Conventional vampires may not be native to classic Japanese folklore, but they eventually entered modern culture starting in the early 20th century. And today these creatures of the night have become fairly common in the media, often eclipsing actual endemic monsters or ghosts of legend. Vintage depictions of Japanese vampires (kyūketsuki) patterned themselves after Dracula and his ilk. Where these bloodsuckers began to feel more distinctly Japanese was incidentally in and around the golden age of anime, or to be more specific, the 1980s and 1990s. From Vampire Hunter D to Vampire Princess Miyu, Japanese vamps were finally stepping out of their Western counterparts’ shadows and developing their own unique origins and stories.
Looking back, the vampire’s growing popularity in Japanese culture can be interpreted as a fear of Western encroachment. That’s not to say Japan is the only place where vampires were a manifestation of cultural panic; many parts around the world viewed these exotic creatures as harmful tempters. Vampires found their way into Japanese stories prior to World War II, but there was a larger conflict to consider once occupation began. The inclination to reject all things Western was soon replaced with fascination, particularly during and after the reconstruction period, and the culture had to come to terms with its enjoyment of so many newly introduced beliefs and ideas from the West.
Hiroyuki Kitakubo’s Blood: The Last Vampire touches on this pivotal era for Japanese vampires by setting its story on a U.S. air base in 1966. Here both Americans and Japanese come together to celebrate Halloween, blissfully unaware of the fact that tomorrow would be the official start of the Vietnam War. Three distinct depictions of vampires are shown in the film; main character Saya (voiced by Youki Kudoh) brandishes a katana and wears a sailor fuku, a random character is dressed as a stereotypical Dracula, and the villains are vampiric, bat-like monsters who can disguise themselves as humans. These portrayals are a meeting of different cultures, with some conflicting more than others.
With the growing emphasis on action and fantasy storytelling in the ‘80s and onward, the Japanese vampire greatly benefited from animation. Even a low-budget or small-studio anime could achieve more in the way of nature-defying stunts and spectacle on screen than a modestly funded live-action film. Of course Production I.G was by no means a dinky or unheard of studio when president Mitsuhisa Ishikawa was in search of a new and original anime project. And with I.G having already worked extensively with Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell, Jin-Roh), Ishikawa enlisted his help again. This time, though, Oshii would only gather the ideas for what would ultimately become Blood. His students Junichi Fujisaku and Kenji Kamiyama were responsible for Blood’s core concept; Fujisaku’s proposal of a female warrior was combined with Kamiyama’s story “Last Vampire”.
Blood was a sign of things to come in Japan’s anime industry. Kitakubo’s 2000 featurette was completely digital as opposed to a mix of hand-drawn and CG animation. The new process meant Blood’s art staff had to go to painstaking lengths when bringing the sword-wielding slayer and her macabre world to life; this included updating most of art director Yūsuke Takeda’s background work for the final product. These new animation practices, which were already in use at Disney since the mid-nineties, were indeed more taxing than the traditional cel method, but after watching Blood, audiences can agree I.G’s undertaking was a fruitful one.
Anime made for television tends to be bright and inviting, whereas Blood is teeming with gloomy grays and browns. The sometimes sepia palette lends itself to the period setting, and the subtle gradation of colors within one visual area is impressive. The characters, who were designed by video game artist Katsuya Terada, have dynamic faces, authentic expressions and fluid gestures. Animation director Kazuchika Kise’s revisions to preliminary sketches were simple, yet they added nuance; something as seemingly insignificant as forehead lines was thought to be unusual when drawing anime heroines back then. Although what especially stands out about the film’s complex aesthetic is the intense shadow work, which was meticulously achieved by Hisashi Ezura. That, along with the hyper-realistic lighting, intentionally rough linework and fastidious texturing, is why this kinetic film’s art holds up so well after two decades.
The largely English-language film runs a little under 50 minutes, but apparently making it any longer would have lowered the quality in animation. On the upside, the short runtime allows for a tight and well-paced story where there is always something interesting happening on screen, and there are no huge lulls to speak of. Admittedly there isn’t a substantial backstory for the film’s protagonist, other than a few meager breadcrumbs here and there about why she’s the last original vampire. At the time, Blood fans would have to sate their curiosities about the story’s mythos by reading the tie-in books and manga; Mamoru Oshii penned a standalone novel called Night of the Beasts. And since then, there have been animated spin-offs and films that all continue or reimagine Saya’s journey.
This looks to be another excessively violent and over-styled anime, but beneath an alluring and technically dazzling surface lies a delicately told story about life’s most endless struggles. War, identity, humanity — Blood touches on all these topics, and it does so with flair.
Horrors Elsewhere is a recurring column that spotlights a variety of movies from all around the globe, particularly those not from the United States. Fears may not be universal, but one thing is for sure — a scream is understood, always and everywhere.