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... until now. A month ago we saw the release of Hellsing Ultimate - Volumes 1-4 Collection, and just in case you were jonesing for more bloodshed designed by Alucard, FUNimation has followed up with the Volumes 5-8 Collection.
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.
The first four OVA's acted as an introduction to the plot above - which was a major departure from the original Hellsing series - yet followed the original manga almost precisely, often replicating illustrations straight from the source. Ultimate OVA's 5-8 continue to show a great sense of loyalty to the manga, but how much of a difference does this really make? Well, for starters, the animation has a tendency to 'wow' more than it ever did, and that's saying something. Of course, I can't talk about the animation without discussing the increase in violence - While watching the first four OVA's, I believe my exact words were, "My GAWD! That's freakin' INSANE!" I mean, I'm a big fan of anime that offers substance over style, and even though Hellsing Ultimate proved to up 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. Imagine my surprise when I learned the violence was a mere pittance compared to what parts 5-8 would offer. Blood and gore, without question, absolutely dominate these installments, and the best part is that it's all still tied into the plot and doesn't come off as being nonsensically gratuitous.
The major difference between these episodes and those that were included on the previous set, is that the action is much more prevalent. The story no longer has any need to pussyfoot around the Millennium organization, and the first OVA in this set alone begins with an attack on London that just... doesn't... stop. Vampires are unleashed to annihilate thousands of citizens, war planes are leveling handfuls of city blocks at a time, and there's eventually a drool-worthy retaliation by the Iscariot priests. That being said, those of you who greatly appreciated the character development and carefully unfolded plot have nothing to worry about, as those aspects haven't been left by the wayside. In fact, we're introduced to the most important character arc to date - Seras's transformation into a full-fledged vampire. Fully embracing what she's become, Seras is far more effective as a killing machine than ever before, but she runs into a spot of trouble when she crosses paths with a new, dastardly villain - Enter Zorin Blitz, an elite member of the Millennium organization. Unable to slice Seras in two with her giant scythe, Zorin unleashes her powers of illusion, hoping to cripple her opponents mind with fear. Of course, all this does is enrage Alucard's prodigy to the point of no return. Needless to say, Millennium has to deal with some serious consequences as a result. The mind games that are played and ultimately drive Seras over the edge is my favorite part in OVA's 5-8, but the return of Father Alexander Priest is an equally impressive highlight, as he and Alucard finally clash in the battle that was teased since the first installment. In the midst of it all, fans of Alucard (and who isn't?) will be pleased to see a sizeable revelation finally come to light.
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, Seras, and the foolish opponents who try to stand in their way. After all is said and done, Hellsing Ultimate has something for everyone. The carefully paced story makes room for bigger action this time around, but there's still an appreciable amount of substance to be had, especially when it comes to Seras's past and her journey to becoming a true vampire. The rest, 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.
Hellsing Ultimate - Volumes 5-8 is presented on Blu-ray with a decent 1080p, AVC encoded transfer (1.78:1), and although it doesn't pop as reference material, that's mainly due to artistic intent. Volumes 1-4 had some wonky contrast issues and even some edge enhancement, because they were likely an upconvert of old transfers meant for DVD. These subsequent four volumes are respectable because they get rid of the boosted contrast and halo effect, but I still smell the rat of upconversion lingering about. There's still some compression artifacts, although they're not really detectable in motion, and even some light banding now and again. Other than that, the rest of the 'issues' stem from artistic design. because the first four OVA's were likely an upconvert, but these subsequent four volumes are respectable because they actually seem to reflect a real HD source. Everything is slathered in a light haze, and is supposed to lend the anime a gothic vibe. Colors that are closer to primary - such as Seras's blue eyes, the glowing red eyes of the Millenium army, the fire spreading about London, and especially the crimson of spraying blood - are quite bold and pop off the screen. Anything else appears a bit faded or bathed in blue, but again, this is to help with the gothic night time scenarios. Overall, I'm pleased with how this set turned out over its predecessor, but I still have that nagging feeling in the back of my mind that this could have looked better.
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.
First thing to note is the packaging - This DVD/Blu-ray Combo Pack comes in a sturdy cardboard housing that's wide enough to fit not only the hard keepcase of Volumes 5-8, but the original four OVA's as well, thus making your Hellsing collection worthy of display.
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 Hellsing Cast Roundtable is the star in the extras department though, with the Anime Vegas 2010 Hellsing and Fans Q&A coming off strong, as well. Honestly, considering FUNimation's reputation of being cheap when it comes to extras, there's more than enough in this set to enjoy.
-Episode V Commentary - Taliesin Jaffe (Director/Script Adapter), Gildart Jackson (Max)
-Episode VI Commentary - Taliesin Jaffe (Director/Script Adapter), Yuri Lowenthal (Pip)
-Episode VII Commentary - Taliesin Jaffe (Director/Script Adapter), Rachel Robinson (Zorin)
-Episode VIII Commentary - Taliesin Jaffe (Director/Script Adapter), Crispin Freeman (Alucard)
-Participating in a Legend - This 45 minute featurette has the cast discussing what it's like to be a part of one of the most exciting anime franchises yet.
-Hellsing Cast Roundtable Discussion - Clocking in at nearly 45 minutes, this roundtable discussion - featuring Taliesin Jaffe, Crispin Freeman, Katie Gray, Victoria Harwood, Ralph Lister and Patrick Seitz - is a lot of fun and very informative. Fans of the anime shouldn't miss this!
-Anime Vegas 2010 Hellsing Panel - Jonathan Klein, Charlene Ingram, Taliesin Jaffe, Victoria Harwood, Katie Gray, Crispin Freeman, Ralph Lister, Patrick Seitz. There's another participant but his mic wasn't turned on so... big question mark there.
Fans Questions Answered - Not as intimate as one would hope, but the format works - Fans questions are display via text, and cast members answer.
-The Dawn - A Supplementary of Hellsing - A short, special OVA which explores the background of the Nazi ghoul army.
-Textless Songs V-VIII
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 an improvement over the previous OVA's (but still likely to be an upconvert), and a great surround track and the best supplements for Hellsing to date round out the package. Highly Recommended.