Vampire Hunter D (吸血鬼ハンターD) is an anime film that originally released in 1985 and is an adaptation of the light novel series by Hideyuki Kikuchi, with illustrations from the esteemed Yoshitaka Amano. Epic/Sony Records, Movic, CBS Sony Group, and Asahi Production produced the film, while Toyoo Ashida directed. This is a cyberpunk, supernatural, horror franchise and the films are some of my favourites of all-time.
The Vampire Hunter D film follows Doris Lang, who is the daughter of a late werewolf hunter. One evening while she’s making her rounds in the countryside, she is confronted and assaulted by Count Magnus Lee, who is a vampire noble—presumed to be long dead—and one who wishes to make Doris his new bride. A few days later, Doris meets a mysterious stranger on cybernetic-horseback, who she comes to recognise as a vampire hunter. This enigmatic man, known simply as D, shows great strength, so Doris hires him to protect her by killing Count Magnus and saving her from her dark fate.
Vampire Hunter D’s beauty lies with its ability to be unapologetically original. For starters, it is one of the most brutal anime films I have ever seen, never shying away from stunning sprays of scarlet and beautiful broken bones or decapitations. It displayed itself proudly without reservation. This happened in the mid ‘80s, where it was virtually unheard of to be able to showcase that sort of viciousness on-screen, specifically in animation. I still remember the very first time I watched Doris destroy a monster, the bullets plying through its neck and red liquid spurting out everywhere. It was a gloriously, jaw-dropping moment, one that I was able to relive while re-watching it after many years. By seeing it all again, I appreciated it all the more because it, honestly, is something that you do not get to see in mainstream animation today.
I recently began watching an Online Net Animation (ONA) called Calamity of a Zombie Girl, and while it has graphic scenes of blood and guts, it’s laced with an overarching comedic effect that softens that intensity and stomach-churning qualities that would normally make that sort of thing so disturbing. I felt rather disappointed and disheartened with continuing with the episode. Those thirty minutes are akin to virtually the majority of anime films or media with violence: it must be cushioned. There are exceptions, of course, as there always are, such as with Tokyo Ghoul Season One and Hellsing Ultimate. But these are just a minor handful out of the sea of hundreds. In that sense, the gratuitous violence offered in VHD is remarkably timeless.
In addition to the violence, VHD also never shied away from being really fucking bizarre with its use of monsters. The choice to be so unapologetically strange was a brilliant move as B-grade horror films in the West were on the rise with classics such as Friday the 13th, The Nightmare on Elm Street, Evil Dead 1 & 2, Hellraiser, & Fright Night. Vampire Hunter D was a phenomenal addition to these masterpieces of cult horror, adding to the collection with a distinctly Japanese-infused horror aesthetic—such as the scene where D is walking through a dark hallway that is packed from floor to ceiling with demented and deranged monsters of various sorts—that, again, is disappointingly rare in contemporary animation.
Ambiance is another facet that encapsulates the audience with spine-tingly fear and the uncomfortable anticipation of what the bloody hell will happen next. The scenery that is shown is drenched in shadows and black silhouettes amid vibrant crimson backdrops. The use of otherwise miniscule details, like crumbling ruins, cemeteries, and looming castles, are crafted so well as to create a deeply psychological effect, enveloping you in Gothic excellence. When you remove all dialogue and have barest minimum instrumental complements to such scenes, it really sets the tone and mood for the next hour and a half; perfect escapism.
As a fan of science-fiction and horror, it blew my mind to have a film that took the best traits from both genres and brought them together so fantastically. The cyberpunk qualities are more inferred rather than blatantly expressed or described, such as the laser weapons used and the fact that D’s horse is cybernetic. You see just as much of the futuristic technology as you do of the Gothic scenery; they are equally balanced and flow nicely to develop a twisted and fucked-up world that you can’t help but be more curious about.
The creation of Vampire Hunter D, with its uniquely ‘80s style animation, and everything else that I have mentioned make it a classic in terms of cinematography and production, but then you also have the characters. Doris Lang is a female who isn’t afraid to fight back. She doesn’t allow herself to be victimised, which was a norm in many mediums during the time period, and that set her apart. Does she succeed? Not always. Nevertheless, it never stops her from trying. Lang is also one of the first depictions of consistent fanservice throughout an entire episode or film with a severely short, asymmetrical dress and a few scenes of pure nudity. Even today, there are a lot of shows that do panty shots or have ridiculous emphasis on large cleavage, but rarely will you see full on bare breasts. A part of the charm for the fanservice in Vampire Hunter D is that it never makes a big deal out of it. Doris never flips out or gets embarrassed when she’s naked or flashing her rear end. It’s just a tiny little after-affect in the midst of the rest of plot. When a film/series can refuse to acknowledge that these things are happening and just treat them as normal occurrences—no pointing fingers or having exaggerated responses—it makes it easier and more comfortable to watch. I would say that it even adds to the risqué aspects that it may have been vying for.
Then we have D himself, the very first quintessential strong, quiet, badass. His entire persona is built on indistinctness. His name is D. His past, aside from the revelation of what he is and who his parents may have been, a giant ball of unknown. Even his appearance, aside from the occasional glance to his face, is unfamiliar and ethereal. It all contributes to allure of D, while complementing the world-building as it plays parallel to the vagueness of the realm.
There are many more things that I could mention about Vampire Hunter D, but honestly, the best way to experience how extraordinary it is, and why it is considered to be a timeless classic in Japanese animation, is to watch it for yourself. I would go into it with a grain of salt if you’re a newbie otaku because, admittedly, the animation may not hold up well for many people who are used to—or only familiar—with modern anime, where everything is neat, crisp, and shiny. Yet, as I’ve mentioned before, that is part of its inherent allure. If you want an authentically Gothic, bizarre, and violent-as-fuck cyberpunk watching experience, then I highly recommend you watch Vampire Hunter D.