Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Aug 26th 2010
Cross Academy is a little odd as schools go. It has one campus and two dorms, all of which are separated by moats and causeways. The occupants of the dorms are divided into the Night and Day classes, which means exactly what it sounds like: one class studies at night and the other during the day. And never the twain shall meet. Yuki Cross and Zero Kiryu are the Academy's Disciplinary Committee, charged with ensuring that the twain don't meet. Both are adoptive children of the Academy's eccentric founder Kaien Cross and are privy to the Academy's big secret: the Night Class is comprised entirely of vampires. Their days are spent driving the mobs of squealing Day Class girls away from the Night Class's parade of luscious undead man-flesh, the better to avoid blood-sucking mishaps. Both have their own hang-ups about the job—Yuki has a serious crush on Night Class leader Kaname Kuran and Zero, whose family was eaten by vampires, hates the creatures—but that's the least of their problems. Because Zero has a secret that will completely upend their lives, and perhaps even threaten the Academy's carefully maintained order.
Vampire Knight is at heart a classic, if twisted, love triangle. At the top you have perky amnesiac Yuki, on the right you have flawless pretty-boy vampire Kaname and on the left is tortured bad-boy Zero. As awful as that sounds—and you have to admit, it sounds pretty awful—the triangle works, and works well for a very basic but important reason: It's all kinds of perverse. Kaname is aloof, Yuki is codependent, Zero is violently antisocial, and between them they cover undead attraction (yay necrophilia), pseudo incest, and murderous hatred. Romance in Vampire Knight is anything but sunny and wholesome; it's all subtle poison and broken taboos. Even minus the bloodsucking and adoptive family ties, nothing about Yuki, Kaname and Zero's affections is healthy. Yuki's feelings for Zero are mired in pity and the weight of sisterly duty, and her affection for Kaname has a worshipful tinge that borders on subservience. Zero's desire for Yuki, in the meantime, is caught up in a masochistic cycle of self-loathing and denial, while Kaname's affection has already acquired a discomfiting obsessive edge. The Walton's this ain't.
Not everything relates directly to the series' love triangle, of course. Yuki's amnesia is one obvious sidebar, though it has yet to be explored, as is the vampire politicking hinted at by references to Purebloods and the Hunter Society, again unexplored. And there's also Zero's secret, which does get explored. (In case you haven't guessed, he's a classic self-hating "made" vampire). The best of it, though, all comes back to that domineering love triangle. The tortured-vampire boilerplate of Zero's incipient vampirism, for instance, is only interesting insofar as it affects his relationship with Yuki. Which it does by introducing an element of emotional sadomasochism to the already twisted dynamics of their three-way romantic tangle, as well as a rivalry for her delicious blood. Yum. In the end it isn't Zero's descent into undead-hood—or the vampire politics, or Yuki's amnesia—that makes volume two seem a damnably distant prospect; it's the anticipation of warped romantic developments to come.
When parsing why Vampire Knight enchants instead of making your eyes roll back into your head until the optic nerves snap—which it really should—the role of Kiyoko Sayama can't be ignored. One of a very few female anime directors, she's a shojo specialist of surprising patience and subtlety, and a master of the emotional zinger. She manages with deceptive ease the tricky feat of making the three protagonists' affections simultaneously obvious and tantalizingly elusive, and handles Yuki's discovery of Zero's ailment—the volume's solitary emotional peak—with restraint and intelligence that hide a potent melodramatic sting.
Where she really surprises, though, is in her visuals. Unlike most of her previous output, Vampire Knight isn't just sensitively directed, it's also beautiful. Sayama wraps her cast and their troubles in a rich gothic atmosphere, her camera trawling arched hallways and drifting across aged stone as elaborately uniformed teens play out their private dramas to the ravishingly dark music of Takefumi Haketa. From the overwrought symbolism of the opening credits to the crawling dollies, creepy marionette motifs and ironic tag line ("I'll also show you a sweet dream next night," in blood red letters) of the end credits, each episode is the performance of an artist in full control of her craft and relishing every tasty moment of it.
It's just a shame that all of that skill and enthusiasm aren't spent on something a bit worthier. Make no mistake, the series is a dark and delicious confection; but it's still just a confection. The skill of its handling and the gothic danger of its emotional perversity don't change the fact that Matsuri Hino's original manga was and is a preposterous teen melodrama. No amount of striking coloration or textured characterization erases the Night Class's role as a bishonen meat market. A facility for breaking them up with thoughtfully placed bits of goofy humor doesn't make the portentous inner monologues go away. Even if you love the show, chances are it'll still embarrass the heck out of you.
It isn't until you hear Viz's self-conscious English adaptation that it becomes clear exactly how important the passionate commitment of the Japanese cast is in selling the series' stilted dialogue and gothic excesses. The English cast is too professional to actually sound embarrassed when speaking, but they're obviously aware of how silly it all looks and sounds from the outside and it affects their performances. And even in the mouths of perfectly skilled performers like Mela Lee and Vic Mignogna, Vampire Knight's flowery language simply won't work without nearly perfect commitment. Without it, it's just tripe. A less than graceful translation shares some part of the blame, but it's that need for veracity that ultimately hangs the dub.
Not everything about these four episodes runs silk-smooth. Kaname doesn't come across favorably and several plot threads are introduced without so much as a cursory attempt to progress them (hello amnesia subplot, goodbye amnesia subplot). But the series' perverse sentimentality and immersive addictiveness are no less evident for the bumps along the way, making this, if not a perfect, a perfectly good introduction to one of anime's great guilty pleasures.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B-
Animation : B
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ A gorgeous gothic melodrama executed with skill and intelligence; deliciously perverse.
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