Back in 2000, Hiroyuki Kitakubo's Blood: The Last Vampire was poised to become a landmark release. It was the first commercial anime project that would embrace CG animation so boldly, a technique shunned by an industry that favored traditional cel animation. It was a grand project back then, but like most landmark releases that are based on technological advances, they don't tend to hold up well over time. Time to revisit this anime classic in order to see if there was still anything there.
Blood wasn't the first anime to dabble its feet in the CG pool of course. High-profile projects like Akira and Ghost in the Shell had preceded this film and had already made smart use of computer graphics to spruce up the animation, just never to this degree. The biggest challenge for Japanese animators was to blend the CG with more traditional anime styles, foregoing the plastic look of their American counterparts in favor of the more hand-drawn feel of Japanese animation.
It must be said, Blood wasn't a true pioneer there either. Studio 4°C had been doing spectacular work in this regard, with Koji Morimoto's Noiseman Sound Insect (1996) short being an absolute stunner, way (way!) ahead of its time. But shorts only cater to the nichest of the niche and for such a technique to catch on, anime needed something with more commercial klout. And so director Kitakubo got to work, backed by Production I.G and director Mamoru Oshii, who helped out behind the scenes.
There's an entire franchise built around Blood (from games to TV series, live action adaptations and mangas), but this first film was pretty bare bones. It's obvious that there is a lot of lore and context present, but very little is explained during the film. There are monsters, a monster hunter and a Japanese army base that is on the brink of being overrun by shadowy figures. Saya, mysteriously referred to as "an original", is sent there on an undercover mission, equiped only with a samurai sword.
This being largely a tech experiment, I was a little worried that the visuals would've suffered after all these years. I'm glad to say I was wrong. Maybe it's because Blood isn't doing any actual cell-shading work on its characters, instead it was merging traditional and CG animation in order to have more flexibility with the camera work. The computer graphics were mostly user for backgrounds and were given a more paint-like look to make sure they never conflicted with the characters, which were still drawn in traditional style. This blend of techniques was handled meticulously and while still visible at times, the effect remains stunning.
The soundtrack is effective and pleasant, but not all that memorable. It's a shame because lots of anime films around that time had scores that went beyond their functional duty. Blood is quite short an actionpacked so you don't really miss an elaborate and defining score, but I'm sure a little extra attention to the sound in general could've added some extra shine. The dub too is a bit dubious at times. Part of the dub is in English and these actors don't quite sound like professionals. The delivery of their lines is hesitant and often akward. The Japanese dub is fine though, but overall it's still unnecessarily flawed. Quality issues that you wouldn't immediately expect from an I.G film.
One final gripe with Blood is that the best scenes are mostly packed in the first half of the film. The finale isn't quite as spectacular as I remembered and left me a little unsatisfied. You can of course move on to the TV series, but that isn't at the same level as this film. I'm not sure whether it was a budgetary problem or the finale just didn't turn out as amazing as they'd hoped, but clearly something didn't go as planned. It's not that it's a complete turn-off, it just doesn't meet the bar that was set earlier on in the film.
Blood: The Last Vampire is still an amazing feature though. It's short, it packs quite a punch and even though I had some minor gripes, the pacing, the visual quality and the kick-ass lead character make it very easy to forget about these minor quirks. As a film, it hasn't lost much of its shine, which is quite an accomplishment for a project that was primarily conceived to be a technical showcase. There is enough artistic merit here to make this a proper, stand-alone film that has easily weathered the test of time.