In the early days of Western anime fandom, from late 80s to mid-90s, there was a very limited amount of anime that was commercially available, so there was very little a fan could recommend to help others get into the world of anime, unless you knew someone with fan-sub tapes or could import something from Japan. In the UK especially, you only had what are now considered ‘old school’ classics such as Akira, Ghost in a Shell, Ninja Scroll, etc. Nowadays, how one gets into anime is a much less a daunting task with multiple streaming avenues, home media releases and even some TV spots to help anyone become an anime fan, whether it be via something incredibly new or an old-school classic. However, in the old days, from the small pile that was available, there was a title called Vampire Hunter D, an OVA based upon the long-running light novel series by Hideyuki Kikuchi. It was marketed in the US as ‘the first animated horror film for adults’, and it gathered a cult following for its gothic horror imagery and Japanese take on the classic ‘vampire’. Several years later, after fan demands to make a sequel movie and the original author also in favour of it, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust was finally released in 2000 with a limited release in American cinemas as well (which back then was a much rarer occurrence). Now it’s 2018 and we haven’t had a new anime adaptation of the source material since then, with news of a proposed TV series last heard back in 2016, but the original two films have been considered cult classic and Anime Limited have kindly brought over a Blu-ray release of Bloodlust for UK anime fans. Is it a classic worth uncovering? Or should it have been left in the coffin to gather dust?
It’s the distant future and vampires once ruled the night, with bounty hunters being the only means of protecting the human race from their fangs and powerful magic. But now, the vampires are dwindling and bounty hunters pursue the few that remain for reward. One of them is the infamous D; a half-human half-vampire (called a ‘dunpeal’ in this film but it’s actually Dhampir) who has been hired by a noble family to rescue their kidnapped daughter Charlotte, from a known vampire named Baron Meier Link. D however, is not the only hunter searching for Meier, and the closer they get to catching up with his carriage, the more they realise that there’s something more going on between vampire and human than meets the eye.
If you’re a consumer of all things vampire-related, and long for the return of their old-school representation, then Bloodlust would be very much up your alley. The vampires in this story are blood-sucking monsters with sexy allure and power from illusions to transforming into bats. Even though there is a forbidden human and vampire romance, it’s more akin to the original Dracula rather than something out of a certain sparkly-vampire series. The protagonist is also a lone wolf, the strong, silent type with a thirst for blood that can never be quenched, so there’s plenty of gothic horror, vampiric action, angst and blood in this movie. On top of that, it’s visually stunning, with incredibly detailed gothic castles, atmospheric mist and a dark colour palette, plus an eccentric selection of demonic designs that really bring the world D inhabits to life. The journey to rescue Charlotte takes the characters from dusty Western towns to Greek-style ruins to Victorian-meets-science fiction castles, so the movie is worth checking out just for the visual style alone.
However, as with all ‘nostalgia’ anime releases, there’s a conversation to be had about whether something that is considered a ‘classic’ is still any good. Has it stood the test of time? Or has it aged poorly? Was it never very good to begin with? Or is it merely a product of its time? In the case of Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, visually at the very least, it holds up incredibly well. It was praised at the time for its advanced animation techniques, and character designs by Yoshitaka Amano (best known for his work on Final Fantasy) and thanks to the hard work by Madhouse, the animation is still lovely. The art style may look dated as the character designs are a product of their time but in terms of shot composition, background designs and model fluidity – it’s all incredibly gorgeous and atmospheric, especially with the orchestral score by Marco D’Ambrosio backing it up. In terms of story however it’s a trickier case to make; whilst the old-school vampire tropes are not overly used in our current pop culture landscape, they are still overused, so there’s little in Bloodlust that a veteran vampire consumer would find engaging if they were looking for a new take on the genre.
The plot itself is also not without issues. The story is easy to follow and draws you into its world and conflict easily, but suffers from an uneven divide between D and the second team of bounty hunters hogging the screen time yet ultimately having little relevance. The main conflict is also hastily pushed aside to introduce a new villain who, whilst compelling, isn’t foreshadowed at all and is quickly taken care of. There’s also the late 90s/early 2000s problem with its female characters. There are only three in the whole film (one being the aforementioned last-minute addition villain) and they merely serve as emotional pillars for the male characters. Despite one female (Leila) having the character design of a veteran warrior, she spends more time emoting and being rescued rather than actually doing anything noteworthy.
That said, there’s still a lot of enjoyment to be had with this movie. The action is well-composed and tension-filled and the characters are fun and compelling despite the limited amount of screen time. The addition of tiny science fiction/fantasy elements make this particular tale stand out against the hundreds of other vampire-related media and the film tries it best to be a self-contained story, so even if you’ve never seen or heard of Vampire Hunter D previously, it’s easy to slip into this adventure.
This new UK release is based upon the Discotek Media version, so it’s their upscale conversion that is used here. Whilst the Blu-ray release has a very clear picture and the bright colours pop through nicely, there are two minor issues with it: the blacks are overly dark so some of the details in the murkier shots are sometimes lost, and the picture is still quite grainy. Personally, I didn’t mind the grain so much; it added to the charm of the picture and worked with the atmosphere the movie goes for. It’s also important to note that some of the fight scenes have a high concentration of flashing images, so those suffering from epilepsy should be cautious before watching.
However the biggest drawback for this release is the lack of a Japanese dub; yes, I’m sad to report that both the Blu-ray and DVD versions of the movie lack the Japanese track, it’s English dub only – in 2.0 and 5.1 if you’re interested – but no Japanese, and only English subtitles are available. Considering that it is 2018 and this is the first re-release of this movie since Studio Canal’s back in 2004, it’s a crying shame that we still have an incomplete package of a classic anime film.
Both the DVD and Blu-ray editions of this movie come with the same extras: US, Japanese AND Korean trailers, an art gallery, behind the scenes featurette and a storyboard to screen feature, which takes the key scenes of the movie and plays out the storyboards over the top of the audio; it’s an interesting feature if you love seeing how animations transition from sketches to the final picture. The Limited Edition version that is exclusively on sale via Anime Limited contains both the DVD and Blu-ray discs with additional art cards, booklet and rigid case.
Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust is an atmospheric, gothic horror nostalgic trip; there are some story elements that haven’t aged as well but it’s still a movie with high class production values, an incredible art style and enjoyable plot. It’s a shame that this release lacks the Japanese track, and the Blu-ray conversion is far from perfect, but if you’ve been dying to update your old DVD copy, or have never acquainted yourself with Vampire Hunter D, there’s never been a better time.