The Winter 2021 Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
What is this?
Mitsugu Bamba is a high school girl who finds meaning in donating blood. She frequently visits a blood bank to donate blood, despite being harshly treated by the nurse. One day, she encounters a beautiful girl who looks like she's from overseas at the blood bank. The pale girl looks like she's about to faint any minute, but then, she starts destroying the blood bank. The girl loses consciousness and Mitsugu takes her home.
Vladlove is an original work and it's first episode had a "special version" that debuted on the anime's official YouTube channel on December 17, 2020. The anime will formally debut on February 14, 2021.
How was the first episode?
I love the way Vladlove looks. The backgrounds are beautiful, understated watercolors with components that look etched, rendering even the most mundane scenes, like Bamba's living room or the school nurse's office, fascinating to look at and full of barely-seen details. The animation is fluid, giving Mai's flips an impressively light feel, and Chihiro's naked body actually looks like a human body rather than the usual flesh-colored body shape with no muscles or other marks that we more typically see. Yes, Vladlove is a beautiful piece of art and animation.
It's just too bad the story's annoying as hell.
This is definitely going to be a case of “comedy is the most subjective form of media.” The story frantically follows frenetic blood donation enthusiast Bamba in her quest to, apparently, rid herself of all of her blood as quickly as possible, because she doesn't seem to understand the medical reality of losing too much blood. It's her kink, and one that seems like it would be perfectly sated when she rescues vampire Mai Vlad Transylvania. Mai needs blood. Bamba loves to give blood. It should be a match made in heaven. But, of course, there's a glitch, and that's if Mai drinks Bamba's blood directly from the veins, Bamba will turn into a vampire herself, and no one wants that. Enter one of my least favorite tropes, the over-sexed school nurse, who has a blood fetish herself that she seems to be using her position to satisfy. So now obnoxious Bamba, irritating Chihiro, and demure(ish) Mai are out to start a blood donation club to satisfy all of their needs/urges. Yay?
It's really one of those concepts that sounds a bit better on paper than it is in practice. Part of what goes wrong is the fact that it is so desperately trying to be funny. There are pratfalls, slapstick gags, and self-referential humor (naked forms are covered by a sticker reading “self-censorship” and Chihiro gets an “artistic inevitability” label), and they all feel like too much effort to get a laugh. Vladlove really, really wants you to find something about it worthy of a chuckle, and that fervent desire definitely gets in the way of being actually funny. Add to this the fact that Mai is one of those “comedic” characters who talks nonstop as a way to let us know how wacky she is, which just falls flat in the humor department.
But gosh, it sure is pretty.
Mamoru Oshii will always be a legend for having directed and/or created some of the most popular and influential anime titles of the '80s and '90s, including several seasons of Urusei Yatsura, both Ghost in the Shell movies, Angel's Egg, seminal OVA Dallos, Blood: The Last Vampire, and much of the Patlabor franchise. However, he has been almost entirely absent from the anime scene since 2009's Musashi: The Dream of the Last Samurai and has not been involved with a TV series since 2004's Windy Tales. The anime landscape has evolved considerably in that time, so has it passed Oshii by?
Based on the first episode of this pet project, that is a legitimate concern. The episode both looks and feels like an attempt to take an '80s comedy and update it for 2021, and that creates an odd stylistic dichotomy. Despite modern digital coloring and composition, the school nurse looks like she could have walked right out of an '80s OVA, and the sudden way that Mai turns violent in the blood drive bus – and leaves the nurses turned up with their underwear showing – is not the way such action gets done in recent fare. (And then the bus just randomly explodes?) I am not sure what to make of putting the character animation up against backgrounds which look like they are reproductions of old, yellowed photographs, either. I cannot imagine that this aesthetic goes over well.
The possible saving grace for the series is that its concept does not feel dated. We have seen romantic comedies involving incompetent vampires before (Karin), and even ones with implied yuri elements and the human girl matched with the vampire girl being the dominant one (Ms. vampire who lives in my neighborhood), and this is basically melding those two concepts together. Mai is adorable in being overly sensitive and largely incompetent, and Mitsugu is definitely a geek of a different breed, though also a very assertive one. The bit about Mai making her bed in Mitsugu's closet is a gag that has been used a few times over the years, but this may be the best justification for it: because she's used to sleeping in coffins, Mai feels more comfortable sleeping in dark, confined places. If the series keeps coming up with clever little bits like that, or like how Mai's father is on his 49th wife, then it could well succeed despite its more dated-feeling aspects.
Next time an anime coming out is precipitated by a grumpy old man director grousing about anime these days, I'm running far, far away. It's a great big, huge red flag. Such is the case with Vladlove, directed by the highly acclaimed Mamoru Oshii, who complained at its premiere event that all anime these days is bland and safe.
I have several problems with that statement, and to be honest I've never really vibed with Oshii's work. I find his emphasis on visuals over story and complete disinterest in character development tedious, especially since characters are usually the most important part of a story for me. Even then, I was quickly drawn in by the opening sequence of an all-female rock band playing a concert, animated with care given to the body language and form. I thought, if this is setting the mood for what's to come, maybe things won't be so bad.
Turns out, they were pretty bad after all. Mitsugu Bamba, the main character, is so obsessed with giving blood that the nurses at the bloodmobile accuse her of having a kink and throw her out after coming by too many times. There, she picks up Mai Vlad Transylvania, a young vampire dressed in gothic lolita clothing who ended up in Tokyo by accident while running away from her cruel stepmother. While I'm generally not in favor of kinkshaming, I don't blame the nurses for feeling uncomfortable about being made an unwilling part of Bamba's sexual activities.
This is a slapstick comedy through and through, unlike many of the slower, contemplative, dreadfully boring works Oshii is best known for. However, for a slapstick, there's a distinct lack of jokes, trying to draw humor from the absurd situations with occasionally something OMG RANDOM happening, like the sexy school nurse's extremely work-inappropriate dress disappearing while talking to Banba for no discernable reason. A lot of details about the world didn't make sense to me, like how can Banba apparently give blood so frequently without passing out from anemia? Even once a month, like her agreement with the school nurse, is almost twice as often as is advisable for most people. We're talking whole bags here, not just a little vial or two. Maybe I'm quibbling, but then again, it's not as if there were anything interesting or funny about the script.
The visuals are a bit more interesting than the script, but not by much. The character designs look straight out of 2002, juxtaposed against scribbly, yellowed backgrounds that look like old lithographs more than anything else. There's also a lot of frames-within-frames, zooming in on key points of characters' anatomy, but honestly Masaomi Andō uses that technique to much greater effect.
Oshii said he wanted Vladlove to be “like strong medicine,” but I'm not sure what it's supposed to be treating. It's not interesting or edgy or challenging, and I don't believe that modern anime has the bland homogeny he diagnosed it with. He's just a hypochondriac, insisting on treatment for a problem that doesn't really exist.
Man, if I hadn't known of Mamoru Oshii's involvement in Vladlove from the get-go, I probably wouldn't have been able to guess that this bonkers comedy came from the visionary responsible for Patlabor and the Ghost in the Shell movies. On first glance, the striking use of watercolor backgrounds and creative picture-in-picture framing reminds me of some of the series that Masaomi Andō has directed, like Scum's Wish and Toilet-Bound Hanako-kun. Then again, there's a certain earnest, anarchic energy that Studio Drive is bringing to this production that feels very much in line with a Trigger joint. Comparisons aside, I wasn't quite sure of what to expect going into Vladlove, and its premiere did the one thing any good season opener needs to do: I'm eager to see what is coming next in this weird, weird show.
Make no mistake: Vladlove isn't aiming for any grandiose themes or philosophical ambitions. Our protagonist, Mitsugu Bamba, is a teenager who has an essentially fetishistic obsession with giving blood, though her desire to give away her precious bodily fluids to those in need is stymied by the fact that she is a “chimera” with multiple blood-types (which the internet tells me is a real thing that actually exists, funnily enough). Mitsugu's dreams come true when she takes a headfirst dive into the realm of trashy supernatural comedy and takes in the wayward vampire Mai Vlad Transylvania. Yes, this is her real name, though she's the kind of cute vampire waifu who is absolutely against draining unwitting humans and turning them into her slaves, which makes her a perfect new roommate for Mitsugu, whose perpetual lust for giving her own blood is apparently only matched by her lust for sexy vampires. Did I mention that the only other major character we meet is a school nurse who dresses like a vixen from a porno?
So yeah, outside of its stylish visuals and general sense of fun, Vladlove doesn't give me the impression that it is out to revolutionize the medium or anything, and you know what? I'm totally okay with that. This is an unabashedly silly series about a strange, awkward lesbian and her adorable vampire girlfriend. The show doesn't play coy about the same-sex romance that is central to the story, most of the jokes earn at least a bit of a chuckle, and the whole thing is pleasant to look at. It's just pretty fun all around, and if the show can flesh out its cast and get a real handle on the vibe it is going for, Vladlove might make for a perfect “turn off your brain” addition to the 2021 watch-list.
(One final note: This first episode was released early on YouTube last December, and the localization is not great. The script isn't just wooden; it features lots of downright clunky phrasing and grammatical issues. I probably would have enjoyed this premiere even more if the localization had been up to snuff. I'm not sure exactly where or how Vladlove will end up streaming when it officially premieres in February, but hopefully we'll get a better translation to go along with it.)
Mamoru Oshii is definitely an odd name to see in a credits sequence in 2021. The man was a household name for well over a decade and helmed a number of beloved anime from the 80s and 90s, but after 2008's Sky Crawlers seemed to have informally retired from anime to focus on various live-action projects. It also felt initially strange to see the director of works like Ghost in the Shell and Angel's Egg making his return to animation via a madcap comedy, but that at least makes more sense considering his tenure on Urusei Yatsura. Regardless, I was extremely curious to see such a seasoned hand who's been largely absent from the industry for over a decade step in with something new, and the result is, if nothing, an interesting comparison to modern anime comedies.
For one, this premise is dirt simple. A girl with a kink for blood-drawing meets a homeless vampire, they hook up over their simpatico interests, and eventually our heroine starts recruiting for a newly formed Blood Donation school club to keep her (v)lady love sated. It's the kind of elevator pitch you could easily imagine as a romantic comedy in the '80s, but instead of a generic male lead our protagonist is a teenage girl with constant bags under her eyes. There's no real attempt to explain the greater lore of vampires or even much questioning by the cast about, y'know, blood-sucking monsters being real. That's honestly a plus, since it means the show jumps past any predictable exposition and just moves onto the gags, and it kept a mostly sedate premiere from feeling too slow or unwieldy.
Speaking of unwieldy, this particular premiere is technically the “special version” of the first episode released on the show's official YouTube page, complete with English subtitles. But unfortunately those subtitles are noticeably stiff and awkward in a number of places. They're not so incompetent as to make the dialogue incomprehensible, but even as somebody who doesn't speak Japanese I could tell a lot of the personality of the characters' back-and-forth was getting lost in translation. The show isn't set to air proper until February, when it'll presumably be picked up by an established streaming service, and I hope that entails a new translation that doesn't neuter the apparent chemistry and character of the script. There's also an odd approach to backgrounds for the premiere, largely building them off of edited real-life photos that can really get distracting in contrast to the character art. I don't know for sure if that's what the final version of this episode will look like, but I'm hoping the show finds some way to make that less jarring.
Overall I honestly don't feel totally qualified to speak on Vladlove just yet. The premise is simple but rife for some fun and energetic comedy, and so long as the localization can properly communicate it I'll be excited. But until then this premiere was a bit of a letdown as a singular viewing experience. Though I can at least say that OP has already set a high bar for the rest of 2021.
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