Reviewby Theron Martin, Jul 11th 2011
Dance in the Vampire Bund
DVD/Blu-Ray Complete Series
In high schooler Akira Kaburagi's world, most still believe that vampires do not exist even after a spate of vampire-like killings in Japan. That comes to an end when the long-hidden vampire culture publicly reveals itself on a talk show, and its face is the Queen of Vampires, Mina Tepes, who looks like an elementary school girl but claims descendancy from Vlad Tepes (aka Dracula) and absolute authority over creatures of the night. She declares that vampires have purchased a bund (i.e. an artificial island) in Tokyo Bay and intend to establish a politically independent city-state there, with the promise that they will be good neighbors as long as no one messes with them. All of this would mean little to Akira if Mina didn't happen to have a keen interest in him, and he soon discovers that the first sixteen years of his life, which he cannot remember due to supposed head trauma, involved him not only being a werewolf in service to Mina but also included a pledge of personal loyalty and companionship to her, too, which she takes to heart.
Mina's appearance brings out all manner of dangers for Akira and those around him, however. Rogue vampires have infiltrated Akira's school, and enemy factions within the vampire community contest Mina's position, authority, and plans for the bund. The leaders of the three remaining “true blood” vampire clans also seek to put Mina in her place and big mysteries are afoot, the most important of which involves what, exactly, Akira saw on a mission a year before which caused him to suffer amnesia. The Queen of Vampires is a force to be reckoned with despite her physical youth, though, and a loyal werewolf at her side is no trifle, either.
Of anime titles that utilize lolicon elements, none have generated more or fiercer controversy than this series, and deservedly so. Its story elements, action components, and production values decidedly put it in the mainstream of anime fandom, and yet its regular opener features a girl with the physique of an 11 year old dancing around in nothing but free-flowing, barely-concealing ribbons, the old-school movie-styled countdown at the beginning of most episodes shows said girl in various unclothed poses, and the camera does not shy from showing her in complete, defined nudity on a few occasions that have nothing whatsoever to do with bathing. (Yes, the DVD and Blu-Ray releases, unlike the TV broadcasts and earlier Funimation streams, are completely uncensored and unedited.) Some have argued fiercely that this does not really count as lolicon since the character in question is immensely older than she appears, but that argument is difficult to justify when Mina's “immature body” becomes a plot point late in the series, she is shown getting a pelvic examination at one point, and the camera does, at times, seem to be ogling her. More debatable is how sensual her actions actually are (some will certainly see an inappropriate level of sensuality to some of what Mina does in her child form), and it is true that these elements are only a smart part of the series, but they are too prominent in their presence to be easily overlooked.
Of course, underaged nudity is hardly the only fan service or provocative content the series provides. Many more mature girls and ladies get to show off their bodies at various points and one story arc in the middle of the series features a shotacon development, too – and that may be even more brazen than anything that Mina does, as it indisputably shows an upper high school girl getting tonguey with a much younger boy who is exactly what he appears to be. Fans of graphic violence will also find plenty to enjoy here; the TV-MA rating was not earned just for its nudity.
Those aspects of the series are complements rather than foci, however. Set aside the whole lolicon business and you essentially have a love story about a vampire girl (if she can be called that) who earnestly seeks to re-establish a connection with a cherished individual whom she thought she had lost while also guiding her people through their most important and tumultuous developments in centuries. The writing tries to portray a strong contrast between her arrogant and emotionally vulnerable sides, but only the former case works properly. Mina positively shines when being smugly manipulative or projecting an aura of mature authority, but that also makes her moments of vulnerability seem more like true weaknesses than anything endearing. The writing also tries to back Mina away from the edge of being borderline evil by showing how her actions are serving the well-being of a large vampire underclass. A dash of wickedness often tends to make characters more interesting and enticing, though, and Mina is most intriguing when allowed to explore that. Few other characters in the series make any significant impact; Akira may co-star but is really nothing special, and narrator Yuki doesn't do much to distinguish herself, either. Watching how the Student Council President changes over the course of the series can be interesting, and the mysterious, candy-sucking Mei Ren is an enticing sexpot, but neither is present often enough to have a major impact.
The series starts with an unconventional approach somewhat similar to The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, with a sensationalist talk show discussing vampires while significant characters from the series proper appear and are involved but do not function in their regular roles until near the end of the episode. (Its notable gimmick is the used of Nozomu Tamaki, the original manga-ka, as one of the panelists – and yes, the real Nozomu does voice his animated version in the Japanese dub.) After that the story is essentially divided into three arcs, with the first splitting its time between Mina and Akira reconnecting, the political maneuvering necessary to make the vampire bund a reality, and the consequences of the vampire infiltration of the school and climaxing in episode 7. Episodes 8 and 9 then focus on one of the students who got “turned” and Episode 10-12 detail the close-out arc involving the lords of the true blood clans, what Akira saw a year earlier that gave him amnesia, and the so-called “true-blood legacy.” The latter aspect of the story is far from settled at the end of the series, however; in fact, some startling revelations in the final episode open up an entire new path of mysteries that are not even close to being resolved at the series' end.
Over its twelve episodes the series gradually details this story's specific take on vampire lore, which keeps some common vampire traits (fatal vulnerability to sunlight, served by werecreatures, a class system amongst vampires, the less-well-known propensity towards obsessive behavior) but dispenses with others (no vulnerability to running water, garlic, or holy symbols, doesn't turn into or command bats). Various statements suggest that Mina Tepes, by virtue of being the Vampire Queen, also serves a function similar to the Queen of the Damned in Anne Rice novels (i.e. that because the root vampire spirit exists in her, all vampires die if she does), but that is not concretely clarified. Most interesting and new are the notion that what a vampire can transform into is determined by what's in his or her heart, which makes Mina's transformed form very interesting indeed, and the concept of willfully fangless vampires. Also interesting are the ways that vampires in this setting have taken advantage of technology, such as by producing a serum that can counteract the “turning” effect of a vampire bite on a human if given quickly enough, a special sun block-like gel which can temporarily protect them from sunlight, the use of polarized windows, and a substance which can interact with vampire blood to essentially turn a vampire into a suicide bomber.
The first episode was notorious for having quality issues with its artistry during the initial broadcast and streaming runs for the series, but those seem to have been corrected for the DVD and Blu-Ray releases, as now there is not a noticeable quality upgrade for episode 2. The generally sharp artistry focuses its attention most on its character designs, especially for Mina, who gets an unusually vast wardrobe over the course of the series and an exceptionally broad range of expressiveness, too; SHAFT has done an excellent job here of making her convincingly look like an old and devious soul in a young body. Yuki also gets her own distinct look, as does Mei Ren, and while Akira will not stand out in a crowd of anime leading men he is nonetheless well-designed and well-rendered, too. Directors Masahiro Sonoda and Alkiyuki Shinbo play around with perspective and shot compositions a lot, with some episodes being dominated by annoyingly quick flashes between frames and a peculiar emphasis on characters' legs (especially Mina's thighs) and lips (especially Mei Ren's) being recurring visual elements. They also pepper scenery flashes with what appear to be photos of real-life settings. It is an overall visual effect which seems intended to make the series stand out but does not always succeed at that in a good way. Action scenes typically happen in short but fluid bursts and the animation in general is above-average.
The musical score, which is heavy on synthesized sounds but mixed with some orchestral numbers, provides a light Gothic feel for the series, though some themes sound like they were borrowed from video games or early electronica albums. It does a respectable job of heightening tension at key moments but is simply not compelling enough in other places. Normal opener “Friends” is unremarkable beyond its visuals, while normal closer “Tsumeato” is more noteworthy for showing Mina in lingerie than for its sound. An alternate closer featuring the transformed Mina pops up in a couple of later episodes.
Although the English dub primarily relies on established talent, it also uses several first-timers (or, perhaps more likely, established actors using aliases?), including newcomer Alpha Lagrange in an effective performance as Akira and novice Carmen Smith, who sounds a lot like Colleen Clinkenbeard, as Mina's right-hand woman Vera. The key casting choice and performance is, of course, Monica Rial as Mina, as she has just the right voice for smoothly alternating between childlike and mature tones. The English script generally makes reasonable interpretations, additions, and adjustments, with its most interesting choice being writing around one character calling another “sister” (meant in the “older female who's as close as family” sense in Japanese) on a few occasions, since directly translating it would have added some creepy connotations that clearly were not intended.
Funimation's release of the title is a DVD/Blu-Ray combo pack. Each splits its episodes across two disks (albeit in different ways), which come in separate cases housed within an art box, with the same artwork on the disks but different case cover and interior art in each case. DVD disks offer English 5.1 and Japanese Stereo sound options, while the Blu-Ray disks offer English 5.1 TrueHD and Japanese 2.0 TrueHD sound. The Blu-Ray's higher resolution results in a small but noticeable upgrade in visual quality over the DVDs. Both versions have the same Extras: clean opener and closer, some commercials and promo videos, and a collection of twelve Intermissions, which are voiced-over manga panels averaging a bit over a minute in length. Each plays out a scene which fills in a story gap during the events of the same-numbered episode. Each episode also ends with a crudely-animated “Dance with the Vampire Maids” comedy skit.
Ultimately Dance in the Vampire Bund is a flawed but still enjoyable series, provided that you can tolerate or overlook its edgy content. It does seem uncomfortable in letting Mina consistently be the strong one, as it manufactures situations where Mina can look vulnerable so that Akira will be the strong one, but it definitely works when Mina is small but in charge.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Mina kicks butt when being Queenly, good character designs, some interesting variations on vampire lore.
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