Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger has a Master's degree in comparative vampire anime.
The Bird of the Hermes is my name,
Hellsing is a highly popular and well-regarded anime series made in 2001 by GONZO. It was based on a manga by Kouta Hirano, but based too loosely to satisfy fans who loved Hirano's complex Lovecraftian universe of perverse religion and vampirism. So GONZO went the OVA route to revisit Hellsing. Like other edgy OVAs, Hellsing Ultimate ups the ante in terms of animation quality, violence, and darkness. Also like many OVAs, the story has been glossed over, yielding a stylish-but-uneven final result.
Facts of the Case
A pissed-off uncle hunts his young niece through a gloomy mansion with two gun-toting heavies in tow. In desperation, young Sir Integra Wingates Hellsing flees to a locked cell in the basement. There she awakes Arucard, a powerful vampire who dresses like a pimp and sneers gleefully as he chows down on Sir Integra Wingates Hellsing's uncle.
The years pass. It's good that Arucard is back out of the pen, because vampires are turning cops and villagers into ghouls in small English towns. Now all grown up, Sir Integra Wingates Hellsing (if you wonder why I keep saying her whole name, it's because the people in this OVA do, too) descends on the scene with Arucard. He makes short work of the ghouls, and picks up a new ally for the Hellsing organization. "Police Girl" Seras Victoria and Arucard continue to hunt vampires, until they run afoul of notorious annihilator Paladin Alexander Anderson. The Paladin and the Prince of Darkness hit it off like gangbusters; spurting blood, weapons, and decapitations follow. Will this spark a war between the Protestant Hellsings and the Catholic Church?
As a relatively stand-alone anime about vampires who sadly resign themselves to fight for humanity against hordes of ghouls, Hellsing Ultimate pits itself against some noteworthy titles. There's Vampire Hunter D, whose 80 minutes are packed with exponentially more mood, style, violence, and emotion. (To be fair, Vampire Hunter D is an animated feature and not an OVA, but if you're gonna spend an hour or so on vampire anime, it's superior.) There's the longer and also superior followup, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust. Even the maddeningly sparse Blood: The Last Vampire achieves more mood and gravity with the same resources and run time.
So where does that leave Hellsing Ultimate? It may not exceed the classics of the "vampire bound to help humanity against hordes of ugly dudes" genre, but if you like that genre you're bound to enjoy Hellsing Ultimate. Its violence and action are top shelf, even if the main fight feels rushed and yet drawn out at the same time. It uses horror standbys and religious symbolism to effectively create mood (even if GONZO's own Chrono Crusade did so with more grace). There's the requisite "new vampire discovers her horrible new powers" sequence for an interesting change of pace (even if Go Nagai's Devil Lady did it with more poignancy).
Hellsing Ultimate is frustrating precisely because of its promise. It shows willingness to spurt blood, smash brains, and pervert religious icons. It takes the time to create truly impressive animation sequences. All of this care would lead to a satisfying payoff had they done one simple thing: develop the characters. Take Sir Integra Wingates Hellsing, for example. One minute she's running down the hall in her nightgown. The next she's crossing swords with one of the baddest annihilators the world has ever known. Should we pull for her? Is she a wise, capable leader? Is she amazingly skilled, or is she risking her neck in desperation? Who knows.
You can presume much about Seras Victoria if you rely heavily on past vampire literature. I assumed that she was struggling to retain her humanity in the face of her changes; that she was fighting against the ghouls out of some residue of her cop instincts; that she resented the burdens placed upon her. I assumed those things, but I shouldn't have had to. With a couple of minutes here or there, Hellsing Ultimate could have told us what was on her mind.
Even the presumed main character Arucard gets precious little development. He springs fully formed from his prison cell, mows down vampires, sneers at Seras Victoria, and then vanishes back into his coffin (lined with cheetah print pleather, no doubt).
Hellsing Ultimate Series: 1 is part of a larger story set in a larger world. This is merely an introduction. That's cool, but an extra ten minutes of exposition would have dramatically improved its foundation. (They could have skipped the wacky "comedy" sequences too.) Given that Hirano laced his manga with a health dose of Lovecraftian menace, this lack of buildup is particularly surprising.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Fortunately, these annoyances don't derail Hellsing Ultimate's primary strength: ass-kicking vampire showdowns. Ribcages explode. Eyes bleed. Heads pop off and roll along the floor, plopping into huge pools of churning blood. Arucard's showy handgun dispassionately ejects hot silver into vampire thoraxes. If you came for blood, you'll get it.
The action is supplemented with a strong 5.1 English track and a better 2.0 Japanese track. The English dub is much better than most, but still cannot match the inflections that make the native track work. The surround action is a nice benefit, though, which makes both tracks worthwhile.
Hellsing Ultimate Series: 1 looks great, too. Its polished animation is transferred impeccably to DVD. Some of the CGI animation is jerky, but most of it is subtly woven into the rest. Hellsing Ultimate presents a wealth of detail, down to the engravings on gun barrels.
With no extras, a limited runtime of 50 minutes, and an underdeveloped plot, Hellsing Ultimate Series: 1 is a tough sell at its list $24.98. If you can pick it up cheaply and love the original Hellsing, this will put a smile to your lips. Otherwise, stick with flicks like Blood: The Last Vampire or Vampire Hunter D. They also have their faults, but overall do animated vampire bloodfests better.
The court commands Hellsing Ultimate to stop eating its wings.
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