Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut
by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 1 of
Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut ?
How would you rate episode 2 of
Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut ?
How would you rate episode 3 of
Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut ?
Simply glancing at the title for Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut is enough to prompt a double-take (The English title anyway, as the original Japanese moniker of Tsuki to Laika to Nosfaratu comes off just a bit more poetic), as the image conjured up of the Soviet government blasting vampires into space rings seems just absurd enough to prompt curiosity, at least in my opinion. It's almost on the same level as those overly-descriptive fantasy light novel titles that give you the whole elevator pitch right on the cover in an effort to draw in readers as immediately as possible. Irina is based on a light novel and does have its roots in some fantasy elements, but at least its attention-getting title doesn't spell out the entire plot right at the start, and what it's presented for its story in these first three episodes proceeds with a decidedly more pedestrian bent than those role-playing-game-flavored indulgences.
That's probably the second most surprising thing about Irina once you get past its title: That despite such a nominally bonkers premise, the series thus far has ironically felt grounded. Yes, we start with a fantasy-history establishment of not-Soviet Union's efforts to reach the one place that hasn't been corrupted by capitalism, and how having vampires at their disposal in this universe provided them a unique test subject to do so. But from there, we're effectively treated to a military and space-travel-training procedural centered on the titular Irina and her assigned handler Lev. They practice physical fitness, they test-eat tubes of horrible space food, they do that spinny-machine G-force training that's legally required to be shown in any piece of media involving space travel. All the while these sequences of activity frame the development of their characters and relationship as varying degrees of faux-Soviet (F auxviet?) political intrigue are seeded to be ramped up later.
It's an approach that is going to be the deal breaker and/or maker for most people coming into this series. If you were looking for high-flying supernatural antics, you're going to be disappointed. But real-world-style scientific and military progress can be like catnip to a whole other segment of potential viewers, and Irina has framed that well so far, in my opinion. When an episode and a half is spent meticulously demonstrating the mechanics of training proper parachute-landing form, you can get a sense for where the priorities of the people behind this story lie. And to their credit, they make that kind of thing work. Sure, I know enough about parachute-landing to be aware of the bodily efforts that go into doing so successfully, but it was also neat to see the little zip-line training machine used to simulate the fall, or to have that activity used to frame the development of both main characters around conquering the limitation of something as absurd as a vampire with a fear of heights!
Rambling about the procedural elements of this show as I have, it might be easy to presume that Irina's propensity for feeling 'grounded' also means it's 'dry'. But thankfully, that's not quite the case, as the developing relationship and characterizations of Lev and Irina lend a sense of warmth to things so far. Irina herself is necessarily adorably appealing, which makes sense given a key component of the plot is centered on characters getting attached to her even though they aren't supposed to, what with her status as a 'test subject'. The simple slice-of-life indulgences like her introduction to soda water are rolled out along matter-of-fact explanations of what being a vampire even constitutes in this context, intersecting with humanizing tics like her aforementioned acrophobia. That's there to be presented as a plot limitation for the characters to overcome, sure, but it also furnishes an opportunity for an optimistic breakthrough in Irina's personality, brought about as we get to see the lengths Lev will go to to do right by his charge on this mission.
Both characters are still rather opaque at this stage in the story (with just the end of the third episode alluding to Irina's past and how it informs her drive to complete her space-travel mission), with Lev feeling a bit more stoic out of the main pair. To be sure, he's kind and genuine towards Irina, which we're informed is an element that led to him ending up in this assignment in the first place. But it's clearly a veneer of sorts, hiding a more furious side other characters allude to as having caused his demotion. He seems to be one who's in the military for more practical reasons, occupied with the freedom of flying and the more general societal opportunities of scientific research than any nationalistic desire for the motherland's victory. It can make Vampire Cosmonaut feel at times like it's coming at its subject matter trying to eschew any reverence for the historical and military significance of Soviet space travel efforts; that could be one reason for setting this in a fantastical name-changed version of history, anyhow.
That approach could also tie the show's efforts the more it approaches more commentary-rich veins of storytelling possibilities. My main source of potential contention in this case comes from the vampires themselves. In this universe, they're pointedly less the powerful monsters of legend, and more perceived that way via prejudice as a stand-in for any number of marginalized groups throughout history. That's not the worst storytelling decision in the world; it just makes me concerned that the story won't do much with the fantastical elements it's supposedly predicated on, instead just adding one more piece onto the pile of plausible-deniability faux-historical fiction. I'm hoping it doesn't pour that much energy into that kind of plot point, as while Lev unlearning much of his poorly-informed vampire racism facilitated a decent introduction between the two main characters in the first episode, it's quickly become one of the more tiresome elements any time it's popped up in successive episodes.
Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut has shown it has potential in appealing to a particular kind of audience so far, but at this point it still feels like it's in "See where it's going with this" mode. I'm curious as to how the intrigue both within the government and relating to geopolitics might develop, and the handling of points in that parachute training made it clear the show could make even those more procedural elements endearing. Much the way the show wants us to root for Irina herself to make it to space, I find myself rooting for this anime to satisfyingly achieve the proper liftoff it's trying for. It just needs to decisively choose the proper components to prioritize.
Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut is currently streaming on Funimation.
Chris is a freelance writer who appreciates anime, action figures, and additional ancillary artistry. He can be found staying up way too late posting screencaps on his Twitter.
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