Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Vampire Hunter D (1985)

(A comment on an earlier post put me in a mood to revisit this. So I did.)

It's the end of the world again. A far future post-apocalyptic world has regressed into a fun mix of the Old West of the Spaghetti Western and European villages of Gothic horror movies. For some reason, demons, werewolves and funny mutants of all sizes and shapes have returned to plague the rest of humanity, most dangerous among them the vampire nobility. The creatures of the night are barely held in check by so-called hunters, who usually seem to specialize in one type of monster.

A vampire hunter called only "D" comes to a small community that lives in the shadow of the castle of an especially old and powerful Noble, a certain Count Lee (unfortunately not called Christopher, but Magnus).

Doris, a young woman taking care of her kid brother Dan alone after their parents have died, has been nibbled on by Count Lee. The Count, who is one of those bored excitement-seeking vampire types, has set his mind on kidnapping Doris and making her his vampire bride (I give him bonus points for at least wanting to make everything legal by marrying the girl), whatever his speciescist daughter Lamika has to say about that, or (more importantly) what his chosen bride thinks about it.

Doris hires D to save her from becoming a vampire and kill the count. Obviously she's bound to fall in love with the aloof and taciturn hunter, as obviously as he is harboring the rather dark secret of being a half vampire, a dhampir, himself (killing his own kind! Oh noes!), making for the mandatory bits of melodrama between lots and lots of scenes of D cutting even more lots of monsters and mutants into gory little pieces with (you probably guessed it) his over-sized sword.

Ah, what fun! Vampire Hunter D's plot is nothing to write home about, to be sure. What elevates the film above many other films of its type is the amount of style and verve that has gone into it. It shows a deep and infectious love of mixing the Western and Gothic tropes and visual signifiers with your basic weird Japanese monster carnage, never explaining something that does not absolutely have to be explained (so, our hero has a talking, sarcastic face in the palm of one of his hands? - not something that needs an explanation, surely), instead throwing as much weird and cool shit at the viewer as possible, yet also never overstaying its welcome.

The real trick (or the real art) here lies in the film's design sense. Its elements may be disparate on paper, but the visuals do an excellent job of unifying those elements until there's no question in your mind that yes, cyborg horses, vampire counts, golems, mutants, the powerful man's sadistic son out of each and every Spaghetti Western ever made and drifting heroes do in fact belong together in the same world and the same film. What seems to me to be the most important difference between Anime and much of Western animation is very helpful in this regard too - where Western products prefer the slick and/or the naturalistic, anime lives from an aesthetic that accepts rough edges and doesn't usually try to distract its viewers from the fact that what they see on screen is in fact drawn, making it easier to just go with the things one sees and enabling anime to use approaches (like, you know, using actual drawing styles) to its material Western animation can't afford.

Add to this excellent pacing and gloriously over the top monsters, and you have a very fine piece of animation.


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