Gamer's Review: Hellsing Ultimate
Is it too early to start queuing up some entertainment for Halloween? Just a bit. Regardless, I find myself doing just that. Part of the reason is that summer for my region never really arrived. Instead of the requisite heat and humidity, we were treated to largely cool, dry days. Really, it has felt like little more than an extended late spring or early autumn. As a result I have found myself yearning to get autumn underway as there isn't any point of continuing this useless summer. This is why I have been looking forward to Halloween: it is THE holiday of autumn!
But in addition to that, two games have recently awakened in me a love for the horror of "urban fantasy": Shadowrun Returns, and The Secret World. As I detailed here, those two games have hit a home run with me, and made me reconsider the whole horror genre - a genre I never particularly cared for seeing the low budget "torture porn" tripe coming out of Hollywood these days. And that is pretty much how I arrived at giving this anime a viewing.
Now, as I explained here, I am not a fan of anime. Nothing personal, it just rarely clicks with me. While I admire the medium's imagination, I often find the execution lacking. This is why I have only found two anime series that really 'wowed' me: Girls und Panzer, and the superlative sci-fi Cowboy Bebop. That is it.
Hellsing Ultimate is now the third title to officially make it to my august list of anime suitable for viewing by adults. I really wasn't expecting it to make the list at all as, again, I am not a fan of anime, nor of horror, and especially not of vampire stories. Personally, I find the whole vampire craze to be as banal as the more recent zombie craze. Blood suckers don't terrify me in the same way meeting a werewolf would (this probably has something to do with being exposed to vampire schlock like Twilight for too many years). But Hellsing Ultimate is commendably different. In the same fashion that Guillermo del Toro is seeking to rehabilitate the vampire with his solid television series The Strain , Hellsing Ultimate is going back to vampires that don't sip as much as crunch:
Yeah, they are pretty nasty. Even the official webpage emphasizes this fact:
Remember when vampires had fangs? Remember when they were known as terrifying monsters that stalked the night, instead of moody teenagers that sparkle in daylight? It’s time to drive a stake through the lovesick heart of contemporary vampire nonsense. Satisfy your bloodlust with Hellsing Ultimate, the definitive action-horror anime.That is truth in advertising right there!
But here is the kicker: while this is what initially caused me to give Hellsing Ultimate a viewing, that is not what ultimately hooked me into the series. In an unexpected twist reminiscent of Girls und Panzer, Hellsing Ultimate ultimately snared me with its wonderful characters. Okay, they weren't necessarily "wonderful"in the lighthearted way of GuP's Ukari Akiyama or Mako Reizei, but more in the captivating way of a homicidal maniac. Take, for example, Sir Integra Fairbrook Wingates Hellsing, the freaky chick who can be seen here:
I wasn't at all thrilled with the character when she was first introduced because of how we met her: as a young, frightened girl being hunted by her uncle. As I watched her cower, all teary-eyed, from her father's insane brother - he sought to steal the lucrative family business of monster hunting away from her - I figured I knew how this was going to play out: that she would survive, of course, but be more forgiving for the experience. That she would bring a new compassion and feminine sensibility to the rough and tumble world of monster hunting.
Much to my pleasure, Sir Integra Hellsing is actually revealed to have become a stone-cold killer because of that experience. She had morphed into a monster hunter of such singular purpose and dedication that her feminine side had actually become muted, hence the reason why she is referred to as SIR Hellsing rather than Lady Hellsing. And I, like her devoted employees, came to love her all the more for it. Nice trick!
And then there is police officer Seras Victoria (I love the names in this show!):
She inadvertently becomes the newest member of the Hellsing organization when a plague of vampires wipes out her police department. She does survive the attack but only as a newly minted, if reluctant, vampire. Her journey is a tragically fascinating one as the viewer gets to see her slowly morph from an innocent, country bumpkin police gal into a raging tool of vampiric vengeance.
And then we have this guy:
That would be Hellsing's secret weapon, her personal pit bull, the vampire king A La Carte...er, I mean Alucard (a semordnilap for 'Dracula'). To be honest, he turned out to be my least favorite character of the show because of his tendency to burst into completely inappropriate bouts of manical laughter, not to mention that fact that he is really, really OP. Regardless, I ultimately came to applaud the show for his presence because he represented a return to the hateful, spiteful, revolting vampires of old. Alucard is very reminiscent of Hannibal Lecter; a monster who relishes manipulation and killing (and feasting on his victims, of course) as a way of affirming his superiority. And he is very good at it.
Then there is perhaps the best anime character I have ever come across:
Meet Father Alexander Anderson, the "Bayonet Priest," the genetically engineered slayer of vampires and other evil, and the foremost soldier of the secretive Vatican Section XIII, the Iscariot Organization. If Alucard is a bat out of hell, Anderson is the man holding the net to catch him. Indeed, whenever these two men are in the same scene together it is divine. Remember that age old question about what happens when an immovable object meets an irresistible force? Same thing going on here, and the resultant sparks and explosions are wonderful to watch. Besides being a great antagonist to Alucard, Father Alexander is just a wonderful character because of his zealotry. You just have to love a man who is inclined to say such things as "violence is never the right answer...unless used against heathens and monsters." LOL! Lord, how the world could use a man like him right about now!
These characters, and many more that populate the world of Hellsing Ultimate, really serve to elevate the show to a much higher level of engagement than one might initially expect from a series about vampire hunters. I was expecting something closer to a Scooby Doo mystery, but ultimately found a drama closer to a gritty Dick Wolf crime drama.
Of course, having great characters without a great plot would be a waste. No worries here, though! The ultimate plot for Hellsing Ultimate is one heck of a wild ride. Not knowing anything about this series prior to watching it, I figured it was going to be about Sir Hellsing and her exploits battling the creatures of the night. While the first episode does begin with such a simple premise, the show quickly spirals into wild territory that involves a new world war where a Nazi - yes, Nazi! - vampire army returns to conquer the world (albeit, the action is entirely focused on England). Of course, Hellsing's organization of "Protestant Knights" soon finds itself on the front lines of this renewed invasion. But before Hellsing and company can come to grips with this new situation, things quickly become even wilder when a rogue Vatican archbishop by the name Enrico Maxwell takes advantage of the chaos and launches his own Catholic "Reconquista" of England! Good times!
|Vampire Nazis on the attack!|
What results are some truly excellent carnage-filled scenes of battle that stretch from a carrier at sea, to the streets of London, and even to the halls of Hellsing's HQ itself. The battle for Hellsing's manor is particularly engrossing because it requires the shrinking violet Seras Victoria to step up and lead a die-hard band of French mercenaries, known as the Wild Geese (great movie, btw!), in vicious, last man standing combat. What results is something reminiscent of the Alamo...but with, you know, vampires. And French soldiers. And magic. Moving on....
|The Wild Geese before all heck breaks loose|
Now, there are "vampires" and there are "VAMPIRES!" in Hellsing Ultimate. Rank and file vampires are rather unremarkable, but boss vampires are formidable creatures with unique powers. This is what makes them so terrifying. Alucard, for example, has powers that can best be described as demonic, something that makes him particularly vicious when provoked.
|Alucard's ability to summon the hounds of hell|
In Hellsing Ultimate, even non-vampires can have special, magical powers. Walter, for example, Hellsing's "butler" and former master vampire hunter, can summon lethal magical strings that cut opponents to pieces:
Now, you would probably think that having the ability to call up magical weaponry would probably be enough when fighting the creatures of the night, right? Nope. This isn't some lame fantasy tale where everyone is reduced to magic and swords! We're in the modern world here, and that means modern weaponry! Oh yes! Bring it on!
Check out Alucard's preferred sidearm, something that probably would qualify as a "hand cannon":
Or Seras Victoria's preferred undead slaying weapon, a recoilless rifle:
Cool, cool stuff.
Needless to say, when you have central characters wielding magic and sporting some awesome weaponry, the resulting fights can be downright epic. Really, the characters in Hellsing Ultimate have more in common with the superheroes of The Avengers than they do with your typical cast of mortal vampire slayers. When these guys engage in battle, it is like watching the gods of Olympus slugging it out. Again, the coolness factor goes way up in these moments.
[BTW: I am sorry to keep using that word "cool," but it really does best describe Hellsing Ultimate. In many ways, this anime is to the vampire genre what The Matrix was to cyberpunk. It is just a really cool re-imagining of a stale genre.]
What else is there to praise about Hellsing Ultimate? I have to say that the artwork is darn good. I understand that Hellsing Ultimate is based upon a multi-part graphic novel, and it shows in a good way. This anime definitely tries to preserve that manga style, leading to some memorable scenes that really are quite stylish at times.
Lastly, the music often hits the right note (pun) at the right time. Maybe not Cowboy Bebop good, but good nonetheless.
So, What's not to Like?
First off, this is no Girls und Panzer. Unlike that charming bit of anime that is quite safe for youngsters, Hellsing Ultimate comes with a well-earned Mature rating. There is a lot of swearing, tons of gore, and almost non-stop violence. So be warned.
Secondly, this is one of those anime series where the original Japanese soundtrack is inferior to the dubbed English version. Hellsing Ultimate is a story with an international cast of characters that spans Brits, French, Italians, Germans, and Irish personalities. With that in mind, I was somewhat surprised to hear that the original Japanese cast didn't attempt to try to sound like the respective nationality of their particular character; everybody just sounded Japanese. With the English dubbing that noticeable problem isn't an issue. While the English cast did resort to cliched accents, it nonetheless made for a marked improvement to the acting and, hence, the immersion.
[EDIT: I think I might have inadvertently caused some confusion when I mentioned the "English cast." I didn't mean those actors with British accents, but the English dubbed version in general. Sorry about that.]
Lastly, this show suffers from that annoying anime tendency to resort to farcical humor at the most inopportune moments. Nothing ruins a tense moment as having something like this suddenly pop up in the anime:
|I am sorry but you needed to see this|
Lastly, this anime is a ten part series. Sadly, the final two episodes will not be made available in the US of A until October of this year. Seeing where episode 8 ended, this amounts to torture!
As with Girls und Panzer, I never expected to get much beyond the first episode or two; I really just called this show up on a YouTube lark. The fact that I ultimately found myself watching episode after episode, enjoying each one more than the last, says just how much this show really shines as an example of a fresh take on a tired subject. When I wrote my GuP review, I remarked how the tank battles in that piece of anime was far superior to anything I had seen come out of Hollywood in a long time. I pondered how badly Hollywood was doing its job for that to happen. I say the same thing here, except that this is actually a MORE embarrassing situation because Hollywood is constantly pumping out vampire flicks. Again, just how poorly is Hollywood performing if this bit of Japanese anime is providing something far more original and far more engrossing than any vampire flick I have seen emerge from that town's army of writers and multi-million dollar budgets? It is at times like this I wish I was a producer who could get on the phone and acquire an IP such as Hellsing Ultimate. In the right hands, this anime would absolutely shine as a movie. Sadly, with movies like Dracula Untold on the horizon, it looks like Hollywood is still stuck in the same, tired slump. Do yourself a favor: skip that movie and watch this instead. Here, I'll even get you started:
Score: 4 out of 5 stars
PS: How do I get my eyeglass lenses to shine like that?!?