During the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, mostly thanks to the international acclaim and success of “Akira”, anime made its way to America in large quantities. Again, because of the popularity and success of that movie, many of these early films chosen to be released had to be similar to “Akira” in a specific way. They were all very dark and very violent. The early marketing campaigns for these films often stressed how “extreme” anime is by showing elaborate montages of characters in agony or battling something while set to hard rock. Anime quickly earned a reputation as being violent, risqué and clearly not meant for kids, although any kid growing up at the time can tell you that they still managed to see some of these movies and shows. I know I did. Some of the earliest to reach our shores included “Macross”, “Doomed Megalopolis”, “Fist of the North Star”, “Dragonball” and “Vampire Hunter D”.
“Vampire Hunter D” is an adaptation of the first of a popular series of Japanese light novels written by Hideyuki Kikuchi with art by Yoshitaka Amano (of the “Final Fantasy” series). The story is set far in the future where mutants and monsters roam free and people live in fear of the rare, but extremely dangerous Nobles, or vampires. A young girl named Doris (Michie Tomizawa) who lives on a ranch with her brother Dan (Keiko Toda) is bitten by the Noble Count Lee (Seizô Katô), so she hires a vampire hunter to protect her family and slay the vampire. The hunter she chooses is the enigmatic D (Kaneto Shiozawa), who's also a Dhampir, or a one who's both human and vampire. Doris and D fight off the Count’s minions and in the process develop ill-fated feelings for each other.
The world in this film is a bizarre hybrid of the horror, fantasy, western and sci-fi genres mixed together with a dash of a gothic art for added style. The towns are one part medieval village and one part desert ghost town. There’s a ranch, a sheriff, saloons, etc., yet everything used in the world screams out post apocalyptic science fiction as well. People have laser rifles, electric fences and even cyborg horses. It's a very bizarre and intriguing setting that's a major staple of the franchise.
D is also a unique and fascinating character; iconic by his very image. His past is never fully revealed, though it's often implied. He dresses in dark clothing and uses a long sword, definitely fitting into the tall, dark and quiet type of hero, but there's something else about him that's just so strange. His left hand has a face and a mind of its own. It often talks to him and mocks him or lets the audience in on what D's thinking. The banter between the two of them is a big aspect of what makes D such an original and unusual character. Despite the silly nature of it, the left hand serves as far more than simply as a comic relief sidekick. He has his own powers and is very useful.
The animation and music is a bit dated now and definitely a product of its time. Some of the action is less fluid than other scenes, and the animation is at its best during the more quiet moments of character interaction. The film is very violent, but it suits the tone and the setting well. The voice acting by Kaneto Shiozawa is particularly good, since D seldom speaks; he adds just enough emotion to prevent the character from sounding dull or without feeling.
For those familiar with Yoshitaka Amano’s art style, it’s clear that much of this film is a bit of a departure from the original designs. Many of the characters are altered to look like more of a traditional ‘80s anime style (Doris, Ray Ginsei, Dan, Lamika), while others (D and Count Lee) more closely resemble the original art.
Overall, “Vampire Hunter D” serves as a good introduction to the character and is a decent dark adventure film. There's a clearly unique style present here and a lot of cool and strange characters, just waiting for more adventures to be told. It’s held up reasonably well over the years and is as enjoyable to watch now as it was when it was first released.