Blood: The Last Vampire

Blood: The Last Vampire (2001)

Vampire fiction often brings an erotic sub-text along with the horror but Blood: The Last Vampire focuses on the dread. Not only because here, our vampire is a fury-filled avenger, but because the creatures she hunts are more like demons, perhaps. And not handsome ones, either.

Still, whichever name these bat-like fiends have, they’re to be hunted, and it’s up to Saya to do so. She’s sent into an air base and the nearby school for her hunt, posing as a student in part for maximum costume effect, I think. (Not in a fan-service way, but more to contrast between the look of a typical victim and hunter).

(In a different vampire story, Saya would probably be a first victim and then a villain – but this is more of a Buffy approach).

Anyway, getting back to this story; I loved every minute and was disappointed that the following ‘Blood’ movies and shows are not particularly related.

But if you like the genre and you find this OVA somewhere, then I reckon what you’ll be watching is bit of a seminal work.

For me it is, anyway.

Or maybe that’s just my tendency to lift up something that I probably first saw in high school as a paragon (as can be all too easy to do)… but either way, Blood: The Last Vampire seems like a masterclass in lighting alone.

The whole thing is quite cinematic, really. The CGI too, is incredible, especially considering the release date of 2000. Now, lately I’ve been taking shots at older CGI left, right and centre, and sure, you’ll see a few moments here and there that don’t seem perfect, but the team must have worked so, so hard on those visual elements.

Like other examples of the genre, this short film is very much set in ‘night’ and the shadows reflect that, but it’s not an inky mess of low-key lighting that will have you squinting for detail; there’s plenty to see and heaps of variety in colour too, including a great, sickly green at times.

What also had me transfixed, aside from tantalising hints about Saya’s past, was the setting, both the time period and the location. I can’t say I’ve seen many anime films or series set in a US air base on Japanese soil, on the eve of the Vietnam War in 1966. During Halloween, no less!

In terms of the plot, there was at least one little twist that I didn’t see coming, and I thought it was pretty perfect. Aside from the visuals, what I remember most at this moment, is how sullen, angry and cold Saya is. And yeah, that’s a pun that I could have avoided 😀

But I bring her disposition up because I was interested to see whether (or to what extent) she’d warm to poor Amino, the school nurse who is, to some extent, as much a main character as Saya herself.

Connected to their reasonably brief time together is the realisation that Blood: The Last Vampire is definitely a prologue. It was envisioned as the first in a three-part tale, but perhaps because Sony was involved with Production I.G for the funding and production, the rest of the story is made up of sequel video games (and a manga too).

Having said that, this is a self-contained OVA with a resolution, but it very clearly sets up expectations and interesting hints, and functions as an excellent first bite of a longer story. And yeah, again – I couldn’t help myself with the silly pun!

5 Stars

(With an eye to please international audiences, this film has a lot of English audio and not a whole host of subtitles, also allowing some of the cast to show skills in both languages 😀 )

A-Z Challenge: “L” is for Lily C.A.T

Lily C.A.T (1987)

I definitely enjoyed Lily C.A.T but I think if you want terror in space, then you will invariably be more satisfied by the film it owes the most to, which is of course Alien.

However, that doesn’t mean this longish OVA is not worth checking out if you’re interested in the genre. Or that it doesn’t have moments of tension. And for me, there were also parts that definitely ‘explored the human condition’, to borrow a phrase from literary fiction circles.

And as a bonus, I actually wanted some of the characters to survive!

As an aside that is actually a couple of paragraphs long, when I use the ‘Toys in the Attic’ episode of Cowboy Bebop in my classes, we talk a lot about the influence of Alien on the ep (and 2001: A Space Odyssey among others) but I think Lily C.A.T should get a mention too.

It feels like part of that famous homage episode (especially the blob itself and the blowtorch) are close enough to what you’ll see here, to warrant a mention at least. Certainly, my obsession with connecting texts to one another is something I might one day cut back on, but it’s out of my system for the rest of this review at least!

There’s plenty about the film that uses the typical ‘crew dies one by one’ structure, but the menace itself is something a little different. And when you do catch glimpses of a certain thing, you might recognise creature design by Yoshitaka Amano, with a Vampire Hunter D style, if a little more muted perhaps.

Actually… it turns out that I lied about the intertexual references, as I do have one more that I’ll get to in a moment:

So, there’s a nice layering of mystery in Lily C.A.T that I also enjoyed.

Generally, the crew is trying to figure out what went wrong to interrupt their ‘hypersleep’ flight. However, at the same time they learn of imposters aboard, and so while folks are trying to determine who they can trust amongst the humans, they’re also having to deal with increasing threats from the non-human.

It does add an extra dimension to the suspense, which I really enjoyed but if you’re looking for a really slick, vividly animated film then you might find Lily C.A.T a bit dated. However, that’s not to say it’s bad – for instance, the hanger door sequence was ace.

But back to the reference I mentioned – parts of that sub-plot seemed to echo They Were Eleven (an earlier space flight themed manga/anime) though obviously the idea of false identity is not new.

Worth it if you’re interested in ‘retro’ anime, I reckon.

3 Stars

[This is the first entry in a challenge (that I hope to one day finish), where I have set myself the goal of watching something for each letter of the alphabet – you can see the list over here if curious].

Tokyo Babylon Collab – Coming Soon!

Once more, Curtis from Iridium Eye Reviews and I have teamed up to review an anime with the word ‘Tokyo’ in the title 😀

Tomorrow (or the next tomorrow) I’m happy to be hosting the review of this Clamp OVA, so keep an eye out if you’re a fan!

(Last time we wrote about the fantastic Tokyo Godfathers, and you can read that review via this link right here).

Black Lagoon (Burakku Ragūn)

Black Lagoon (Burakku Ragūn) 2006

So! I was pretty certain I’d enjoy this going in, and I certainly did, and so thanks to everyone who voted back in April!

I could probably centre most of this review on the OVA in a way (and most of my criticism) but I actually want to stay with the series proper for the most part. All I really knew about Black Lagoon prior to going in was that the setting was non-typical for anime, it was violent and that Revy looked good in shorts. 

Somewhere around here at the Heap I’m sure I’ve already mentioned that I’m a fan of the ‘girls with guns’ genre, and I like action films and crime shows too, and so Black Lagoon had three ticks right off the bat. The fourth tick was the fact that it featured (on the surface at least) a ‘mismatched crew’ as main characters.

And the series does delve into the related idea of ‘found family’, something I also enjoyed – but the main focus is probably on shooting things. Bars and people mostly – sometimes vehicles too, but if you’ve researched the manga say, then that won’t be a surprise, as you’ll know that Rei Hiroe mentions being influenced by directors like Woo or Tarantino.

Here’s a quick summary from Wikipedia on the premise:

The story follows a team of pirate mercenaries known as the Lagoon Company, that smuggles goods in and around the seas of Southeast Asia in the early to mid 1990s. Their base of operations is located in the fictional harbor city of Roanapur in east Thailand near the border of Cambodia.

And that’s where I think I’ll move to first in this review – the setting.

Seeing Southeast Asia in anime is pretty rare, and obviously I was thrilled watching a show set somewhere other than a school, but also the clear blues and warm colours were so good too. You can almost feel the sun in so many episodes. There’s plenty of green, blue, and other bright colours too, and even night goes for yellows and purples a lot of the time. The city itself becomes an important character, and Rock critiques it in short monologues, while being aware that it affords him a certain amount of freedom too.

On the other hand, the series isn’t a nuanced exploration of another culture; it’s a story about various criminal factions and their competing interests in a fictional city, and one unlucky guy who has to navigate it all.

Black Lagoon is probably closer to a long action movie in some ways – so what you explore instead of another culture, is the lives of criminals and their shoot-outs. I think the rising tension in the pacing (and a focus on increasingly over-the-top action sequences) feeds my impression there, but the characters aren’t just shapes that happen to hold guns either. You will get to know the crew if you watch this, chiefly Rock and Rebecca, and even antagonist Balalaika.

However, I do wish I’d been given the chance to learn more about Dutch and Benny, who eventually became a little side-lined. And okay, I know that we all know that bare skin sells all kinds of media, not just anime, and Rebecca is an interesting character – no arguments there, but just a few more scenes on the background of Dutch and Benny would have been superb. (The manga doubtless does that, but I’ve not read it so I don’t know for sure).

Now, as I sometimes do here, I’m going to switch to dot points in an effort to curtail the length of this review – some of these are probably spoiler-y too:

  • You might like this show if you gravitate toward underdog stories, especially with Rock being sold out hard by his bosses.
  • To stick with Rock a moment, I found it interesting that he’s depicted as kinda disinterested in sex. Clearly, he’s surrounded by women he seems to find attractive but I wonder if his desire to stay in the ‘twilight’ helps keep himself at armslength from the interest he receives. Obvious counters to this could be Yukio or the possible implications in the OVA about him and a certain someone else… but I’m not sure.
  • The piece of music for the ending (and the footsteps) is really sinister.
  • Shenhua stood out because again, South East Asia in anime feels rare to me, and to see a Taiwanese character was great. She’s incredibly shrill, but setting that choice by the director or voice actress aside, I thought it was interesting that identity issues weren’t glossed over – you can see it play out a little between her and Revy in their back-and-forth.
  • Ginji needs a prequel series!
  • Seriously.
  • He does.
  • It was excellent to remember a time (via the U-boat arc) where neo-nazis were seen as actual villains, rather than described in some mealy-mouthed euphemism like ‘alt-right’.
  • The evil kids cliche + incest storyline felt a little off here, mostly because it occurs within the confines of a ‘shoot ‘em up’ basically, with no real time spent dealing with the horror the characters must have been put through prior to their appearance in the episodes.
  • Being an action/crime series, there are plenty of great action sequences, and even a few moments of humour here and there, but one of my favs actually comes from the OVA, where the intercutting POV shots and wider ones feel really fluid (during a scene in the The Yellow Flag with Fabiola).
  • Having talked a lot about the action, I want to quickly mention that the best moment for me is when Rock finally stands up to Revy and all her grandstanding bullshit. Close seconds probably occur more than once in the Yakuza arc.
  • And finally, Megumi Toyoguchi (who plays Revy) does an ace job with the whole ‘dead inside’ vocal performance, a sharp contrast from say, her work as Winry in FMA.

Onward quickly now to Roberta’s Bloodtrail, the OVA series that aired a few years after the second season of Black Lagoon.

So, the main series definitely has an ending, and plenty of chances to imagine ‘what happens next’, but ‘…Bloodtrail’ carries things on nicely. However, it once again sidelines Dutch and Benny for the most part.

The OVA is just as fast-paced and action-heavy as the main seasons too, but things are dialled up – from both violence to fan service and sexual violence too, so maybe take note if you were already on the fence about this show.

Roberta doesn’t get to be much of a character here, which is a bit of a shame, she’s mostly a Terminator instead. On the other hand, she actually takes some damage. I found that interesting, as if the nod to realism was almost ‘pushing back’ against a precedent Black Lagoon had set, where a character slices bullets in half with a katana for instance, and the focus is on stylish cinematic violence.

Reading around other reviews and comments, I see some folks didn’t like Rock’s development in the OVA and I am 50/50 on that myself. I think it’s more than reasonable that he’d be influenced by the villainy around him, but I wonder if the transition was handled a little bluntly onscreen?

I also wonder whether Balalaika almost became a little cartoonish for a moment (in episode 4 I think it was), but all in all I think the OVA is definitely worth watching if you enjoyed the regular seasons. It was interesting to see whether Rock’s gamble would pay off, and by the ending you’re left thinking he only got half a victory in some ways, perhaps a little more realism creeping in?

4 Stars

Gunsmith Cats: Bulletproof

Gunsmith Cats: Bulletproof 1995

Gunsmith Cats maybe still holds that ‘cult’ status now, even after the internet has no doubt introduced more folks to this mid-90s OVA. (So too, the Kickstarter campaign that funded a re-issue a few years back now.)

I love so much about this series but I’m torn when it comes to rating Gunsmith Cats.

And my main concern with the show is obviously Minnie May. I understand in the English language versions she is meant to be (technically) an adult and while she acts like one in some ways, she sure looks like a kid and so it’s creepy. In the manga, it’s worse than creepy.

So I can’t say this is a five-star work of art – even if the art and animation can be top notch, especially that car chase.

Obviously, if you’re a fan you’ll know that Gunsmith Cats and Riding Bean have a clear connection but I think the appeal of the show is the action rather than its links, especially the vehicles, guns and the way they’re both animated. I’m not one to rhapsodise over guns at all but the attention to detail throughout is undeniable.

The same goes for the cars – Rally’s Cobra is pretty amazing.

But not all of the action sequences are based on the road – there are a few tense moments indoors too, often fed by that classic action convention of ‘who can the good guys trust?’. If you like the type of US-style action films that bring stuff like Lethal Weapon to mind, there’s a good chance you could enjoy this despite the loli crap.

I’ve always found the story engaging and one of the antagonists is something a little different in some ways, yet so clearly ‘action film’ in others. It can be fun to spot those moments, and in terms of spotting things – it’s also clear that care was put into the setting too. Production teams spent a bit of time in Chicago and so what I imagine are a few key tourist spots or buildings pop up during the three episodes.

Ultimately, I think this is a key text in the ‘girls with guns’ sub-genre but it’s definitely not without an unpleasant flaw.

8 Man After (1993)

8 Man After is a short OVA series that I’d recommend to cyberpunk fans or folks who collect 1990s anime – especially if you crave a bit of violence, as it has what might now be called an ‘old-school’ violent anime feel. However, it’s not R-rated or anything, and there is a bit of character development and time spent on the setting too.

What I’ve been wondering about is to what extent the 8 Man After series is a response to things that came before.

And to discuss that, I think I have to jump back to the 1960s and 8 Man. Based on the manga by Kazumasa Hirai, the original iteration could be grouped into that robot boom in anime, the one that included Cyborg 009 and Astro Boy for instance. Tonally, those two shows might differ somewhat from 8 Man but again, I suspect modern audiences would find the ‘60s version of 8 Man somewhat ‘tame’ in some ways.

However, getting back to the ‘reactionary question’ I wanted to share a part of the premise I copied from Wikipedia:

Murdered by criminals, Detective Yokoda’s body is retrieved by Professor Tani and taken to his laboratory. There, Tani performs an experiment that has failed seven times; Yokoda is the eighth subject to have his life force transferred into an android body.

Sound at all familiar?

A cop murdered by street trash and returned to life as a robotic avenger – sounds nothing like Robocop, right?

Well, maybe if I look at the changing levels of onscreen violence in media during the 1960s to the 1980s and then further in to the good old grungy 1990s, then I think I can see what 8 Man After was going for. And after the grit of Robocop, maybe the teams at Ashi Productions and J.C. Staff felt that audiences wouldn’t accept a comparatively ‘clean cut’ cyborg revenge story?

In 8 Man After our hero Hazama is sometimes a little callous, and you could argue he must be in order to survive a city steeped in grime and corruption but the basic detective and cyberpunk tropes play out much as you might expect if you’re a fan of the genre.

Now that I’ve spent all those words putting the OVA into a bit of context, I should get to a few of the things I enjoyed; definitely the designs and fast pace, along with 8 Man himself, who had non-conventional abilities in some ways, but one of the things I remember most is the way American Football features in the story. There are a few links back to the original 8 Man too but I won’t spoil them here of course.

I was also interested to hear just how different the US and Japanese audio tracks were – my Diskotek release has both and while the US one is uptempo, semi-industrial techno at times, the original soundtrack can be perhaps a little more moody. Both suit the story but I really enjoyed the ending credits of the Japanese OST. I can’t actually find it on Youtube to share, so you have to trust me that it’s more interesting, I guess!

Ultimately, I don’t feel like the series has a whole host of flaws or anything and so maybe my rating might seem as though I didn’t enjoy the anime but that’s not true either, I think that instead, I found it more fascinating than enjoyable overall.

3 Stars

Babel II (Babiru Ni-sei) 1992

Babel II (Babiru Ni-sei) 1992

This is a fast-paced action OVA based on the 1971 manga.

It’s also the second of three adaptations of the source material, with a longer series in 1973 and a thirteen episode release in 2001. Here however, the OVA compresses the storyline pretty hard, rushing through events across four episodes.

Like a lot of early J.C Staff productions the budgets weren’t high compared to the current climate, and so you’ll see lot of repeated shots (especially in the final episode), pans across stills and other cost cutting techniques but it is interesting to see a show hold on to the 1970s aesthetic. It was also nice to see the really hard lines used for some of the freeze frames.

I also found it fun that a range of psychic abilities were the main aspect to the hero and villains’ powers and the action sequences, as it’s an area of speculative fiction that’s fallen well out of fashion I think. Again, due to the focus on battles and at first, some intrigue, Babel II isn’t one to watch if you’re seeking a lot of character development – though Juju does get a chance to evolve.

Elsewhere, I’d have loved some more variety when it came to the sound design because woah, the electricity/psychic-force sounds quickly grew abrasive for me. I think if you’re a fan of 1990s OVAs or more so Mitsuteru Yokoyama (Tetsujin 28-go, Giant Robo) then maybe take a look if you’re curious. If you’re after a more measured adaptation then I think the 1973 series would be the way to go.

3 Stars

Ushio and Tora (Ushio to Tora) – Part One: 1992

Ushio and Tora (Ushio to Tora) – Part One: 1992

Time to review one of my favourite shonen series: Ushio and Tora! (Buckle up though – because it’s gonna be three posts worth of rambling :D)

Okay, so I’m starting here with the OVA from the 1990s and then I’ll go on to the 2015 series, which is a far more complete adaptation, and then I’ll finish with a visual comparison (since I got a little ‘screenshot happy’ last week.)

Ushio and Tora is classic shonen, fitting neatly into the Supernatural sub-category. You can see the imprints of common themes and tropes that came both before the show and after it – but the buddy cop relationship between protagonist (youngster Ushio) and the (mostly) antagonistic Tora keeps the framework interesting for me. Both series are based on Kazuhiro Fujita’s award-winning manga but the OVA didn’t get a chance to go very far, sadly.

I like the attention to detail here, despite a smaller budget than modern anime – this tear drop appears during the stone oni episode

I’ve tried (and failed) to research why – maybe the audience response at the time wasn’t there, maybe the studio only ever planned to make a few episodes in the first place? In the early 1990s Inuyasha hadn’t exploded yet, and a few of the other big supernatural shonen action series not yet started… but maybe the first Ushio and Tora just wasn’t as clean-looking as the series that followed?   

My personal, utterly unfounded theory is that a failure to introduce the Big Bad soon enough might have impacted audience enjoyment because there was no large scale conflict yet… BUT, shonen and action anime often live and breathe ‘monster of the week’ formats – so I don’t know if that’s on point either.

In any event, the OVA doesn’t get a chance to show how expansive Ushio and Tora’s story is, nor that some of the characters we meet across the early episodes are definitely going to come back and have an impact on events. I feel sad that when the switch between studios/production teams happened between those last few episodes, it’s clear there was a plan to finish the saga, because the new intro foreshadowed a lot of big things that they never got to animate.

But what about the actual show?

Well, it’s the regular mix between comedy and action, with supernatural (even horror elements at times) mixed in. As I mentioned before, the tension-filled interplay and growing relationship between the two leads is the main draw, but the creatures and supporting cast are good too. Overall, the OVA is rougher than the 2015 adaptation but it’s also a bit bloodier too. For me, I felt that the humour landed a little better in the new series too (though Asako’s dad was probably funnier – if odder – here).

One thing I suppose I preferred in the OVA, was that the episodes don’t cover enough ground to reveal the harem-like aspects of the storyline, it’s almost there with the vague love-triangle between Ushio, Asako and Mayuko, but that’s probably a minor quibble. There’s still a lot to like with this series because the key stuff is in place and it’s darker visually, more rough around the edges perhaps but at times, I preferred some of the direction.

And yet I think most folks will prefer the modern show: the action scenes are bigger and better, the setting is far more developed with more characters etc, and the pacing is generally spot on – and of course, best of all, it tells a complete story. (I know it’s cruel to compare an unfinished series to a completed one but I kinda have to :D).

3.5 Stars

I also noticed that while both OVA and 2015 series have fairly similar episodes and ordering, the water-wheel demon episode is unique to the OVA – as I don’t think it appears in the manga either. It’s a fascinating episode that forces Ushio to confront his feelings about Asako and includes a cute flashback too.

A lot of teeth in this show – actually, this is probably works as good shorthand for the show’s tone

Gude Crest – The Emblem of Gude (Onna Senshi Efe & Jīra: Gūde no Monshō)

Gude Crest – The Emblem of Gude (Onna Senshi Efe & Jīra: Gūde no Monshō) 1990

Gude Crest is a JC Staff one-shot OVA. It’s based on the high fantasy novels of Hikawa Reiko’s (Onna senshi Efera & Jiriora, 1989 -) and at 45 mins it really zooms through the story, so that’s a plus if you want something fairly old-school and fast-paced.

On the other hand, Gude Crest wasn’t blessed by a big budget. You’ll get a fair few pans across stills to establish the location and even a few repeated shots, though overall it’s not miles behind the studio’s Ellcia (released couple of years after). To my eye, care has mostly gone into character design and some of the fight sequences.

What I found most enjoyable was the characters and the world itself, since everything is presented pretty boldly, which makes sense given the running time. In a way, the heroines Efe and Jīra aren’t too far removed from say Charlies Angels or even the Dirty Pair, since their dynamic is pretty similar. You can see that mismatched partners/buddy-cop feel to their interactions at times, though the bickering isn’t always funny so much as just ‘on-screen’.

(I did notice the direction at times, there’s some great use of perspective or framing, like here with the candles in the temple)

Elsewhere the dialogue can be exposition-heavy and I suspect that’s partly because the adaptation starts more ‘in the middle’ of a book. Instantly, the characters are already well-defined but in contrast, there’s a lot of contextual info that seemed to be missing.

Still, it’s a short, fun fantasy story. And somehow, though it is less complex than say Ellcia, I think I enjoyed Gude Crest a little more. Even with a fairly anti-climactic finish in some ways, it just had more exuberance overall.

3 Stars

Vampire Hunter D (D Banpaia Hantā Dī)

Looking back to another classic for this review – this time it’s Vampire Hunter D which is very much a ‘monster hunting other monsters’ film but while there are definite horror aspects present, the Western and post-apocalyptic/sci-fi elements are just as clear.

Vampire Hunter D (D Banpaia Hantā Dī) 1985

So many of the story beats do read like a Western actually; you’ve got ranchers under threat, blackmail, dodgy law-keepers and a hired gun who has drifted into town to save the day… nothing groundbreaking in and of itself, but when it’s set against a futuristic/retro backdrop with Vampires and mutants, I think I see why the film must have stood out when it was first released. (And it remains engaging to me both now and when I first saw it as a teenager, though what I enjoyed most on first viewing probably wasn’t so much the cross-genre stuff as the more predictable horror/action elements I suppose: fights! exploding monsters! mysterious heroes! Etc etc).

Anyway – getting back to the actual review, as with so many of my write-ups, I can’t really speak to the quality of the film as an adaptation but if you’re interested in the genre, and if you prefer your vampires to be arrogant nobles a la the classic European style (rather than ‘animals’ or ‘sparklers’ as per some more modern texts) then you might like Vampire Hunter D. Certainly give it a shot if you only have time for a film-length anime too, since it won’t take long to watch it with a running time of only 80 mins.

However, length of the movie aside, I think it’s worth a look not only for its place in anime history, but because I really liked the ‘hard-to-pin-down-a-precise-era’ look to the character design (and some great creatures too) along with a handful of twists that kept things engaging – not to mention the titular character D himself, who’s a stoic but dependable hero. Personally, I’d have loved to see more of his internal conflict but that’d fit better in a series than a single feature I guess.

Until reading up on Vampire Hunter D for this review I’d also never realised quite how much the US was involved, with Sony Records and CBS acting as partners to Ashi Productions, which is perhaps part of why D eventually had a theatrical run in the States a few years after original release (and well before the ‘modern’ anime boom in the west.)

The OST was another element that I really enjoyed – it’s somewhat minimalist and even quite pensive at times (for a horror OST). Fans of 1980s electronic music will doubtless dig it too, but there’s still the sense of a simulated orchestra at times so it’s not ’empty’ either.

No spoilers – but this guy is a real highlight too 😀

Writer of the novels Hideyuki Kikuchi is on record saying that the look of this film is “cheap” and I think that’s somewhat misleading but not always inaccurate either, as there are some animation techniques used throughout that are probably in there to cut some corners, including the use of a lot of close-ups, but the direction is still pretty ace overall, especially with that creepy opening sequence.

4 Stars