by Steve Jones,
How would you rate episode 1 of
MARS RED ?
How would you rate episode 2 of
MARS RED ?
How would you rate episode 3 of
MARS RED ?
Vampire anime never went away, but vampire anime made specifically for me is on the rise. Last season gave us Vladlove, a gonzo throwback romantic comedy overflowing with shameless indulgences from its writer, the esteemed Mamoru Oshii. He references everything from cult horror films to avant-garde protest theater, with an apparent disregard for any kind of marketability beyond what interests him. I love that. This season gives us MARS RED, which shares no similarity with Vladlove beyond the presence of vampires, but which nevertheless scratches a similar itch of mine for offbeat vampire fiction.
Conceptually, there's little remarkable about MARS RED. In Taisho-era Tokyo, the military assembles a unit of vampire soldiers under the command of Colonel Yoshinobu Maeda, with the intent of rooting out other vamps hiding amongst and attacking the general populace. It's nothing that would surprise anyone familiar with Hellsing or any other pieces of vampire-on-vampire pulp. However, MARS RED's pedestrian concept belies the artfulness of its presentation, steeped in the visual and literal language of theater, ponderously paced, and coated in a dreary gothic veneer.
MARS RED has one of my favorite premieres of the entire (shockingly strong) spring season, although I suspect it's also a divisive one. Maeda's investigation of a recently-turned actress unfolds laconically, but the conclusion hits like a freight train, especially if the audience picks up on the contextual clues along the way. While it's bold to kick off a series by asking the audience to read so closely between the lines, I think it's also a sign of respect, and the episode is so much richer for it. I only realized Misaki was Maeda's aforementioned fiancée once he stood in front of the poster for Salomé, with his shadow occluding the male lead. That was a cool moment! It's not a subtle visual clue, but I was pleased nonetheless to realize the anime's intent to lean on subtext and visual language to convey important information. All anime does this to some extent, of course; MARS RED just seems quite good at it so far.
The presentation and writing of MARS RED are also both loudly indebted to theater—it's no coincidence that its first case revolves around a tragic actress (in multiple senses of the adjective). The direction is very particular about how it stages its scenes, and characters are always blocked and framed with purpose. Maeda's scenes with Misaki in the underground prison, for instance, are constructed around the presence of the dividing glass, which either allows their figures to overlap, or separates them as the context dictates. The literal language of theater is similarly important in the premiere, because the resurrected Misaki can only communicate by quoting Oscar Wilde's one-act tragedy Salomé. Aesthetically, this drapes an unnerving pall over Maeda's investigation, turning the constant recitation of Salomé's monologue into a bittersweet incantation of tragic romance. It also adds some needed depth to Maeda and Misaki's relationship. Our protagonist is stoic to a fault, but by alluding to Wilde's play, MARS RED is able to evoke some of its passion and melodrama. This lets us better imagine how their written correspondences might have begun, or how they might have continued under happier circumstances. Additionally, the context of the monologue, in which Salomé kisses the severed head of John the Baptist, is an act of bittersweet and gruesome romantic triumph—a perfect invocation of vampirism and its blood-drenched eroticism. Misaki, however, chooses to defy Salomé's fate. And Maeda, unable to die with her, decides to work with Code Zero to find his own purpose, be it salvation or destruction.
The anime's theatric inclinations aren't surprising either, considering that its creator Bun-O Fujisawa is a playwright by trade. MARS RED began as a stage reading before becoming a manga and eventually this anime (with a mobile game also on the way, because why not). That's an unusual trajectory for a project, and that actually endears me towards it a bit more. I only hope its unique pedigree and voice continue to color its various vampire schemes.
The second episode is a more conventional version of the overarching bloodsucker-fighting plot, but it expands the cast while still bearing the stylish hallmarks that enamored me to the premiere. The Code Zero squad is painted in broad yet easily identifiable strokes: the rookie soldier who happened to turn into the most powerful vampire they have, the veteran soldier who now finds himself bitter and on the bottom rung, the cool-headed veteran vampire with an even cooler mask, and the mad scientist (because every show needs one). While they're not all equally compelling to begin with, the third episode does a good job fleshing out their group dynamic. Complicating matters is Kurusu's childhood friend Aoi Shirase, who remains skeptical that he died in action in Siberia. She also happens to be a plucky investigative journalist who keeps running into Maeda's top-secret vampire-hunting crew, so it's pretty clear where that thread is going. Her burgeoning friendship with Defrott is another point of concern. Although there was little doubt to begin with that the beautiful and mysterious blond child actor was in fact a vicious vampire (and almost certainly the one who turned Misaki), the third episode confirms he'll have an important role in the story going forward.
The second set of vampiric targets don't get as much attention as Misaki, but they do share her penchant for theater; this time referencing a kabuki version of the Chushingura story, a fictionalized retelling of a real incident where forty-seven ronin avenged their master in a spectacularly bloody fashion. As with John and Salomé, Kanpei and Okaru's relationship ends tragically, with Kanpei committing seppuku due to a misunderstanding, and Okaru being sold into prostitution to fund the ronins' plan for revenge. We aren't given enough context to know how these literary figures map onto this vampire couple, but once again, the literary allusion itself functions as both a backstory and a portend of their eventual fall at the hands of Code Zero. Lest that reference proves too esoteric for Western audiences (I know I had to look it up), the Romeo and Juliet poster outside the theater helpfully provides the same service. It's hard not to feel sorry for the couple.
This vampiric pathos hits its highest point yet in the third episode. Although Code Zero's offer to take in rogue vampires may appear a mercy, it's easy to understand why so many of them choose death over becoming a tool of the military. Maeda makes a wry distinction between “human hours” and “vampire hours,” which the structure of the episode explores with heavy irony. Cold and calculating military talk dominates the human hours, while the vampire hours see the Code Zero members opening up to each other and fostering some light-hearted camaraderie.
Yamagami also makes up the heart of the episode, with his gruff exterior giving way to a touching and bittersweet reunion with his wife. It's an understated scene—there are no sweeping romantic gestures or heart-rending wailing—but it's nonetheless infused with the genuine and comfortable affection of a long-married couple. They speak both frankly and through their shared love of poetry. While I couldn't find a reference for the poems they recite (they could be original, or they may be untranslated), one of them alludes to Edgar Allan Poe's “A Dream Within A Dream,” which is itself a fitting meditation on ephemerality. Like the rest of the series so far, I think this scene's subdued nature actually enhances its dramatic qualities. We still barely know these characters, but I felt genuinely affected by the time the episode concluded.
MARS RED's slow, moody, and stylishly idiosyncratic take on the vampire genre may be an acquired taste, but if its arthouse-tinged teeth manage to find your neck, you may find yourself in its thrall. I'm definitely on board, and I think there's a lot of rich thematic potential on these bones. The Taisho period saw a rapidly developing Japan, and in this universe, both the military and vampires are relics of the old world struggling to catch up, lest they be incinerated by the light of modernity. It may be a futile struggle, but so far, MARS RED has left me confident that it has the literary chops to tackle these conflicts with thoughtfulness—and with a generous splash of blood.
MARS RED is currently streaming on Funimation.
Steve is hungry for anime and on the prowl for Revenge this season. Learn about this and more (i.e. bad anime livetweets) by following him on Twitter.
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