You wanted a live-action Blood: the Last Vampire, you got it. The first of the big-budget Hollywood anime adaptations has arrived, and it has pretty much everything you could want from such a project. We get Saya, the katana-swinging vampire hunter in a sailor suit; we get tons of gory, fantastically-photographed action; and with any luck we get the door thrown open to more quality live-action anime adaptations. My money’s still on Vampire Hunter D there, but this’ll do for now.
The basic premise is the same as the Production I.G. animated short feature that should be familiar to most people reading this. In Japan, 1970, a girl named Saya (Korean actress Gianna Jun, of My Sassy Girl and Il Mare) stalks and kills vampires by night. She looks like she might be in her teens, but as always looks deceive: she’s been around for centuries, and this is just her most recent battle. She chafes quite a bit from being on the end of a leash held by her American controllers, since they’re mostly using her to keep the Things That Go Bump In The Night from ruining relations between the U.S. and Japan. These “bottom feeders”, as she calls them, are not her real target — she wants to go after the head bloodsucker, Onigen, who’s been around even longer than she has.
She gets her wish, but at a price. She has to shift gears — put away her sword, don a girl’s uniform, and go undercover as a student at the high school in the Kanto U.S. Air Force Base. The other kids are all Americans and giggle behind their hands at the Jap, but Alice (Allison Miller), the defiant daughter of a general, sees Saya slicing off heads in the school gym and finds herself into it up to her ears. Saya saves her — after a lengthy, dazzling fight sequence patterned after a couple of climactic moments from the animated version — and bluntly tells her: “It’s not your war. Go home.” Unfortunately, it’s now both their war, and soon they’re running from the vampires, Saya’s own controllers, and the bitch queen Onigen herself.
No sensible movie adaptation of the anime could skimp on the visual style, and if nothing else Blood looks and sounds terrific. The ads, cars and clothes are all stylishly period, and there are some great set-pieces, like a luridly-lit night chase through seedy back alleys, where Saya and Alice run for their lives while the vampire hordes tear off gas pipes and building struts in passing to use as weapons. The biggest weak spots are, unfortunately, also visual: the occasionally CGI-heavy effects, like the monster incarnation of one character that looks and moves like rejected test footage from the Harryhausen studio; and an annoying over-reliance on postproduction editing-room trickery to compress the action when it isn’t really needed a lot of the time.
Pros were all at work here. Director Chris Nahon also gave us Kiss of the Dragon (which wasn’t a great story but was snappily paced and fun to watch); veteran Hong Kong cinematographer Hang-Sang Poon (of Fearless and Kung Fu Hustle) steeps the movie in gaudy colors and tight-focus shots; and Clint (Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain) Mansell’s score rolls and booms uneasily between the speakers. It might not have been made domestically — Nahon is French, the crew mostly Hong Kong — but that doesn’t make it cut-rate.
It is only an hour and a half, barely twenty minutes longer than the animated feature it was adapted from. But a bigger, more sprawling version of this story has already been made: the Blood + TV series, which stretches out in all the character-oriented ways this movie only hints at. You want depth of character and insight and human passion, check that out. But if you want to see a live-aciton Saya tearing off two heads at once while doing a backflip, watch this.