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When I first took an interest in anime some years ago, Hellsing blew my mind. Of course, I had no knowledge of the manga at the time, nor had I developed any standards for anime in general. Ever since, I have become familiar with the manga and figured out what my preferences were. Still, Hellsing remained high on my list of personal favorites, but more as a guilty pleasure than anything else. My enjoyment of the series had diminished somewhat as it strayed too far from the original, superior plot, was bleak to the point where it felt forced, and the 'ending' was a major disappointment. For better or worse, the original series was more style than substance, and I often wondered how it would have fared with a more faithful translation. Well, certain animes have been getting the 'remake' treatment (Dragon Ball Z Kai being the most notable stateside), and although that's enough to induce a series of groans when talking about American products, anime has actually gone out of its way to get things right on the second go-round. When a series of Hellsing OVA's were announced, many rejoiced and awaited their arrival in the States. Their patience was rewarded in 2006 with the release of the first hour length feature on DVD, but only the first four have seen release (in the States) to date. That will all change soon enough, but Hellsing Ultimate finally has its first release on Blu-ray with the Volumes 1-4 Collection.
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For the uninitiated, 'Hellsing' is an organization in Great Britain that neutralizes supernatural threats. In case you're wondering, yes, their name is a direct reference to the Abraham Van Helsing (from the Bram Stoker novel, Dracula), who was wise enough to not only defeat the vampire Alucard, but to also enslave him with dark magic and force him to serve his descendents for the rest of time. After World War II however, Abraham's son Arthur perceived Alucard to be an overpowered monster, therefore a greater threat than a valued ally. As a result, Alucard was locked away in the basement of Hellsing's mansion as an abomination. Some years later, Integra Helsing, Abraham's great granddaughter, released Alucard from his prison and utilized him as the organization's trump card ever since. Fast forward to the late 90's, and attacks from various supernatural entities are occurring with heightened frequency. Alucard is called into action to terminate a vampire priest and his gang of ghouls, but fatally wounds Seras Victoria, a police girl who was unfortunate enough to be on duty near the wrong place at the wrong time. Alucard offers the poor girl a choice - Be 'turned' into a vampire and serve the Hellsing organization, or fizzle out like a candle struggling to flicker in the wind. Seras decides she would rather exist as a vampire than nothing at all, but soon struggles with the notion of leaving her humanity behind. She has trouble following any order that conflicts with her morals, and she isn't keen on being forced to sleep in a coffin or drink blood. However, she'll need to learn to adapt if she hopes to survive the underworld of monsters that plan to thrust the world at large into war.
As stated previously, the original Hellsing (series) was loaded with gleeful action-horror but offered little depth. A villain or two would show up with their minions in any given episode, and the awesomely overpowered Alucard would annihilate them in horrifically violent ways. The end. However, these first four OVA's, which act as the introductory plot as described above, is a completely different experience than its predecessor. Hellsing Ultimate follows the manga almost precisely, often replicating illustrations straight from the source. How much of a difference does this make? Well, for one, the animation has a tendency to 'wow' a bit more than it previously did, and that's saying something. Of course, I can't talk about the animation without bringing up the increase in violence. I believe my exact words while watching the OVA's were, "My GAWD! That's freakin' INSANE!" I consider myself mostly desensitized to blood and gore, especially when it comes to anime, but I had a freakish grin on my face watching virtual waterfalls of blood spraying across the screen, which was pretty often. Limbs are severed, heads are sliced in half, and body parts are crushed until they explode. Now, I'm a big fan of anime that offers substance over style, but even though Hellsing Ultimate ups the bloody fan-service to a ridiculous degree, I simply didn't care. I was having entirely too much fun watching Alucard make shredded meat out of anyone who dared to challenge his power.
Of course, what helps the blood and gore be so enjoyable in the Ultimate OVA's, is the fact that there's actually a carefully paced story being rolled out. Instead of the typical 'hello and sayonara' villain introductions throughout Hellsing, these four OVA's ease us into the existence of 'Millenium', an organization of Nazis who have discovered an artificial way to transform humans into vampires. They have some pretty ambitious goals, like finally establishing Hitler's 'Thousand Year Reich', but like any good plot point, can things truly be as simple as that? We'll just have to see, but here's the point - This incredible plot point was entirely overlooked by the original Hellsing series. Another vital part of the story that was left out was some of the intriguing history about the Hellsing organization and, more importantly, some of its leading members. Thanks to the Ultimate OVA's, we're finally introduced to Alucard's past and as a result, I actually feel like I'm watching a character instead of a mere characterization. The same holds true for Seras, especially since some of her comedic relief has been ported over from the manga. Since Seras is struggling with losing her humanity, for her to display some laughable human emotions is important in conveying her torturous duality.
There's really no contest - If you're unfamiliar with the series in general, forget the first attempted Hellsing series. If all you want is gratuitous violence and gore, then you should still choose Ultimate. Although it's true we're introduced to a more intriguing story and characters that are better fleshed out, the action and bloodshed still reign supreme. The impact of these scenes carry a bit more weight as a result of the other improved areas, though, and the hour long format now allows for more tension to build between Alucard and the foolish opponents who try to stand in his way. We also get a better idea of just how much Alucard enjoys facing off against any creature that's thrown at him, so when he finally reveals a new, terrifying extent of his powers near the end of the second OVA, the effect is both terrifying and grin inducing. After all is said and done, Hellsing Ultimate has something for everyone - The carefully paced story, as minimal as its build-up may seem at this point (but these are only the first four OVA's), should appeal to anime fans who appreciate substance over style. For the rest, well, there's certainly plenty of 'style' to go around. Even if you're just a straight up horror fan, Hellsing Ultimate might be the perfect gateway to suck you into the world of anime, what with its almost obsessive dedication to showcasing gobs of blood and gore. Hellsing Ultimate, ultimately, lives up to its name. Here's hoping the second set due out in November (containing OVA's 5-8) lives up to the expectation set by Volumes 1-4, but if the manga is the point of reference here (which it clearly is), I think we'll be rather satisfied. Although, that's a discussion to be saved for another time....
Hellsing Ultimate - Volumes 1-4 is presented on Blu-ray with a decent 1080p, AVC encoded transfer (1.78:1), but it leaves a bit to be desired. Although FUNimation Entertainment claims this is supposed to be from an HD source, I have to question what 'source' they're actually referencing. There's little in the way of digital compression artifacts or banding to complain about, and black levels are solid more often than not, but something really seems off with the picture at times.
A couple of the problematic shots showing the 'halo' effect and an unnatural contrast...
First, there's varying degrees of softness on display throughout the entirety of the OVA's. Sometimes the image looks sharp enough, but there are plenty of times where I'm left to question if this was an HD upconvert, although it's more likely that this was taken from a high-def transfer that was made for the previous DVD releases. I want to say that the source has an inherent softness to it, but there's other troubling signs that creep up from time to time that validate my theory. There's some nasty haloing and certain shots are fixed with a 'cooked' contrast, which even affects the color palette a bit. Darker shots seem unaffected by these issues, yet as soon as there's a certain amount of 'brightness', these issues rear an ugly head.
Don't get me wrong, this still looks quite a bit better than the DVD most of the time, and often looks rather exceptional. That being said, I was left wondering what this could have looked like with a proper transfer from the master... which sort of defeats the point of Blu-ray to begin with. The good news? There's a chance that OVA's 5-8 might actually look more impressive, but we'll have to wait until November to find out.
Well, before dissecting how the audio itself sounds, I want to discuss the English dub. The main cast have all returned and have improved upon their initial performance in Hellsing. The English translation is also a major improvement since the last go-round. Even so, better translation or not, it still doesn't hold a candle to the original Japanese dialogue, which is more dark and sinister in comparison. Why translators always feel the need to 'ham' things up for the American audience is beyond me. After all is said and done, this is still the best English dub I've heard to date. I know that doesn't really say much, but it is what it is.
Anyway, much like the translation itself, the Japanese 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is superior, although it's worth noting that this is only apparent with a direct A/B comparison. For some reason, the Japanese track seems to have a tad more clarity, and I couldn't even begin to tell you why that is. Still, the English track in and of itself is impressive. Both tracks offer an impressive amount of environmental ambience and LFE, and the surround channels get a fair amount of love in all of the major action sequences (which happen frequently). Dialogue is always crisp and clean, and is never drowned out by the frequent madness. Fans of Hellsing will find this to be an immersive experience through and through.
This set comes with 5 discs total - 3 DVD and 2 Blu-ray. The episodes on the Blu-ray side are all housed on the first disc with their respective commentaries, with the rest of the supplements on Disc 2.
For an anime series, there's a decent amount of supplements provided. Each OVA has a commentary track with it, and it's interesting to hear how some of the work went down behind the scenes, but hearing the voice actors break character just to discuss their roles is the real treat. The Anime Expo 2007 panel footage is also a real winner, and with all the additional mini features factored in, there's more than enough supplemental material to enjoy. FUNimation has been rather notorious for being stingy in the 'extras' department, but they've done a fine job with a series that truly deserved the attention it got.
-Episode I Commentary - Crispin Freeman (Alucard), Taliesin Jaffe (Director/Script Adapter)
-Episode II Commentary - Taliesin Jaffe (Director/Script Adapter), Josh Phillips and Patrick Seitz (Jan and Luke Valentine, respectively)
-Episode III Commentary - Taliesin Jaffe (Director/Script Adapter), J.B. Blanc (Enrico Maxwell) and Victoria Harwood (Integra Helsing)
-Episode IV Commentary - Taliesin Jaffe (Director/Script Adapter), Kari Whalgren (Rip Van Winkle) and Ralph Lister (Walter)
-Interviews - Taliesin Jaffe and Crispin Freeman/Taliesin Jaffe, Patrick Seitz and Josh Phillips
-Anime Expo 2007 - English Cast Panel with Taliesin Jaffe, Crispin Freeman, Ralph Lister, Patrick Seitz, Josh Phillips and Jonathan Klein
-Anime Expo 2007 - Geneon Booth featuring the Hellsing Mansion
-Promo Videos - Broken English Version / Young King Ours Version / Japanese Episode I Trailer / Japanese Episode II Trailer / Episode IV / Episode IV Long Version / U.S. Trailer
-Textless Songs - I-IV
-Japanese TV Commercials - I-IV
-Japanese Ending IV
-Karaoke of Major's Speech
Hellsing Ultimate is unquestionably the faithful manga translation we've all hoped for. The original Hellsing series was a lot of fun, but these OVA's overshadow it in every perceivable way. Sure, there's an excessive amount of gratuitously violent fan service, but the improved plot, character backgrounds and atmosphere finally add some layering and depth to the mix, so Ultimate is likely to appeal to a wide variety of anime fans. Not the anime 'type'? These OVA's might just be the appreciable gateway that changes your mind. For those of us already initiated, look forward to improved animation and a superior English dub (to the original English dub, that is). The video quality is decent enough but has a tendency to be inconsistent, but a great surround track and decent supplements help to pick up the slack. Highly Recommended.