My Review of Vampire Knight

Cross Academy was founded by the wealthy Kaien Cross to facilitate the idealized cohabitation of what would otherwise be considered predator and prey. Nestled away quiet and secluded in the woods, the students at this prestigious academy are segregated… Er, I mean, separated… Into two different classes. During the daylight hours, you’ll find the classrooms occupied by humans, going about their peaceful school lives in a way that both their innocence and ignorance are protected. Swing by campus at night, however, and you’ll find those same classrooms filled with students of a more pale and toothy sort. This class is made up of vampires, most of which won’t hesitate to taste your blood if you get too close to them.

Keeping these two halves of the student body separate are Yuki Cross and Zero Kiryu, the former of whom was adopted by Kaien following a traumatic vampire attack when she was a child, and the latter having been taken in years later after a similar event. Together, they form the disciplinary committee, formed to keep their fellow students from crossing a line that should never be crossed. Unfortunately for them, Zero seems to have brought something back with him from his encounter as a child, as he slowly begins to turn into a vampire himself. As he loses control of his humanity, it’s up to Yuki, his only friend in the world, to ease his pain and keep him tied to humanity. Can she save her childhood friend from a fate worse than death, or will her mind be too clouded by her feelings for the mysterious Vampire dorm leader, Kaname Kuran?

Vampire Knight was animated by Studio Deen, a company that I praised heavily in my Irresponsible Captain Tylor review… But that was nineties Studio Deen, which I almost feel is a completely different company from 2007 Studio Deen. The animation budget, as is the case with most modern Deen releases, was bare bones, and on-screen movement is noticeably cheap with very few exceptions. Characters freeze in the background like lifeless mannequins if they’re not the focus of the scene, and move only slightly in very robotic spurts when they are. Characters profiles bounce up and down to indicate walking, or in the few far shots, they walk or run like they don’t actually exist in their own environment, with emotion only seeming to exist in their insanely detailed eyes.

I can kind of tell by the angles, art design and often pretentious editing that Deen had a specific vision and visual tone in mind when they were making this show, but they just didn’t have the experience or talent necessary to work with such a small budget. The backgrounds are decent, albeit somewhat generic and lifeless. The character designs are highly attractive by shoujo standards, with it’s two male leads looking just debonair and hunky enough to tease the female viewers, and Yuki herself looking just enough like the wide-eyed, plain-yet-pretty protagonist that they’d want to insert themselves into. There aren’t very many characters other than them, but the ones we do have look distinguishable enough to be passable.

The soundtrack is full dark gothic-sounding fare, blending somber piano, heart wrenching violin-work and a powerful greek choir to express the emotion of any given scene far better than the stiff looking characters can. Pipe organs are used in the main theme to create a sense of church-like foreboding, a fitting warning of the darker, more sinful paths the characters will inevitably travel. Composer Takefumi Haketa knows just when to use restraint and when to take over, grabbing your attention at all the right moments, and he also seems to know the characters themselves just well enough to give them appropriate themes to match their roles in the story. Yukis theme in particular actually had me choking up a bit the first time I heard it isolated. It’s a very well-made soundtrack in general, and it’s a really fun listen whether in or out of context.

The opening theme is called Futatsu no Kodou to Akai Tsumi by On/Off, and as far as the song goes, it’s awesome. It takes the same tone and style as the soundtrack and turns it fast and catchy without bastardizing it. The video, on the other hand… Remember when I said the show occasionally uses pretentious editing? They go full tilt with it here. This single video crams in as much imagery as it can, somehow making time to go through that old cliché of having the camera pan past all the supporting characters in a single shot. It’s a busy op where there’s way too much going on visually, which is why I kind of appreciate the much slower pace of the ending theme’s video a little more. Still Doll by Kanon Wakeshima is probably the best piece in the entire soundtrack, at least in terms of composition and singing talent alone.

The English dub, on the other hand, is ghastly. To start off on a positive note, there are two really good performances in this, with one of them of course coming from the celebrated VA Vic Mignona in the role of Zero, a character constantly going through some sort of physical or emotional turmoil, which Vic pulls off flawlessly. The other is by Laura Bailey, playing the role of the deliciously evil villain Maria, who sadly doesn’t enter the story until episode 9. She’s able to play both halves of her character in equally convincing fashions, and she doesn’t just do this by changing her voice… No, they’re two completely different characters in one, which she handles like the pro she is.

All right, let’s rip this band-aid right off. In the role of Yuki Cross, we have Mela Lee, one of my least favorite voice actors ever. She’s more or less okay with her characters awkward or comedic scenes, but anywhere else, she alternates between sounding wooden and sounding like a deflating balloon. She also gets on a lot of viewers nerves by mispronouncing Kaname’s name with a distinct ‘meh’ at the end. But oh, speaking of Kaname, at least Yuki doesn’t sound like a synthesized computer voice. You can partially blame this on the character, but good voice actors can make a character sound good even without inflections. Somebody like Crispin Freeman could have killed this role.

There are other assorted characters played by actors who don’t do a very bad job, but aside from Bryce Papenbrook as Hanabusa, Travis Willingham as Kaname’s best friend Toga and a delightful cameo appearance by Jamieson Price, they don’t get much in the way of screen time or lines. For the most part, their role in the story is to gush about how awesome Kaname is and dump exposition for the audience, and they do a serviceable job of it.

The dub was written to be extremely faithful to the source material, with the only changes made being in the interest of matching the on-screen lip flaps. Believe it or not, this was kind of a bad idea. The dialogue is very literal, with little to no subtlety in any of it. As much as I hate using Family Guy as an example of anything, do you remember the Handiquacks episode, where Meg, Chris and Peter are trying to write their pilot? The dialogue in Vampire Knight sounds closer to what Chris and Peter settled on than the far more engaging line that Meg suggested. Everything is blatant and explanatory, making the characters sound stilted and downright boring.

This is unusual for me, but I actually wish somebody had tweaked the dialogue to sound more flavorful… I’m not talking about crow-barring in slang terms or pop culture references, but it would have been nice to hear some double-talk and sly innuendos tying the thirst for blood to more basic impulses. Or at the very least, have the characters be a little more vague about their plans and motives so that the audience actually has something to think about. The only character who actually speaks with any subtlety or ambiguity is Maria, and Laura Bailey does have a lot of fun with this, but it only lasts for a single episode before her identity is revealed and she rejoins the rest of the cast in mediocrity

There are plenty of times in this season alone where two characters will have a conversation that goes along the lines of “Hey, remember that thing we both know about that the audience doesn’t?” “Yes, I do, and I’ll explain it to you, for no other reason than just to prove it! Seriously! No other reason!” And that’s just when they manage to avoid the most cliched exposition set-up in anime history, “As you know…” Rewrites are not a bad thing when done right, and Vampire Knight seriously needed one. If you need any more proof of this, there’s a scene in episode 9 where Zero gets scolded for not referring to a pure-blood with the proper honorific… Despite the fact that the dub has no honorifics in it. Go ahead and listen to it if you really want to hear Vic and Laura chew the scenery, but otherwise, stick to the subs on this one.

If you didn’t notice from my plot summary, Vampire Knight follows what sounds… At least to me… like a flawed concept. Maybe I’m just thinking about this all wrong, but if you’re trying to encourage the peaceful cohabitation of humans and vampires… Maybe you want to let the humans know about it at some point? Maybe you’d want them to go to school together, under close supervision, rather than holding the humans just out of reach like a tasty snack that they’ll want even more because they can’t have it? Because every time these two classes meet, the chance for danger is so high that they needed to implement a disciplinary committee. And hell, it’s not like the sunlight kills the vamps. They just get sunburned… Which somehow makes less sense than the whole sparkly thing.

While I haven’t heard anybody make that complaint before, I have heard pretty much every other complaint this series receives. A lot of them are from Twilight haters claiming it’s the anime answer to that sorry franchise, while a lot more of them criticize it on technical issues, or they just call it flat out boring. Yeah, this show doesn’t have a very good reputation. Even Watchmojo, a Youtube channel that considers Naruto and Pokemon to be two of the top ten best anime ever made, didn’t even bother to include Vampire Knight on their top ten anime vampires list, despite Zero and Maria being pretty good candidates for it. So for everything that it does wrong, does it do anything right?

Quite a few things, actually. Vampire Knight is a paranormal romance story through-and-through, belonging to the same genre as Twilight and it’s various knockoffs. The point of these titles is to be a sexy, romantic escapist fantasy for women, although target age may differ. Vampire Knight is about as good as a paranormal romance can get, as it succeeds at a few basic elements that Twilight failed at. First of all, in regards to the main love triangle, you never have to wonder why those two paranormal dudes are after that bland, bitchy Bella chick. Zero and Yukis relationship leaves absolutely no question about why they’re so close or why there’s so much unresolved tension between them, and while Kaname’s intentions aren’t made clear until season 2, you can still tell at an early stage that there’s some substance to it beyond him just being a creeper. Also, I hate to say it, Vampire Knight is actually really sexy.

And no, I’m not saying there’s a ton of fanservice, exposed skin and big boobs. At best, Zero takes his shirt off a few times. The sexuality in this show is something far more subtle than that.

See, the school is divided between two classes. The night class, the vampires, are mature, introspective, experienced, and generally carry an air of superiority. The night class, made up of humans, come off as much younger in comparison, despite being physically the same age. They’re naive, and they worship the night class, but interaction is forbidden… The vampires can only drink blood from other vampires, while the humans are left to wonder what goes on in the other class, having no idea what the truth of it all is, and yes, there’s heavy temptation on both sides. The metaphor behind all of this… Yes, Vampire Knight has a metaphor, close your jaws… Is about sexuality. Vampires represent the sexually active, while humans represent the virginal. That’s why the opening song’s title translates to “Two beating hearts and the crimson sin…” The blood in your heart is the sin.

Now, if you’re going to sexualize vampires, you have a very fine line you need to be careful not to cross. Vampire bites aren’t always consensual, and a series that handles itself poorly could become rapey as a result. Long time readers will remember me criticizing Diabolik Lovers for exactly that problem. Non-consensual biting does occur in Vampire Knight, but unless it’s being used for tension, it’s considered a bad thing… Zero is so ashamed after he bites Yuki for the first time that he begs her to kill him before he gets worse, and doesn’t touch her again until she freely offers herself to him. Moments of tension between these two occur in a dimly lit bathroom, in the school pool, and in an empty part of the school where SHE LETS HIM BITE HER FROM BEHIND, turning the act of vampirism into an erotic sort of forbidden fruit.

This is why Vampire Knight resonates so strongly with it’s target audience. This is why people like myself, who are still as far away from that target audience as possible, can still find it so damned addictive. It’s engaging not because of it’s low-stakes plot or it’s terrible writing, but because of its sexuality. And even if you don’t pick up on any of that, the main plot-line is still pretty interesting. Having one of your main characters struggling to resist becoming a vampire with every fiber of his being while a girl who cares about him tries her best to ease his pain while setting respectable boundaries is a concept you simply can’t screw up, and it makes borderline Mary-Sue Yuki into a much stronger character as a result.

This plot-line will make up for all the other boring or confusing stuff, leading you all the way to a cliff-hanger that will leave you salivating for a second season… Which unfortunately exists. Yeah, I’m not going to talk too much about Vampire Knight Guilty, as I’m only reviewing season one, but it’s worth noting that in my opinion, that season is just one long, consistent journey downhill. It brings fatalism into the arcs of our three main characters, rendering all of the choices they’d made throughout the series pointless and ending in a conclusion that would have pissed me off even if it was conclusive… Which it wasn’t. But at least the first season makes you WANT a sequel, which is something.

Vampire Knight is available from Viz media. You can watch the entire series for free on their site, or if you’d rather own the physical copy, you can find the DVD sets at a reasonable price both in stores and online. The second season, Guilty, can also be found the same way, or you can just buy all 26 episodes together. The original manga by Matsuri Hino is also available stateside from the same company, or just in old issues of Shoujo Beat. The live action musical is totally a thing that exists, and if you don’t need subtitles, you can view the whole thing on Youtube.

Vampire Knight is everything a trashy paranormal romance should be. It’s romantic, it’s sexual, it plays very sincerely with the concepts of forbidden love and loss of innocence, and it even manages to squeeze in some homoeroticism at the last minute without ever breaking from context or character. Having said that, good trash is still trash, and being a more serviceable version of Twilight still leaves a lot to be desired. I enjoyed it for what it was, and I’m likely to keep my DVD set despite the unfortunate festering growth that’s attached to it. I won’t hold the second season’s failings against it, though… On it’s own, I give Vampire Knight a surprisingly decent 5/10.  

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