Tuesday, 30 October 2012

On Her Majesty’s Supernatural Service [Hellsing (2001-2002)]

From http://static.tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pub/images/lt/hellsing.jpg

Series Director: Yasunori Urata
Work #29, for Monday 29th October, for Halloween 31 For 31

Horror is not as prevalent in Japanese anime as I think it would be, despite the ease and creativity animation could give a creator, in its vast catalogue. Even the well known aspects of Japanese horror in cinema – from Ringu (1998) to body horror and splatter – are not as vastly replicated in animated form despite the prominent amount of horror stories in manga. When straight-to-video works known as Original Video Animation were prominent - opposite to the traditional use of the term in that, excluding terrible examples, they were usually well (or incredibly well) animated and allowed more adult or experimental content - horror anime was more common, the bizarre one-offs and short form adaptations of manga mixed which genre works which were far more bloodier and gruesome in content. Even after the Japanese economic bubble crashed, and killed off the more experimental works, the 1990s still had OVAs and a great deal of them which were still gruesome or horror related in tone, going on to laserdisc and DVD later on. Without the concerns of censorship a TV series could suffer from, and the time and allowance to be different in content, the OVA allowed the distinct type of horror in Japanese culture, of the supernatural to the manipulation and distortion of the body, to exist prominently, blending into other genres, such as the versions of The Guyver before the live-action films. Bar the few exceptions, including Hellsing Ultimate (2006-ongoing), the more faithful to the manga reinterpretation that followed the series I am reviewing, the OVA is less prominent and has left a huge gap for the kinds of anime that can exist including the horror ones. There are TV series in the genre, but not that many; for more examples actually exist in hentai (pornographic anime), taking advantage of the lack of restrictions because of its porn content to include horror, but since I’ve seen none of them I can thankfully dodge the topic of how uncomfortable mixing violence and sex could be. Most of the existing horror works, as mentioned, are usually blended with other genres, Hellsing as much of an action series as well as horror.

Set in an alternative England, the thirteen episode series follows a secret government organisation that destroys vampires called the Hellsing Organisation, lead by Sir Integra Hellsing. Their ultimate weapon is however a vampire named Alucard, who along with a penchant for red trench coats and desiring a good vicious fight, is also a lot more noble, more powerful and more psychotic than most of his peers and vampire lowlife, making him a perfect tool for the organisation. With Seras Victoria, a policewoman turned into a vampire by Alucard who has to deal with her new undead life as a member of the force, the organisation has to deal with a swathe of artificially made vampires over the country, attacks on their headquarters and the Vatican approved vampire hunting organisation wanting to reclaim Protestant England back.

Upfront, this version of the original manga by Kouta Hirano is flawed and is the product of the often fragmentary nature of a lot of Japanese anime. The art form has a history of series and works which are left unfinished, or ending up with multiple versions and contradictory ones, pockets of dimensions, spin-offs, versions without endings, and parody spin-offs to make the late Kurt Vonnegut’s head spin. Some were designed only to interest people in the original manga, a concept that doesn’t translate to Western anime fans when said manga isn’t released over here. Some were financially stalled, had producers who closed down, or were unsuccessful in getting any sequels commissioned, leaving abrupt and unfinished conclusions to them. A few, like this version of Hellsing, were started before the original manga was actually finished, catching up with what the author has completed and leaving the anime creators to create new story shifts and endings. This version of Hellsing had to design and thread a new plot into the exiting material, starting off following the original story but by the halfway line ending with a new conclusion and new villain. In the more faithful version of the manga, without spoiling too much, it involves the Third Reich, as you do, while this version pushes a new plot involving artificially made ‘freak’ vampires. In thirteen episodes only, it can feel abrupt when plot strands and characters are introduced throughout and end in single episodes. This version has been viewed as immensely flawed, and there is also the factor of the studio that made it, Gonzo, who were known for making great looking works before their bankruptcy and being remade into a smaller studio, but were also notorious for anime fans for erratically toned and/or incompetently put together anime. I have thankfully avoided most of their worst work, and I will actually defend some of it, but the erratic tone is obvious in Hellsing.

Nonetheless, I will argue this version of Hellsing is not that bad. It’s flawed but as I will continue in this review, it has its virtues. While it’s been years since I saw it, Gonzo made a vampire series that they still need to be all punched in the face for in Trinity Blood (2005), what started off as an interesting if silly blending of vampires and science fiction but, if one was to show the progression to the final episode on a graph, would make a perfect straight line down into god awfulness involving space vampires. Once it gets into its stride after the first few episodes, Hellsing on the other hand starts to become more and more better. It is a standard, gun fetishising, action work with horror and the amount of strong gore acceptable for TV, but the black humour and giddy tone of the whole thing is clear and engaging. It is ridiculous, and with an anti-hero who is very sadistic, grazes on the ceiling of political incorrectness and is very edgy, but as a reinterpretation of Western vampire lore and British culture, I have to admire this knowingly lurid and revealing series. As an Englishman, I love the fact that the original source, from another country, was playing with my culture and had done their research too, whether it’s our obsession with form and presentation to the divide between the Catholicism and the Protestantism in our history as shown in two episodes. Despite the need to create its own ending, the creators managed to keep the original tone of the original manga and managed to make it a solid series. Even when it occasionally recycles scenes from previous episodes in the last ones, it manages to still have an immense punch to it.

In terms of the depiction of the British, I decided to view this series for this season with its English dub instead of the original one. For the most part, I listen to the original Japanese dubs for anime unless they are not available. English dubs when I still watched anime with them on could be incredibly stiff and lifeless, and anime’s history is littered with some of the worst dubbing and voice acting in any medium. But for Hellsing I wanted to go back to the English dub both for nostalgia and, as a story set in England, because it was decided that the cast should be voiced by mostly British voice actors. Some incidental characters sound wooden, and at first American actress K.T. Gray, voicing Seras Victoria, wavers a little in her accent in the beginning episodes, but after a while, as Gray gets into character fully and very well, the decision to have British voice actors, with an English script that clearly had more British colloquialisms and our creative use of swear words added to the material, turned out to be an inspired one. A great example of this would be British born actress Victoria Harwood as Sir Inegra Hellsing, who backs up her words as the leader of the Hellsing Organisation fully just in Hardwood’s voice.

One of the biggest reasons why this series, and the concept, still succeeds is the personalities of the character which the English language voice actors flesh out as well. The main character Alucard could have been terrible, a vampire whose abilities means the character could have been too powerful for there to be any risk and danger to be felt by the viewer, and with a sadistic streak that could be off-putting, but the sense of charisma is clearly prominent in him, both in look and how voice actor Crispin Freeman manages to convey him in voice. The same can be said of all the major and prominent characters, even the villain introduced near the end who isn’t from the manga, all having a distinguished look and personality to them that, while hyper stylised, makes them distinct. Regardless of the plot focus, the characters are treated with enough respect to make the material still work. It also emphasises that the original author Hirano in his use of Western culture goes as far as drawing upon archetypes and pre-existing characters for his own. Helen McCarthy, one of the most prominent British authors and speakers on anime, on an episode of the American podcast Anime World Order, suggested that Integra Hellsing was a concoction of a Gerry Anderson character and Emma Peel from the TV series The Avengers (1961-1969); the sense that Hirano managed to tap into the British concept of the stiff upper lipped, tough and charismatic women of our pop culture who are fetishitically sexual but still strong is clearly obvious. That he went as far as calling a weapon in the series the Harkonnen, kept in this series and the later OVAs, after a character from Dune says a lot about how he meshed together entertainment with legend.

The other aspect that helps the series immensely, and makes it worth seeing, is the great music. Beyond the use of Mr. Big’s Shine, still the least conventional choice for an ending theme for an anime that yet works perfectly, it is very varied and well made, adding to the bipolar mood of the series. It is probably one of the most distinct soundtracks I’ve heard in a while, one that doesn’t fall back on J-pop and incidental music but tries to be unique to the show.

All in all, the series is far from the best but it still stands up well and is far better than a lot of fellow series that failed miserably (like Trinity Blood), possessing a distinct style to it that would pass on further with Hellsing Ultimate, far more faithful, far more violent and far more perversely humoured than its predecessor, but is yet to be fully finished or released in the West as of yet. Until that changes, I am glad to see that this version, one of the first series I owned before my twenties and never reopened until this season, was still good. It did concern me with the first three episodes, the worst of the whole series, that it would turn out to be a disappointment on a re-viewing, but after them it manages to be something of immense merit despite Gonzo’s reputation and the flaws it has.

From http://tu.tv/imagenes/videos/h/e/hellsing-zombie_imagenGrande.jpg

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