Whenever I review anything that has a legacy behind it, I try to put the legacy aside and look at the thing in itself. It’s only fair, after all — there are many people reading this who have never heard of Vampire Hunter D, who know nothing of the massive fanbase it has on all sides of the Pacific, and wouldn’t know Yoshitaka Amano or Hideyuki Kikuchi from anyone they’d brushed shoulders with on the subway. For their sake, and for my own, I approached D as a friendly stranger, someone unfamiliar with the territory but curious enough to learn it. I hope I don’t sound ungrateful when I say the first of Kikuchi’s D books left me wondering, to a degree, what all the screaming has been about.
D’s escapades have filled over a dozen full-length novels, with more on the way, and have been adapted into two feature-length animated movies. The books themselves have only now begun to be published in English, as part of the growing interest in Japanese cultural products in general in this country: first live-action films, then anime, then manga, and now finally popular fiction. Kōji Suzuki’s bestselling Ring[u] novels were among the first in that category, and now the D books are following suit. That’s, in a way, what makes the books culturally important: the fact that they’re being published here ought to kick open the doors for better things in the future.
Unfortunately, the D books themselves, though — at least what I’ve seen of them so far — don’t exactly qualify as essential reading. They’re enjoyable and brisk, but so breathlessly overwritten and stuffed to the hilt with the kind of action that must have seemed absolutely darling to its author (and is eye-rollingly ludicrous to everyone else). I had something of the same problem with the Battle Royale novel, the source for what seemed to be a far better and more tightly-assembled movie. That book was written in an even more stentorian pulp style that made it smug and obvious instead of compelling.
D is set tens of thousands of years into the future, long after some catastrophe devastated the world and littered it with creatures patterned after many of the monsters of ancient lore. Among them are the vampires, or “Nobility”, who hold sway over the vast majority of humanity; the mortal men that dot the world live in a Mad Max-like state of perpetual vigilance, fear, and violence. There is also the vampire hunter “D”, a bewitchingly lovely young man (Kikuchi scarcely lets a page go by without reminding us of how he makes women swoon and men jealous), possessed of murderously fast reflexes and a deep reservoir of vampire arcana. And, as you can imagine, more than his fair share of Dreadful Secrets — not the least of which being his lineage, his origins, and a bizarre little symbiotic something-or-other that appears to live inside his hand. Such tragically hip perfection will either charm you or irritate you to no end.
D’s m.o. is, like the wandering rōnin whose mythology the book seems to drawing at least partly on, to wander until he finds trouble, or until trouble finds him. At the opening of the book he has found trouble enough for any three books — in a hamlet terrorized by the Noble lord Magnus Lee, one of the villagers, the pretty Doris Lang, has succumbed to his bite and is doomed to either be killed by her neighbors, or by D himself. She throws herself at D (quite literally) and buys his protection from Lee. D takes the assignment, but — as he habitually does — seems completely uninterested in Lang as anything other than an assignment.
This sort of emotional wall exists only to be knocked down — it’s like Chekhov’s revolver, it never appears in a story unless it’s to be used — and while it doesn’t succumb to much of an attack during the course of this book, it’s clear that Kikuchi is setting it up to be something that echoes through all of the subsequent books. Of all things, I was reminded of another long-running staple of Japanese popular culture: the Tora-san movies, where the unhandsome but perpetually genial protagonist never quite finds love despite being all too deserving of it, over and over again. Likewise, women of all walks of life (and various species) fling themselves at D, only to be rebuffed by his wholly unemotional exterior — a cliché of its own that’s since been repeated endlessly and become a staple element in the work of just about every aspiring yet untalented author.
I shouldn’t blame Kikuchi for this; it’s not as if he invented these clichés wholesale. But he did combine them into a peculiar and broadly imitated form that’s since reiterated itself endlessly, one which for all of its other faults is highly readable. He keeps things moving, throws an amazing array of creative villains at D during the course of the book (my favorite one being a trio of witch-snakes who suck D’s blood and find him to be more than they can handle), and finds some wonderfully evocative language to wrap it all up in. D’s hat isn’t just black, it’s “lacquered with midnight”. The words are complemented nicely by famed illustrator Yoshitaka Amano’s gloriously morbid cover art and interior illustrations; Amano also brought D to life for his two filmed incarnations, and does such a good job of concretizing the character in stark snapshots of action that he almost seems like a co-creator instead of merely an illustrator.
Kikuchi sometimes lets his love of the language one-up him, and this is one of the areas where the book really stumbles. At times he gets so caught up in describing the frenzied split-second scope of battle that takes place between D and his adversaries that he has to wind back and re-explain what just happened to make it coherent (a needlessly confusing and shoddy tactic). And sometimes his language is just plain silly, as when he titles a chapter “Soaring Shrike-Blades of Death” and doesn’t seem to have his tongue in his cheek when he does so.
Annoying as the writing can be, and even if we could blame D and its ilk for the reams of bad fanfiction (and bad fiction, period) that seem to be cast in its mold, there’s a lot here that’s actually a lot of fun. Kikuchi is deeply enamored of classic horror of all kinds, from the Hammer Studios productions to good old H.P. Lovecraft, and his affection for the material shows through. Too bad it doesn’t always translate into something we can read, even as pulp entertainment, with a straight face.