Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Dec 21st 2010
Cross Academy is aflame with anticipation of the school dance, the one night a year that the Day and Night Classes mingle. Naturally that means that the Day Class girls are champing at the bit, making more work for the Disciplinary Committee. In the midst of the furor Yuki's dad asks her to act as escort to Maria Kurenai, a Night Class transfer student. Maria's a little mischievous, but otherwise things go smoothly. Until Zero meets her. Maria rouses something primal in Zero, a hate that has been his constant companion since a pureblood vampire butchered his family. Somehow Zero knows that Maria is connected to famously insane vampire princess Shizuka Hio, the woman who "turned" him. But the situation is more involved than he or Yuki suspects; Kaname is making a play for power, and before he is done Cross Academy will know death.
Running five episodes and containing the entirety of the Shizuka arc, this disc finds Vampire Knight widening its horizons in earnest. Perhaps aware that its love triangle was eating it whole, this is Vampire Knight setting out to prove that it can move beyond lovelorn teens and perverse romance and still succeed. That it does, and pretty handily, is less a testament to its skill with plotting than its seamless melding of its new narrative ambitions with its emotional obsessions.
Before anyone starts throwing their Team Zero T-shirts down in disgust, the series' romance doesn't disappear. Yuki's filial feelings for Zero, Zero's stoic affection, and Kaname's cold-burning love are still in force. And they're no mere scraps thrown to the romantics in the audience either; some of the arc's best scenes are its most romantic: a tender moment in which Zero confesses what Yuki's support meant to him as a child, Kaname quietly lamenting Yuki's refusal to accept his protection, Zero reaffirming his devotion to Yuki in full knowledge of her devotion to Kaname.
But still, the focus here is not love triangles; it's Zero's struggle with his nemesis and master, the supposedly mad Shizuka. Mysteries, schemes, and action are the order of the day. None of which the series shows any particular aptitude for. Kaname's plan doesn't necessarily make much sense, even armed with knowledge from further into the series. The action scenes could be kindly referred to as brief, and less kindly as perfunctory. And the mysteries... Let us just say that one of them involves a mysterious masked servant with a mysterious connection to Zero (hint: he's Zero's height, has the same color of hair and is his evil twin) and speak no more on the subject.
What it does do right is Shizuka. She's an inspired villain. A nigh-incomprehensible bundle of contradictions and inconstancies, she's at turns capricious, penetrating, frightening, and ultimately tragic. Others get their due here: Hot-headed Aido proves to be a perceptive and fiercely loyal ally to Kaname. Kain gets an opportunity to show off his level-headed intelligence, and also his affection for Ruka, which in turn gives Ruka something to do besides pine for Kaname and bitch about Yuki. Zero naturally gets the lion's share of screen time, and emerges from his lengthy flashbacks a far more rounded and sympathetic boy than he was going in. But it's Shizuka's dangerous, changeable presence that rules the arc.
Neither plot nor character has ever really been the point in Knight though. Melodrama and dark, intricate emotions are. And the Shizuka arc proves as rich in both as Knight ever was previous. Before dismissing evil twin Ichiru as a Bizarro-World Zero (he's Zero's perfect opposite—soft-spoken, mild-mannered, and deeply sadistic), be sure to savor the pair's diseased relationship. A stew of consanguine love curdled by envy into consuming hatred, it is as warped and baroque as anything the Zero/Yuki/Kaname triangle has to offer. If only all evil twins were so conjoined. Ichiru's Oedipal attachment to Shizuka, and her neglect of him when reveling in Zero's torment, only fans the flames. Include Zero's loathing of Shizuka, Shizuka's sway over Zero (she is his master), and Zero's ambivalence towards Ichiru and you have what you might call a hate-triangle. It's quite the pretty little knot of sadomasochistic emotional perversion.
Vampire Knight is hardly a mega-budgeted show. Asako Nishida's edible designs and Studio Tulip's handsome Gothic backgrounds are beyond reproach, but the actual animation can leave something to be desired. Shortcuts are of course used during the frankly unimpressive action scenes, but even outside of them actions can be a bit stiff and movements limited.
But picking over shortfalls in the budget ignores the true joy of Vampire Knight's visuals: witnessing the work of a director who understands, not just the art of animation, but the art of filmmaking. Kiyoko Sayama's pacing is smooth as black velvet, her dramatic timing nearly perfect. Her use of cinematic space, composition, juxtaposition, lighting, symbolism (pay careful attention to the shadows) and Takefumi Haketa's ripe, organ-haunted score bespeak a knowledge of film language rare in anime directors. It is Sayama who fills each scene with wordless meanings and unspoken emotions, who constructs each episode such that its tag line—in stark red-on-black—shears it short like a guillotine blade. It's a rare performance; one to keep an eye on.
The awkwardness of Viz's English dub has not dissipated. With its unimaginative translation and self-conscious performances, it does little justice to the intensity and, yes, beauty of the Japanese dub. A fair level of professionalism and the occasional spike in quality (usually from Vic Mignogna's slimy Ichiru) prevent it from being an outright disaster, but it is far from satisfactory.
Certainly shameless melodrama is one of Vampire Knight's draws. So too is idealized teen romance (look ma, no sex!) and a near-blasphemous obsession with sin, redemption and self-sacrifice. All that is perfectly clear here at the end of season one. As clear as the fact that neither thrilling action nor deep characterization nor fresh plotting are reasons to join the faithful at the altar of Knight. But don't make the mistake of spurning Vampire Knight as brainless emotional porn. This is addictive, highly emotional serial storytelling, made with skill and elevated by its insight into the twisted forms affection can take in its extremity. In short, it's damned good. And I do mean damned.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B-
Animation : B
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ The Zero/Ichiru/Shizuka hate-triangle; cinematic direction; a true widening of the Knight world.
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