The Fall 2021 Preview Guide
Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut
How would you rate episode 1 of
Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut ?
What is this?
10 years ago a long war divided the world into two superpowers: the Union of Zirnitra Republics in the east, and the United Kingdom of Arnak in the west. Both of these superpowers now test their ambitions against each other in a space race. In 1960, the Union's Premier Gergiev announces Project Mechtat (Dream), a prestigious plan to launch manned missions into the final frontier. To this end, the Union establishes the isolated city of Laika 44, where cosmonaut candidates compete for planned manned missions to space, and scientists develop the technology to make it happen, all in an environment of secrecy. Lev Leps is a backup astronaut candidate, and his new companion, Irina Ruminescu, is a vampire. As part of a daring new Operation Nosferatu, Project Mechtat will use Irina as a test subject for various conditions expected in space, and ultimately as part of a manned mission, with Lev overseeing Irina's training as a cosmonaut. For reasons of their own, both dream of going into space
How was the first episode?
While the first episode of Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut may not be the most exciting, it does the important job of setting up not only its slightly-silly plot, but also justifying its existence. You see, Irina takes place in the not-quite Soviet Union (but totally the Soviet Union), which is currently in a space race with not-quite America (but totally America) to get the first human into space.
On one hand, I can see why a big deal is made about this being an alternate world. It allows the creators to wave away not only the existence of vampires, but also any inconsistencies with how the real USSR space program worked (not to mention cultural inconsistencies like bowing when apologizing). This is a different world with different cultures, so any oddities can simply be regarded as “lore” for this fictional world.
On the other hand, this just feels a bit lazy to me—like the author had an awesome concept but didn't want to go through all the work of researching the Soviet space program and life under communist rule. But perhaps that's just the historical fiction lover in me complaining.
All that said, even on not-Earth (but totally Earth), the whole use of a vampire as a cosmonaut test pilot requires some work to explain. Basically, the first human in space will be broadcast live so there is no room for any mistakes. Thus, the space program has decided to send the closest thing to a human they have—i.e., a vampire—into space secretly beforehand. Or to put it another way, the whole in-universe reason for the events of the series is communist bureaucracy. That might just be the most believable justification possible.
The episode spends the rest of its time speaking to a dark aspect of human nature. On base, our vampire test pilot, Irina, is treated as an object instead of a person. However, what's surprising about this institutionalized racism isn't that it exists (we humans are all too good at “othering” people) but why it exists in this specific case: It's obvious to everyone involved that Irina is probably going to die.
Every cosmonaut and engineer on the base is basically working together to send her to an almost certain death. In a very real way, they are all going to be murderers. Referring to her as an object and not a person is a way to create emotional distance. Sending a living, thinking being to die might be too despicable an act for them to stomach, but if they can convince themselves that she's not human, just an object, then perhaps they won't be destroyed by guilt.
It's dark and depressing, but also honest and real. Throughout history many horrible things have been perpetrated by normal people, as much as we like to pretend this isn't true. And while we should applaud Lev for going against orders and treating Irina as a person, it almost certainly guarantees a ton of emotional pain for him in the not-so-distant future.
I feel like this show should work better than it has so far. This is a pretty solid, if unusual, premise for a unique kind of character dramedy, and I think if the production team can nail the right ton,e it could easily be one of the standouts of the season. I've certainly never heard of another anime about training a vampire to become the first sentient person in space, training under a fictionalized version of the Soviet space program in the 1950s, and while it's a weirdly specific setup, there's a lot you can do with it. Explore a segment of recent history that isn't really covered in other anime, while also adding in a dash of supernatural absurdity with your vampire girl protagonist, then call it a day, right?
But I dunno, something about the pacing and tone of this first episode just doesn't quite work for me. Part of it is probably that the punchline of the highly competitive Not Soviet Union higher-ups trying to fake manned flight by enlisting a vampire is such a dry, bureaucratic joke that you need to sell it with as deadpan a delivery as possible. Think of how Godzilla Singular Point spent an entire episode shuffling through paperwork and outdated office filing systems to end on the joke of an office building housing a kaiju skeleton in the basement. That was the perfect delivery for that kind of gag, and I feel something similar could have been achieved with the reveal here, but instead it's just kind of dropped on our laps without much consideration, seemingly to get us into the meat of things as quickly as possible.
Thankfully the episode does pick up from there. The usual growing pains of male lead Lev figuring out what parts of vampire lore are actually real are a little stale, as is the rest of the Cosmonaut recruits instantly avoiding Irina over her species, but once the characters are allowed to just sit down and talk about their situation and the world around them, I found myself a lot more engrossed. There is a strange and offputting sequence of Irina eating a fish egg that goes on too long and is animated from the inside of her mouth that I could have done without, but otherwise the back half of the episode did a great job of letting pointed silence and awkward stillness do the heavy lifting of characterizing our leads and setting up its thematic stakes. Also they made the rocket scientist sadly weep over his cosmonaut dog, and that's gonna win you a few points in my book.
Thankfully this premiere ends on its strongest notes, establishing the tension of our leads potentially growing closer and learning more about each other while highlighting the larger forces that are all but sure to keep them apart. It's a strong setup, and if the rest of the series can build on that promise then Irina could very well be a sleeper hit of the season. Here's hoping.
Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut confused me. Not because of the plot or anything—I'm not sure if the story of this premiere could be more straightforward if it tried—but because the whole time I was watching Irina, I couldn't help but constantly ask myself, “Why is this a thing?” I get the basic hook just fine, and truth be told, if you had just told me that there was going to be an anime about a cute Soviet vampire astronaut and her dorky handler, I would have been on board.
Except, Irina isn't content to just do an alternate history version of the Space Race, except with vampires. Oh no, it had to go and create an entirely “original” universe where the USSR analogue is played by the nation of Zirnitra, and the United Kingdom of Arnack is somehow occupying both the UK and the United States' role. Except, all of the dates we get for the end of the World War and the beginning of the Space Race roughly correspond to the real dates of the Soviet Union and the U.S.' milestones…and all of the characters in Zirnitra have Soviet names…and they even eat borscht!
As for the vampire angle, the world of Irina attempts to posit that vampires have totally existed in the European forests and hills for centuries, though their mythical status also means that we still have actual Earth media like Nosferatu to contend with. Also, the vampires don't burn up in the sun, they don't fear religious iconography, and they don't even drink blood. Outside of having pointy ears and fangs of dubious utility, the only thing separating Irina from the humans that surround her is her night vision, her resistance to the cold, and the fact that she sleeps in a coffin for some reason.
In other words, we have a premiere that spends a lot of its time laboriously dishing out exposition, all so that it can explain the ins-and-outs of a universe that is only superficially different from our own. It doesn't even seem interested in the “vampire” part of the “vampire cosmonaut” premise, since Irina could have been any made-up fantasy race that could be clumsily inserted into an allegory for bigotry. Speaking of which, the prejudice angle is the only other element that Irina's premiere has going for it outside of exposition dumps and uncomfortably fetishistic shots of Irina eating caviar. It doesn't even make any sense the way it is presented here, and the way that characters literally tell Lev to not treat Irina like a person is so lacking in subtlety that I couldn't help but laugh. Also, Lev doesn't even make an attempt to treat Irina with anything but kindness and empathy, which is already making her dehumanization feel contrived and half-baked.
To be honest, I'm just not sure who Irina is for, exactly. It's not horrible, but it doesn't do anything new or interesting with its subject matter, either. It feels like the kind of anime that is destined to be binged and forgotten in the middle of an especially dull weekend, when every other option on Netflix or Funimation has been exhausted. I guess Modest Mouse had it right, after all; space travel (even with vampire girls) really is boring.
I have to admit that I was over spaceflight after watching the Challenger explode live on TV when I was in elementary school. Since Christa McAuliffe, the teacher aboard, had visited my school and shook my hand, it was a pretty traumatic moment for me. That perhaps made getting into Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut a bit more difficult, although other bits and pieces, such as the casual cruelty shown by the UZSR higher ups towards Irina, also made this not quite my thing.
That said, the episode does do a very credible job of making us understand why they treat her the way they do, as a nonhuman object. Partly it's out of fear; vampires, a race apparently native to the colder regions of not-Russia, aren't very well known or studied, and the result is that people tend to believe everything they read in Bram Stoker or John Polidori – namely that vampires are human-munching monsters with an insatiable thirst for blood. This is how the other would-be cosmonauts treat Irina, including Lev, the young trainee assigned to shuttle her around and keep an eye on her. Lev quickly learns that she's nothing of the sort, but that's because he's willing to actually pay attention to her. (Plus he has vampire expert Anya to ask. That definitely helps.) For the ranking officers, however, treating Irina as nothing more than N44 and keeping her in the animal experimentation building is a measure of self-protection. Three years before the start of the story, in 1957, they were all heartbroken when Maly, the first living being in space, died on her flight. Keeping themselves distant from Irina, who after all is much like a human in her appearance rather than a dog, is a way to prevent themselves from experiencing the same heartache should she, too, not survive her spaceflight. The fact that the story takes place after WWII, an event that most of the older adults in the show would have remembered if not actually participated in, may also have an effect; after all, they would have had to get used to killing humans then, too.
While all first episodes are to a degree setup, this one feels especially like that. It's about introducing us to the alternate world, where instead of the USSR and the USA it's the UZSR and Arhack, and giving us a rundown of the characters and their basic personalities. Lev and Irina get the most of the latter; we know Lev for an eager young man who will do what he's told to a degree – for example, he refuses (politely) to call Irina N44, because there's no way he can do that outside the base anyway…but also because he sees her as more human than not. Irina, for her part, is distrustful of humans, and unsure of what to make of Lev's kindness. He's not what she expected humans to be like, and while I feel like she's in the space program of her own volition, she never expected someone to offer her blankets on a cold night. Watching the two of them forge a relationship may end up being one of the most rewarding parts of the series, assuming that perky pink-haired Anya doesn't gum up the works. In any event, it's an interesting start, and while I don't have any desire to see more, it probably bears keeping an eye on, if only to see if there's any more weirdly sexual caviar eating down the line.
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