Reviewby Theron Martin,
Vampire Hunter D
Thousands of years into the future, mankind has collapsed and vampires (called Nobles) rule the world, with a host of other ghastly and mythical beasties either at their beck and call or generally terrorizing the land. Near one mountain village a very old and powerful Noble, one Magnus Lee, has resurfaced after a lengthy (by human standards) absence, and he has taken a shine to Doris, a pretty young woman who lives on a farm with her younger brother. In fact, he intends to take her as his bride, must to the consternation of his daughter L'armica, who sees the human girl as unworthy of her father. Desperate for help and ill inclined to trust the sleazy son of the local mayor, who wants to marry her, Doris instead employs a vampire hunter, a tall, powerful stranger named D, a mysterious fellow who has his own personal connection to vampires and a left hand which literally has a mind and mouth of its own.
The original Vampire Hunter D movie from 1985 is one of the few anime movies which could legitimately be considered a cult classic even outside of Japan. It earns that honor in part because of its style – it was a ground-breaker in terms of introducing Gothic elements into sci fi – and in part because it was one of the first anime movies to be widely-distributed outside of Japan. Indeed, it was probably nearly as much a staple of anime fandom in the late '80s and 90s as Akira was. With this newest release by Sentai Filmworks the movie comes to Blu-Ray for the first time, giving fans the chance to see its crispest-looking rendition yet. It also reveals one important thing: the movie actually is not very good.
The movie is a direct adaptation of Hideyuki Kikuchi's seminal 1983 Vampire Hunter D novel, albeit with a story stripped-down, simplified, and tweaked even more to an action focus. The source material was hardly brilliant writing to begin with, and in its transition to movie form its greatest strength gets curtailed: the fascinating details concerning how the vampires created this world and were able to dominate it for thousands of years. For instance, an important element in the original story was that people no longer knew that crosses could repel vampires, and they had even been psychologically conditioned not to believe that if they discovered it. In the movie, though, cross motifs are everywhere. (A concession to the Western-style vampire tales that the novel was inspired by, perhaps?) We also only get a vague sense that vampires are in decline and have been for quite some time now, or that they are scientific and technological masters as much as they are magical ones. (Some of that does come out in a few of the castle scenes, though.) The mutant Rei Ginsei also sees his role reduced to little more than a common thug and Doris is not as convincingly tough. On the plus side, though, at least the animated version of Magnus Lee has more of a sense of the dignity befitting a millennia-old vampire and the creepy nature of the varied beasties comes across quite nicely.
The story, in movie form, is very basic: a mysterious but capable drifter wanders into town and helps out a family being beset by the local bigshot. He protect the woman, who falls in unreciprocated love with him, and counsels the boy of the family. A showdown first with the bigshot's servants and later with the bigshot ensues, the family is saved, and the drifter leaves again at the end to continue his loner path. In both structure and execution it carries strong echoes of classic Westerns, especially Shane, except this case mostly uses blades instead of guns, has strong supernatural elements, and the bigshot wants to marry the woman instead of drive her off. (In an interesting coincidence, another prominent Shane derivative, Pale Rider, came out the same year in the States.) The hardscrabble frontier town, the desolate wastelands nearby, the emphasis on showing D riding into town – all of that is straight out of classic Westerns, though; director Toyoo Ashida had to be at least familiar with them if not directly inspired by them, as there are just too many similarities. It also has a very similar post-apocalyptic feel to Ashida's other most prominent directorial effort: the Fist of the North Star franchise.
None of that is actually a problem, but the storytelling suffers from an edited-down feel. Choppy scene transitions and narrative gaps abound and some scenes, like an early one where D is riding towards town on his horse, are needlessly drawn out. The motivations of some characters are at times inconsistent, too; for instance, why Rei Ginsei actually helps out Doris's brother at one point, when the boy had been either a target or an irrelevance before, is never even suggested, as he is never shown with any hint of benevolence. A much bigger problem is D himself, as he shows just enough personality to convince viewers that he is not a robot but takes the stoic part of “stoic bad-ass” a little too far. (The movie is actually a slight improvement over the source material in this regard, though.)
To an extent the visuals make up for this, though again, more because of style than actual quality. The opening shot of the sharply-pointed Gothic castle set against a gigantic full moon is an iconic image, and D has a flair for wardrobe that is nearly unmatched in anime for its cool factor. Character designs also capture the unearthly beauty that he is supposed to have surprisingly well, and his long, wicked-looking sword also has had few equals over the past three decades. Doris's beauty is also convincingly captured and the movie is populated with all manner of satisfyingly nasty-looking critters and attempts at stark Gothic imagery. The animation is hardly robust, though, even by the standards of its era, and it does takes shortcuts even in featured fight scenes. Graphic content can be extreme, and it does have some (mostly low-quality) nudity; the release is not rated TV-MA without reason.
The soundtrack does not impress much, either. Its 100% synthesized sound – very definitely a product of its time period – is used only sparingly, though in this case its absence in significant chunks of the show contributes more to a sense of having been done on the cheap than being done for effect. When it is used, it tries to evoke the feel of period horror and suspense movies (the opening theme is somewhat reminiscent of Nightmare on Elm Street, for instance) but is hit-or-miss on how efficiently it evokes the desired tone. It actually does better with its sound effects, which more effectively convey the creepy nature of the setting's denizens.
The original Streamline Pictures dub for the series was done by Carl Macek and featured longtime vocal talent like Barbara Goodson, Michael McConnohie, and Kirk Thornton, but Sentai has opted to redub it for this release using its own talent pool. Those familiar with the generally pretty decent Streamline dub may find that the new one takes some getting used to, especially since someone chose to have some of the characters speak with a country twang. However, the casting fit for most of the roles is suitable, especially John Gremillion as D. More importantly, Sentai's dub script differs significantly from the one used by Streamline, resulting in some lines being completely different in meaning; for instance, in one place where Doris originally said that she and her brother would “leave town” if D was defeated, she now says that she would “kill myself.” The changes fit and do seem to be more accurate, so they are not a problem.
Sentai's release of the title is a basic one, with only Japanese trailers for Extras. The main draws are that the movie has been digitally remastered to good effect (color saturation comes off particularly well) and that the soundtracks have been upgraded to DTS Master Audio level. It is presented in original 4:3 aspect ratio, so expect the black bars on each side of the screen.
The Gothic style points, presence of sexy vampires and half-vampires, and D's status as one of anime's practically legendary bad-asses will always keep this movie relevant as a cult hit. However, its many flaws definitely show more with the passage of time.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C
Animation : B-
Art : B-
Music : C
+ Remastering for BD looks great, mixing of Gothic and sci fi elements, features one of anime's ultimate bad-asses.
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