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Blood: The Last Vampire -- Anime’s First Digital Feature

Fred Patten describes the production process and story building techniques used to create Blood: The Last Vampire, where digital imaging has definitely added impact to the animated horror's reality.

Theatrical anime has been trying to achieve theatrical distribution in America since 1989. Limited to film festivals and sporadic art theater tours during most of the 1990s, 2001 may be the year that theatrical anime has reached its goal -- or at least qualified itself as an entry to be taken seriously at the starting line. 2001 has seen nationwide releases of anime features as diverse as Akira, Blood: The Last Vampire, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Jin-Roh, Pokemon 3, Spriggan and Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust; with Metropolis and Escaflowne: A Girl in Gaea due in early 2002. Most of these still appear in art theaters rather than a general citywide release; but in more than just a single theater, with play dates of a couple of weeks rather than just a couple of days, and getting serious reviews in the local press.

Blood: The Last Vampire is one of the most unusual, innovative and exciting of this roster. It is Japan's first fully digital-imaged animation combined with CGI, presenting richly detailed animated characters against backgrounds of photographic reality. The unusually short 48-minute running time makes it arguably a featurette rather than a feature, but this has not kept reviewers from treating it as a regular movie. Reactions from its Los Angeles release:

  • "Director Hiroyuki Kitakubo (Roujin Z) has created a rare animated spook show that is genuinely chilling, not just gross or campy. ... The realistically textured designs have been subtly heightened and distorted, in a hangover palette of grays and browns." David Chute, LA Weekly, August 24-30.
  • "...stylistically, it's a huge break from the past, incorporating digital effects (and a more realistic look) to a greater extent than any of its predecessors, and merging the 2-D characters in near-seamless fashion. ... if you expect quantity (or closure) for your $8 ticket, you may feel shorted. The quality, however, is unlikely to be disputed. Blood is, if nothing else, a visual stunner ..." Luke Y. Thompson, New Times Los Angeles, August 16-22.

The mysterious Saya. All images courtesy of Manga Entertainment/Production I.G.

That complaint about the lack of closure indicates what is possibly Blood's most imaginative and daring gamble: a story that is deliberately frustratingly confusing and incomplete. The setting is an American military base in Japan in 1966, just gearing up to support the American military action in Viet Nam. The audience's point of view is with a civilian nurse, who suddenly finds herself swept up in a running firefight between vampiric, human hunting monsters, and a team of government agents (?) with a mysterious superhuman young girl (vampire?). At the conclusion the action moves on, leaving the nurse (and the audience) facing a massive government cover-up, wondering if they will ever learn the truth.

One of the vampire monsters that Saya must destroy.

Innovation at Production I.G.

Production of Blood began around early 1999 at Tokyo's Production I.G. studio. Founded in December 1987 by Mitsuhisa Ishikawa, the studio has produced animation for TV programs, direct to video releases, theatrical features and video games. Writer-director Mamoru Oshii, one of the major names in Japanese animation, has been associated with Production I.G. since he directed the Patlabor OAV series and two theatrical features in 1988-89 and 1993. Oshii and Production I.G. really became noticed by the public in 1995, with the release of the CGI-intensive, Oshii-directed theatrical feature Ghost in the Shell.

In 1998 Ishikawa asked Oshii if he could recruit some fresh talent for the studio. Oshii began a study group called "Oshii Jyuku" (Team Oshii), gathering promising young animation writers, artists and filmmakers into a series of informal tutorial sessions to discuss how to go about creating a professional animation project. After several weeks of covering the basics, Oshii asked the members to come up with their own project plans, which the whole group would analyze together. In the Making of Blood: The Last Vampire documentary, scriptwriter Kenji Kamiyama said, "Mr. Oshii's study group was intended to give us young directors the practical know-how to implement a project plan. It was difficult because I had to create a plan every week. ... I used all of my free time between my day job but I always had to pull an all-nighter before the due date."

It was about a year before the first elements of Blood began to appear. Junichi Fujisaki submitted a project, which included a young woman in a schoolgirl's uniform angrily brandishing a sword. The group felt that Fujisaki's story was weak but they liked that image. Then Kenji Kamiyama proposed a plot titled "The Last Vampire." The group liked its basic concept, and felt that Fujisaki's strong female character, Saya, would be just right as its lead. At this point Ishikawa began to look for a new production for the studio, so Oshii proposed that he, Fujisaki and Kamiyama develop this production plan into a serious proposal.

The final film's Saya definitely has her roots in Fujisaki's first sketch.

The "Blood Project" that Team Oshii came up with was more ambitious than just one movie. Oshii personally (with a film credit of "Cooperative Planning") constructed a thriller plot of a modern vampire story. Humanity is being secretly preyed upon by shapeshifting monsters called "chiropterans" (literally "bat people"). This is being kept from the public by a top secret international agency of vampire hunters (or maybe a series of government agencies in each country) who must hunt down the chiropterans without the public becoming aware of them. Aiding the vampire hunters is a sullen young woman named Saya armed with an ancient samurai sword. Saya's true nature and personal history are never clarified, but she obviously has superhuman strength and is spoken of in awe by the government vampire hunters as "the last of the Originals" who has been personally fighting the chiropterans all around the world for over a hundred years.

Saya in action.

Several Facets of Blood

The Blood Project was divided into three parts, each semi-independent and each revealing important details of the story. Oshii wrote a complete fantasy horror novel, Blood: The Last Vampire -- The Night of the Beasts, set three years after the events in the movie. Despite Oshii's previous directorial work for the studio, Ishikawa asked Hiroyuki Kitakubo to direct the Blood movie while Fujisaki and Kamiyama finished its screenplay. Kitakubo had previously directed a different Ghost in the Shell for I.G. -- the animation for the Playstation video game as distinct from the movie -- as well as the theatrical feature Roujin Z and the OAV Black Magic M-66 for other studios. The third part was a Playstation 2 video game, Blood: The Last Vampire -- Tokyo Battle, set in 2000 (then two years in the future). Animation for this game was designed and directed by Satoru Nakamura, another of the Team Oshii study group. There were further Blood spinoffs; a comic book adaptation of the movie and a novelization of the video game plot. But they were incidental to the basic story, which was told through the movie, Oshii's novel and the video game. They were all released in Japan between October and December 2000, with the movie released in mid-November.

In a written interview for this article, Mr. Kitakubo says, "I was asked by Mr. Ishikawa to think about creating the movie [once the Blood Project was agreed upon] so it took only a few months for the project to start. The master plan was to have as many different ways to exploit this project as possible. I was only personally involved in part of the plan, as I was only involved in creating the movie. All these different elements to the one big project were overseen by various people who had their assignment and had the freedom to express their own view of how Blood should be portrayed. It was one of the rules to this project; nobody would interfere with the other person's project."

A guard in the clutches of an evil chiropteran.

One of Kitakubo's key decisions was to pick popular artist and sci-fi movie designer Katsuya Terada as Blood's character designer. Terada, who has drawn many cartoon characters for video games, was intrigued by the challenge of designing characters of an unusual degree of reality to be animated; including two Afro-Americans, a soldier and a Man-In-Black secret agent. Terada also drew the cover art and graphics for Oshii's Blood novel.

A New Boundary

Both Kitakubo and Ishikawa wanted the movie to push Production I.G. to new limits in digital imaging technology. When asked if the unusually short running time was an artistic decision to reinforce the enigmatic stretching of the story between the three parts, Kitakubo said, "To be honest, the reason we made it 48 minutes long was because of our software and hardware limitations. Anything that was longer would have made the film of a lesser quality. We wanted to create a new style of animation appealing to a larger audience." The digital imaging developed by Production I.G. did not break new ground; it is essentially the same procedures that Disney has been using for its features since Pocahontas and Mulan. But this was new ground for Japan, and it puts Production I.G. at the forefront of the Japanese industry's advance from the old hand-drawn cel process to animation "in the computer." The Making of Blood: The Last Vampire 35-minute documentary (included with the movie on the video and DVD releases) shows the studio's digital technicians and equipment in some detail.

For now, we must be satisfied with Blood on VHS and DVD.

The results have been appreciated in reviews like those cited at the beginning of this article. Blood is also racking up an impressive list of honors. In addition to four awards in Japan (from the Media Art Festival of the Agency of Cultural Affairs, the 55th Mainichi Film Competition, the Takasaki Film Festival and the Animation Kobe Festival), Blood: The Last Vampire was voted Best Feature Film at the 2001 World Animation Celebration in Hollywood in August. And it is one of four nominees for ASIFA-Hollywood's 29th annual Annie Awards in the category of Outstanding Achievement in an Animated Feature Film, where it is being measured against Disney's The Emperor's New Groove, Warner Bros.' Osmosis Jones and PDI/DreamWorks' Shrek for the award in November. Heady company for an anime feature!

What is the future for the Blood Project? In America fans of the movie are still awaiting news on whether the novels or the video game will be published in this country. In Japan there have been a couple more novels, but the project is essentially finished. Mr. Kitakubo concluded his interview with, "As far as I can say, this project has been completed and each one of us have gone on to new interests. We are not at this moment working on anything related to Blood. Production I.G. owns the project in its entirety. Team Oshii still remains within the whole I.G. structure. There probably will be new projects born from Team Oshii in the future, but at this time nothing I can say that's concrete."

Blood: The Last Vampire is available on DVD and VHS from Manga Entertainment Ltd. They are priced at $24.95 and $19.95 respectively.

Fred Patten has written on anime for fan and professional magazines since the late 1970s.