Two impulses are at work within me when discussing the new reissue of the 1985 Vampire Hunter D film. The first is that of the nostalgia merchant — the one who remembers the way D, and a slew of other titles like it, were at the forefront of anime's entry into the public consciousness of the West some twenty-odd years ago. The other is that of the critic who comes back to the material long after the shock of the original faded from memory, and tries to separate its notoriety from its actual value.
Like Ninja Scroll, another relic of its moment in time, it's tempting to celebrate D just for the fact of its existence — that it helped kick off anime fandom domestically, and also introduced the West to D as a character and a franchise. But I made an effort to set that aside, and went back into D with little memory of what the film itself was like. It holds up better as a landmark of anime history than it does as an actual anime title, but it also retains an scruffy, old-school charm I can't totally dismiss. Being a fan of the material helps, although I'm duty-bound only to excuse so much.
On a steel horse he rides
Hideyuki Kikuchi's original Vampire Hunter D novels fairly begged to be made into animated features of some kind. They were, and still are, a three-way fusion of pulp fantasy, Hammer Studios horror, and the sort of psychedelic Gothic Wild West flavor also tapped into by folks like British indie band Fields of the Nephilim. (Go watch the video for their song "Preacher Man" and tell me that doesn't look like outtakes from some low budget live-action production of a D film.)
When Animation studio Ashi Production and veteran character designer and director Toyō Ashida made this adaptation of the first book, they attempted to preserve both the novel's original storyline and its freakish atmosphere. For the most part, they got it right, although both the modest budget for the production and the pulpier aspects of the story do get in the way.
Thousands of years in the future, humanity ekes out a living on an earth ravaged by monsters out of every mythology imaginable. That includes vampires, and while few of them remain, they keep a firm and jealous grip wherever they can. If you have vampire trouble (or werewolf trouble, or life-sucking demonic will-o-the-wisp trouble), you can hire a hunter, what with any number of them roam the land hungry for such work.
Chief among the vampire hunters is the D of the title. Tall, dark, and halfbreed — a mix of human and vampire — he lets either his sword do the talking, or the sarcastic-voiced parasite that has taken up residence in one of his hands. Riding out from the horizon on his (robot) horse, he's confronted by Doris Lang, a homesteader who fell victim to the bite of one Count Magnus Lee. Lee's plan is to marry Doris, although she's merely the latest of a whole slew of disposable human brides that have given him fleeting amusement over the centuries. Doris has no plans to put on the veil and abandon her little brother Dan; she wants a stake put through Lee's heart, and is prepared to offer herself bodily to D to ensure he pulls it off.
Challengers aplenty come gunning for D's head. The mutant Rei-Ginsei, in Lee's thrall, slings a mean razor boomerang and can bend space around his body — a nasty trick that causes D to impale himself the first time he tries running the other man through. (Fortunately D is both a fast healer and a fast learner.) Also in the running is Lee's daughter Larmica, who resents any competition, even from the likes of Doris. Greco Roman, the son of the local town's mayor, also has an eye for Doris, and isn't above exploiting D's vampiric weaknesses to get her. It all culminates in a showdown in Lee's castle — actually, first a rescue, then a return for a showdown — surrounded by a rogues' gallery of grotesques.
What's old is, well, still old
As with Ninja Scroll, coming back to D in this day and age highlights how so much of what made it stand out in the first place was relative. Back when anime was a relatively unknown quantity, many of the titles that did show up Stateside mostly seemed to have been selected for being outré, and because animated sex'n'violence were still rare enough to be relatively novel. For those seeking kicks, it was hard to top D's exploding heads, bisected bodies, and sliced eyeballs. Today, all this stuff seems downright quaint, like a sullen teenager smoking at the dinner table.
It's doubly so in the context of how the pulp roots of Kikuchi's original story comes through as all the more unreconstructed here. To her credit, Doris comes off as being a notch or two tougher than the average damsel in distress, as the movie makes a point of showing her whip- and gun-slinging skills. She puts up a brave front, but in the end, she's the one who has to be rescued by D, not once but twice. Once upon a time this sort of thing was par for the course; now, we look at it and realize how limiting such an approach was. (Kikuchi made up for this kind of thing later on in the series by giving his female characters more expanded roles.)
D had an animation budget more suited to an OAV half its length than a full-length feature film, and it shows. Barring the splatter shots that cemented the movie's reputation — e.g., the monster that faces off against D and gets sliced up the middle — the animation and design work is on the crude side. The "Midwich Medusas", a trio of lamia-like monsters that attempt to suck D dry (only to have him suck them right back; the sexual implications are plain), look cartoonishly bad. Sometimes, though, the crudeness actually works in the movie's favor, as in the scenes where D invades Lee's castle and is surrounded by gloom and nastiness. The TV version of Berserk also benefited from the same variety of of lo-fi grit. And many individual shots in D are gorgeous, as when D and Rei-Ginsei have a trademark "fighting in front of a giant full moon" moment, the kind of thing you omit from a film like this at the risk of not being genre-savvy.
That said, if you're coming to the movie for the first time, by way of the books, you're likely to be disappointed in how the movie does such poor justice to D's visualizer, illustrator Yoshitaka Amano. Despite his art being used in the poster and on much of the promo material, little in the film is reminiscent of his work. Then again, Amano has been poorly served by anime in general; in most every case that comes to mind — D, Amon Saga, Ayakashi -- the distance between his concepts and the finished product is dismayingly large, mainly because Amano's work is so rich and lush it doesn't lend itself to being simplified in a way that's amenable to most animation budgets. Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust came close, if only because of the sheer amount of production money they had to throw at the problem (and in the end its design work feels more like Yoshiaki Kawajiri's than Amano's anyway). Still, I hold out hope: another animated project with Amano imagery, a CGI segment created for the anthology Ten Nights of Dreams, is halfway decent, and maybe the forthcoming Vampire Hunter D CGI TV series will finally do Amano a solid.
Another way the movie departs from the book, but more by dint of a change of medium than anything else, is in how D himself comes across. The D novels made a point of having D be so remote and inscrutable that he seemed less like a main character and more like a psychopomp — someone whose function was to show us through the bizarre world we'd entered, since the setting itself was so strange and rich it almost functioned as a character into itself. One by-product of all that was how untouchable D seemed in the books, a mystique Kikuchi deliberately cultivated for the character. Whenever D took a beating — if he took one at all — it barely seemed to register. Here, violence visited on D is more akin to the clobberings dished out to Wolverine: even though he manages to get back up again from almost anything, it still hurts. Likewise, when D nearly succumbs to the temptation to suck Doris's blood (the most intimacy he's ever likely to have with her), it registers all the more by way of being shown to us rather than explained to us.
When I first got into the D books, I was more critical of them than I needed to be, given that they were not trying to do anything more than be exotic and entertaining. The further I drilled into the series, though, the more I set aside my misgivings and enjoyed them for the adventures they were — and found the later books growing in both ambition and nuance (or maybe I was just getting used to them). The first D movie has more of the flavor of a period artifact than the first D book, if only because of how the things about it that stand out the most — its stylized violence, its character designs — are things that are much easier to sense changes in because they're visual. If the way people remember D is as little more than "that anime where the monster gets sliced in half up the middle", I'm not sure it's wholly their fault.