A friend and I earlier this year lamented that Yoshiaki Kawajiri hadn’t directed a movie since a 2006 animated Highlander movie. If Japanese animation, or anime, hooked you in the 90s, that disappointment is palpable. Kawajiri’s work on the surface displays every cliche about anime from the 90s. His work tends to be both ultra violent, and aggressively sexual. There’s an exploitation film/grindhouse quality to his films from the 80s and 90s. As with anything that’s even tangentially an exploitation film, there’s a plethora of unpleasant elements in his filmography.
However, Kawajiri is also one of the best horror and action directors of the last 40 years. His action sequences are dynamic. The monsters in his films are horrific. You know immediately you’re watching one of his movies. He has elements that repeat throughout his films. There’s always loner. heroes accompanied by tortured heroines. The action set pieces are in constant motion. Kawajiri is an auteur who happens to direct animation. Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust showcases his skills without some of the more unsavory elements.
Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust might be his most accessible film. Based on the third novel in a long running Japanese series, the film follows D, a half human/vampire bounty hunter, on the trail of a missing girl named Charlotte. The vampire lord Meier Link kidnapped her and now rushes with her towards an unknown destination. Also on the trail are a competing group of monster hunters, the Marcus Brothers. The competing hunters go through a surreal, post apocalyptic landscape fighting various monsters. However, is their target prey or a willing participant?
Like any solid genre director, Kawajiri has no problem mixing and matching genres. His previous film Ninja Scroll borrows as much from chambara (samurai films) as it does monster movies. Vampire Hunter D is as much a gothic horror film as it a western. The opening evokes a spaghetti western as much as the finale is gothic horror. D, as much a man with no name as any Clint Eastwood character, rides into town on his horse ready to take on yet another job. The vampires are pursued and hated like any bounty in a western. Humans look at D in disgust for being mixed race. The film takes place mostly in strange desert landscapes filled with rusted satellite dishes and surreal creatures. There’s cyber punk and science fiction tinges to the film but Kawajiri builds that on the frame of a western.
The finale though is pure gothic horror. It takes place in a blood red gothic castle seemingly grown out of other gothic castles. Having seen so many vampire films during Hooptober, the finale clearly inspired by Hammer Films brand of vampire movies. There’s sensual flesh chomping and a doomed romance between Charlotte and Meier. There’s ghosts both literal and metaphorical haunting the place. It’s a castle built on and sustained by nightmares.
The animation in this film is absolutely stunning. As much as the narrative fits Kawajiri’s hallmarks, mimicking the intricate art Vampire Hunter D illustrator Yoshitaka Amano is another fit for the director. Kawajiri thrives on giving his visuals baroque or expressionist qualities. His character designers and animators mimic Amano’s work as much as they can. Characters have dangly beaded earrings and physiques inspired by Egon Schiele. Each figure moves with multiple fluid lines. When monsters change shapes or figures move with speed, the audience feels it. There’s a sequence towards the end where a vampire is being reborn. Blood moves backwards up steps while figure writhes in pain. Like much of the film, it’s as beautiful as it is horrifying.
Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust is a visually stunning animated film. It’s also a fantastic piece of genre filmmaking. Kawajiri takes as much inspiration from Hammer Films as he does spaghetti westerns. Some live action filmmakers could stand to take lessons from filmmaking this exciting.