How The West Was Won Over By ‘Vampire Hunter D’ [Horrors Elsewhere]

The ‘80s is considered the “golden age” of anime for good reason. This significant era saw the rise of both theatrical and straight-to-video releases, and bigger budgets not only allowed for higher production values and more elaborate art styles, it gave creators the opportunity to dabble in less prevalent genres. Mecha sagas and space operas were already common by this point, so when a horror-western showed up in Japanese theaters days before Christmas in 1985, naturally people’s interest was piqued.

When Vampire Hunter D was picked up for a U.S. release in the early ‘90s, one distributor billed it as “the first animated horror film for adults.” This was a huge selling point in those days because the West was shifting away from mature animation, and the Disney Renaissance was in full swing. Meanwhile in Japan, the economic prosperity of the ‘80s had led to more sophisticated, diverse, and lavish anime. Something like Vampire Hunter D proved anime was undergoing a seismic transformation.

While horror first started cropping up in ‘70s TV anime — Devilman and GeGeGe no Kitarō are notable examples — its more unadulterated state originated in the following decade, starting with Vampire Hunter D. The ‘85 film typifies anime creators’ method of artistic patchworking. D’s first outing draws inspiration mainly from classic European horror, but the influence of westerns is also unmistakable. Anime as a whole has a tendency to pair horror with other genres rather than delivering it plainly. With animation being a desirable vehicle for manifesting ideas not always feasible in live-action storytelling, it only makes sense to integrate other elements and genres.

The first volume in Hideyuki Kikuchi’s long-running series of light novels serves as the basis for Toyoo Ashida’s film. Set 12,000 years in the future, the story shadows D, a drifter who roams the post-apocalyptic badlands collectively called the Frontier. His unique abilities as well as an enduring compassion for those in need make him the best vampire slayer around. What also makes this maverick better than his rivals is the fact that he is cut from the same cloth as his immortal enemies. When passing through a small village, D (voiced by Kaneto Shiozawa) helps Doris Lang (Michie Tomizawa) after she is bitten by the area’s most powerful vampire. The journey to then save Doris from becoming the bride of Count Magnus Lee (Seizō Katō) is fraught with monsters and other uncanny obstacles.

The demographic dial of Vampire Hunter D is eagerly set to “mature,” seeing as the film is garnished with graphic violence and, to a lesser degree, nudity. Admittedly, though, the brutality here has nothing on Ashida’s next feature, Fist of the North Star. The battles in D are admittedly tame when compared to today’s anime, yet for the time period, this was gruesome. An ample supply of bright red blood, the detailedly drawn innards of monster fodder, and grotesque facial reactions all make this film seem more vicious than it actually is.

Kikuchi has gone on record to say he was not satisfied with the ‘85 film, although it did give his books more attention. His disappointment has a lot to do with the aesthetics; the technical quality is not on the same level as other ‘80s anime films and OVAs (original video animation) due to a limited budget. The novels’ artist Yoshitaka Amano had some input in the film, but the final product does not reflect his signature style. The characters are instead streamlined without a trace of Amano’s elegant touch. In its defense, Ashida’s adaptation benefits from the most striking color saturation, and gorgeously painted vistas and scenery.

D would not see the big screen again until 2000 when Kikuchi’s third novel Demon Deathchase was turned into Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust. Both the author and Amano have praised this film, seeing as it better reflects their shared vision of D’s exploits. This time around, the solitary dhampir is hired to rescue a woman, Charlotte Elbourne, who has supposedly been abducted by the vampire Meier Link. Charlotte’s brother has also gone ahead and paid a band of human slayers to save his sister. The race to retrieve Charlotte ultimately leads D and the hunters into an encounter with one of the most powerful and notorious vampires to ever exist.

The overwhelming reverence for Bloodlust is not unjust; it is the most polished anime representation of Vampire Hunter D so far. The film, which premiered in English before the Japanese soundtrack was ever recorded, was well worth the long wait to see D ride again. The ‘85 adaptation has its merits, but Bloodlust is a totally different beast. Director Yoshiaki Kawajiri acknowledges the sheer size of D’s universe, something unrealized in the previous film, and achieves a master level of worldbuilding. The gothic innateness of the novels is realized through the sprawling ruins and monumental architecture. Then, Madhouse’s production values are the definition of opulent; Yutaka Minowa interprets Amano’s highly stylized illustrations with an understanding while still expressing Kawajiri’s desired design. Overall, the attention to detail is meticulous.

Narratively speaking, Bloodlust is less focused and more all over the place than the last film. D’s mission to save Doris Lang was straightforward enough, whereas Kawajiri takes even greater liberties with the source material. He evokes utter chaos for entertainment’s sake. The end result is nothing short of astonishing, not to mention incredibly cinematic and, at times, heartfelt. Kawajiri supplements Kikuchi’s writing in the best way imaginable.

These two films are worlds apart in execution, yet they equally demonstrate the major appeal of Vampire Hunter D. Kikuchi’s heroic daywalker was many people’s first exposure to anime, and needless to say, they crave to see more of D’s animated adventures.

Horrors Elsewhere is a recurring column that spotlights a variety of movies from all around the globe, particularly those not from the United States. Fears may not be universal, but one thing is for sure — a scream is understood, always and everywhere.

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