Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust is a landmark film. It's one of the first anime features that was deliberately developed with a Western audience in mind. A clear sign that anime was leaving its Japanese heimat for good, that it wasn't just some niche hype that would fizzle out once people found something new and exotic to get excited about. Back then I liked Bloodlust a lot (even when I messed up on the dub selection), but that was almost 20 years ago. I figured it was time to give this one another run and see how and if it held up after all this time.
The original Vampire Hunter D adaptation is a true 80s relic. The first time I watched it, I was completely turned off by the incredibly cheap animation and the poor translation of the character designs. Yoshitaka Amano's original artwork is beyond stunning, the animated derivative is anything but. But over time I came to appreciate the atmosphere of that first adaptation, even though it's hardly one of anime's biggest benchmarks. A reboot was definitely in order though, so when the 2000 version was announced, with Yoshiaki Kawajiri's name attached to it no less, I became quite excited.
Kawajiri is one of the pivotal figures of late 80s/early 90s anime. While not a heavy-weight auteur like Mamoru Oshii or Katsuhiro Otomo, his peculiar mix of insane demon designs, moody horror and stone-cold action, packaged as entertaining road trips (think Wicked City, Demon City Shinjuku, Ninja Scroll) captured the imagination of a lot of teens. His work may have given anime a bad rep with concerned Western parents, kids absolutely loved his work. A perfect match for the Vampire Hunter D universe, which is filled to the brim with nasty demons.
The plot of Bloodlust is as simple as it gets. A young girl is kidnapped by an infamous vampire, D (and a competing group of demon hunters) is commissioned to kill the vampire and get the girl back alive. What follows is a 100-minute chase that ends in a big showdown between hunters and vampire. Along the way the hunters face various traps and demon spawn, creatures who vowed to protect the main demon. It gets a little twistier near the end, but nothing you couldn't guess halfway through the movie already.
On a visual level, this is a big step up from the original anime adaptation. Of course, this is still no true "Amano in motion", but compared to the 80s version the level of detail is many times greater and the animation is rich and sumptuous. The art style is a weird mix of Gothic elements, futuristic and fantastic touches and bold, outrageous demon designs. It's almost impossible to compare it to other films and it's a mix that sounds somewhat unlikely to work, but somehow Kawajiri manages to turn it into an impressive, coherent whole. The characters are a little bulky and the CG can be a little on the nose, but overall it's a visually stunning work that serves 100 minutes of first-grade animation.
It doesn't happen very often, but dub-wise I simply had to break my own rules. I usually urge people to go for the original dub, even when that means reading subtitles. In this case though it's just the most terrible option imaginable. Because Bloodlust was made with the Western market in mind, the original dub is actually the English one. I admit that I'm biased against English anime dubs, they never work very well for me, but Bloodlust's one is notoriously bad. Stilted, almost robotic delivery of the dialogues are an assault on the ears, an atrocity that doesn't do the characters nor the setting any justice. Just be smart and go for the Japanese dub, it's not a stand-out one but at least the base quality is there. As for the soundtrack, it's good and effective, though for the most part not very remarkable. A nice collection of moody tracks that support the film well, but don't add much by themselves.
Bloodlust really is a very simple film. It's all about style, presence and being as badass as possible. The story is just an excuse to get D from point A to B, with various life-threatening situations and characters thrown in front of his feet, so he can come out even more formidable. If that's not your thing, if you want something with a little more meat and depth, then this film is definitely not for you. If, on the other hand, you love yourself a little genre fun, then the purity of execution on display here is something to be embraced and admired.
It's rare to see a reboot this ambitious, but Kawajiri really grabbed his chance to do justice to the Vampire Hunter D universe. With a major quality jump in animation and art style detail, a tighter focus on settings and atmosphere and some memorable, stand-out demon fights, this is a must-see for action/horror anime fans. It's not a film to persuade the world of the wholesome qualities of Japanese animation, instead it is deviously creative with its fantasy, sci-fi and horror elements and squeezes everything into a little neat ball of pure entertainment.