Our reviews of Blood: The Last Vampire (2000) (Blu-ray) (published December 18th, 2009), Blood: The Last Vampire (2009) (published November 2nd, 2009), and Blood: The Last Vampire (2009) (Blu-ray) (published October 30th, 2009) are also available.
"So, we've got to kill 'them' before 'they' get us."—Saya
On the train to Asuka, a pretty young woman ruthlessly butchers a man in their deserted car. She did it on orders of the U.S. government. Her name is Saya (voiced by Youki Kudoh), and we know little about her. She is a vampire, the last "Original," on the prowl for demons who live in our midst.
The year is 1966. Halloween. America has turned Japan into a staging ground for their escalating struggle in Vietnam. But when three of these mysterious demons infiltrate the school next to the Yokota military base, Saya must ferret them out before they threaten our troops. But who is capable of more devastation: the demons, or the demon hunter?
In Blood's favor: the film looks good. Damn good. Detailed cel animation and photorealistic computer graphics, blended with extensive use of digital overlighting and motion blurring, give this film a confident feel. Of course, this is a brand new film, so we can expect that Manga Video's print and sound mix (with the option of 5.1 or 2.0) is in top shape. Blood was an expensive production, designed for the American market: its dialogue and setting combine Japanese and English smoothly. The action sequences are stunning, inventively framed and rapidly cut to mimic the kinetic effect of live-action. While the violence gets fairly intense, Blood is, at least in the sense of a straightforward action film, a fun ride.
But after the initial rush, what is there left to talk about? At first, I was intrigued by the idea of setting this film in 1966 near an American military base. The period is a fascinating one: two nations on the brink of cultural transformation, pressured by Cold War politics and economic necessity, into committing themselves to a path that would eventually lead both nations to question their identities. And the notion of a demon-hunting vampire, while not new to anime (Vampire Hunter D, Vampire Princess Miyu, and so on), opens the possibility to explore a character in conflict, which might give some added depth to the action-driven plot.
The setting of Blood: The Last Vampire seems a grand opportunity to explore a cultural shift in American-Asian relations, but the film skirts such complicated problems as theme and character development in favor of spooky atmosphere and gory pyrotechnics. At these, it is remarkably effective, but the whole business feels rather hollow. The monsters might have stood in for Cold War Communism, or as a metaphor for the illusion of the post-war economic miracle (callous government officials lying to us about the predators whose years of corruption are now taking their toll on the Japanese economy). In one tense scene, a demon rages through a Halloween party, and none of the costumed participants seem to notice. When Saya attacks with a stolen katana, the blade turns out to be a limp fake. But the film does not try to read anything into this. When Saya rants to the school nurse about killing "them" or not allowing "them" to infiltrate the base, the demons are presented without irony. There be monsters here, plain and simple, so let the bloodletting commence.
But there are hints of a compelling story behind all this: the closing credits show images of the Vietnam, and politicians looking plump and comfortable. We want to know more. Was that man on the train really a demon, or did Saya and her government cronies kill him for some other reason? What do the demons want at the military base? Why is the vampire Saya slaughtering demons at the U.S. government's behest, anyway? Saya herself is cryptic and unsympathetic, a cold fish, which is why the film turns its focus on the impressions of the school nurse, in spite of the fact that her character is allowed to do little more than panic and scream.
You will not hear any more about Saya's background or the secrets behind the story in the 20-minute "Making of Blood" documentary. Presented in Japanese with English subtitles, the film brags about Blood's digital effects and how "it must change the future of Japanese animation," according to one crew member. Producer Mamoru Oshii, whose own directorial work sometimes seems caught between content and style—and at its best skillfully balances the two (as in Ghost In The Shell)—seems more interested, judging from his interview here, in using Blood to develop new talent and technology, rather than tell a compelling story. The descriptions of the film's development by the crew end up sounding like a movie made by committee, which might explain its conceptual incoherence: nobody seems to have as much a creative vision for the film as a collection of neat ideas they all wanted to wedge together. While all the technical detail in the documentary is interesting, nowhere does anyone discuss plot, characters, concept, or theme. The other extras consist of a pointless photo gallery and some DVD-ROM content (some wallpaper and a screensaver). At least Manga Video includes the original theatrical trailer, with Japanese credits.
Slickly directed to punch up the frantic action, Blood clocks in at a brisk 48 minutes (the package says 83 minutes!), making it feel half-finished. It is as if the entire second act, where we might flesh out the characters or provide some exposition to bring everything into focus, has been removed. And the abrupt climax of Saya's battle points to a bigger story yet to be told. Overall, Blood feels like a franchise in the making, the first episode of a series which might, if better written, explore the politics of Saya's mission or develop her character further. The thought is tempting—there is enough to like in Blood to make it worth the wait—but the jury is still out on whether Oshii and company can make this all pay off.
The court will recess to consider further motions in this case. In the meantime, the defendant is released on her own recognizance, as she presents no immediate threat to the artistic community. Court adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Manga Video
• The Making of Blood
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