Now here’s something I would never have expected: Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, the animated movie version of one of the lesser novels in the Vampire Hunter D series, is not only better than the original book but in some ways better than many of the novels in the series as a whole. The novel in question, Demon Deathchase, was a flashy but fairly thin vehicle for its main character — a half-human, half-vampire hunter of the undead in a vaguely Mad Max-ian far-flung post-collapse future. It was no great shakes as a story, but it wasn’t hard to see how it could lend itself easily to a terrific action film.
That it did. Bloodlust does as expected and for most of its running time uses the book as a springboard for one inspired and eye-popping action sequence after another. Then, at about the three-quarter mark, it surpasses the source material and delivers a surprisingly emotional conclusion — exactly what was missing from the book in the first place. The fact that I didn’t expect them to even try to add such things only made all the more pleasant a surprise; I went in expecting something fairly mindless and got one-upped bigtime.
Bounty hunter Leila Markus and her brothers may be tough customers, but they've got a whole
new challenge coming when they go after a quarry that's also being pursued by the legendary D.
Bloodlust drops the audience into its hero’s universe without too much preamble: vampires, a/k/a the “Nobility”, once ruled the earth but their star has been on the wane for some time. D, the vampire-hunter of the title, wanders the earth ronin-style and takes out what few of them are left — for the right price. He’s summoned to the house of a rich man and paid piles of cash to bring back his daughter, who’s been spirited away by a vampire, Meier Link, now making tracks for another part of the country. Unfortunately he’s not the only one after her. The Markus Brothers, one of the more infamous bounty-hunter gangs around, have also decided to give chase.
The Markus Brothers are rough competition. They roll around in a massive armored car (I was reminded of the cheesy Seventies post-nuke movie Damnation Alley) and throw themselves at both their quarry and D himself while armed with a nasty arsenal of weapons. My favorite was the crossbow that spits out enough bolts with one pull of the trigger to create one of those “arrow cloud” effects that we saw in Hero. Then there’s Leila Markus, the kid sister of the crew who’s nonetheless tough enough to take on D alone if she has to, and Meier Link himself if she must. And then there’s the one of the Markus brothers who is ill and bed-ridden, but nonetheless has powers of his own — the less said about which, the better. D, however, has his own half-vampire nature to drawn on for strength — as well as a weird little symbiotic organism that lives in his hand, works miracles of its own and sounds disturbingly like Milton Berle.
Their mutual target: a young woman kidnapped by the vampire Meier Link,
who's racing to find protection with another of the "Nobility" at the end of the earth.
One of the problems I’ve always had with the D series is D himself: as a character, he’s essentially a placeholder around which the action revolves. He becomes interesting when they delve into his past and what makes him tick, and to my great surprise that’s exactly how the final quarter of the movie is given that much extra weight. After pursuing this girl all this distance, D has to face the possibility that she might not have been kidnapped … and that her new host is someone who is a little too familiar with D’s own past. The ending is as spectacular as it deserves to be (and if it wasn’t, you can bet a lot of anime fans would want their money back) — and there’s even a heartfelt coda that actually works, the sort of thing that you’d expect to fall flat on its face in a movie about a quasi-immortal slayer of the undead.
Bloodlust was directed and written by Yoshiaki Kawajiri — a contributor to The Animatrix and the Neo-Tokyo animated film anthologies, director of the entirely-too-short OVA Birdy the Mighty, and director of the Ninja Scroll film. He’s masterful at combining hand-drawn animation with computer-designed work; there are many scenes in Bloodlust that are clearly a fusion of both, but they’re fused elegantly and not stodgily. This movie is even more visually uninhibited than any of Kawajiri’s other creations: the camera rockets through the blasted landscape, lingers on beautiful and terrible things, and pauses long enough to admire D silhouetted against the moon when he snatches an arrow right out of the air. Kawajiri himself also did the character designs — long bodies with hatchet faces, strongly reminiscent of the art of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure creator Hirohiko Araki. I was actually hoping for something closer to the illustrations Yoshitaka Amano created for the D books, which seemed to be a point of reference for the earlier animated D movie, but Kawajiri’s work is good enough that it puts nitpicks like that clean out of mind.
Bloodlust's staggeringly lush visual design and its rapidfire action sequences are topnotch, but the
final stretch is devoted to a genuine bit of emotion of the sort that's usually skipped in a film like this.
I often get into discussions with other movie buffs about whether certain things work better as live-action or animation. Anytime a heavy degree of suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience is needed, it’s hard to go wrong with animation that’s well-directed and -crafted. If Bloodlust had been live-action, the mere fact that it was live-action might have been too distracting for anything else to work. But what it is works, and works extremely well. With this film I can’t say Kawajiri’s in quite the same stratosphere as Akira or the Studio Ghibli productions, but if he keeps it up, his next one ought to be.