This story takes place in the distant future, when mutants and demons slither through a world of darkness. Mankind has not yet disappeared from this world, but surviving in it has become a struggle, with some ancient war, lost to time save for it’s place in myths and legends, having rendered the world as we know it into a vast, unforgiving wasteland. The few communities that we’ve managed to form have been cobbled together from different points in human cultural history, with stone buildings, clothing from both Victorian and Wild West sensibilities, and technology that wasn’t technically available until far later. Conditions are livable, at the very least, but the worst of all is the fact that despite the measures we’ve concocted to battle the various demons and mutants that stalk our crops, livestock and children, we’ve fallen under the mercy of the Nobility, a class of ancient vampires who live out their eternal lives in their castles, allowing us to live our pathetically fragile and ephemeral lives more out of amusement than anything else.
One such vampire, the cruel Count Magnus Lee, has become bored with his immortality, and after what is rumored to be somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 years of life, he’s taken to finding ‘distractions’ to help him pass the meaningless years. By distractions, of course, I mean human women, untainted, unturned, cast into unbreakable trances so that he can marry them, break them and ravish their mortal bodies on a nightly basis. His newest obsession, orphaned farm owner Doris Lang, won’t go down without a fight. Even after he’s marked his territory with a quick nibble at her nubile neck, this tough ginger has recruited a mysterious drifter, the silent Vampire Hunter known only as D, to protect her from harm and bring about an end to the nobility, whom he insists on referring to as transient guests. Thus the fight is on between an accomplished supernatural slayer and one of the most powerful opponents he’s ever faced as D, half vampire in his own right, once again finds himself in a battle to protect one half of his geneology from the other.
If Vampire Hunter D’s visual aspects look dated in any way, it’s because this particular anime film… OVA? Film? I see different sites claiming both. Anyway, it was released in 1985, which was a far different time than the current anime landscape. I won’t go into too much detail about the way anime styles have evolved over the years, as that would be another full length discussion entirely, but suffice to say I don’t really think it’s fair to judge an anime based on the restrictions of it’s age, especially since the spectrum of quality was just as diverse then as it is now. By the standards of 1985, this… I’m gonna call it a movie… isn’t quite the most beautiful material available at the time, but it’s still firmly on the high end of the spectrum, with a clearly generous budget and a sense of restraint about how and when to use said budget… For the most part. Yeah, they could have saved a significant amount if they’d skipped the oh so important shot of parting blades of grass that the film opens up on.
Well, that’s a minor nitpick… There’s some filler from a visual standpoint, but it still looks gorgeous anyway. Production Reed, formerly known as Ashi Productions, is an animation studio that did the majority of it’s work in the eighties and nineties before taking a handful of long hiatuses in the new millennium. Aside from Vampire Hunter D, very little of what they’ve worked on has managed to stay out of obscurity, with a few examples being Blue Seed and… Well, Vampire Hunter D… Seriously, who remembers Minky Momo? And if I’m being honest, what little I have seen of their production history points to D as being a rare standout. The movements aren’t always fluid, but they rarely ever feel cheap or stilted either, and out of the many action scenes that this movie has been packed with, I can’t remember a single one of them looking bad. There are some corners cut, but none that you’ll really notice, save for one particular moment where certain characters are getting captured, and some of the most obvious speedlines are employed. It’s jarring but brief, thankfully.
Despite being dated, the animation did actually hold up nicely in it’s original DVD release, but it was also very recently released on bluray, and the difference in quality is more noticeable in some scenes than others, including a walk through an ancient battlefield that I always found way too dark, and now we can see the details in the bones and debris a lot more clearly. I’m also pleased to note that the cleaned up presentation hasn’t altered the dirtier elements of the design, namely the desperate old west setting full of makeshift clothes, arid desert and a town full of people who’ve spent their entire lives performing physical labor to get by. It has, however, provided the opportunity for the designs more gothic elements to shine through in all their beauty. Part of what makes this series so iconic is the blend of gothic, sci-fi and western elements, all of which play an equal role in the design of D as a badass hero, Doris as a tough beauty, and Lee as a villain who doesn’t even have to move or speak to feel intimidating. The random mutants and monsters are also really cool and diverse, with the possible exception of a bland dinosaur looking creature in the beginning.
The soundtrack, composed by Noriyoshi Matsuura and Tetsuya Komuro, is a bit underwhelming, but there are a few memorable tracks here and there. D’s theme in particular, which plays at the end just before the credits roll, starts off with an intense action anthem before quickly settling into a more lonely, melodious tone, as if to tell the tale of a warrior whose exploits you may witness one day, but who endures years of uninterrupted travel that you don’t see once he rides off into the sunset, painting a more complete picture of the kind of life he leads and the kind of character he is than the movie ever properly establishes. Actually, D has three themes, and one of the other ones, that plays when he enters the film for the first time, is also pretty cool, with it’s lighthearted tune undercut by a beat that warns of danger and tragedy i the future. I called the soundtrack underwhelming, but I didn’t really mean to say it was bad… With the exception of D’s Themes, none of the tracks are really memorable, as they blend so flawlessly into the movie that they sound strange when dettached from it. They do their job well, and that’s not a bad thing by any means.
As for the dub… well, there are two dubs, one from Streamline pictures, and the other from just last year, done by Sentai Filmworks. I’m not gonna lie, when I was first getting into anime, and this was maybe the second anime movie I ever bought(right behind Cardcaptors movie 1), I almost never watched it in English, vastly preferring the Japanese track, and I’ve heard a lot of people say the same. Descriptions of the original dub range from ‘It’s tolerable’ to ‘Burn my freaking ears off,’ and while the acting was decent for the time… Well, for the most part, Doris’s brother was an earsore… The writing, in parts, was just terrible. For a quick example… Trust me, this is not as bad as it gets… There’s a scene about halfway through the movie where a certain character who’s just been turned into a vampire is looking at an old friend in a new light. In the Japanese, he says that he’s always thought of her as like a granddaughter to him, and he’s now wondering why he never raped her. Honest, but creepy and abrasive, so a rewrite was in order. In the first dub, he replaces the second part with “I can tell now that she’s a beautiful young woman.” Nicer, but it feels neutered, almost too safe.
In the Sentai dub, however, the line is changed to “But now that I see how beautiful she is, it’s a wonder I never violated that beauty,” which is a line that retains the honesty of the original while still finding a much more tasteful way to word it. There are a lot of scenes that were able to find a touch more subtlety in the new Sentai dub, such as an early scene where Doris offers to sleep with D in payment for his work, in a later scene where the count’s daughter is weighing her fate against a recent revelation about her lineage, and one very specific scene where they originally dropped the worst possible Star Wars reference. Seriously, Doris says she loves D, who drops the fucking “I know” bomb on her. I’m not making that up. There’s also a moment early in the film where Count Lee meets Doris for the first time, and it’s supposed to be silent, but the Streamline dub chose to fill in the silence with an introduction stolen right out of classic Dracula, which doesn’t sound that bad at first, but even on first listen, it just feels unnecessary. Sentai, on the other hand, left the atmosphere and ambience speak for itself.
When it comes to the two primary characters, Doris Lang and the titular vampire himself, I feel like the performances were equally good in both dubs, despite different approaches that were taken. Both Michael McConnohie and John Gremillion bring a sense of strength and stoicism to the character of D, with the trade off being that while Gremillion plays him as more raspy and weary, playing more to his history of combat, while McConnohie’s steely, controlled delivery plays more to the character’s air of mystery. Also, McConnohie does double duty in playing D’s talking left hand, while another actor plays him entirely in the Sentai dub. Barbara Goodson and Luci Christian both play Doris as strong-willed and determined, with the main difference being that Goodson makes her sound older, making her constant fanservice and attraction to D far more palatable, while Christian plays her as much younger, sounding more like a teenager, which makes the threat of danger against her feel more palpable. Shannon Emmerick plays a much more likeable Dan than Lara Cody did, and that’s also pretty cool.
One of the more obvious changes between the two dubs is the change in the nobility’s accents, with Count Lee and his daughter Larmica going from Romanian to British. There was really nothing wrong with Jeff Winkless’s performance, Dracula inspired as it was, but with the incomparable David Wald taking his place, he’s easily outshined, as you can feel the millennia of boredom and almost casual malice much more richly in Wald’s throaty delivery. Unfortunately his daughter didn’t fare the change so well, as Edie Mirman’s prideful, seductive performance almost feels mocked by Brittany Karbowski’s much brattier interpretation of the character. This could have worked, mind you, if Brittany didn’t overcook her accent, sounding like a middle schooler who just saw her first Harry Potter movie. To be fair, she’s stated in the past that she’s well aware of the fact that pulling off accents is one of her weak points, so I’m tempted to blame the director on this one. Actually, to be honest, while the new dub is well acted and well written, it does feel poorly directed in a lot of areas. I’d recommend the Sentai dub between the two, but neither can touch the Japanese track.
I think I was about 16 the first time I ever saw this movie, and it happened at a friend’s house as part of their birthday party celebration. I had never heard of it before then, outside of the fact that it was one of the many ridiculously overpriced M-rated anime that I wasn’t old enough to buy at Mediaplay. I was still fairly innocent at the time, with my deepest knowledge of Anime revolving between what was airing on American TV and what I could find in manga form at the public library, and Vampire Hunter D blew me away as the first adult-oriented anime I’d ever seen. My fragile little mind was blown away not just by the ominous music and tone, or the dark, gothic design, but also by the graphic bloody violence and full-on nudity that I’d never seen from any other title prior. I bought the DVD soon afterwards, and I just about wore that poor disk out with my constant rewatches. Seriously, I still have that copy, and I can barely get it to play.
To this day, Vampire Hunter D is not just my favorite anime movie, but also one of my favorite movies of all time, but if you think that means I’m going to give it a gushing masterpiece review, you’re sadly mistaken. I’ve learned over my years of reviewing that you have to separate your personal and professional tastes in order to be fair, and to be fair, Vampire Hunter D is not very good. It holds up very well from a visual standpoint, but when it comes to the story and the writing, it doesn’t really stand up to close scrutiny, which I’m sad to say is the case with most cult classics. For a brief overview of the plot, a young woman is facing the possibility of being abducted by a cruel lord of inhuman ancestry and questionable royal standing, so she hires a silent protagonist to retrieve her every time she gets taken. He must travel to the lord’s castle, battling grotesque monsters, several mercenaries and the lord’s own children in order to get her back, only to have her get captured again immediately afterwards.
I’ve seen people compare this movie to Castlevania… I’ve never played it, so I can’t really speculate… But personally, it feels a lot more like a Super Mario Brothers story to me. I mean, yeah, there are obvious differences… Thank god D isn’t followed by a green clad brother named L… But just like the classic line of Mario games, it does get a little tiresome seeing a story’s lead female just getting traded back and forth between the hero and the villains like a volleyball. To be fair, the original books, including the first in the series, which this movie was based on, do have a lot more exposition and explanations given about all of the characters and the environment they cohabitate, but that’s just the thing… This movie isn’t a book, and that book isn’t particularly easy to find outside of the internet, so it’s more or less unlikely that anyone coming into this movie will have read the proper text beforehand, and by virtue of a movie being visual media, they shouldn’t have to. There’s so much more to this story than the movie gives us, and it’s sorely lacking without it.
Right from the beginning, we’re given two sentences of dialogue to describe the world we’re about to be dropped into, and that’s it. It’s entirely possible to just take the movie at it’s word and not think about it, but considering the state the world is in in this story, with demons and dinosaurs existing alongside classic monsters like werewolves and vampires, there’s obviously a rich history behind it all, and it’s damn near criminal to leave all of it up to our imaginations. The history of the vampires… Excuse me, the Nobility… Is particularly important, because not only is their role in the history of Earth and human society never touched upon even once, but when it’s mentioned that Count Lee could be up to 10,000 years old, it leads to headache inducing questions about how long they’ve existed, how long we’ve known about them, why D keeps calling them transient guests, why half-vampire Dampiels are somehow stronger and better equipped to survive in the sunlight, and are exempt from that same transient label. The very few answers we get just wind up increasing the mountainous pile of questions that the book may or may not have addressed… I don’t remember, I read it thirteen years ago.
Well, I do remember a few details that would have been nice for the movie to include, like the fact that four of the nameless monsters in the movie… A giant rock creature, an old hag, a flying S&M conehead and a hunchback full of spiders… All had names and identities at one point, and were all members of the mercenary Rey Ginsei’s gang. They’re reduced to glorified cameos in the movie, just a bunch of featured baddies to be mowed down. I also distinctly remember the three larmia sisters from under Lee’s castle having a backstory that got cut from the movie entirely. The interactions between Rey and Greco were also supposed to go on longer, with the two of them entering into a partnership as allies against D. There’s a lot of pulp that got cut out of the story, including a hint to the relationship between Vampires and humans revolving around their weakness, and the list goes on, but even if you can forgive all of that, there’s still a ton of stupid shit that happens in the story. I won’t go into all the little examples, but if you want to see them, I did an Inconvenient Questions post about this movie.
So if I have all of these problems with the movie, do I think it’s a bad movie? Well, it’s not very good, but no, I don’t think it’s necessarily bad, either. As rushed and poorly executed as the story may have been, it’s still a story you can easily get sucked into, and the characters are compelling enough to get invested in without really knowing them as well as you should. The action and all the battles are still fun to watch, and the designs are still cool enough to hold your attention. Well, mine, at least. With the exception of D, who comes off as yet another example of every badass lone wolf wet dream that socially challenged emo kids have ever attached themselves to over the years if you haven’t learned more about his backstory and personality from the extended book universe, none of the other characters feel one note, they all have their own personalities and motivations. I found Larmica to be particularly compelling, but hey, even the annoying Greco had some depth to him. It’s just too bad this 80 minute film couldn’t have added in about an extra half hour of material to flesh out it’s setting and characters better.
Vampire Hunter D was originally available on VHS and DVD from Urban Vision, but has been long out of print, at least until Sentai Filmworks rescued and rereleased it in 2015. I actually would recommend tracking down a copy of the original release, because unlike the more recent bluray release, it had a ton of special features in it, including trailers, interviews with the Japanese cast and a preview for the video game, which I’ve played… It’s for the PS1, and it’s pretty terrible. It’s actually based on the second movie, Vampire Hunter D Bloodlust, which is superior to the first in pretty much every way, and is based on the third novel in the series. The novels by Hideyuki Kikuchi, as well as a pretty decent manga series, are also available stateside. There’s also a handful of art books, if you’re so inclined.
While I can’t entirely dismiss this movie as so many other critics before me have done, I can certainly acknowledge that it’s more junk food than most viewers realize. It does it’s job as a gateway anime, drawing in less experiences otaku and younger viewers with it’s dark tone and mature content, even if such content isn’t always presented in the most mature fashion. It survives in today’s market mainly as a right of passage for these fledgling otaku, especially once they’ve broken away from the current releases and started to venture into more old school offerings, but that isn’t to say that it’s aged well, as it’s obvious cool factor does little to make up for it’s bare bones world building, rushed story and absurdly strenuous pace. If anything, it stands as a symbol of how badass vampires can be in Japanese pop culture(along with Hellsing, which had a lot of similar problems), and in a market where the noble undead have recently been used as harem and romantic comedy fodder, this distinction is still an important one, lending this film both credibility and relevance beyond it’s years. I give Vampire Hunter D a 6/10.