Reviewby Theron Martin, Oct 31st 2008
Vampire Hunter D
In the wake of an apocalyptic war, vampires – eventually popularly called Nobility – rose to supernatural, psychological, and technological dominance over humanity despite their daytime weakness. They rebuilt the world to their liking and, for thousands of years, subjugated what was left of humanity through power and terror. Gradually their dominance waned and a class of Hunters able to fight them and their genetically-engineered denizens arose, but still they remained fearsome presences. In the frontier village of Ransylva, farm girl Doris Lang, the tough and beautiful daughter of a Werewolf Hunter, has found herself the target of the ancient vampire Count Magnus Lee, who seeks to draw her into the Nobility and marry her, much to her dismay and to the consternation of the Count's daught Larmica. Thus she seeks out the aid of D, a passing Vampire Hunter who also happens to be a dhampir (i.e. a half-vampire). What follows is a multifaceted battle between D and Doris, Magnus Lee, Larmica, village tough Greco (who is obsessed with Doris), and a deadly band of mutant bandits led by the suave but lethal Rei-Ginsei.
In the early 1980s, writer Hideyuki Kikuchi, heavily inspired by the 1958 American movie Horror of Dracula, penned the first of a long line of Vampire Hunter D novels, two of which would eventually be made into anime movies. The first, an iconic 1985 movie based on the seminal novel, is one of those anime movies that nearly any anime fan whose fandom dates back at least to the '90s has probably seen at some point, as despite its aged technical merits it still stands as a classic tale of a stoic hybrid hero and his battle against the forces of darkness. (And if you are too new to fandom to have ever seen it, Halloween is an ideal time of year to check it out.) Due to the popularity of that movie and its 2000 follow-up, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, Digital Manga has spent the last three years releasing many of the novels in the series. No place is more fitting to start reviews with than with the original, however.
Evaluated as a stand-alone piece, the first novel has an odd balance of strengths and weaknesses. For as complicated as the situation involving D, Doris, and her brother Dan gets, the plotting is fairly rudimentary, creating a standard tale which has the hero and heroine struggling against colorful opposition coming from multiple different directions to either take them out or (in some cases) marry Doris against their will. It stages many fight scenes which allow the hero to show off his immense prowess and durability, and regularly allows key bad guys to temporarily avoid their fates so that they can return again for another dramatic battle. The plot does throw in a couple of neat twists, but even those are hardly unique or were even original at the time of its writing. The way Kikuchi stages some of his off-hand comments to the reader and, in places, his basic writing style in general leaves something to be desired.
A bigger, and more nearly fatal, flaw can be found in the characterizations of some key characters. Kikuchi made D a little too stoic, thus giving him little true personality. He gives minimal outward sign of what he feels – or that he feels anything – and the reader is never allowed inside his head. Sure, he's a total bad-ass, but even bad-asses have to have personality to be truly compelling, and that flaw shows through much more clearly in written form (where characterizations can more easily be explored in detail) than in animated form. Count Magnus Lee is also simply not credible as a vampire who is supposedly more than three millennia old, as he too often acts in a hot-headed fashion and speaks in a manner not befitting his age. This was improved upon markedly in the movie version, however.
The novel does do far better elsewhere. It paints a convincing portrait of Doris as the tough young woman just trying to survive such a regrettable situation (this comes through much more clearly in the novel than in the movie) and Rei-Ginsei as the deadly-ambitious mutant playboy who more effectively radiates charming evil than any of the vampires in the story; by comparison, in the movie he is pretty much a thug, nowhere near as devious, and doesn't have his posse of support mutants. The novel also both starts and finishes well.
Where Kikuchi's writing truly shines is in his establishment of mood and especially setting. Here he crafts a wholly credible world ruled with an iron fist by vampires yet ground in science fiction rather than fantasy or the supernatural, one where mythical monstrosities like lycanthropes and mist demons have been created through thousands of years of biological and genetic engineering and where fearsome technological defenses protect vampires as they slumber during the day. This is a world where powered armor suits, cyborg horses, force field defenses, and laser rifles exist alongside those with radiation-fostered mutant abilities, where a special incense exists which can reverse the localized effects of night and day for a vampire (i.e. they can go out safely in the day, or suffer at night, in its presence). Most impressively, this is a world where villagers with pitchforks and torches assembling to go after a vampire simply doesn't happen because the Nobility, over the course of thousands of years of advanced psychological manipulation, have bred into humanity a pathological dread of vampires which makes it difficult for them to even entertain the notion of opposing them. In this environment, even if humans discover a way to exploit a weakness of vampires – like, say, with garlic or a crucifix – they have been psychologically conditioned to soon forget it and not believe in its effectiveness even if they do discover it again. In George Orwell's classic 1984, Big Brother tried to remove the concept of freedom by removing the word from the language, and here the Nobility have succeeded at a similar endeavor. That alone is a fascinating enough twist to warrant reading the novel.
Scattered throughout the novel's 235 pages of regular storytelling are numerous black-and-white illustrations by Yoshitaka Amano, an artist renowned for his character design work for Gatchaman and the Final Fantasy games who has also done some work for major American comic book producers. Also tacked on are a couple of pages of Postscript, bio blurbs about the writer and illustrator, and a 28-page preview of the second novel. The novel is, regrettably, not free of typos, but it does not have an unusually large number of them, either.
Kikuchi was not a master storyteller at this point in his writing career, but he does well enough to craft a competent vampire-hunting story with enough strong points to balance out its weaknesses. It tells basically the same story as the movie version, but with more context, a more developed psychological aspect, and a few altered specifics.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : C+
+ Writing borders on brilliant in places, interesting development of setting.
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