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Blood: The Last Vampire

Manga // Unrated // November 24, 2009
List Price: $29.97 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted December 1, 2009 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Blood: The Last Vampire, a brisk slash-'em-up horror piece from director Hiroyuki Kitakubo (key animator from Akira), is an engaging, edgy piece of animation that's energetic and accessible enough to grab hold of those that aren't even anime enthusiasts. Dark and blood-spattered with a brutal eye for rage, its enthralling yet single-focused vampiric carnage transforms a slew of rushed moments into a stylish onslaught on the senses -- even if it operates more as an prelude to a grander story than a standalone feature.

We're not working with a terribly deep or elaborate plot, though. The lead, Saya, is a vicious yet supple female half-vampire who, as far as her Red Shield organization employers are aware, is the last of her kind. She slings a katana like it's nobody's business, always carrying a cold, calculated, yet ferocious look about her whilst in the middle of her battles. After a quick kill at the start of the film, she's sent off to Yokota Air Force Base (all set prior to the Vietnam War, though that's inconsequential) as an undercover student to sniff out potential vampires who've reportedly wedged into the mix. It's not a bad setup, though it reeks of skim-off-the-top engineering that's specifically plotted just to create a sword-wielding Japanese monster killer -- aiming after beasts called chiroptera, a fang-toothed creature that could literally be called a "bat out of hell" -- running around in a traditional schoolgirl outfit. But, hell, when it's done in the way that Blood: The Last Vampire slices and dices on-screen, it really doesn't matter.

The artistry of animation director Kazuchika Kise (Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, Ghost in the Shell) can clearly be seen throughout the production, bubbling into a barrage of fluid human motion and piercing quickness that's simply mesmeric. Computer-generated animation blends seamlessly into hand-drawn boards for the first time in this piece, as a marriage forms between the two creative mediums that sets a tone for subsequent productions. Much like integrating CG-work with live-action footage in the technology's infancy, Blood: The Last Vampire surgically inserts computer-built elements to a degree that's very mindful of limitations and validity of environment. As a testament to design fluidness, a mildly eerie Halloween dance sequence in a gymnasium holds almost as much gripping energy as a flame-drenched brawl between Saya and her "target" shortly afterwards. That's an impressive feat, something that continues from feverish start to breakneck conclusion.

It wouldn't be unreasonable to assume that Saya takes on at least a fistful of influence from D of Vampire Hunter D, with her black cloak and piercing disposition, even as her mannerisms steer her in another direction. She's a thoroughly engaging heroine with a past that we'd really like to know, but that's not a story we're supposed to hear quite yet. We yearn to learn more about the "extinction" of her race from the start of Blood: The Last Vampire, when Saya quickly shuts up one of the Red Shield agents outside of the subway. Yet, aside from a heartfelt moment late in the film that somehow manages to rustle up empathy even for a monster, it doesn't elaborate much on the core reasons behind her nature. We're just along for the ride, as if it's simply a fast-paced entry in a broad story arc with an already-established mythos.

In fact, the pacing is so tightly-coiled with its central storyline that the piece simply breezes by in a whirlwind, leaving us wanting much more exposition with its climax. The crew behind the film had an idea that Blood: The Last Vampire would branch into a legacy of sorts, resulting in an onslaught of manga and video games, which is why it's cut off so abruptly at the end. However, that's the big conundrum with the film by itself: it proposes a full-length, sprawling story with its character establishment and sprawling history behind Saya, yet all we're given with this breakneck 48-minute sprint is a swift introduction and a salvo of blade-swirling bloodshed. Though it feels more like a prologue to a far more sprawling body of work because of this, the intensity that it grapples for its brief runtime still offers a daunting visceral experience that's worthy of its recognition.

The Blu-ray:

Video and Audio:

Blood: The Last Vampire comes delivered from Anchory Bay / Manga with two separate high-bitrate 1.85:1 AVC encodes, both looking spectacular in 1080p. The first is the default transfer, taken directly from the Telecine source for a more cinematic feel. It's a visual feast, with blooming light sources, ravishing colors, and a broad range of motion that's a delight to behold. Lines remain smooth and crisp, while the image showcases a natural grain that's highly pleasing to those looking for a replication of the experience in seeing the picture in the theater. It does have a few instances of weak coloring, a few mild instances of edge halos, and a slightly hazy disposition at times, but overall this presentation is a stunner.

The second, listed under the Special Features, is the Digital Data version of the film. Naturally, it's less cinematic -- but worlds cleaner in showcasing the artwork. Gone are the film grain and the print damage, as well as a bit of the lacking sharpness from the film-to-file transfer. Colors are a bit more vivid as well, while minor details in some of the computer-generated elements sport tighter rendering. Its only real flaw comes in some minor source-inherent aliasing along curves, but that's only when looking at the image with a scrutinizing eye. Overall both images are strong, ample offerings of Hiroyuki Kitakubo's film.

Alongside the impressive transfer, an English/Japanese DTS HD Master Audio track powers the film forward on the sound front. It's a dialogue-heavy production in between the handful of active sequences, but the action certainly offers a blast of intensity when it's in the focus. Surround activity explodes from all directions during several points, namely the terse subway scene and the grand duel amid fire late in the picture. Verbal clarity remains crisp and clean, though it gets a little low in a few sequences, while special effects -- from the slam of Saya's victim against the tram doorway to the subtle ambient effects from shattering glass and gunfire -- make broad use of the lower-frequency and front-end channels. It's a highly pleasing audio experience with plenty of punch when asked to offer aggressiveness. Only non-removable English subtitles are available to accompany the Master Audio track, which appear only during the Japanese-spoken portions.

Special Features:

Aside from the selection between the Telecine and Digital Data version of Blood: The Last Vampire, Manga/Anchor Bay have only offered the old Making-of Featurette (20:52, MPEG-2 4x3 Letterbox) in standard definition. It takes us through the conceptualization and animation process, showing how they incorporated computer-generated imagery into the illustrated portions, as well as taking us through scoring the film. Furthermore, a Trailer (1:36, MPEG-2 4x3) has also been tacked onto the Blu-ray.

Final Thoughts:

Short but sweet pretty much covers Blood: The Last Vampire, a horror-action hybrid that's low on story revelation but high of stylish violence and breakneck pacing. It's an artistic marvel when looking at the strategic combination of computer-generated images and traditional hand-drawn animation, all of which does an impeccable job at creating darkness around the characters, setting, and action sequences. Anchor Bay/Manga have provided both the Telecine and Digital Data versions of the film on this Blu-ray, along with offering an aggressive DTS Master Audio track that accompanies the dialogue-action switches in rhythm. Recommended.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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