes.

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