In the year 2000, the incredibly talented animation team Production I.G released a 48-minute film that rocked the socks off everyone from James Cameron on down: Blood: The Last Vampire. The story was simple enough: Saya, a vampire hunter who only looks like a teenage girl, goes undercover at an air force base in Japan to destroy demons lurking there and finds a great deal more than she bargained for. It looks and sounds terrific, has become a perennial best seller on home video, and a live-action version directed by Hong Kong veteran Ronny Yu is imminent.
And now we have a novel — Blood: The Last Vampire: Night of the Beasts, a sequel of sorts to the events in the film, as penned by none other than Mamoru Oshii. He is the man who directed the original movie iteration of Ghost in the Shell (and its sometimes difficult-to-follow sequel, Innocence), the dazzling Avalon, the mournful Angel’s Egg, and a number of striking live-action movies as well. His film credits are beyond reproach, and I admire his work even when some feel it borders on tedium — but I sincerely hope this book was ghostwritten, because it does more than border on tedium. It’s tedium incarnate.
The novel does not open with Saya, the heroine of the Blood movie, nor does it even really deal with her. She has a total of three or four appearances on the book, and they are tantamount to cameos: she walks on, registers her presence with the protagonist, and leaves, and her character is not expanded on or explored at all in the course of the book. And yet there she is on the cover, and described on the back matter; at this rate one could probably mount a solid case of false advertising against the publishers. Failing that, I’ll settle for being irate with Oshii for not delivering one-fifth of the goods.
The book instead deals with Rei, a teenager in 1969 Tokyo, who like many others his age has turned to street protests as a way of asserting his independence. The book goes to a great deal of trouble to recreate the mood and feeling in the streets at the time — it’s roughly parallel to what was going on in college campuses in the USA as well, with buildings being barricaded and kids taking to the streets and facing off against police in riot gear. It’s detailed enough that I suspect Oshii was delving into his own memories of the time for material, and because it’s a subject that few in the West know about, it has a certain automatic fascination to it. (The movie Kichiku covered some of the same student-radical territory as well, but in a way that only stronger stomachs can savor.)
One night Rei runs into Saya in a back alley after she’s finished killed a monster of some kind. A local detective named Gotouda comes sniffing around after him and asking him uncomfortably detailed questions about what he saw, and his radical buddies are unamused by what they see as yet another attempt by Rei to welch out on his responsibilities. Then the book turns into a series of protracted, tiresome conversations between Gotouda and Rei, Rei and his friends, Gotouda and the whole clique, and a number of other people. Oshii repeatedly breaks the Golden Rule of Writing — show, don’t tell — and seems content to have his characters sit around and explain everything to each other, over and over again, until all of our interest in the story has evaporated. Saya makes one or two more token appearances, there’s a smarmy little epilogue, and then the book ends — right at the point when a better book would have just been getting started.
I mentioned that I’ve admired Oshii’s work even when it made people impatient. He likes to assume his audience consists of thinking people who want to grapple with what he’s presenting as much as he does. But none of that comes across in B:tVL:NotB (what a title!). The passages where he describes the aimlessness and futility of his student rebel characters are interesting, but they have virtually nothing to do with Saya as a character (or as an idea, for that matter), and when he gets around to the business of telling us what’s going on he falls back into the worst expository mode I’ve seen in fiction since The Da Vinci Code. Practically the entire last third of the book is one long lecture by a character who is introduced for the sole purpose of explaining everything, and the first two-thirds are so inert that by the time we get to the end, the whole feels like nothing short of a giant cheat.
Not long ago I read the first of the Vampire Hunter D novels, a wildly successful series in Japan that is just now seeing print in English for the first time. I did not like the book, but I thought it was significant: the fact that it got published was important, because it meant that other works like it from Japan that hadn’t seen translation yet (and that were far better) would probably follow in its wake. That said, if I had to choose between Vampire Hunter D and Night of the Beasts to read over again, I’d pick D in a second. At least something was happening there.