Anime and manga have had such a torrid romance with the vampire, you’d think Japan would have had some deep blood ties to its legend. Funny thing is, the vampire or the beast’s equivalent appears almost everywhere in Asian myth, except for Japan. Besides the ghoulish shadow spreading across the mainland of Southeast Asia, South India spawned the Raktharakshassu, the wronged deceased who returned for revenge in sucking the blood of the living. Then there’s Northern India’s BrahmarākŞhasa, which wore a crown of intestines and drank blood from a skull, or the Jiangshi of China’s Qing Dynasty, cursed souls bound to their own stiff corpses. In fact, the vampires of Japan only rose to enthral the country in the Golden Age of the Cinema of Japan in the 1950s. This was the same decade rung in with Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, his Seven Samurai arriving on the scene in ’54.
So, how come the vampire’s charms are embedded so deep in Japanese imagination that there are now vampire manga in their countless droves, not to mention all the anime in which we can’t help but feel for the monster? Maybe it’s linked with the quintessential vampire novel, none other than Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Though by far the first tale to feature the creature of the night, the inception of the Count staked the ideal of an existence free of repression and human limitation into the worldwide consciousness. While the west adopted that seduction as a deadly beauty – domination through allure – a different thread seems to be prevalent in Japan’s interpretation. In the anime fantasy the vampire is still often beautiful, true, but they’re also largely in possession of brute force, sometimes in sheer homoerotic musculature.
In between all the posturing and history hopping of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, it’s easy to forget that way back in Part 1, it sets itself out as a vampire adventure. We even have a moment to smirk as an ornate coffin is brought aboard a cruise ship carrying Jonathan Joestar and Erina on their honeymoon, long after their mortal-turned-immortal enemy Dio is presumed destroyed. What’s in the box, we wonder? For capturing the sordid glamour of vampirism, however, it doesn’t get any better than Hellsing. At first, Seras Victoria seems to take up the classic tragi-gothic role of Lucy in Stoker’s Dracula. Picking up some time after the novel’s story, she too falls under the thrall of the monster-hunting Hellsing Organisation’s tamed weapon Alucard. But is she going to suffer from a few horny dream-induced attacks of the vapours before becoming a mindless murder-slave? Like hell. She runs the big guns as Hellsing’s new hire, and one of anime’s most kick-ass heroines.
This is another aspect that seems more present (perhaps surprisingly) in Japan’s vampire; the conscious and lucid empowerment of women through vampirism. While there is undoubtedly fetishism involved in the predatory female vampire in manga and anime, there’s less of a harem aspect than with the three brides of Dracula whom we meet in the classic novel. She-vamps in manga and anime seem to have more freedom to be unique, revelling in their power rather than being reduced to a hollow cipher of desire. One stand-out example is Monogatari’s Kiss-Shot Acerola Orion Heart-Under-Blade. Or Shinobu Oshino for short, when she’s in her powered-down shadow-dwelling chibi form.
Nisio Isin’s collection of modern folktales incorporate so many legendary apparitions that the vampire is more of an ensemble appearance here. But it’s the series’ very lack of neediness for the allure of vampirism that allows it to create one of the most organic, yet inventive versions of the monster. The perversion, addiction, yearning and isolation that make vampires universally relatable are all rolled up in the no longer human Koyomi Araragi, and projected in his companionship with his ascendant Shinobu. In Tsukimonogatari, the onset of his abilities is the puberty metaphor that’s so familiar, and yet rephrased in uncanny melodrama to make the symbology more real than the real. His karma is our own, for the sins we will all commit. And Kiss-Shot has taken more of this lesson than she could bear, regressing into her eight-year-old form to heal.
It seems anime and manga chose this image of the kawaii vampire to branch out into its own expression of the suave, seductive monster. The sweetly arrogant and tortured Mina Tepes from Dance in the Vampire Bund is a mirror to Shinobu, eerily appearing in publication within the same year. And Hazuki of Moon Phase deliberately conceals her deadly nature in cuteness, white dress, ballet slippers and cat ears all in tow. The heavy reliance on Dracula himself as an insert character seems to have fallen away in recent years, as evidenced by Hideyuki Kikuchi, creator of the manga novel Dark Wars: Meiji Dracula. He was as unable to resist Stoker’s metaphor for freedom from repression as any other, altering the story of the original gothic novel. In Kikuchi’s telling, the Count decides he’s had enough of Europe, and decides to sail away again to Japan. But he would later go on to create Vampire Hunter D. Here, the ideal instead seems to be the half-vampire, though D often wears its Victorian inspiration on its sleeve. These outcasts from the natural and supernatural are stranded between the shame of their birth and the blood they crave, even as it courses through their veins.
Vampire Hunter D’s titular protagonist is a dhampir, the child of a vampire father and a human mother, and so the internal conflict of his bloodlust and longing for humanity makes him the perfect hunter of the Nobility, the pure-breeds of the vampire world. On Earth in the aftermath of nuclear war that broke out in 1999, time was that the Nobles were in power, keeping humans under the thumb in fear. But the decadence they indulged in was ultimately their downfall, and now humanity is on the rise once more. It seems this half-vampire is representative of Japan’s lingering uncertainty in its own identity post-World War II, stuck in a kind of juvenile flux between technological advancement and traditional, perhaps outdated values pertaining to home and polite society. The ancient Nobility’s occult technology once inspired terror, but has now become an organic part of D’s world, thought its potential uses are no less dubious.
Meanwhile, D literally lives with the sins of the father, and abides by his desire to defend the weak and all that is good. Though, he will never be fully accepted by the Nobility or humanity, both scorning and underestimating him in his supernatural powers, tempered and contrasted by his compassion. As D is to be revived in a new Japanese/American CG series, as well as a new manga, the relevance of this demi-human aspect to Japan’s current society has been reaffirmed. With the new season of Blue Exorcist and the enduring popularity of Monogatari, the status of the half-vampire protagonist as a widely relatable figure is made concrete, particularly in shonen and seinen contexts.
The nexus of the western vampire’s pedestal in tackling Japan’s unique, internalised repression and post-war doubts may well be represented by the 2000 anime movie, Yoshiyuki Tomino’s Blood: The Last Vampire; a creation that came about in a similar, semi-improvised way to Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Mitsuhisa Ishikawa, founder of Production I.G, wanted to produce an anime-original project, and had an in with someone who could procure some young-blooded ideas. At the time, Mamoru Oshii was running a series of lectures known as the Oshii Jyuku, which taught new filmmakers how to develop their own concepts into projects. Ishikawa had Oshii ask his students to submit their suggestions. Kenji Kamiyama and Junichi Fujisaka, who would become Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex’s respective director and scriptwriter, presented their sensei with an image that would become Blood’s basis – a girl in a sailor uniform, brandishing a katana.
Tomino, who had previously directed Mobile Suit Gundam, chose to helm the movie on the condition that he be given artistic license. He would later say that having watched Buffy himself may have had some degree of influence. Saya might only be posing as a pre-Vietnam military school student to track down a group of bat-beast ‘chiropterans’ who have invaded the air base next door, but her sassy, resourceful determination certainly carries on in the slayer’s custom. A vampire, and rumoured the last of her kind, she embodies the intertwined empowerment and desolation of a creation of the 19th century, altered and adapted for Japan’s desires and uncertainties. In a way, Saya and her kind capture perfectly the psyche of a country torn; trapped in post-traumatic frailty, yet fighting for its place of power in a strange, damaged world.