“Epic” is such an overused word. Everything from Harry Potter to Lawrence of Arabia to (gag, retch) Twilight gets the “epic” label. Keep this up and before long, everything will be epic — which means that by that token nothing is epic, and the whole idea of epic has been ruined to boot.
With this in mind, I hope I don't get yelled at too much if I apply the “epic” label to Vampire Hunter D: Pale Fallen Angel. The book is 324 pages and it's not even the whole story — it's just the first half of what was published in Japan as four separate books, each one only slightly shorter than any of the previous VHD novels. To not use the word “epic” for something of that scope seems like a mistake. The only thing remotely close to PFA among VHD's previous episodes was the two-part Mysterious Journey to the North Sea, long rumored to be the source material for a VHD animated series. (Hey, we're getting an animated Guin; if we get a new animated VHD on top of that I might have to retire early.)
I should note that “epic” is not automatically a synonym for “quality”. With North Sea, the extra effort to show us that much more of the D-verse was worth it. With Angel, I feel like Kikuchi is getting a bit overdrawn at the fantasy bank. The book teeters between being epic and merely long — $14.95 worth of long — with enough adventure and calamity and mishap and comings and goings to grant it fail-safe redundancy. By the time I got to the three-quarter mark for the volume (which isn’t even the halfway mark for the whole story) I started doing that thing where you thumb through the rest of the book to see how much further you really do have to go. Turns out the excerpt in the back and the note from the author shaved off a good twenty-seven pages. Lucky me.
It’s a toss-up if the title of Angel refers to D himself or D’s newest client: the Baron Byron Balzas. Say that three times fast. Balzas is himself a vampire — or one of “the Nobility”, as they’re called in the D-verse — but offers D tons of boodle to protect him during the course of what promises to be a long and violent journey to the distant province of Krauhausen. Said province is under the rule of Balzas’s father, and Junior’s goal is to hie thence and punch Dad’s ticket to the underworld.
In much the same manner as Pilgrimage of the Sacred and the Profane, D and Balzas pick up a few passengers along the way. Most crucial is Miska, another vampire who also has business in Krauhausen, and who is sworn by Balzas to keep her thirst in check during their journey. She has all the charm of a spoiled poodle confronted with an empty doggie bowl. More appealing are a brother-and-sister acrobatic troupe, May and Hugh, with the stubborn spirit of two of Hayao Miyazaki’s child protagonists. D takes a shine to them — it’s become clear by now that kids are one of his genuine soft spots — and lets them come along as well, at their own risk.
This crew by itself would be enough, but the cast of walk-ons and stay-ons and drop-ins grows like Topsy. There’s Taki, assistant to a roadside magician. She stays on for the ride when her boss turns out to be one of a cadre of super-powered killers sent to put D permanently out of the vampire-hunting trade. And then there are the bizarre Dark Water Assassins, who do not so much kill you as they melt you. And …
A little of this, as you can guess, goes a long way. The same is about as true for D’s nigh-invulnerability, which works best in small doses but here is served up in Carl Jr.’s extra-large-size portions. After a while, you give up wondering if he’s going to be able to face down a given foe and read the clashes for the sake of the fight choreography, along the same lines as a tightly scripted pro wrestling match. In this volume alone D rewires a computer (one that’s gone lovesick, no less), uses a length of chain as an echo generator to fight unseen enemies, and wards off a whole army of liquid-wielding assassins inside the boles of a giant tree. What’s in the next book, repairing the subprime mortgage crisis?
The insightful part of me wants to say this is all just sideshow, a way for Kikuchi to parade different bits of his invented world past our eyes. The cynic in me wants to say that Kikuchi has simply been getting lazy. The critic in me says: Now that you know, you choose. I choose to return for parts three and four, but for the first time in this series, it feels more like a job than an adventure.
Translation: Kevin Leahy has been supplying the translations for all the D novels so far, and in every case Kikuchi’s storytelling voice comes through with great clarity. (I should say that the earlier books suffer from some narrative clumsiness that’s clearly not Leahy’s fault; he’s simply being faithful to what Kikuchi wrote, and what he wrote there was a bit stodgy.) As a side note, even though this isn’t a manga, there are several black-and-white full-page illustrations (and a cover design) by D’s visual godfather, Yoshitaka Amano. My favorite pictures this time around are twofold: on p. 210, the image of D trailing a wet comet’s tail behind him as he leaps; and on p. 167, a touching image of him sharing a tender moment with May.
The Bottom Line: The whole reason I liked the D books in the first place was their intelligent brevity: nothing was wasted. Any one of his books did the work of a book four times its length. Angel’s shaping up to be four books that collectively do the work of only one. Yes, it’s still absolutely worth it if you’re a D fan — but I’d wonder if this book is the place to become one. I should further qualify all this by saying that Kikuchi not at his best is still better than most people at any time.