Continuing my Halloween content for this column, this week I’m tackling one of the most famous animated horror films; Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust. Based off of Hideyuki Kikuchi’s long-running novel series Vampire Hunter D, first published in 1983, the series now has 31 novels comprising 44 volumes. The series has seen multiple adaptations over the years, from video games, audio dramas, mangas, and films. The titular D, a dhampir (half-vampire, half-human) vampire hunter, has been adapted into animation twice, the first time in 1985 as an OVA directed by Toyoo Ashida, who is most well-known for his work as the director of Fist of the North Star and his extensive work as an animator/character designer. While I haven’t seen the 1985 OVA yet, my understanding is that despite having quite a cult following, especially in the West, the most frequent complaint from fans, and even Hideyuki Kikuchi himself, was how cheap the animation looked. Eventually discussions began about a sequel/reboot of the original OVA, and eventually Yoshiaki Kawajiri signed on to direct.
If you’re reading this and you don’t recognise the name Yoshiaki Kawajiri, you need to go ahead and check out his filmography as Kawajiri is famous for directing some of the most popular 80’s and 90’s anime that attained cult status in the West. Films like Demon City Shinjuku, Wicked City and Ninja Scroll, were some of the most infamous films that were exported to the West, and only a brief look at anime forums will tell you that a whole generation of anime watchers grew up on the brutal violence and rampant sexuality of Kawajiri’s films. While I was too young to discover Kawajiri’s films in this way, his cult status was already set in stone by the time I was getting into anime, but for me it wasn’t long before I was being recommended Ninja Scroll on almost every “must watch” anime list that I found online. While it could seem like Kawajiri’s career has lost steam in the years following Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, having not directed anything big since a segment of The Animatrix in 2003, you only need to glance at his animation and storyboarding credits to see that Kawajiri has had a hand in some of the most influential and popular animation of the last two decades. How many other people can boast a filmography that ranges from guest Character design on Legend of the Galactic Heroes to storyboarding credits on One Punch Man, Attack on Titan Season 3 and even the recent mainstream hit Demon Slayer Kimetsu no Yaiba.
Now I’ll readily admit that I didn’t realise Kawajiri directed Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust until about part way through, but the way I found out he did is directly tied to one of my biggest compliments about the film, which is the animation. Even from the very start I was enamoured by the animation and art design, it was the perfect blend of the fluidity available through the technology of 2000 but with the sharp character designs of classic OVA animation from the 80’s and 90’s. But the biggest comparison I could think of when thinking of the animation was films like Ninja Scroll and Wicked City, so when I paused to google who was directing it was no surprise to find out that Kawajiri was responsible for this as well. I really cannot understate how well these two styles and elements blend together, even though animation generally from the year 2000 can now be considered nostalgic, it seems even more so in its evocation of a lost style. When compared to almost any other anime being released at the turn of the century, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust looks so distinct from its contemporaries. The hyper violent, high-octane bursts of action that made Kawajiri’s previous films so popular are present and in full force in Bloodlust, and again the fluidity of the character’s movements and the absolute genius array of weapons and combinations within the fights make them so engaging and entertaining even after an hour and a half of fight after fight.
The film’s plot, which is taken from the third Vampire Hunter D novel, follows a young woman named Charlotte who is kidnapped by an infamous vampire Baron Meier Link. The woman’s family offers a significant bounty of the vampire’s head, dead or alive, and the film follows D as he attempts to rescue Charlotte and kill Baron Link. I can’t say that the set-up is the most exciting or novel idea, and the larger story serves mainly to give D some form of progression through the different villains, heroes and antiheroes that he fights along the way. While the story isn’t the film’s greatest strength, it also doesn’t serve to weaken the film’s progression or structure, as it is through the overarching journey and the encounter that happen within, that we start to learn more about D’s history and reasons for hunting vampires, but also the film is surprisingly nuanced in its handling of Baron Link, and often his scenes with his kidnapee are the most emotional and moving moments in the plot. I do think that the lack of any gripping overarching narrative means that the film can become tiresome easily, and for as much as I was praising the fights and the animation earlier, especially in the middle of the film where D is fighting his way through the “B-tier” villains, the film is a lot less engaging than Ninja Scroll, which suffers a similar issue in it’s pacing.
If you’re in the mood for something gothic this Halloween, you wouldn’t be remiss choosing Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust. It’s fusion of futuristic cyberpunk aesthetics and traditional gothic imagery is unparalleled and creates a visual fusion that I can’t think of any other film having. The fights are bloody, the animation is gorgeous and the movement is superb, and while there are issues with the pacing, there is no other director that manages to come close to the atmosphere and tone that Sawajiri creates in his films, and the same applies to Vampire Hunter D; it is such a unique film and between the animation and fight scenes alone make this film well worth your time.