The Ghost in the Shell TV series had two kinds of episodes. The “Stand-Alone” episodes were just that: self-contained adventures. The “Complex” episodes were meta-plot — the story that arched over and wove through the whole show, and which touched on everyone’s reason for being there.
Twin-Shadowed Knight, the thirteenth Vampire Hunter D book released in English, is the closest thing we’ve gotten to a “Complex” episode so far. It gives us all of the gloriously outlandish things we’ve come to expect from the series: the physics-defying derring-do of the heroes and villains alike, the absurdly Gothic extremes of D’s far-flung future world.
It also mates all those things with major insights into — at last! — D’s origins. We don’t just get a giant underground factory where clones were stamped out by the tens of thousands; we get one where clones of D himself were manufactured uncountable thousands of years ago. And, most immediately, it is one of those very clones that is the story’s main nemesis. “D vs. D”, as the flap copy might put it.
The way all this is kick-started is typically left-field. The dying words of a slain vampire (“Nobility” in the vocabulary for the D books) spur D to determine why he went all tingly inside when he heard those words. “Find Muma.” Person, place, or thing? He hasn’t a clue, and even Left Hand — easily as old as D himself — confesses ignorance. Baffled, D uses something akin to past-life regression hypnotherapy to find the answer, and finds himself promptly confronted with … another D. This knockoff is as outwardly flamboyant and indifferent to human life as D himself is reserved and protective, and they’re so evenly matched in battle than even D himself has to wonder what’s going on.
Another plot unfolds underneath and parallel to this one. In a town nearby, thousands of corpses have clawed their way out of the ground and started making a pilgrimage into a giant hole in the ground nearby. Mia, the daughter of the local fortune-teller, hires him to both protect her and find out what’s going on, although D needs a lot less prodding to be curious about this than it might first seem. (It’s something of a ritual with the D books that the first comely woman that Hideyuki Kikuchi mentions is inevitably going to be D’s Bond Girl for the duration of the volume, and this one’s no exception.)
Where all this goes is both more and less satisfying than I expected. More, in the sense that Kikuchi has a great talent for setting up and playing off scenarios so absurd you can’t help but be entertained by them. The massive clone-factory, the march of the dead, the appearance of a giant assassin with deadly razor-wire hair, the way D and his clone grind gears with each other — it’s all vintage D material, all fun. And it’s made all the more palatable by the way Kikuchi is as into it as we are and doesn’t smirk at his audience. (Winks, maybe, but never smirks.)
But also less satisfying, in the sense that Knight brings up a few things it really doesn’t have the chops as a story to deal with. There is a moment that’s straight out of the best of Philip K. Dick, when D has to ask himself two questions: Which one of us is the “real” D? and Which one of us was intended to be the “real” D? It’s the sort of thing that cries out to be dealt with in depth, but Kikuchi’s mainstay has always been adventure and atmosphere, not meditations on the nature of reality or identity. (Maybe we’re lucky he didn’t try.)
Beyond that, there are a few bits of lazy storytelling that stick in the craw — the way Mia is gracelessly introduced into the story, or the offhanded way Kikuchi lets us know that D and his twin have some kind of psychic communications backchannel, which is used in all of one scene and then promptly forgotten about. I’ve got nothing against throwaway details — the D books work like veritable galleries of them — but that’s not just throwaway, it’s downright trashy.
Knight was originally published in Japan as two volumes, reprinted here in a single edition of just under 300 pages. I’ve been dubious about the longer installments in the series — Pale Fallen Angel felt like it was long for the sake of being long, and not because Kikuchi had that much more of a story to tell effectively in that space. But Knight doesn’t feel outsized, and that in turn makes me wonder if Kikuchi’s gravitating towards longer works has started to pay off.
The afterword in this volume contains one other thing which will either inspire joy or terror, and possibly both at the same time: “Thanks to the film Twilight being a big hit, the live-action version of Vampire Hunter D that’s been stalled for some time looks like it’s about to move forward at last.” All I ask is that Robert Pattinson be passed up for that role. My vampire hunters do not sparkle, thank you very much.
Don’t be put off by my quibbles about what this story doesn’t have, especially if you’re already a D fan. I wasn’t one at first (possibly because the first book felt to me like Kikuchi was just getting his legs with the material), but I’ve become one, and Knight should more than satisfy all the rest of us in that camp.