Now that Hellsing Ultimate has finally been released in its entirety, it's a strange experience to look back over it and realize it's all been about a great deal less than it seemed at the time. When Hellsing was still eking its way out in fits and starts, it was easier to have unbounded expectations for it, because an unfinished piece of work is only limited by one's imagination. But now that it's out and done, it's easier to see how it was more flash and filigree than actual substance, more notable for the fact it took so long to reach its audience than because of the story it set out to tell. Not that this will change the minds of the fans who love it in all of its gory glory, god love 'em. But to look in from the outside of this particular fandom is to see Dracula fighting Nazi vampires, and then wonder why that spectacle was more interesting in theory than in practice.
V for vampire, V for vendetta
The Hellsing of the title is not the vampire whose face adorns the cover art — that would be Alucard, an ages-old vampire who has sworn allegiance to young Integra Hellsing. She's the last of her family and head of the Hellsing Organization, a group dedicated to defending England from all manner of supernatural horror. Having Alucard at her beck and call gives their group an unbeatable edge, but it also brings with it certain complications. Among them is when a female police officer, Seras Victoria, gets involved in one of their missions and is rescued from certain death by agreeing to let Alucard turn her. If she thought being a cop was difficult, being a vampire is another job altogether, but hey, stiff upper lip and all that.
Integra and her crew are eventually targeted by a gang of leftover Nazis, "Millennium", who have somehow survived to the present day (no prizes for guessing how) and are preparing some kind of gigantic attack. Their leader, the Major — an expy for the German baddie Toht from Raiders of the Lost Ark -- has plans to use an army of resurrected vampire SS to level London and bring the British Empire to its knees. Against this, and after losing most of her forces, Integra has to pull together whatever forces she can muster: Alucard, Seras, the thuggish mercenary outfit the Wild Geese and their leader Pip Bernadotte. All are unaware that the Major's real plan is to target Alucard himself, and that traitors in their midst and weaknesses in Alucard's very vampirism are to be leveraged against them.
If this sounds like relatively little story for ten OVA episodes that are nearly an hour each, that's only because I find that the more I leave out for the sake of brevity, the more I find the story could have been condensed and lost almost nothing. Vast swaths of Hellsing Ultimate are taken up by dramatic hot air: posturing, declamation, flashbacks to establish this or that — and, yes, some truly spectacular animation that only becomes more eye-popping and ambitious as it goes along. That part of the show has its admirers, and I wouldn't feel out of place counting myself among them. But somehow, it all feels terribly sluggish and static.
A long, winding, and bloody road
Only after some comparison and though did I realize Hellsing Ultimate exhibits a paradox I've seen play out in other media: it's harder than it might seem to tell an interesting story starring a bunch of badasses. A cast that's itching to strut its stuff for the audience is a fine place to start, but at some point you have to stop strutting in place and start speeding forward. When everyone is a badass, then the only challenges in the story are technical ones — who is stronger than whom — and that's not a story, but a contest. Plus, characters that start at badass as their default setting have no real place for them to go except down. I had the same problem with Bayonetta: when your main characters are the baddest mofos in the room, there's not much for them to do other than sort out their stack ranking.
What's sad is how Hellsing hardly seems like it's auguring into a wall during its promising first third, when the characters have freedom of speech and movement, and the story advances vigorously. It's just that once the Nazis enter the picture and being destroying London, there's no more real forward motion to the story. From then on it turns into a tidal wave of violence, with the characters doing little more than spitting out speeches, striking poses in front of horrific tableaux of destruction, and killing each other (and killing, and killing, and killing). It has all the emotional depth of a sporting match where you're not invested in either of the teams, and where you're not even sure of the rules.
Scattered throughout are many individual things that do work. I did like the doses of macabre humor, as when Archbishop Maxwell and his Vatican Knights come not to save London from the Nazis but eradicate it as part of his betrayal, and his line is "The only good Protestant is a dead Protestant!" And there is a kind of hallucinatory grandeur in the carnage that fills the second half of the show, but it's not connected to anything worth caring about. It's a sound-and-light show, with most of the light being deep crimson. When the show does touch on things like a theme or an idea — like the questionable morality of Hellsing alliying herself with vampires — it's not explored as a story driver so much as it's used as a plot gear. Likewise, the whole way the Major plans to destroy Alucard (and the Major's own ultimate nature) is clever, but only from the point of view of plot mechanics, not storytelling. And when the show tries to find depth in character by way of the flashbacks, they only compound the problem. By looking backwards instead of forwards, they don't heave the story out of the stasis it gets stuck in; they end up making the proceedings only feel more inert.
Another issue I have with Hellsing involves my own tastes. I have grown less and less comfortable with the use of Nazis as stock bad guys in fiction, even when it's only meant in a pulp-fantasy vein. It was easier to get away with something like that in the 1970s and even the 1980s, when it was still possible to remain halfway innocent about the implications of such a thing, before the unconscious pop-culture equation of "Nazi" with "German" started being questioned a little more rigorously. (My take is that the picture really started to change around the time the Berlin Wall came down.) Not that I think people who enjoy stuff like Iron Sky or Dead Snow — or, for that matter, Hellsing itself — are insensitive clods, but that my own awareness about the issue gets in the way of my own enjoyment of such things. To my eyes this stuff isn't good clean fun anymore, and maybe it never was.
Here I should stop and compare Hellsing with another title, also released by Geneon, and one that I suspect you could find right next to it on the shelves of Hellsing fans: Black Lagoon. What I liked most about that show was not simply that it did such a capable job of synthesizing all of its raucous influences — Hollywood action pictures, Hong Kong bullet ballets, etc. — but because it also used its setting, story, and characterizations to comment on the material in ways that wouldn't have occurred to a show that just wanted to be entertaining. It knew what it was, and it owned up to the responsibility of being about vile people who did vile things to survive. And at bottom, it was terrifically entertaining; it didn't let grandiose operatics or theatricality get in the way of telling a story that moved forward, went places, accomplished things. Hellsing Ultimate is like the guy at the party who talks a lot, but in the end isn't saying much.