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"Hellsing Ultimate" Vol. 1: This DVD Runneth Over... With Blood

It seems odd that while the best-known Japanese films stateside have recently been horror tales like Ringu and Ju-On, horror titles remain confined to a fairly small part of the anime market. Perhaps it’s a question of reaching the right audience. I suppose the average Saw fan doesn’t have much anime in his/her diet. Or maybe horror anime just isn’t considered scary enough. Still, if they ran a trailer for the Hellsing Ultimate OAV series before the new Resident Evil movie, I have a feeling it would pick up more than a few fans.

As for myself and anime horror, I like the classic monsters, and thus am a big fan of the Vampire Hunter D films, but not so much freaky stuff like Wicked City. Hellsing Ultimate is my first exposure to the Hellsing franchise, but if it’s anything to go on it owes a big debt to D, and that can only be a good thing.

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in many recent so-called “action” anime series, namely a disappointing lack of action. Although I’ve thoroughly enjoyed excellent recent series like Full Metal Panic The Second Raid, Le Chevalier D’Eon, and Trinity Blood, they often contain no more than a minute or two of action per episode and sometimes none at all. I think you’ll agree there’s something very wrong with this. I assume it’s a cost-cutting measure, since action sequences are doubtless much more expensive than static dialogue scenes.

Hellsing Ultimate, on the other hand, follows the Basilisk model and delivers the bloody goods in spades. I don’t know which of the two has more fountains of blood and flying limbs, but either way there’s plenty of Go Nagai-style ultraviolence to go around. Dialogue scenes serve only to quickly set up the next vicious melee. Correspondingly, there isn’t nearly as much intrigue as in Trinity, and viewers hoping for much depth are out of luck.

The series follows the Hellsing organization, chaired by the ludicrously named Sir Integra Fairbrook Wingates Hellsing, as it fights to stamp out a scourge of vampires and their zombie-like ghoul servants in the UK. Their top agent is himself a vampire, the fearsomely powerful Arucard. He bloodily presses young female police officer Seras into service as his undead partner, and together they investigate a new vampiric murder spree. When the killings spread to Ireland, not only the Protestant Hellsing but the Catholic Iscariot group send in agents to defend their turf.

“Have you ever had ‘one of those days’?”

Like D, Arucard suppresses his more evil impulses to protect humanity, but unlike D he isn’t partially human and really not such a nice guy. He shoots Seras without a moment’s hesitation when it serves his purpose. Serving justice seems to be an incidental benefit to him, as what he really enjoys is killing. One wonders why he bothers with the law at all, but perhaps that will be explained later. It’s interesting to have a “hero” who is so creepy, though hard to work up much sympathy for him.

What is less interesting is his near invincibility. He gets both shot and chopped to pieces and later hardly seems the worse for wear. This allows for some spooky Friday the 13th-style resurrection scenes, but it drains the fights of tension once it’s clear he can’t really be hurt. Steven Seagal films have the same dilemma, though at least in those there’s some suspense over whether his girdle will snap.

Seras is the typical fresh recruit character, wide-eyed and naïve, and often called on for cheesecake shots. Father Alexander Anderson, Arucard’s Iscariot nemesis, is even further over the top than Arucard, gnashing his teeth and laughing diabolically at regular intervals. He unintentionally draws the biggest laugh with his terribly mispronounced threat in English, “If annnyone does not love the Lord… JESUS CHRIST, let him be accursedOhLordcomeAmen!”

“What th-?! Zombies?! SHINNOSUKE!!!!”

Speaking of laughs: Just like Trinity, Hellsing Ultimate fields some out of left field attempts at wacky humor, but they are rather jarring since Hellsing is so much darker and bloodier. If there were any methods of sadistic dismemberment not covered by Basilisk, then you’re sure to find them here. Perhaps the most disquieting moment comes when the angel-faced Seras, crazed with bloodlust, stomps a ghoul’s head into pudding with great relish. For all the bloodshed, though, Hellsing Ultimate goes more for the thrills than the chills, unlike D, which has a handful of legitimately scary moments.

I have to say I’m beginning to wonder if Christianity has begun to expand its tiny presence in Japan. The church plays a curiously major role in Trinity, Chevalier, and now Hellsing Ultimate. Irish viewers will be amazed to see the never-ending Protestant/Catholic conflict taken up by super-powered vampire hunters. Odder still is an apparent strain of Puritanism regarding the creation of the undead. Virgins bitten by vampires become full-fledged vampires, but non-virgins become mindless ghouls. Perhaps just as American horror has been influenced by the Japanese brand in the last few years, the reverse is true in Japan.

“Wow, you guys really should have called in sick.”

Hellsing Ultimate‘s fight animation is fairly good, at least on par with Trinity. Elsewhere, though, there is some serious corner cutting: completely static scenes with only the speaker’s mouth moving, grossly simplified character designs at a distance, and even the ol’ still images sliding across the background trick. My compliments to the members of the art design staff, who have cooked up some truly creepy images, especially of Arucard himself.

I also loved the atmospheric, gothic orchestral score by Hayato Matsuo. It’s almost too good for this show, and I wouldn’t hesitate to buy it.

But the high I felt listening to the end credits was soon deflated by the discovery that Geneon forgot to put any extras on the disc. I can’t even remember the last bare bones anime release I encountered. I may be wrong, but I was under the impression that the Hellsing franchise is quite high profile, so this neglect is most puzzling. I’d love to see some of the spooky concepts from the artists’ sketchbooks. Get it together, Geneon. (Editor’s Note: This review covers the single disc edition. A more expensive edition with a second disc of extras is also available.)

If you thought Trinity Blood would be better with more Basilisk bloodshed and less mystery, then Hellsing Ultimate is right up your alley. I hope you’ll buy it to encourage someone to make a long overdue Vampire Hunter D sequel. Would a “Talk to the Hand” tagline be too passé now?

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