A lot of science fiction stories have this problem where, if they’ve managed to stay relevant long enough, the year in which they are set starts to sound silly. To Clarke ‘n’ Kubrick, 2001 seemed like an impossibly, incredibly futuristic date, while it’s now better remembered as “when it used to take 20 minutes to download a song on Napster.” In Akira, World War III begins in 1992. Space: 1999 is set in… well, you get it.
Vampire Hunter D does not have this problem, because Hideyuki Kikuchi, the author of the D novels, set them in 12,090 AD. This ain’t your great-grandson’s post-apocalypse. Kikuchi’s post-apocalyptia is a mish-mash of gothic horror, spaghetti western and sci-fi where vampires own space ships, fire lasers and ride around on robot horses.
If this doesn’t sound cool, you better stop right here.
The first D novel was published in 1983. Shortly thereafter followed an OVA adaptation (directed by the late Toyoo Ashida) which, released in these United States theatrically in the early 90s by Streamline, is remembered fondly as a prime example of that blend of blood, guts and tits that endeared a generation of university-aged males to Japanese cartoons in the first place.
Perhaps that’s why when Madhouse announced plans to produce a new version in the late 90s, Urban Vision (who picked up the license to the original D in the post-Streamline years) got in on the production in a big way. Bloodlust has an American composer, its post-production work was all completed in California, and its official language track is in English. (Though a Japanese track was done for the DVD release, the film was shown theatrically in Japan in English with subtitles.)
Bloodlust was directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, an official Colony Drop Dude and director of many of the aforementioned blood-guts-and-tits “classics” of the 80s, including an adaptation of Hideyuki Kikuchi’s own Wicked City. Kawajiri’s such a perfect fit for D that it was only due to his own relative inexperience at the time of the original, no doubt, that the producers didn’t immediately think, “we need that guy.”
It worked out, because Bloodlust had the budget to do things the original couldn’t. Where the original was about D storming a castle, here he (and rival hunters the Markus Brothers) chase a vampire noble through different environments, making for a kind of post-apocalypse road movie. The film wisely tells us very little about how and why earth has come to be a horrifying shambles, instead simply moving though the story with the world as backdrop.
There are no Tina Turner-style beneficiaries to this apocalypse. Vampires, we’re told, are dying out, hunted to near-extinction. Humans live in small wild west towns, weary of outsiders, or work as bounty hunters (which, judging by the body count of this film, is a pretty short career). D, a half-human, half-vampire Dhampir, has no place in either world; he’s clearly on Team Human, though the feeling’s not exactly mutual. He appears to be motivated by the memory of his human mother, but like any good western anti-hero, he remains largely mysterious.
D has two interesting relationships in the film. One is with Leila, the only Sister in the Markus Brothers crew (played by Megumi Hayashibara in full Faye Valentine mode in the Japanese version). Hating vampires, she’s saved by D early in the film and resents him for it, but their mutual respect evolves as they meet later on. D’s constant companion, and the only other character to appear in both films, is a symbiotic face lodged into D’s palm. He helps D out sometimes, usually by sucking in objects with incredible force (where do they end up? D’s bowels?) but his true purpose is to shed light on the stoic D. He’s a bro.
This film really succeeds because it’s essentially a high-gloss, well-animated version of the 80s OVAs we hold so dear. Kawajiri is in top form as a director. Each of the battles, which make up a large part of the film, feel distinct, are well choreographed and don’t drag. The characters have enough quirks to rise above two-dimensionality. And even though sentences can feel either stretched or compressed, as if the lip-flap is timed for Japanese sentence length, the English track is pretty good. My favorite part of the film, though, are the glimpses we get at Kikuchi’s post-apocalypse rendered in some really beautiful backgrounds and animation.
12,090 AD is a date so far in the future you’ve gotta assume Kikuchi either a) invented an elaborate, Tolkienesque multi-millennium backstory to serve his work, or b) is being kinda cheeky.
My money’s on the latter. Vampire Hunter D, while not outwardly humorous, does have a certain tongue-in-cheek (mouth-in-hand?) quality I really enjoy. It’s a lot of fun for the 16-year-old boy in all of us, and is given great treatment here by Kawajiri and Madhouse.