I’m 31 years old, which is rather strange for me to think about. I don’t particularly feel like a grown-up, nor someone in his 30s in general, but here I am, a guy who was born in 1984 living in 2015. It’s because of this that I’m keenly aware of things which are turning 30. Obviously we’ve had the 30th anniversary of Back to the Future, as well as things like Romero’s Day of the Dead and Tim Burton’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. It’s also, weirdly to my way of thinking, the 30th anniversary of one of the earliest and most successful made-for-video anime films, Toyoo Ashida’s Vampire Hunter D.
I guess it’s weird to me that Vampire Hunter D is 30 years old, because I was completely naive to the very existence of the film—and of most anime in general—until my early college days, and was pretty much introduced to it all with 2000’s Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, the follow-up. I didn’t, in fact, know for even longer that there WAS a first film. Visiting that first film recently, I was struck by two things specifically: 1) that the storytelling and content was much, much more in line with the darkness and horror attention of today, and 2) that the low budget really didn’t do its visuals any favors.
The film—like the book series by Hideyuki Kikuchi upon which it’s based—takes place in the very far, post-apocalyptic future of 12,090 AD, a time where the lines between magic and science have again blurred and people ride horses and things. It could be a fictional fantasy realm, but it’s very specifically still Earth, which I think is important. The story begins with a young girl named Doris Lang, the daughter of a deceased werewolf hunter, who is attacked on the road by Count Magnus Lee, a 10,000 year old vampire (or Noble in this universe). The Nobility believe they are the superior race on Earth, and Lee intends to wipe out humanity and wants Doris as his bride.
This doesn’t bode well for Doris, nor her little brother Dan, but luckily, they soon meet a stranger on the road: a quiet, angular man who only calls himself D. D is a vampire hunter, as you might have guessed from the title of the goddamn movie. D isn’t just a man, though; he’s a dampiel, a half-human/half-vampire who has sworn to destroy all of them undead, and has a particular dislike for the arrogant Count Lee. D has Doris incarcerated at the local asylum under the protection of the kindly Dr. Feringo until he can defeat the lord. But, D has to also deal with Lee’s daughter Lamika and mutant servant Rei, who has the power to warp spacetime around his body.
So, obviously, this is a horror movie, and so all the monsters are nice and scary and weird, but it’s also an anime, AND technically a sci-fi one, so naturally there’d be some super weird bits with our hero D. Like the fact that his Left Hand is a symbiote who speaks to him. Yeah, it’s really weird. At one point in the movie, D is essentially killed (left for dead) and Left Hand gets to be the one to save him via dragging his body around. It’s quite bizarre, and I kind of love it for that.
There’s also a really douchey, rather rapey character in the form of the pompous son of the mayor. This man’s name is, and I’m not kidding, Greco Roman, who in turns is seen as an idiot, an aggressor, a traitor, and yes, even a bit of a would-be sexual assaulter. Doris, being the pure and virginal heroine of the piece, seems to get unwanted attention on all sides, from lots of different characters—including the paternal figure Dr. Feringo, whom we find out is a vampire himself who wants to, like, share her with the Count. Not cool, guys. I still don’t know how to feel about overtly sexual scenes in anime, mostly because…well, it’s a cartoon.
As I said at the top, the storytelling on display is really quite interesting and engaging. It’s the kind of story you’ve seen before, but it doesn’t pull any punches. This was one of the very first of these OVA (Original Video Animation) films that catered specifically to an older—and it should be noted, almost entirely male—audience. So there’s lots of gore and violence, a fair amount of sex and nudity, and even a bit of swearing. It’s pretty tame by today’s standards, but for this type of entertainment in 1985, it was edgy. I also really enjoy all the lore surrounding these ancient and mythical monsters, but in a far-future setting. If Count Magnus Lee is 10,000 years old, and the year is 12,090 AD, he must have been born/turned around 2,090 AD, which hasn’t even happened yet! There’s also a strong implication that D himself is a descendant (maybe even the son) of Dracula himself, which adds a whole other wrinkle of time to the narrative.
I also alluded to the idea that the film doesn’t look great. That’s not entirely fair; it doesn’t look great when compared to other feature animation of the time. The year prior to this, Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind came out, which still had visible pencil scratches in the drawing, but the general scope and sheen was very high. Vampire Hunter D looks quite flat by comparison, much more in line with TV series animation than films. It makes sense, and it’s not so cheap looking that it becomes unwatchable or anything, but it does mean that the impressive bits are few and far between and there’s a lot of color-swirling backgrounds while the characters make a facial expression.
All of that said, I’m surprised by how well Vampire Hunter D holds up 30 years later. It’s a film that is ready for a proper reevaluation—especially in light of the vampire-romance upsurge in recent years. It’s got enough of the melodrama of a proper Gothic romance, but it’s also got action for the action fans, and lots of gory grossness and blood for the horror fans. I’d say, if you haven’t watched it recently, or ever at all, this is a good way to spend 80 minutes. Take it from an old timer such as me.
Images: Ashi Productions/CBS Sony Group Inc.
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!