A few years back, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences caused a stir by nominating Disney’s Beauty and the Beast for a Best Picture Oscar. While for many, particularly fans of animation, was a sign that animation had at last “arrived,” for others, it was a fluke, like Marisa Tomei’s Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. There was no chance in hell that Beauty would actually win — for all its lush production values and technical artistry, it remained, after all, a “kid’s movie,” a mere cartoon. The creation last year of the award for Best Animated Film seemed to be the padlock on the ghetto gate, insurance that the animated film, like the “foreign film,” will never again make its way to the grownups’ table.
Animation’s status as cinema’s redheaded stepchild is, however, partially the fault of the animation industry itself. It is true that animation, being an incredibly expensive medium, is wise to concentrate on its most receptive audience, children. But to date, the body of animated work aimed at adults has been mostly disappointing. For a medium whose primary strength is its ability to stretch the limits of what can be shown on film, most “adult” animators have demonstrated surprisingly limited vision.
Ralph Bakshi, the most prolific American director of the form, bailed on the promise he showed in Wizards (1977) and settled for lurid but soulless titillation (Fritz the Cat, Cool World) and bland violence (his truly unfortunate adaptation of The Lord of the Rings). The sex and violence were somewhat more exciting in Heavy Metal (1981), but its appeal beyond that depended entirely on how much dope one smoked before watching it. With a handful of exceptions — the French SF film Fantastic Planet (1973) and the Japanese WWII fable Grave of the Fireflies (1988) spring to mind — the animated film is will remain ghettoized until more animators get it into their heads that “adult” means more than simply “tits and gore.”
Blood: The Last Vampire is another exception. Technically brilliant, visually stunning, and best of all, thought-provoking, this anime from the producers of Ghost in the Shell is precisely the standard to which all adult-oriented animation should rightfully aspire.
Set in Japan on the threshold of the Vietnam War, the seemingly simple story follows a teenaged girl named Saya (whose rendering recalls a Foxfire-era Angelina Jolie but with Fairuza Balk’s big scary eyes), voiced by Youki Kudoh, as she infiltrates a U.S. Army base school to flush out a pair of vampires among the student body. Saya — her name means “sheath” or “scabbard” in Japanese, that is, a container for something sharp and deadly — is herself a vampire, “the last remaining original,” according to her CIA handler.
Moving among the other students, she is a curiosity because of her grim demeanor and the cylindrical case she always carries, which contains her monster-killing katana, but also because she is Japanese in a school full of American army brats. The nearby town is dependent on the base for its livelihood and American soldiers, still victors among the vanquished, move freely in town. But the base doors only swing one way, and for most of the children Saya is the first Japanese ever allowed into their world. Saya tracks down her prey but is hampered by a well-meaning school nurse who sees the vampires in their monstrous true forms and is thus “marked” to die. Handicapped by the need to protect the nurse, Saya fights her most difficult battle, for both their lives.
The shifting dynamic between hunter and prey is thrilling and pyrotechnic, as character animation is laid atop 3-D computer-imaged backgrounds that give the entire film a textured, kinetic, and dreamlike quality. As the film runs barely an hour, however, the hunt for the vampires seems to be all the plot there is: Saya chases vampires, Saya finds vampires, Saya fights vampires. More happens in an average episode of Buffy.
Blood‘s strength and grace are more implicit. In an early, seemingly arbitrary scene, town police discover the body of a prostitute who has slit her wrists in the bathtub. As the body is carted away, other working girls stand on the corner and blithely speculate on whether the American soldier she was seeing gave her the clap and what effect the suicide might have on business, while a descending U.S. Army cargo plane thunders overhead. The purpose of this sequence seems murky until a later scene where the usually taciturn Saya stands over a dying vampire, looking remorseful. At this point, something clicks and questions begin to tumble forth in our minds.
Why is Saya hunting other vampires for the CIA? Why does Saya tell the nurse, “You’re lucky. I can’t kill humans”? If she is “the last remaining original,” might these second-generation creatures be her “children”? What happened to the rest of the “originals” and what is the price Saya paid to be allowed to live? Like the Japanese, forced by their defeat in World War II to allow the American military to use their lands as a jumping off point to wage another war in Asia and coming to rely on their former enemies for economic survival, Saya has capitulated, switching sides in the eternal struggle between her kind and dominant humanity and fated to be forever alive but alone. With every swipe of her samurai sword, Saya damns herself just a bit more in her own eyes — her big, scary, and ultimately tormented eyes.
All of that pain and history is conveyed with one look, a moment of existential angst that, despite being rendered in pen and ink, is undeniably real. In most films, cartoon or otherwise, a carefully explained backstory seems as obligatory as the establishing shot, but director Hiroyuki Kitabubo opts here to drop a few hints and leave it to the audience to fill in the gaps. In the manner of the best fiction, he involves us in the storytelling process. If more animators creating films ostensibly for grownups worked to achieve a single moment like that one, the ghetto gate would swiftly come crashing off its hinges.