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"Tsukihime:" A Vampire Series that Doesn't Suck, Literally

Vampires. They turn up on more than a few occasions in anime. Usually it’s in a pretty action intensive context. Tsukhime bucks this trend, opting for more drama than action, and oddly enough, it works incredibly well.

We open with Shiki Tohno, a young boy in a hospital who happens to be able to see lines all over everything. When he cuts these lines, the object in question immediately disintegrates into bits. He demonstrates this talent to a lady who claims to be a witch and in return she slaps him, telling him only to do that when it’s a matter of defense. She gives him a pair of glasses to repress the lines.

Flash forward to the present day where a series of strange murders has been plaguing the city; all of the victims seem to have had their blood drained from them through a pair of holes on the neck, suggesting a vampire. Shiki’s unfazed by it: he’s now living a boring, average life, attending high school like any other kid his age, though he’s a bit awkward and sickly. He’s got a few friends in school: Arihiko, Shiki’s best male friend and a total loudmouth; Satsuki, a cute, perky girl who is secretly crushing on Shiki; and Ciel, Shiki’s sempai (older classmate) and a member of the tea club. Shiki’s sleepy life radically changes when he moves back to the family estate. In the wake of Shiki’s father’s death the household is being run by Shiki’s annoyingly prim and proper little sister, Akiha, who strictly enforces a 7 pm curfew and despises television. The house is maintained by twin maids, Hisui and Kohaku.

On the way home from school on the day he’s to move in, he runs into a young lady with blond hair in the park. Suddenly he’s covered in blood, clutching a knife and standing over the girl’s remains. The next thing he knows he’s at the Tohno estate, being attended to by his sister. He figures that whole murdering thing must have been a dream. Later Shiki’s on his way back from a convenience store when some guy keels over dead in front of him. A split second later he is nearly killed by a sword-wielding Ciel. Shiki passes out again, and the maids go and bring him home again. Everything seems to getting back to normal until he goes back to the park on his way to school. There he runs into the blond lady from earlier. She certainly seems to be alive. End episode 1.

Things really just get freakier from there. It turns out the blond girl is Arcueid Brunestud, a noble vampire princess in an eternal battle with Roa, a reincarnating evil spirit. Since Shiki’s little stabbing did injure Arcueid a bit (being cut into “17 pieces of meat” is a grievous injury even for a vampire), she basically tells him that he has to help her track down and kill Roa. Besides, Roa’s probably that serial killer anyway, so it’d be a public service and he’d be protecting his friends. That basically covers the next two volumes: Shiki sneaks out at midnight every night to help Arcueid track down Roa. Along the way Arcueid and Shiki begin to get closer, much to the chagrin of Akiha and Ciel, who seem to have issues with each other and with Arcueid. Unfortunately for Shiki, he can’t really seem to keep them separated since Arcueid’s noble vampire blood isn’t effected by the daylight (heck, she doesn’t even suck blood, thus my tacky headline). Ciel’s a classmate, so Shiki can’t avoid running into her, while Akiha’s an overbearing meddler who would do anything to keep tabs on her delinquent brother. Sucks to be him.

The final volume of the series wraps up all the mysteries: Shiki’s bizarre flashbacks to his past, Shiki’s actual relation to the Tohno family, the revelation of the Tohno family’s dark secret, why Arcueid has such a beef with Roa, why Roa has such a beef with Shiki, and the dark history of Ciel. All of it is revealed in this last volume. It makes for one heck of a conclusion. I won’t spoil the actual ending, but it is satisfying and poignant.

On the storytelling side of things, Tsukihime manages to weave together pensive drama and occasional splashes of action. It never really does a lot of explicit exposition, which might be confusing for the inattentive, but this helps build up some suspense. Case in point: you’re just as clueless as Shiki is when Arcueid turns up again at the end of episode one. The tone almost feels like PBS’ Masterpiece Theater, and personally, I really like that kind of well-written, slow-burn drama. The characterization is very solid. Everyone gets some development despite the series’ 12-episode length, and Arcueid, Akiha and Shiki are fleshed out especially thoroughly. The relationships between characters grow as well. The slowly evolving romantic connection between Shiki and Arcueid adds a bittersweet flavor to the horror and drama. Admittedly, the cause of this unique pacing was partially a lack of funds. JC Staff had to put Tsukihime together on a shoe-string budget because it’s a niche anime based on a fan-made adult video game (not exactly the sturdiest investment). The easiest ways to save money in animation are dramatic holds, pans and pulls, but they don’t really come off as animation cheats in Tsukihime. Instead, they feel like natural extensions of the tone.

Speaking of its origins, Tsukihime has a darn good story for an anime based off of a hentai game. It doesn’t even hint too much at its roots: there are only one or two encounters with sexual overtones, and they are handled in a very tasteful, subtle manner. The gory violence overshadows any sexual elements most of the time anyway, and even the violence is well-executed. The animation and storyboarding are also great considering that JC Staff had to do this on the cheap. The storyboard artists must have been very conscious of the budget and organized the shots around saving animation for only the most critical scenes. Their talent shines through in the final product. As for the animation itself, it’s darn good-looking outside of a few off-model shots and a couple of line errors. The amazing backgrounds and superb use of color design and digital lighting give the show a glossy look. There are no glaringly obvious digital pans and pulls, though Tsukihime does pan and pull on more than a few occasions because of the budget issues.

Lastly, the music, foley and voice acting are all great. The music, which is string-heavy with a Gothic flare, enhances the action very effectively, as do the opening and ending themes. The sound effects are also very well-done, giving the show that extra bit of flavor that only good foley work can. The voice acting from both the Japanese and American casts is wonderful and very aurally pleasing, so much so that I’d recommend watching it in both languages.

Geneon once again shortchanges us on special features. The total special features for all three discs are the standard trailers and a non-credit opening and closing. However, the company does a wonderful job with the technical aspects of the releases. The video is very vivid and artifact-free, the audio is crisp and well-produced and even the cover and menu designs are very good.

All in all, Tsukihime‘s a great show that I’d recommend to anyone who likes good drama, vampires, or both (as long as you can deal with some gore and a tiny bit of tasteful sexuality. It’s not a show for kids, but if you’re 16 and up like it says on the box and looking drama, action and compelling storytelling, Tsukihime‘s for you.

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