Thursday, February 9, 2012

Blood: The Last Vampire

Are you feeling drained by the endless bloodletting that is the Twilight series, Underworld, True Blood? If you enjoy vampires I suspect not. Still, the unrelenting list of vampire projects could leave you in need of a transfusion. I've got another to add to your list and ironically it really won't be the last.

Blood: The Last Vampire [2000] is essentially an anime tease, a short little bloodsucker at 48 minutes, that was essentially expanded for a live action film of the same name in 2009 for 90 minutes.

Following the impressive Jin Roh: The Wolf Brigade [1999], animation studio Production I.G. swooped in with the visually nasty Blood: The Last Vampire.

The animation studio sharpened its teeth with the sharp production quality of this film short almost as a sales tool. The title is fitting too as the blood indeed splatters the screen often in the company’s latest showcase. It was an experiment in cellular and digital animation at the turn of the century further expanding the possibilities within anime.

Self-professed anime fan Andy Wachowski’s [The Matrix, V For Vendetta] offered a colorful expression of appreciation. “It was beautiful - It was as if the art of Francis Bacon had come to life.” It's no surprise, after all The Matrix riffed substantially on Ghost In The Shell [1995] substantially and the brothers would later take on their live action revision of Speed Racer [2008] based on the original animated series Speed Racer/ Mach Go Go Go [1967-1968].

For Blood: The Last Vampire Production I.G. created a haunting film noir quality to this dark, visceral, vampire story. There is great detail in the hand drawn animation despite being dropped into a story lacking details and clearly well under way. The animation and atmosphere would cultivate a cult following winning legions of fans who would clamor for a proper follow-up. They would have to wait five years. Production I.G. would provide fans plenty on the mythology of the original short through the fifty episode series Blood + [2005-2006].

The story of Blood: The Last Vampire takes place on Yokota Air Base in Japan. On edge, the United States military is on the brink of war with Vietnam. A more frightening, immediate threat lurks within the fortified compound – demon-like vampires called Chiroptera! A crackerjack team of covert agents is summoned to dispatch the creatures which have infiltrated the base in human form. Anyone marked by them or who has seen their true form will be killed. Some sequences have a terrifying quality reminiscent of the best in horror cinema. The main character is Saya and we know little about her save for the face “she’s the only remaining original.” Apart from the occasionally cryptic information, character development is sorely lacking. We ascertain that Saya has been alive since, at least, 1892. We know she is bi-lingual moving fluently between English and Japanese. She also possesses an aversion to the holy cross [standard operating procedure in a film with bite], but yet she professes, “I can’t kill humans.” Did I mention her soft, curvaceous lips? To say the least Saya is a bit of an enigma. What motivates her? We don't know. She is an unflinching mystery and she is sent in to exterminate the heathen monsters with her lethal precision and the aid of a razor-sharp sword she carries with her to complete her mission. Not unlike Arucard of Hellsing, Saya is a stonecold marxman, a vicious assassin. As one character exclaims, “don’t ever piss her off again!"

Hypnotic animation aside, it's a little empty and you're sure to be asking questions. It's a hollow shell of a story, which is why it stands as a kind of promotional vehicle for Production I.G.. Why does Saya fight these creatures? Why is she the last of her kind? We want to know more about the pouty, gothic, sex-kitten that is Saya, petite in her traditional Japanese school uniform. She is the key to a greater story to be discovered years later in Blood +.

Still, the animation is precisely why you will love Blood: The Last Vampire. The combination of 3D digital compositing [backgrounds & lighting] and traditional cellular animation [thick, black outlines] is a delicious feast for the ey... er... fangs. Digital and hand drawn animation work nicely in harmony here.

Anime Classics Zettai!, written by Julie Davis and Brian Camp, formerly of Animerica, described Blood: The Last Vampire nicely as "Japan's first fully digital animated feature film. Blood's animation style is a combination of cel-style character drawings and nearly photo-realistic backgrounds. Computer-generated filters are used to create realistic lighting effects on the detailed backgrounds." Blood: The Last Vampire is "a short original video that showcased the impressive computer graphics capability of its studio, Production I.G., Blood came at a watershed time in the anime industry, when digital production was finally beginning to replace hand-painted cel animation on a large scale.” Honestly, digital animation, in and of itself, is rarely enough for me and unfortunately that was the future and the future is now.

On the scoring front, Yoshihiro Ike offers a stirring instrumental mix that genuinely enhances the ominous mood of these wonderful images.

Production I.G.'s concept is a solid one, but the story is never fully realized. The shallow character development is notable in contrast to the studio’s sequel, Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex [2002-2003] or Ghost In The Shell: 2nd GIG [2004-2005]. Dialogue is minimal with some characters speaking no more than a few lines. There’s even a nameless main character. Flesh and blood characters are absent. While the concept is a good one, it’s more like a film short and promotional material for what Production I. G. had to offer in anime. Blood: The Last Vampire was considered to be one of the first full-length feature films using digital. The studio knew it was part of a much greater plan.

Writer/director Mamoru Oshii [Ghost In The Shell, Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence, Patlabor, Patlabor 2] also had his hand in planning and developing the story though it’s significantly underdeveloped even by his sometimes ambiguous standards. Oshii is not, without question, a writer in the vein of the traditional linear story arc often deferring to philosophical considerations. He is indeed an artist who prefers to leave interpretation and analysis to the viewing audience, but the information the viewer requires on the screen visually is often much greater. Oshii noted in Newtype USA (April 2003), "To tell the truth, I don't really like how it ended up. I think visually, it's magnificent--all the elements in that area are of a very high standard. But movies aren't just about the visuals; it's a balance of direction and other elements. I thought that this balance was lacking in the completed work" (p.30). Oshii would pen the novel Blood The Last Vampire: Night Of The Beasts [2000]. This was the first and only book penned by Oshii in a trilogy.

Despite the underdeveloped heroine Saya and Blood: The Last Vampire's shortcomings, Production I.G. would revitalize the story and remedy its shortcomings with the complete Blood + saga. There is certainly enough mystery and visual stimulation to leave you blissfully ignorant and blood-thirsty for more. Think of the flawed Blood: The Last Vampire as a big episodic teaser and primer to the highly anticipated sequel. Blood: The Last Vampire doesn't completely suck, blood that is, and may leave you hungering for a full course anime meal. Production I.G. remedies the appetizer with Blood + followed by Blood-C [2011] and another film [2012]. Sink your teeth into that and suck it!

Blood: The Last Vampire: A- [animation]/ C- [story].

Studio Footnote: Production I.G.: Patlabor 2, Ghost In The Shell, Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence, Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Ghost In The Shell: 2nd GIG, Ghost In The Shell: Solid State Society, Blood: The Last Vampire, Blood +, Blood-C, The End Of Evangelion, FLCL, The Sky Crawlers, and Eden Of The East are studio highlights.

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