Gather ’round, children. Grampa Phil’s got a tale for you sprouts.
Now I want to talk to you kids about anime. Yes, Naruto, Pete. Uh huh, One Piece, Jenny. Right. Hulu. Okay. Simmer. Adult speaking.
Anime is such a mainstream part of Western kid culture these days that it’s everywhere and plastered on everything, to the extent you’d think American animation studios have shut down. They haven’t, though. Seems like more American animation is aimed at olders than made for kids. You’ve got the likes of Adventure Time and Steven Universe, and when those shows aren’t being filthy they’re hanging their metaphorical berries in the wind. That fella MacFarlane’s carried out a coup on primetime animated sitcoms. Plus there’s Adult Swim, which you kids watch so much it might as well be called Everybody’s Waterhole.
Back in my day we weren’t lacking in edgy cartoons. Nickelodeon trusted us enough to spitball boogers and farts in our faces. The Simpsons and its deconstruction of the American family unit ruled Thursday nights. Hell, those 1940’s Merry Melodies shorts were originally shown to adults during moving picture shows. We saw em long after the Jim Crow jokes were edited out, is all.
Thing is, those cartoons didn’t feel ‘adult’ enough to the average 12-year-old. Then that one friend at the sleepover put in a special kind of cartoon after Ace Ventura ended. Holy bejesus, you kids don’t know. You just don’t know! Blood geysers, exploding heads, bullet storms, exit wounds, gushing arms ripped from sockets and drunk down by a golem rape monster. Oh, and lest I forget, boobs. Naked lady boobs, areolas and all, bouncing and jiggling every whichaway. Suck on that, Davey and Goliath.
Back then anime was still relatively underground. It’d be a secret a few more years before everybody jumped on and the gatekeeping kids stopped being cool. If you brought up ‘Japanimation’ you’d hear of three flavors somewhere in the conversation: Akira, Ninja Scroll and Vampire Hunter D.
D takes place ten millenniums after an apocalyptic watershed, where humans have rebuilt civilization into cyberpunk Victorian England. They get around with horse buggies and toil in fields to survive, but they also have electric security barriers and laser rifles. In other words, cool sci-fi technology that’s not the kind needed to build a Food Lion near the highway. After dusk, humans defend themselves against monsters crawling around the outer rim hellscapes.
One night a pretty young thing named Doris is chasing a demon off her property when she runs too far into the neighbor’s yard. Count Magnus Lee, an ancient super vampire lord, bites Doris’s neck, cursing her to be the old bastard’s bride when he comes collecting.
The locals don’t take kindly to Doris’s plight. Ladies who get the curse, as it were, are shunned away from trade and general politeness. Doris and her little brother Dan face the inevitable until a quiet Shane-like stranger rides up on a cyborg horse. Only going by ‘D,’ he is among the elite Vampire Hunter class. A smitten Doris offers to sleep with him in lieu of a payment plan, but D’s only interested in killing monsters with that big sword of his. Hee hee.
Oh, now your grandma’s yelling about me being too dirty. Hey now, don’t be getting all high and mighty back there! Should I tell them about what you did behind the grain bin? Thought so.
D is the iconic stoic archetype who likes his actions to speak louder than his words. He wears a big-brimmed hat that hides most of his face, and what little is seen of it conceals haggard emotions. For all his cool silence, D is conflicted on the inside. He is a dhampir, and in case you kids aren’t nerds, a dhampir is a half-human, half-vampire. That means D is free to walk in the daylight and enjoy the strength and speed of his vampire prey, but he is torn between the living and the damned.
D’s dhampir status becomes especially difficult during this mission. Dan looks up to D as a surrogate big brother, while Doris quickly falls in love with him. It’s obvious that D has some mutual attraction for Doris, but whether the desire is for her pretty lithe figure or tasty neck juice is never put into words. Since half of him is tied to the darkness he cannot reconcile two opposing forces. One might say his drive to cleave through hellspawn is a reflection of his own self-loathing. Like Batman, he fights monsters to fight the monster within.
I could take that comparison further. Instead of an Alfred there to scold D about slamming his psychosis into the wall, there’s D’s Hand. Yep, there’s a creature with eyes and a mouth that lives in D’s right hand that he bickers with. Alright, so—Pete. Stop. Right now. Only Grampa Phil gets to joke that way. Your first impression is that Hand is an ass, but the truth is that Hand conveys his lectures the wrong way. Stop it, Pete!
There’s lots of talk about how powerful, brutal and unforgiving tyrannical Count Lee is, but he spends the majority of the movie sitting on his ass while minions do his dirty work. The top subordinate villains include the Count’s daughter, Lamika and Rei Ginsei, a humanoid mutant.
Lamika is a snobbish aristocrat, raised over the last hundred years to believe that since she is on the top rung of the food chain, all others exist to be belittled and/or eaten, so sayeth the Noble Ancestor. D changes her way of thinking, leading by example, never with violence. I like that idea. Every time Lamika tries to kill D or otherwise stop him from doing his job, he ignores her and tells her to go home. Without saying much, he teaches her that you can’t freely kill people just because they’re standing in the way.
Lamika is also concerned because daddy’s lecherous habit of turning, marrying, banging and eventually killing young human girls (a variation of what we used to call “hitting and quitting”) brings dishonor to their noble aristocratic code. She is right, but Count Lee wants to have fun and his word is law.
Rei brings another message to the story, one I think its best you kids learn now so you won’t be crushed by it later. You know how your teachers are always telling you that if you try hard enough and put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything? Rei tells us that real life isn’t Back to the Future. He believes by capturing the girl and killing the Vampire Hunter, Rei will get brownie points with Count Lee, who will then make him a nobleman in high society—in other words, turn him into a vampire, I guess. Rei tries so hard, so very, very hard, harder than his lazy employer, and all he gets is ridicule and humiliation. Now I’m not telling you kids effort is bad, just to prepare yourself for disappointment. I mean Rei loses an arm for God’s sake, much worse later on.
Other characters include Doctor Ferhing, who has been Doris and Dan’s surrogate father since their parents died; he plays that role well enough, so not much else needs to be done with him. Greco is the mayor’s son, an arrogant, slimy conniving son of a bitch who also wants him some Doris but isn’t as impressive or clever as he thinks he is.
Everybody has a part to act out in the grand soup that is Vampire Hunter D, but in all honesty, the humans are the weakest link next to Count Magnus Lee, whom I’ll lambaste in a minute. Dan I can forgive. He’s only like eight years old and there’s little for him to do except get kidnapped and occasionally land a lucky strike with the laser rifle.
Doris, however, is a main character. She starts off strong, based on what we see and aren’t told. She’s eighteen at most, probably seventeen or young as sixteen, and has been running the family farm well with her parents gone. When Greco tries to put hands on Doris early on, she knocks him into the dirt.
When the monsters become an overt threat, Doris becomes helpless. She needs D around to stay safe, literally, because she gets captured twice and both of those times D is away from the house. She spends a large part of the movie passed out or in magic induced comas. I think they cut out a scene where D goes on a milk run, leaving Doris to be defeated by her shoelaces.
Back to the Count, though. Man, this guy sucks. He has one motivation for plundering the local girl crop, which he even explains in a monologue: boredom. After 10,000 years of unending life and invincibility the Count has grown bored with living, and human females are the only toys amusing enough to get him through the continuing days. I can understand that to an extent. 10,000 years is long, long enough to read War and Peace eleven times. Let me tell you, halfway through that tenth run you’ll be clawing your eyes out while clamoring for young trim, too.
Right, but it’s not enough to carry a main villain. Count Magnus Lee reminds me of the final boss in an old JRPG. He’s done a lot of damage but you never see him do anything until he takes the gloves off. He is crippled by boredom, and in the process is boring, the very thing he despises.
Another gripe I have is with the animation, which has a manic way of jumping between awe-inspiring to decent to sub-tier terrible. A few scenes use repeated frames. Characters often bob and up and down like stick puppets when they’re walking or riding somewhere.
But when it gets good, it gets great. D in action mode is accompanied by shades of black or deep violet. The shadows cast on his face paint him a neo-noir style, as he monster hunts with Elliot Ness’s poker face and an unhinged samurai’s dexterity.
The long sequence where D storms the Count’s castle on a one-man slaughtering spree is still my favorite moment after 20 years. Imagine a labyrinth polluted by abortions drug out of the worst hell, all slimy and cancerous and hissing with Venus fly trap mouths. D survives a pit with naked siren ladies who morph into hideous serpents, and then he rampages through a fiend-infested wind tunnel that can only be described as a pathological nightmare put to paper. Never mind the boobs or blood volcanoes, kids. This is the of out-of-its-mind stuff that drew us to anime in the first place.
Vampire Hunter D is good stuff. Aspects of it haven’t aged well, that’s certainly true, but damned if I didn’t get the nicest kick in the feels watching it again. Nostalgic ties aside, there’s enough here to draw this old man in and keep him happy.
So anyway, that’s about it, although I did have an ulterior motive for calling you kids in here. It’s only fair to warn you: next time you come over and stream your Sword Art Online or Fairytales and whatnots, I’m unplugging the router and dragging out the VCR. We’re all gonna watch Vampire Hunter D together, the way grandchildren are supposed to with their aging elders. What? Alright, okay. The DVD player. That way if one of you gets snobby about subs or dub we can have it both ways.
FINAL GRADE: B