Every now and then there comes a property that seems so perfectly suited to a live-action adaptation, especially by way of today's filmmaking technology, that it's not only inexplicable but downright sad that it hasn't happened. Vampire Hunter D, Hideyuki Kikuchi's long-running light novel series, has all the right ingredients for a Western live-action feature: a taciturn dark hero; an eldritch and thoroughly cinematic setting; more source material to choose from than there are sands in the shores of the Ganges; and — most importantly — a property that doesn't need to be altered in the slightest to be adapted well.
The world is a vampire
For those who don't know the property, D, launched in 1983, was arguably the first Japanese light novel series to make major inroads for English speaking audiences. The premise was, and still is, a three-way mash-up of pulp mainstays: the Gothic Western, Hammer Horror (with an extra dash of Lovecraft on top), and the pulpiest of fantasy-adventure and action-oriented SF. The "D" of the title is half-human, half-vampire, a sword for hire whose stolid exterior hides a softer heart, and whose hand conceals a wisecracking symbiotic organism that provides him with an extra level of power and insight over his enemies ... and maybe also that much more restraint over his dormant thirst for human blood.
One theory I advanced about VHD was that the setting is a character itself — lively with variety, if also over-the-top with drama — and that D and the rest of the cast are just tour guides through this weird new world. Kikuchi sometimes lets his thirst for invention and colorful variety overshadow any internal consistency with the setting, but he never lets things get dull, and every book launches off to a different part of the world map marked Here There Be Dragons (And Maybe Also Vampires). The series is at its best when it lets D get closer to a specific character — the second book, Raiser Of Gales, is in this vein — in big part because they provide more than the run-of-the-mill monster-whomping without losing focus.
Barely two years had passed before anime producers came knocking at Kikuchi's door, and so the original Vampire Hunter D OVA adapted the first and by-then well-known volume in the series. It's good, if short of great, both because the animation style hasn't dated well and because many of the limitations of the series itself (chiefly its intermittent sexism) come pretty baldly to the fore when put on a big screen. But in 2000 a feature-length film, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, created mainly for Western audiences, adapted the third novel in the series with fantastic and enduring results. All the more surprising since the third book is actually one of the weaker ones; the filmmakers used it as a base for a much larger, more ambitious, and ultimately more involving story.
Many ways to a remake
If there's any one thing about D that makes it a prime candidate for a live-action adaptation, it's not the enduring legacy of the series itself, or how the animated adaptations function almost like previsualizations of how a live-action version could unfold. It's that Kikuchi's series doesn't need to be changed in any significant way to be filmable in English.
A big part of why is plain from the moment you glance at Kikuchi's influences: D is a pastiche of Western pulp tropes. Here and there Kikuchi adds elements that are more directly familiar to a Japanese audience, but nothing that would throw mainstream English-speaking audiences at this point. To use a term I've coined before, it's "pre-localized". Very little work needs to be done on the source material, save for remaining true to it and picking wisely from it.
And it's not as if there's any paucity of stories from the source to draw on. Like Western comics to film before it, D has an embarrassment of riches available. The easy way out would just be to re-adapt the first book, but barring that I have a few other favorites: Pilgrimage Of The Sacred And The Profane, the best of the chase-across-the-wasteland stories in the series; the epic-length Pale Fallen Angel (maybe better as a two-parter, come to think of it?); and again, Raiser Of Gales, where D's own nascent humanity becomes an important part of the story.
The largest barrier, as is almost always the case with projects like this, is licensing and budget. When Kikuchi made an appearance at New York Comic-Con some years back, he mentioned the rights were held, at the time, by some folks in France, and my gears instantly began turning as to who that might be. One possibility was Jean-Luc Besson, whose love of big-budget fantasy and SF projects is no mystery. The other is Christophe Gans, he who gave us excellent live-action adaptations of Crying Freeman and Silent Hill. (His recent take on Beauty And The Beast is also well worth seeing.) But nothing further came of it then.
If a theatrical project isn't in the cards, the changes in the entertainment landscape just over the last few years provide us with some more options. Possibly even better ones. A series for some streaming outlet could be either live-action or animated, and would allow for far more stretching-out and delving-into with the material. Whether live or drawn, you could take one of two approaches with the material: start from the beginning of the series and work your way through, or just skip and switch across the various volumes with a greatest-hits approach. This second idea is even more workable given that the books are mainly standalone affairs; you can read them in order, but there's very little in the way of enforced continuity.
In fact, that seems exactly to have been the goal in mind with the Vampire Hunter D: Resurrection project. Announced back in 2015 by Unified Pictures, this was a project to create an hourlong CGI-animated TV series, one that explicitly would not duplicate material from any of the previous adaptations. It sounded promising, but there has been scarcely a peep about it since mid-2016. A promotional website created for a Kickstarter-funded comic book prequel is still up, along with a Twitter account, but neither provide any recent details about the show itself. My hope is that's only because negotiations for such a thing have to be conducted behind closed doors and at grueling length, but experience has taught me that any film or TV project where there's nothing to report for upwards of two years is effectively dead. Of all the projects to remain in development hell, I was hoping this wouldn't be one of them. D deserves better.