Happy Halloween, boils and ghouls! It’s the spookiest time of the year once again, and while many weebs are bound to celebrate by binging the newest revival of Higurashi—it’s a reboot that’s secretly a sequel in disguise or something? Why can’t Ryukishi07 make things simple for once?—I find myself feeling nostalgic for a more handmade flavor of fantasy horror, and nothing fits that bill quite like Vampire Hunter D Bloodlust. Perhaps I’m just thirsting for more grain and grit and sinew at the end of a year where the tangible joys of life have been harder than ever to come by. (Or maybe somebody commissioned me to write about this movie with frightfully perfect timing.) But Bloodlust has held a special place in my heart ever since I first heard the line “It’s zombie time”, so I was happy to revisit this unique film’s legacy as it nears its 20th anniversary.
There’s long been debate within that vigorous overlap between anime fans and horror fans over animation’s capacity to convey horror well. While animation can easily outpace live action in its limitless potential for shocking imagery, the artificial nature of the medium also tends to diminish the fright factor of those images. It’s disturbing to see a real deluge of blood flooding out of a real elevator in a movie, but translate that into a flood of red paint in a painted world, and it’s more likely to come off comedic—usually, the blood gets off at the second floor. Choosing to embellish the animation of blood and gore with greater detail will diminish the comedic effect, but it might only exchange it for a beautifying effect that can dampen the intended horror too, as the audience becomes enchanted or excited by a meticulous or attractive rendering of violence and decay. Far beneath the higher concepts or deeper thrills that accompany a great horror story, that vicarious reaction of being afraid, the terror that comes from imagining that something so vile could happen to you, is bound to lessen when you feel further from the animated world that danger lives in.
I think D vaults this hurdle more spectacularly than most horror anime, but not because it taps into some surprising vein of visceral realism—quite the opposite. The film’s scope is fantastical, its atmosphere often dreamlike, and despite its lurid title, I’m not sure Vampire Hunter D Bloodlust can fairly be called a horror anime at all. (That edgetacular “Bloodlust” was only added to the film’s name to distinguish it from a humbler VHD movie adaptation from 1985.) The titular D—short for either dhampir or Drac Junior, I think—lives in an eclectic world torn between the past and the future, where the vampiric aristocracy that once ruled over humanity has fallen into decline. Vampire hunters who wield supernatural powers or futuristic weapons are the only line of defense for mankind’s remnants struggling to rebuild their lives on a rustic frontier, as a smattering of isolated vampires plot world domination from the shadows with the help of their monstrous servants. The resulting world is a casserole of popular fascinations from Japanese genre fic of the ‘80s, when this 2001 film’s source material was written. It’s Hammer Horror meets Mad Max, with just a dash of tragic romance and a pinch of spaghetti western for spice, but it all blends together surprisingly well!
It helps that VHDB is far more concerned with spectacle than lore, centering all its action on a thin but propulsive plot. The noble vampire Meier and his human lover Charlotte, with no place to live in peace on Earth, decide to flee by carriage to the site of an ancient rocket ship that will hopefully bear them up to the stars together. D pursues the pair after Charlotte’s father offers him a rich bounty, and adventure ensues across a pastiche of genres that sees our antihero coolly escaping Mexican standoffs in western settlements, dodging the post-apocalyptic artillery of rival hunters, and weathering surreal waking nightmares in the final boss’ futurist palace. While the movie shines with a dark glaze of gothic horror imagery throughout its run, I’d struggle to place VHDB into any one genre. It’s easier just to call it a Yoshiaki Kawajiri movie.
Most people know of Kawajiri from his 1993 shlockbuster Ninja Scroll, which enjoyed greater success in America than Japan for its painstakingly animated feudal brutality. Like VHDB, the plot of Ninja Scroll is uncomplicated, but it’s still easier to describe the experience as a collection of high-concept set pieces with their own climaxes and turns of momentum that eventually chain together, rather than one cohesive story with a familiar structure defined by its genre. Kawajiri has legendary instincts for choreographing action and capturing details in motion, but the pace and execution of every shot within a scene is more important to him than how those scenes will flow together over the larger film. This sequence-driven approach allowed Ninja Scroll to play better to Americans seeking taboo thrills in short memorable bursts from their Blockbuster rental. So when the anime boom of the late ‘90s began surging in earnest, Kawajiri, already a big fan of Hollywood action movies, embraced his style’s compatibility with US audiences like never before. His next feature was to be one of the most involved East-West collaborations in anime history up to that point. Ninja Scroll captured the attention of edgy American teens by accident. Vampire Hunter D Bloodlust sought to do that on purpose.
After VHDB’s animation production was completed by Madhouse, the movie’s sonic side was produced entirely in California, with an American musical score, sound mix, and English voice cast; the movie was even shown in English with Japanese subtitles in Japan before receiving a Japanese dub on home video later—creating an unusual licensing situation where the Japanese version of this Japanese movie can’t actually be released in America, just the English “dub”, which is technically the original version. The ultimate marriage of Vampire Hunter author Hideyuki Kikuchi’s dense fantasy worldbuilding with Kawajiri’s passion to deliver a punchy action spectacle for Americans pumps too many ideas into Bloodlust for it to resonate emotionally, but all those ideas are insanely cool in an unapologetic mallgoth kind of way. It’s a gorgeous slice of rich, dark excess that remains effortlessly fun to watch, so if I was forced to assign a genre to Vampire Hunter D Bloodlust, I think it would be most flattering to call it an action movie in horror’s clothing, if anything.
And yet, I believe Bloodlust’s unique pedigree should give it a permanent pedestal of recognition as a horror movie, too. At the turn of the millennium, anime was rapidly completing its transition to digital painting techniques over hand-painted cels, not just in television, but even for theatrical features. Studio Ghibli had changed over to digital coloring techniques for Spirited Away by 2001, lending movies like The Cat Returns and Howl’s Moving Castle a squeaky clean brightness that seemed alien compared to the softer and dirtier textures of films like Princess Mononoke. Pre-digital Ghibli films instantly looked older and earthier than they had before. That aged earthiness of a physical hand-painted cel breathes life into D’s gothic horror aesthetic in a way that no computer can replicate. You’re always vaguely aware that the blood dripping down that vampire’s fangs was dripped by hand, as film grain dances over the action like dust blowing over a grave.
VHDB is not just one of the most impressive visions of gothic horror ever hand-painted into cinema, it’s also one of the very last. It’s a swan song for a uniquely tangible appeal of the artform that we will never know again. The film’s nightmarish action is too beautiful and surreal to be “scary” exactly, but you can sense that it was smeared into life directly by human hands—there’s an eerie warmth to the fingerprints and brush strokes that bleeds into your soul through the screen. It makes your heart pound a little faster to see Carmilla’s corpse sop and writhe with blood that you know had to be splattered over and over onto hundreds of sheets of warm, slick plastic to resurrect her. It’s like a quieter whisper of the ineffable feeling we lost in the changeover from practical effects to CGI in live-action horror. Maybe that rubber mask wasn’t always as scary as the motion-capped monsters of today, but it was a real artifact created by a real artist to scare humans, and now it’s rotting away in a warehouse somewhere, its golden eyes forever peeled open until all their golden paint has peeled away.
If you’re resigned to celebrating Halloween from behind a screen this year, perhaps Vampire Hunter D Bloodlust will warm your heart like it did mine. It’s a wonderful sendoff to a bygone era of anime horror aesthetics. At least we can take comfort in the knowledge that while those analog methods of creating animation have gone away, VHD Bloodlust’s handmade spirit still lives on in print. Hideyuki Kikuchi wrote every one of his Vampire Hunter novels by hand, and he continues to pen new adventures for D into the present day! Suddenly, D’s persona as a stoic badass whose deeper feelings are mostly betrayed by his outspoken left hand makes a lot more sense.
Thanks to Gero Bruemmer for commissioning this review. You can commission my work on Ko-Fi here! Thank you for your support. ❤