Friday, 12 August 2016

#31: Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (2000)

Director: Yoshiaki Kawajiri
Screenplay: Yoshiaki Kawajiri (and Brian Irving)
Based on the light novel Demon Deathchase by Hideyuki Kikuchi
Voice Cast: Andy Philpot (as D); Mike McShane (as D's Left Hand); John Rafter Lee (as Meier Link); Wendee Lee (as Charlotte Elbourne); Pamela Adlon (as Leila); Matt McKenzie (as Borgoff)
Viewed with English Dub

Synopsis: In the far future, the world is left in a post-apocalyptic state where vampires and other creatures of the night exist within the land. D, a half vampire and half human dhampir, is one of the best and most feared hunters of vampires, sent after the Baron Meier Link when he is said to have abducted the mortal woman Charlotte Elbourne. With another group called the Marcus Brothers, led by Borgoff, sent after the Count as competition, the result will become violent and morally complex with both the mutants hired to protect Meier Link extremely dangerous and the real nature of his relationship with Charlotte having real love behind it.

Many view Bloodlust as the superior take on Vampire Hunter D. I'd argue that if the 1985 anime adaptation represents its era - the bright coloured but phantasmagoric content of the era - than Bloodlust is the full blown gothic symphony in terms of aesthetic and presentation. Created as a Japanese-American co-production, the franchise gladly entrenched itself with Western influences which allows this version to work incredibly. Like the first adaptation, one of the best aspects of the world is how it combines numerous genres - gothic horror, sci-fi-, the western - into one seamless form which can cherry pick from them all in plot and visual palette.

Bloodlust more than the original takes advantage of this further, helped by the fact that the film is helmed by Kawajiri; known for making films like Ninja Scroll (1993) with simplistic plots but exceptional production quality, he also has the gift of having so many ideas that he attempts to cram into each work that the material around the plots is always compelling. It can be easily argued Bloodlust is one of his best films as, while the earlier work that made his name is notorious for its extreme content, this fully embraces the world's template for his most outlandish and imaginative ideas but is also haunting in how its depicted. While gory and violent it lashes onto the chance to be as elegant as possible. It's an anime which can have its cake and eat it, starting like a classic Universal horror movie with a phantom carriage traversing cobble streets from a Victorian city only to quickly become a sci-fi western hybrid when D is introduced, gunslingers with rifles on the beams of a gothic ruin when the dhampir takes on a bounty where, if Charlotte is turned into a vampire, he is asked to kill her.

The high quality of the feature film is matched by how imaginative it is. The realistic character designs that are a trademark of Kawajiri's productions, the emphasis on the characters looking like real people even when they're superhuman or distorted, allows the tone to get away with the more fantastical content. The world itself is already one of the truly strange and unexpected in terms of what the source material has, such as D's talking left hand, a parasitic entity with a face on his palm that, here, is a comedic sidekick who whinges or mocks D as they move along, taken further than in the original 1985 adaptation as a cranky but lovable entity. Kawajiri, known for his taste in the bizarre especially for villainous henchmen and writing the screenplay, is allowed to bring in henchmen with supernatural powers through the world's conceit of mutants also existing, from a demon clown with shadow abilities similar to a minion from Ninja Scroll to a wolfman who, in his full lycanthrope transformation, has a giant wolf's head with sharp teeth grow from his chest. With Bloodlust the world feels so detailed and fleshed out that the result has a visceral beauty to it; while the 1985 anime was a spectacle of morbid colourfulness, with splatter and nudity, this is closer to a symbolist's wet dream, one filtered through gorgeous animation and a score by Marco D'Ambrosio that fittingly crosses genres, classical orchestra mixed with soul stirring choral chants and brief moments of science fiction electronic hums.

The other significant reason Bloodlust is amongst Kawajiri's best work is that, for a man infamous for gore and simplistic action plots, this film attempted a greater emotional scope for him because of the source novel's plot and actually succeeded even if there's moments of sincerely naivety to it. The world of Bloodlust itself is depicted, after hundreds of years of the apocalypse reshaping the land, as both a threatening but also awe inspiring place, the usual signs of the wasteland found but also western frontier towns and magical places existing, from an immense garden where a key dramatic scene plays out or the desert landscape where giant, flying mantas - the aquatic creatures mixed with the worms from the Dune novels - flying out from under the sand on mass into the air. The high level of artistic production allows it to be a menacing but also colourful world that does add an emotional effect already. The other is in the plot itself, Kawajiri as the screenwriter stepping out of his comfort zone. The main plot is between D and Leila, a female member of the Marcus Brothers who develops a mutual bond with him, but the really interesting aspect is Meier Link and Charlotte, how they are actually in love with each other and how much of a conflict is involved with the bounty hunters after them when they realise this. Even when the real antagonist is introduced near the end, a full on vamp feeding into the characters' subconscious and a costume off a catwalk, the result is still gothic melodrama delightfully found in the midst of an action horror film. That Bloodlust is as dynamic in style as it is, where rocket ships like look like church spires with actual stain glass windows on their sides, adds to this emotion with morbid beauty.

Of course, there's the one conundrum that, if this is an American co-production where the English dub came first, does this technically count as an anime for this blog? Yes for me in the sense that, based on a work legendary in its homeland, this feels like a connection of two different countries to create an epic regardless of which country is was designed to be released in first, paradoxically entrenched in gothic influences from the West but undeniably a Japanese anime in style and tone. The only real disappointment with Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust is that, barring some other high profile American-Japanese co-productions (The Animatrix (2003) and Production I.G's animated sequence for Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003), these type of productions dwindled immensely by the late 2000s. Especially for Kawajiri his later co-productions with the US became compromised creatively, Highlander: The Search of Vengeance (2007) having the potential to be great but merely a deeply flaw, and at times silly, curiosity. Thankfully there is a significant attempt from two American companies, Unified Pictures and Digital Frontier, to bring back Vampire Hunter D as a television series, giving this world another tale if they succeed. One of the most interesting things about Vampire Hunter D is that, not only have the light novels that originated it created a franchise that's lasted, but the franchise at least in the animated versions developed a following the US, Bloodlust likely to be one of the best ways to introduce a person new to anime to the medium in how it does everything right. While I still hold the 1985 version as a good anime itself, I realise its limitations, whilst Bloodlust is a high recommend and one of the best horror based anime of its kind, a magnum opus even if it's only ninety or so minutes that still stands strong in quality.