Of all the Japanese-made animated films to get a theatrical release in the United States in recent years, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust is by far the most cinematic. It has a particular penchant for scenes that involve a major character being utterly dwarfed by some kind of fantastical building or landscape, and a look that combines Sergio Leone, James Cameron, Bram Stoker and even Filmation's old Bravestarr cartoons. It also possesses a plot easier to follow than many of the more convoluted entries, though it still features one possibly insurmountable obstacle to success on these shores: It's a cartoon with an R rating.
One more thing, the casual anime viewer might say: Isn't this a sequel to the 1985 movie Vampire Hunter D? Not really, no more than From Russia With Love was a sequel to Dr. No. Vampire Hunter D is a character in a series of 22 novels by successful Japanese sci-fi writer Hideyuki Kikuchi, and Bloodlust is based on the third book. (D is the name the protagonist uses; it's implied that it stands for either "Dunpeal," meaning human-vampire hybrid, or Dracula, from whom it is hinted he was descended.) Whether the 1985 film was set before or after this one on the timeline is moot: The character is immortal. He and the filmmakers don't worry about such things as chronology and continuity.
While the first film featured some amusing social satire, depicting vampires as an upper class who literally prey upon the proletarian humans in a post-apocalyptic society, it also featured every anime hallmark that has since become a cliché to be mocked on South Park, most notably that effect wherein a character freezes in an action pose while the background dissolves into an array of colored vertical lines moving swiftly downward. Bloodlust depicts a different post-apocalyptic future world in which vampires are actually a persecuted (but still incredibly dangerous) minority, and despite some magna-stylized characters (the female lead has a chin so triangular you could use it as a doorstop), the look of this film is all its own, borrowing more from American filmmakers than any of its homeland predecessors.
As for D himself, voiced by relative unknown Andrew Philpot, imagine Wesley Snipes' Blade character dressed as a musketeer and portrayed by a young Clint Eastwood. One more thing: He has a talking hand that can suck up spells and poison vapors. And his horse is a robot. Being a hybrid of vampire and human, he can exist in daylight but risks an extreme form of sunstroke if he pushes it. Since he accepts that vampires are evil, yet he is shunned by most humans for being different, he makes a living as a professional vampire hunter, a racket that's rapidly becoming more competitive.
D has been recruited to rescue the daughter of a wealthy human aristocrat; she's been abducted (or so it seems) by a vampire named Meier Link (John Rafter Lee, a.k.a. Trevor Goodchild on MTV's Aeon Flux). D's secondary orders are to kill the girl and bring her back dead if she has been turned into a vampire by the time he gets to her. But others are also on the trail, a team of mercenaries known as the Markus Brothers; they drive around in a high-tech tank with cross-shaped floodlights, and each has a special weapon or power tailor-made for an action toy line. And, as it soon transpires, Meier Link has not abducted the girl, she has voluntarily chosen to elope with him -- as though such things matter to bounty hunters.
There's not a whole lot more plot than that, but there are many stunning visuals and action sequences. The Japanese are delightfully creative when it comes to monster design; the werewolf with an extra mouth in his stomach, the woman whose body protrudes metal thorns and the monster king who rides a unicycle offer generous proof. Unfortunately, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust doesn't quite scale the heights it could and should, often because of its inappropriate humor, which could be blamed on cultural mistranslation. A breathtaking scene in which D crosses the desert by jumping across the backs of flying manta rays is betrayed by his talking hand's Southern accent (haw haw); it also whimpers moronically, sounding not unlike Scooby-Doo's Shaggy. Eventually, the hand (voiced by Mike McShane, who hams it up similarly on HBO's anime-inspired Spawn cartoon) gets a little more serious, but it lacks the dignity required to make a spell-sucking face on one's palm creepy rather than ludicrous.
And yet the richness of Kikuchi's fantasy world is enough to make you want to sign the ongoing petition to get the original novels translated into English. The film's end successfully touches on the despair of eternal life; other movies about the undead have often tried and failed to even pierce the skin. Too bad the damn hand has to follow it up with a wisecrack.
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