Now here’s a premise for you. What if, after the events in Bram Stoker’s classic novel, Count Dracula had fled to Meiji-era Japan — that is, the 1880s, right when the country was just experiencing its first wave of Westernization? Why would he go there, and what would he encounter?
So goes the concept for Dark Wars: The Tale of Meiji Dracula, by Vampire Hunter D author Hideyuki Kikuchi. And a more fitting author for the job, I could scarcely think of. The D books were a brisk fusion of gothic horror, SF, fantasy, and samurai/wuxia movie tropes, and never failed to entertain. Dark Warsmixes gothic horror ‘n action with a generous dose of Japanese history and local color, and wraps it in a fast-moving story.
Part of the fun is seeing how Kikuchi combines the two main ingredients — the Dracula mythos and Meiji Japan, neither of which at first glance would seem to have much of anything to do with each other. But think about it: the Meiji period was when the West entered Japan aggressively for the first time. Dracula comes on like an embodiment of all the things Japan feared about outsiders during that age, much as he embodied a similar set of terrors for the repressed Victorians. That said, he doesn’t club you over the head with the parallels, but lets them come naturally through the material.
Kikukchi notes in his afterword for the book that he felt the best way to challenge Dracula was to give him an adversary who was also a warrior at heart. To that end the protagonist is Daigo Minazuki, a prodigy of the sword in an age where the art of the sword is being relegated to a polite relic. His friend and stalwart admirer Shirô is a practitioner of a much newer martial art, judo, whose star is on the rise as much as swordsmanship is on the wane. Both young men have a strong sense of honor, possibly already a relic of an earlier age, especially where women are involved.
Daigo’s own star is on the wane as well: despite being only seventeen, he’s already picked up a nasty case of tuberculosis and probably won’t live very much longer. Small wonder he turns down an offer to marry Chizuru, the demure daughter of dojo master Isanosuke. Actually, he’s fonder of Chizuru’s sister Akane, a fellow kendo student who’s as feisty as Chizuru is demure. Akane wants Daigo’s help sneaking into a Western-style mansion that’s supposedly unoccupied and haunted by ghosts, but as Daigo finds out, it’s quite occupied now. It’s the new home of Count Dracula.
Here is where I have to begin treading lightly, as one of the pleasures of the book is learning why, exactly, Dracula has come to Japan and what things are set in motion by his presence there. He is there to fulfill a promise, amazingly enough, one he made centuries ago when he was at war with the Ottoman Empire and encountered a swordsman from Japan of remarkable skill. Unfortunately, his very presence is a catalyst for evil — it draws in those who are fascinated with the vampire legend, and seek to gain immortality at a cost by allying themselves with him. Soon many of Daigo’s friends and family are being turned into vampires, and if he wants to break the curse he has to find a way to survive a showdown with the greatest and most terrible one of them all.
What’s most interesting is how Dracula is portrayed as a character of no small amount of personal honor: he knows full well that he has done and continues to do terrible things, but within the confines of that he tries to remain true to his principles. It’s the sort of rigid honor that the samurai would and did respond to, and even though the age of the samurai is over, that doesn’t mean there are none left who recognize such things when they see them. Daigo does (and Shirô, too), but that doesn’t mean he’s willing to simply let Dracula off the hook for being a catalyst for various horrors.
Most light novels are written for economy of language to begin with, but Kikuchi is particularly good at making one word do the job of ten, omitting all the things that simply don’t need to be there and keep the story moving along. He also manages another trick that is not that easy to pull off: he has a number of scenes described second-hand by major characters, but does it vividly enough that we feel as if we were told about it directly. (It’s far harder to be brief and vivid than wordy and vivid; I’ve learned that firsthand.)
The other fun thing about the book is the way Kikuchi draws on events and elements of the period to enrich the story. Rurouni Kenshin fans, for instance, might recognize a fair number of the references being made to contemporaneous history (like the clash of the Satsuma and Chôshu clans); that said, you don’t need a history degree to follow along, since they’re explained contextually or annotated in the glossary in the back. At one point there’s a Western-style ball in the Rokumeikan, a building of great repute during the Meiji era, which Kikuchi uses as a way to get his characters to comment on the curious new age they inhabit — Dracula included. O tempora, o mores…
Anyone who’s already a Hideyuki Kikuchi fan doesn’t need to be told to pick this up, as they’re guaranteed to enjoy it. On top of that, you’ll want to check this out if you’re fond of anything that uses Japanese history in a creative way, or if you’re an old-school horror fan who prefers subtle chills to the buckets-of-blood approach that’s become standard fare lately. It’s not just a nifty concept, but a smartly-executed one, too.