Reviewby Theron Martin, Mar 9th 2008
Dark Wars: The Tale of Meiji Dracula
17-year-old Daigo is a prodigy with the sword in 1880s Tokyo, an era where samurai have faded from the scene, while his friend Shirô is a prodigy in the newly-forming discipline of judo. When they and two female friends investigate a painting in a supposedly still-unoccupied house, they encounter a mysterious foreigner who turns out to be none other than the legendary Count Dracula, who has paid a visit to the Far East to fulfill a strange promise made centuries earlier. At once captivating and horrifying, ruthless and yet respectful of the way of the warrior, Daigo finds in the Count a foe unlike any he has ever faced. When the cast of victims steadily begins to rise, Daigo and his associates must face the challenge of a lifetime: reign in the spread of Dracula's baleful influence before he can unleash irreparable harm on their country.
Although not directly associated with any manga or anime title, this 2004 Japanese publication has been licensed, translated, and released by Del Rey's manga division because of its pedigree: its author is Hideyuki Kikuchi, the creator of Vampire Hunter D. Here his lifelong fascination with vampires continues in one of the odder variations on Dracula lore, one which mixes considerable Japanese period flavor and detail into a typically harrowing vampire story. If you ever fancied a match-up between Dracula and Eastern-style martial arts, here's your chance.
Kikuchi's take on Dracula portrays him as an elegant monster, one who can simultaneously bewitch women, make men nervous, and set warriors on edge. He gives Dracula the standard nobleman's air and vague intimations of loneliness but also characterizes him as a man whose long history with warfare has led him to respect warrior ways and traditions – in other words, those who carry on the way of the samurai, even in an era where samurai no longer exist, intrigue him. Giving him a reason to be in 1880s Japan requires a bizarre plot convolution, but once you bite on that the story becomes a standard tale about men first trying to figure out what they're dealing with and then trying to thwart vampire mischief before it claims their friends and loved ones. Naturally fight scenes involving the sword and various martial arts forms abound.
Although Kikuchi's writing is at its best in action sequences, the historical detail he infuses into his setting may be the bigger draw. His angle on early1880s Tokyo emphasizes the martial arts revival movements growing at the time, especially the then-brand-new discipline of judo. Many of his characters are actual historical figures: Jigoro Kano really was the man who founded judo at his Kodokan dojo, Shiro Saigo really was one of the discipline's earliest stars, and Kaoru Inoue did serve as Minister of Foreign Affairs during much of the 1880s. Rokumeikan, the site of a party Dracula attends late in the novel, also was a real place with a reputation for introducing Japanese to Western culture, and Kikuchi shows a thorough knowledge of Tokyo's geography and attitudes at the time.
Flaws show when considering the technical merits of Kikuchi's writing, however. His writing style seems firmly aimed at what would be called a Young Adult audience here in the States, but that does not excuse its general weakness. Passive voice gets used far too much when easy active voice options are available, questionable organizational choices abound, and the dialog, while not exactly lame, could use some work in places. Pacing remains firm and steady through most of the story but falters in the last chapter, and the vague ending leaves a lot to be desired. The writing also features some questionable word choices (“weary” when “wary” would be more appropriate, for instance), but the blame there may rest more on the translation.
Del Rey Manga's production of this 262 page novel includes an Afterword by Kikuchi, an About the Author blurb, and a Glossary that defines several key Japanese terms but also lacks a few important ones. Uncharacteristically for Del Rey publications, it includes no explanation of Japanese honorifics. It is printed on very light paper stock, which makes it equivalent in thickness to a manga with less than 2/3 of its page count. Numerous interior sketches and the superb color cover art are the work of Katsuya Terada, a prolific cartoonist probably best-known to American fans as the character designer for Blood: The Last Vampire and the concept artist for the live-action versions of Cutie Honey and Devilman.
Flaws in the writing, a forced premise, and a weak ending weigh it down, but Dark Wars still offers enough action, historical detail, and effective horror content to (barely) carry it through. It may not represent stellar writing, but could still hold interest as a supernatural period piece.
Overall : C+
Story : C+
Art : B-
+ Cover art, historical detail.
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