Reviewby Zac Bertschy, Dec 5th 2006
The mysterious Hellsing organization has been protecting the British Empire from supernatural beasts that threaten the people and the crown; armed with the ultimate killing machine, an all-powerful vampire named Alucard, Hellsing has been slaying monsters for over 100 years. When confronted with a villainous vampire priest in the British countryside, Alucard is forced to shoot Ceres Victoria – a human police woman taken hostage by the priest – straight through the chest. Given the choice between an existence as a ghoul or death by her new master, Victoria chooses to be reborn as Alucard's ward... and her unlife as his servant begins.
Kouta Hirano's Hellsing comic has been hailed by anime fans and horror fans alike as a masterpiece of the genre, the definitive vampire manga. A few years back, the manga was adapted by Gonzo for the small screen, with decidedly mixed results; the best part of the story hadn't been written yet, and the show's storytelling quality (and, woefully, animation quality) went down the tubes near the end of that show's run. It's been a long wait, Hellsing fans, but the adaptation you've been waiting for is finally here; Hellsing Ultimate is darker, bloodier, and faithful to the manga. It's as close as we're going to get to a perfect retelling.
The story in this first volume is going to be pretty familiar to anyone who's even remotely acquainted with the series. This installment begins with a brief flashback to the first time Integra encounters Alucard in the bowels of the Hellsing organization's stronghold, and quickly drops us into the middle of the battle in Cheddar, where Alucard meets (and kills, and resurrects) Ceres Victoria. There's another action setpiece where the relationship between our (anti)heroes is further established, and then – in a segment that was obviously meant to be the second episode, but is included here to the delight of everyone – we see their first encounter with the maniacal Catholic vampire-slaughtering madman sent straight from the Vatican, Father Alexander Anderson. It's all material that was covered pretty well in the TV series, so don't expect any new story revelations here (minus the teaser shot we get at the end that points toward things to come, something that won't make a lick of sense to anyone who hasn't read the manga).
That's okay, really; in places the storyline feels a little disjointed, like we're watching vignettes with a recurring theme. In fact, it's just like reading the manga. This might throw off people new to the franchise; everything that happens in this first volume will make perfect sense to the folks who saw the original TV series or read the comics, but newcomers might be a little confused by the sometimes choppy plot development. It's possible the screenwriter was relying a little too much on the notion that his audience consisted primarily of people who were already intimately familiar with the storyline… but hey, fans won't care one whit.
Really, the biggest and most exciting thing about Hellsing Ultimate is how faithful it is to the manga and how well the tone of the show is executed, and it's really a pleasure to say that this retelling finally gets it right. The TV series seemed to be aiming for a broader audience; the violence was toned down, Alucard became a kind of sexy bishonen character, and it all felt a little watered down.
This time, we're getting the full force of Hirano's extremely straightforward, gleefully bloody and sadistic style. Alucard is rendered as a brutal, bloodthirsty monster with a sympathetic streak about a centimeter wide. He's in it for the sheer joy of the slaughter here, and it's much closer to the manga version of the character – his decision to resurrect Ceres makes a lot more sense in this context too, and his dialogue – especially at the end of the volume - helps us get closer to understanding why this beast would bother with a sidekick. Ceres herself is written much better as well; her pathos is more pronounced here, and while she provides the occasional comic moment, we're given a glimpse into the character's surprisingly brutal future. Even Integral feels like she's more “in charge”. These are the characters the manga fans know and love, and they're rendered with care and grace. Well, as graceful as this story can really get.
If it's blood you're after, Hellsing Ultimate is drenched in it. Not a single drop is spared; everything about the action sequences and the gallons of gushing blood seem turned way, way up, and frankly, it really captures the feel of the manga. In fact, everything seems a lot more extreme in Hellsing Ultimate, and that's a good thing. The manga pulled no punches, and neither does this; it's just as perverse and sadistic and violent as you could possibly wish for. If that's your sort of thing (manga fans, you know who you are) then you'll probably spend the 50 minutes of this first episode on the edge of your seat with a big dumb smile on your face. I know I did.
The production values are, somewhat surprisingly, hit-and-miss. While this OVA clearly had a larger budget than your average TV production, it's pretty clear they saved the money for the big action scenes; dialogue exchanges are often a little awkward, and there are some questionable sequences in here that just don't look very good. Regardless, most of this show is action, and that's where the animation really shines. Once people stop talking and start killing eachother, you can almost see the show's budget inflate in real-time; there are some very impressive setpieces in this thing. Furthermore, the show's drastically improved character designs really help bring the manga to life; while we'll probably never get something that perfectly captures Hirano's near-psychedelic art style, this is as good as we're going to get.
The only real complaint – aside from occasionally weak animation – is the soundtrack. While it might not be completely fair – this is an all-new production, after all – it's impossible not to compare the score for this OVA to the score for the original TV series, and it comes up pretty short. The grungy, almost soulful music found in the TV show was a perfect match for the series in terms of establishing tone, while this new score feels weak and understated by comparison. It just isn't anything to write home about, which is a shame, given the series' excellent musical legacy.
Thankfully, Geneon USA had the wisdom to reassemble the crew at New Generation Pictures responsible for the English dub of the original Hellsing TV show, which was almost universally raved about as one of the few dubs out there that exceeded the Japanese language track. The same is true for Hellsing Ultimate; Crispin Freeman reprises the role he is perhaps best known for, bringing Alucard's voice down a little bit, presumably to better reflect the darker nature of this version of the character. K.T. Grey and Victoria Harwood also return, as does Steven Brand, playing the cackling Anderson. The voices are all blisteringly authentic, and the genuine British accents really go a long way toward bringing these characters to life. Given that the show is set in Europe – and the performances are so polished and professional – it's easy to say that once again, you should probably watch Hellsing in English. Besides which, the English track on this DVD is in 5.1, and the accompanying Japanese track – rendered only in 2.0 – sounds anemic and lifeless in comparison. It should also be noted that due to some East-West shenanigans, the subtitles still refer to Alucard as "Arucard"; no such problem plagues the English version. Just watch the dub. It's better that way.
It's going to be a long wait for the next episode in the series, and even longer until we get to the real meat of the story, Hellsing's world-shaking encounter with the Millennium Nazi organization. There isn't anything new about the story being told here, except that it's a much better adaptation that was obviously created with much more reverence for the acclaimed manga it's based on… which for Hellsing fans will be a real treat. This is a high-quality resurrection of a top-shelf anime series that deserves to be in the spotlight; you won't be disappointed.
Overall (dub) : A+
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : B+
Art : A
Music : B
+ The Hellsing manga finally gets the big-budget adaptation it deserves; English dub is a home run.
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