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Vampire Hunter D: The Next Anime Hit in America?

Fred Patten takes us inside the latest super-cool anime release coming to Japanese and (hopefully) U.S. theatres soon. Vampire Hunter D is back...and this time it's being done right.

Urban is aiming to make Vampire Hunter D 2000 the first anime feature to reach America's general science-fiction/horror fantasy theatrical audiences. © Hideyuki Kikuchi/Asahi Sonorama/Vampire Hunter D Production Committee.

The question has arisen recently as to whether the American motion picture industry is ready for Japanese theatrical animation, which is not presold through children's TV. For most of the 1990s (starting with Akira in December 1989), Japanese animated features for adolescent and adult audiences have toured America only on the fine-art theatrical circuit. They have played usually in only one theater at a time, for a half-week or a week before moving on to the next city. The only exception was Troma's 1993 small general release of the family film, My Neighbor Totoro. It was not successful enough to justify the costs of making dozens of 35mm prints and taking out full-page newspaper advertising.

But a lot can change in a few years. Anime is better known to the general public than it was just five years ago. Animation in general has become more acceptable for adults, thanks to movies and TV programs like Toy Story, Chicken Run, King of the Hill and South Park. Theatrical children's features based on the mega-popular Japanese TV cartoons Pokémon and Digimon have been notoriously profitable despite poor critical reviews. Is it time to experiment again with a theatrical release of a Japanese animated feature for general audiences rather than for young children?

Urban Vision Entertainment, an anime-specialty company, hopes so as it prepares to release Vampire Hunter D, a stylish fantasy thriller in the tradition of Britain's 1950s-'60s Hammer horror movies teaming Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. The small Los Angeles-based company is working hard at lining up a wider theatrical release than the art-house circuit by the time the movie is finished in early 2001.

Scenes from the first animated feature of Vampire Hunter D 1985. © Hideyuki Kikuchi/Asahi Sonorama/Vampire Hunter D Production Committee.

Yoshiaki Kawajiri, director of Wicked City, Lensman and the new Vampire Hunter D 2000 produced at the new Madhouse studio in Tokyo. Photo courtesy of Urban Vision Entertainment.

The Modest First FilmVampire Hunter D has a respectable if somewhat confusing history, thanks to a 1985 anime movie of the same name. That was an adaptation of a 1983 horror-adventure novel by Hideyuki Kikuchi. Kikuchi has fashioned himself into one of Japan's leading horrormeisters during the past two decades, churning out paperback novels in the tradition of Occidental horror writers like Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Robert Bloch, H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King. Many Japanese live-action and animated horror movies of the 1980s and '90s have been based on Kikuchi's novels. The author is known for, every couple of months, hosting all-night seminars for horror fans at a bar near his Tokyo home.

The 1980s were a decade of transition for Japanese animation, and the first Vampire Hunter D was notable in several respects. It was one of Japan's earliest animated releases aimed blatantly at the older teen/adult market rather than for children or families. It was one of anime's first treatments of European horror mythology rather than boys'-adventure science-fiction or traditional Oriental horror-fantasy. Although Vampire Hunter D did have a theatrical release (in December 1985 and early 1986), it was intended primarily for Japan's emerging home-video market which was already demanding more dramatic action and adventure (i.e., more violence and gore) than was permissible in family-oriented animation. Animation allowed Vampire Hunter D to present frightening monsters and breathtaking fantastic action that would have looked embarrassingly laughable in a low-budget live-action film. Vampire Hunter D was a hit with horror-movie fans in Japan in the late 1980s. It was also popular with horror and anime fans as one of the earliest anime releases in America, on the fine-art theatrical circuit and home video in 1992 and on The Sci-Fi Channel in 1993.

In the year 12,090 AD, the Earth has fallen into the clutches of ruthless vampires and humans are enslaved by a corrupted feudal system. © Hideyuki Kikuchi/Asahi Sonorama/Vampire Hunter D Production Committee.

But it was a limited-budget production. Its technical quality compared favorably with videos of TV animation and direct-to-video releases, but not with most animated theatrical movies. Ironically, one of the animated features that it suffered next to was another horror thriller based on a novel by Kikuchi, Wicked City, produced at the new Madhouse studio by director Yoshiaki Kawajiri, released in April 1987. Kawajiri's directorial debut had been Lensman, a Star Wars-imitation space opera based on an American 1930s sci-fi novel, three years earlier. Wicked City, a Stephen King-type modern urban horror fantasy, was his second theatrical feature. It set Kawajiri's reputation as a major directorial auteur of sophisticated animated suspense. His productions for the next decade were dominated by adult thrillers set in a high-tech future or in a Japanese historical landscape haunted by mythological monsters. At this same time, Kikuchi's reputation as a horror writer was also growing, and his original Vampire Hunter D novel was followed by several sequels. Fan demand for another movie, "done right" (Kikuchi had complained about the cheapness of the first movie), started developing.

A New Ultra-Cool Version

Plans for a new Vampire Hunter D by Madhouse and Kawajiri had just started in 1997 when a new partner appeared. Mataichiro Yamamoto had been a Japanese animation producer since the early 1980s, working with both established major studios (he was a co-producer in 1983 for Tokyo Movie Shinsha's Golgo 13, one of the earliest animated theatrical features to combine traditional cel animation with computer graphics) and his own Filmlink International company (which also produces live-action movies). In July 1996, Yamamoto started Urban Vision Entertainment in America to become directly involved with the growing American demand for anime. One of Urban Vision's first video releases was a Madhouse production. Yamamoto also wanted to pick up the American rights to both Vampire Hunter D and Madhouse's Wicked City (previously released in America by Streamline Pictures).

During their negotiations, Madhouse mentioned that it was starting a new Vampire Hunter D movie that would be ready in three or four years. Yamamoto wanted to do more than reserve the American video license for it; he wanted to get involved in its production. Also, Urban Vision (UV) had started small as an anime video distributor only, but Yamamoto hoped that in a few more years -- coincidentally, by the time the new Vampire Hunter D would be finished -- UV would be ready to expand into American theatrical distribution.

The new Vampire Hunter D bears the same title as the 1985 feature, but it is based upon the third novel (of twelve, so far; none yet published in English) in Kikuchi's series, D: Demon Deathchase (1985). The setting is a Gothic medieval fantasy world of 12,090 A.D., long after nuclear and biochemical war destroyed civilization. Human survivors were forced to contend with mutant-spawned monsters that resembled the supernatural beasts of legends. At first the monsters gained the upper hand; blood-drinkers who established themselves as a new feudal aristocracy modeled upon Dracula and similar vampire literature, preying on human peasants and serfs. After thousands of years, the vampires are becoming feeble and decadent, and the humans are rising up against their domination. "D" is a stereotypical mysterious Lone Rider, a taciturn knight-errant/ronin who rides into a community embroiled in civil war and offers to help the humans fight their vampire lords, despite showing clear signs of being a human-vampire crossbreed himself.

The mysterious vampire hunter called

In the new movie, "D" is summoned by a prominent family in one of the rising but still isolated human cities. Their daughter has been kidnapped by one of the most powerful remaining vampires, who has fled with her beyond the borders of their authority. They offer ten million dollars for her return, or proof of a clean death in case she has been converted into a vampire. But they are not relying on "D" alone; they have also called in a team of ruthless anti-monster bounty hunters. The movie becomes a running three-way chase across the countryside, through both human and monster towns. There are clear signs almost immediately that the daughter Charlotte has eloped voluntarily with the handsome, charismatic vampire. The vampire and monster mercenaries in his hire, try to kill both "D" and the team of bounty hunters. The five bounty hunters (a combination of Rambo-style commandos, ninja assassins and a beautiful but cynical femme fatale) are out to kill the vampire, and some of them would not mind killing the girl and claiming the "clean death" than taking the trouble to capture her alive. They also set traps to kill "D" or at least take him out of the competition. "D" remains stony-faced, but he obviously wonders if he is really on the right side if the vampire and Charlotte are genuine lovers and are voluntarily going into exile to leave humans in peace. But is this a trick of the vampire, with Charlotte as an innocent dupe?

Vampire Hunter D was produced at Tokyo's Madhouse studio, but Urban Vision arranged for the post-production work to be done in California. © Hideyuki Kikuchi/Asahi Sonorama/Vampire Hunter D Production Committee.

First Rate Execution

The movie has some clever dialogue, but it relies so heavily on its visual impact that it would not matter much if it were shown as a silent film. The suspenseful direction by Kawajiri (who also wrote the screenplay) is backed up by beautiful graphics. Most of the chase takes place by day, through bright forest settings filled with trees and flowers. The vampires' sumptuous palaces and court costumes are rococo marvels of filigree and lace and sparkling gold trim (no cobwebs or emaciated corpses here). The main character designs are by noted international fantasy artist Yoshitaka Amano, whose recent American projects have included the art for 1001 Nights, an animated fine-art film commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra with original music by David Neuman, and the full-color illustrations for fantasy author Neil Gaiman's deluxe book Sandman: The Dream Hunters. Amano's art style was faithfully matched for the rest of the characters and costumes by animation director Yutaka Minowa. Although the character animation is not up to the highest Disney standards, Kawajiri's tight direction of facial expressions and body language conveys a convincing "illusion of life" despite a limited fluidity of motion.

While the animation of Vampire Hunter D was in production at Tokyo's Madhouse studio, Urban Vision arranged for the post-production work in California. The English sound track was recorded in Los Angeles in 1999 before the Japanese dialogue was completed. The sound effects and other post-production work were directed during 2000 by Kawajiri in Marin County at Marco Co., whose husband-&-wife owners, Marco & Terry D'Ambrosio, composed the score. The film's final print master was made at George Lucas' nearby Skywalker Ranch facility.

Urban Vision has also been working on publicity and distribution all this time. A 2 1/2-minute theatrical trailer was finished in 1998 and has been shown often at American anime fan conventions; it is also downloadable on Urban Vision's website. UV has made a work-in-progress print available for international film exhibitions since mid-2000. It has played to enthusiastic audiences at the FANT-ASIA Asian Film Festival in Montreal, Canada in July; at Japanime: The Best of Japanese Animation, the major film event at the Sydney 2000 Olympics Arts Festival in Sydney, Australia in August; and at the New York Anime Film Festival in October. A sold-out Halloween screening at UCLA's Anime A-Go-Go film program in October-November was blurbed as: "Regency meets Transylvania in this visual knockout of a movie with exquisitely gothic atmospherics, creepy special effects, tense action, and von Helsing fashioned as a foppish, half-vampire, half-human outcast called 'D'."

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