Vampire Hunter D:
The Next Anime Hit in America?

by Fred Patten

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.

The Modest First Film
Vampire 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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.


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