Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
BD+DVD 1-4 - Set 1
The Royal Order of Protestant Knights, the Hellsing Organization, kills vampires. Ironically, ever since the organization's leader freed him to deal with her murderous uncle, the organization has been using a vampire, monstrous master of the undead Alucard, to do its most dangerous hunting. On one such mission Alucard meets, kills, and subsequently resurrects a young policewoman named Seras Victoria. Adjusting to the undead lifestyle isn't easy, but Seras has no time to take the process easy. A mysterious group is manufacturing vampires and sending them after Hellsing, a group that sprang from the undead remnants of a half-century-old evil.
Vampires, gun fetishes, massive gore, casual blasphemy, Nazis. It takes a particular kind of person to enjoy Tomokazu Tokoro and Satelight's OAV retelling of Kouta Hirano's crazed vampire action epic. The kind of person who giggles with the same mad glee that Hirano obviously did while composing this thoroughly ridiculous, ridiculously cool rollercoaster of ever-escalating mayhem. The kind of person for whom zombie vampire Nazis are all the reason needed to overlook the series' learning curve, and for whom the splatterific payoff of the learning curve is sweet, bloody nectar.
In truth, Ultimate doesn't start off on its best foot. Its first episode is a rather inelegant construct, quite clearly a series of short chapters crammed into a single fifty-minute episode, with little effort put into smoothing the transitions between. There's the prologue in which a young Sir Integra Fairbrook Wingates Hellsing (everyone always refers to her by her interminable full name) awakes the slumbering Alucard with a taste of her sweet virgin's blood; Alucard and Seras's fateful meeting in a blood-soaked meadow beneath a red-tainted moon; a vicious little interlude in which Alucard and Seras dispatch a delusional vampire couple; and a brutal death-match between Alucard and Father Anderson, the Vatican's crazed, bayonet-wielding ace vampire hunter. Taken each on their own they're fine, atmospheric fragments of story: tense and nasty and cool. Clumped together, however, they make for a choppy, unfocused episode.
And it doesn't help that Tokoro is clearly a less natural fit for the material than the gonzo Umanosuke Iida, whose original Hellsing TV series did things with Gonzo's animation and the very language of film that would make Walt Disney and D.W. Griffith bleed from their brains. Tokoro's action scenes, at least here, get by mostly on the strength of Hirano's distinctive stylized imagery—all expressionistic shadows and contorted bodies arranged in fantastic tableaus of blood and weaponry and maniacal grins. He adds little to the equation through motion or music, seemingly unsure whether he should be recalling the too-cool energy of Iida or striking off in his own direction and failing at both in the meantime. The episode's pivotal scenes—Alucard inducting Seras into undeadhood, the first meeting of beasts of battle Anderson and Alucard, Integra taming her own personal monster—should have the weight of pulp myth behind them, should make the short hairs stand up on the backs of our necks. Instead they just do their jobs and get out of the way.
You can't blame the man really—his main credit prior to this was Haibane Renmei, about the closest thing there is to Hellsing's fundamental opposite—and he is trying. The Anderson fight is a step in the right direction: for all the niggling sense that it's missing an essential spark, it delivers vicious monster action by the bucket and at least one unsettling glimpse of the grotesque, formless monster hiding behind Alucard's red pimp suit. Episode two continues the stepping, smoothing out the choppy pacing with a single continuous battle and opening up the Alucard floodgates for one thrilling, gorily satisfying moment.
It introduces (and disposes messily of) the Valentine brothers, a pair of mismatched vampire assassins with a zombie army that they have way too much faith in. Their siege of Hellsing headquarters is a smorgasbord of gut-munching, head-exploding, bad-guy-eviscerating nastiness that, while still missing that spark, gets enough right to be good fun and, consequently, to show that Tokoro and his staff are on the right track. Tokoro inserts his own flashy flourishes with increasing confidence and to increasing effect—especially during Seras's fights, which do a fine job of showing why she's a force to be reckoned with going into the rest of the series. He gets the half-hilarious, half-horrifying tone of the Valentine Brothers' twin fates just right, and does a nigh-on flawless job of demonstrating why the overconfident, self-important duo remained manga faves even long after they'd become, er, dog food.
But the most important thing he does in this episode is merely to unleash Alucard. Alucard's battle with the elder Valentine is a terrifying peek behind his human façade, a visceral reminder that he is—both in mind and body—something as far removed from humanity as rock formations or dwarf stars are. Something cruel and implacable and hideously alien. And totally stinking awesome. The following episode's brilliance lays in letting that hideously alien stinking awesomeness run rampant for pretty much its entire length. As Alucard heads to Rio to take on the Nazis who sent the Valentines he studiously goes about putting the anti back in anti-hero: tearing through SWAT interlopers as if they were lightly-armored blood-sacks, using pointy flagpoles in non-UN-approved ways, and making viciously good on his promise to make a Nazi vampire-magician “squeal like a pig.” Those short hairs left flat by episode one? They're standing at attention by the end of this episode.
And from there, if you're the least bit susceptible to this kind of thing, there's no going back. Episode four takes the already preposterous action of episode three and does it two or three better by sending Alucard hurtling into a Nazi-hijacked aircraft carrier in a possessed SR-71. That's right: a carrier full of Nazi vampires versus a burning sub-orbital supersonic spy-plane possessed by an immortal monster. Geektastic. Somewhere in these two episodes there's also a quantum physics thought-experiment given Nazi-vampire life, and, of course, the Major: the portly, bespectacled leader of the secret Nazi organization; a man so utterly mad that he makes the genocidal leader of Anderson's Vatican vampire killers (a peachy little snake of a man introduced in episode two) look like a paragon of reason.
Throughout it all Tokoro evinces the kind of casual confidence that the first episodes practically cried out for. The mayhem in episode three is unspeakably ugly and yet beautifully executed: nauseating, queasily funny, and disturbingly satisfying. And episode four's finale, a flaming oceanic holocaust choreographed to the stirring strains of Carl von Weber's Der Freischütz, finds Tokoro practicing a brand of operatic action so clearly his own that there can be no more speculation about his directorial suitability. Naturally, it's his last episode. Claymore helmsman Hiroyuki Tanaka takes over the project beginning with the opening episode of the next set.
Ultimate's English dub is fantastic, but most of you knew that already. It's been around since Geneon's aborted 2007 release of the series, after all. Crispin Freeman is stark raving great as Alucard, the slightly hammy accents perfectly suited to the series' tone and the whole thing just written and acted to a T, with the added benefit of removing the original's sometimes painful stretches of broken English. If you want to know more than that, this set's extras are a good way to go. Between the series-spanning commentary tracks, lengthy interviews, and videos of the cast's AX 2007 panel and autograph signing, there's roughly six hours of dub discussion here, covering pretty much everyone in the cast and the vagaries of Taliesin Jaffe's hair to boot. There is also an exhaustive catalog of promos and clean EDs, as well as a karaoke version of the Major's big speech.
There'll be a contingent of viewers who, no matter its merits vis-à-vis the TV series, no matter how it improves or doesn't, will not be able to stand Ultimate. This is after all a show that, as the manga's fans know, keeps pushing its action, ever on to greater and greater feats of absurdity until reality lies in irretrievable tatters at its jackbooted feet. That alone insures that its appeal will not be universal, even before you factor in the bitch-slapping of the Catholic Church or the scene in which Alucard impales a blushing, screaming vampire on her own phallic musket. If you aren't on Ultimate's blackly comic, volcanically over-the-top wavelength, grinning like a madman as it plunges over the edge into insanity, then you may as well stop right now and head back to whatever haven of sanity and good taste you came from.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : A-
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ Great cast of total lunatics; as its name suggests, perhaps the ultimate in ludicrous action thrills…at least in episodes three and four.
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