Vampire Hunter D

Helen McCarthy, author of The Anime Movie Guide, lists it as one of her top five films to avoid. It earned a single star from THEM Anime Reviews. The Anime Critic calls it "below average." Can this film really be that bad? It all depends on your point of view, but I see Vampire Hunter D as a misunderstood classic for a variety of reasons. It's dated and soon to be replaced, but this OVA still has earned a place in anime fandom and should be recognized as what it is--a slick vampire western.

A young girl is stalked...although she is strong enough to handle the fierce creatures that come after her, she is no match for Magnus Lee, an ancient vampire determined to make her his new bride. Of course, our heroine Doris doesn't want such a fate, and she sends word for a dark stranger who might be able to save her from her fate. D is his man. D is a vampire hunter, but he understands his prey, as he is half-vampire himself. As the story progresses, we discover more about D's dark past as he takes on Lee's minions in an effort to save Doris from a fate worse than death.

It's a simple story, really, and it's essentially a rescue picture...Doris is hauled off, D comes to rescue her. What makes this show so unique, however, are a few qualities that make it stand out. First is atmosphere, and this is where we start to realize why the show is misunderstood. The original Japanese version is dark, moody, and suspenseful, especially through good use of talented voice casting; the English dub is so bad that it will make you cringe, and it makes otherwise frightening moments laughable. The original has atmosphere all throughout, even without considering the visuals. The animation itself was superb for an OVA made over 16 years ago. However, there's been a lot of anger about the fact that the character designs changed drastically from those created by Yoshitaka Amano, who illustrated the novels from which this story comes. Amano's work is understandably revered and is the basis of the designs in Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, which is to be released in the US shortly. However, this does not mean that the designs used don't work. They aren't fantastic, but they aren't bad.

The second unique quality is the blend of action, romance, and horror into one movie--this thing is a carnage-laden hackfest, but it's still exciting gore, and it's better than many other horror films in combining its elements. Finally, what separates this out is its central moral dilemma--D is a man at odds with himself, and he must struggle to do what's right even though his very being wants to be a vampire. Although other characters have faced questions of a moral nature, this one is posed brilliantly, especially when an annoying but deadly creature embedded in D's hand acts as his conscience.

So why do people hate it? The English dub is a primary reason. For years, the only thing available in the US was a Streamline dub that simply destroys the atmosphere of the film. I originally saw it in raw Japanese back in 1988, and that made all the difference. The dub completely loses the power of the original, with voice actors who sound bored or stoned; if you watch it, you may hate it too. Thankfully, the recent DVD release has the original Japanese soundtrack with subtitles, which makes a world of difference. Sadly, the transfer has some significant problems--it's improperly saturated, and thus the really dark scenes are too dark and the really bright scenes are too light. Nevertheless, if you want to see the movie right, seeing it subbed is essentially the only way to go.

It's not the best horror movie ever, or even the best horror anime. It is, however, a thoroughly enjoyable, if gory, adventure that has gotten beat up on a little too long. I encourage you to give it a second look.

Vampire Hunter D (1985) -- graphic violence, brief nudity -- A-