BLOOD: THE LAST VAMPIRE (2000) is a 48-minute anime film, telling the straight forward tale of a being who looks like a Japanese school girl slaying vampires on an American military base in Japan. Though it became very successful and inspired many spin-offs, it was really kind of a practice film. It was conceived by “Team Oshii,” Mamoru (GHOST IN THE SHELL) Oshii’s production study group, which writer Kenji Kamiyama says in a making-of featurette “was designed to give us young directors the practical know-how to implement a project plan.” Kamiyama pitched a story about vampire hunters, Junichi Fujisaki had one about a young female warrior named Saya, and Oshii suggested they combine them. Hiroyuki Kitakubo was chosen as director, and he commissioned cartoonist/illustrator Katsuya Terada to design the characters.
It’s set in Tokyo in 1966, and begins with a moody scene on a moving subway. A young girl carrying a tube, like an art portfolio, looks across the empty car at a tired businessman. Suddenly the lights go out, and she runs at him and slashes him with the sword that was inside that case, splashing blood against the windows.
When Saya (Youki Kudoh, MYSTERY TRAIN) gets off at her stop, two Americans in suits approach. She complains about the dullness of her sword. I kept thinking of her handler David (Joe Romersa) as anime Robert Davi. His partner Louis (Stuart Robinson) finds the body on the train and thinks Saya got the wrong guy. But she’s just so good at her job that she got him before he transformed into the monsters they call “chiroptera.” It pisses her off to be questioned and David chews out Louis for offending her. “As far as we know she’s the only remaining original!” he says. (We never get any specifics on what that means.)
Saya reluctantly accepts a new assignment to go undercover as a student in a high school on the American Yokota Air Base, where David believes more than one vampire is hiding out. (It’s kind of like how Gary Coleman and Emmanuel Lewis got stuck playing spunky kids.) When she arrives the Japanese school nurse, Makiho (Saemi Nakamura, THE TRUMAN SHOW) wonders why a Japanese girl would go to the school, and Saya and David later question why she was given a Japanese style school girl uniform as her disguise. (I suspect the answer to both is that the filmmakers were set on the character design even though it didn’t fit the story.)
This would be pretty good October viewing, because everyone keeps talking about a big Halloween party and there are lots of jack o’lantern, witch and bat themed decorations around. Before the dance Saya follows her classmates Sharon (Rebecca Forstadt) and Linda (who doesn’t talk) to the nurse’s office. Linda says Sharon is sick and “it might be her anemia again.” The nurse is pretty shocked when Saya storms in and slashes Linda in a cool shot that simulates the movements of a hand-held camera. The scene is intercut with the big band kicking out tunes at the party. Sharon’s mouth stretches out and grows sharp teeth before she gets away.
As Nurse Makiho starts to freak out, Saya slaps her, grabs her by the mouth, and says, “Listen, just forget what you just saw.” Her social skills are similar to one of her peers in the vampire slaying field, Blade.
The nurse stumbles around the school in a daze, then into the dance floor looking for Sharon. A vampire jumps out and growls at her – but it’s just a student dressed as Dracula. Then we see that Saya is on the edge of the crowd watching her, looking all Wednesday Addams spooky.
There are some nice directorial touches to build a surreal atmosphere – the music becomes distant, and there are extreme closeups of the sweaty musicians playing their instruments. I like the detail on the band, but I feel like it was a waste of our tax dollars to print up all these stands that say “Halloween” on them. It’s not even a spooky font.
The nurse notices a splatter of blood on the floor, then her eyes follow a trail of them to a person wrapped in a banner advertising the party. No, not a person – a monster. Saya appears and swings at Sharon, whose body is so strong Saya’s sword bends when it hits her. Sharon punches her and she slides across the floor, knocks open the exit doors and rolls out onto the sidewalk. A great action beat.
The kids must be all wrapped up in their teenage hormones though, because nobody notices the fight. It continues outside, with Sharon in full-on monster mode.
Saya saves the nurse from getting munched from above, gives her a gun, explains that those are demons who drink human blood and that now that she’s seen the real world under the sugar-coated topping she’s marked for death. The gun won’t kill them, but “You may need it,” if you get my drift. She tries shooting them anyway and accidentally causes a gas explosion, burning that motherfucker to a crisp! Serendipity, baby!
The rest of the movie is a long chase and battle, with ricocheting bullets, flames, Jeeps skidding out, monster transformations, a cool helicopter-style shot of a monster roaring on top of a bridge. One of the beasts (Sharon?) grows wings and is gonna attack a plane, but David drives down the runway, gets under it, and Saya slashes it. FURIOUS 6 style runway action.
A really cool touch is that the bat falls, bounces and gets left behind, but Saya walks back to it and feeds it a little blood from her hand as it wheezes its last breaths. She feels sorry for it.
In an epilogue Nurse Mahiko dejectedly answers questions from military brass, who deny (I think truthfully?) having anything to do with the vampire hunting operation. She seems haunted and confused and wonders if Saya is still watching the base. Before the credits a plane takes off and a radio report talks about the start of the Vietnam War (the nurse had compared vampires killing each other to humans killing each other).
I don’t really understand the war allegory, but I like the oddness of the military base location. There’s actually not a dub of the movie – since most of the characters are American they speak English, as does Saya, except when talking to Japanese people. It makes for an unusual setting, at least. You don’t see much of anything outside of the base, but there’s a scene with Japanese prostitutes just outside gossiping about a rash of suicides and worrying it will affect business. That hints at an interesting cross-section of cultures (locals, Americans, vampires) that the movie won’t follow up on.
Saya can touch the floor and sense that blood was once spilled there, and David’s car has some kind of sonar-esque vampire detector gadget. Other than that there’s nothing original about the vampire hunting techniques, it’s not clearly explained why she’s a vampire who hunts vampires, or why she’s anything other than a mix of Blade and Buffy. And yet I found it consistently entertaining. A good argument for style over substance or originality.
Being more of an exercise than a commercial endeavor, the filmmakers and studio Production I.G. (O-Ren Ishii sequence in KILL BILL) also used it as a testing ground for new technologies that are common place now, but cutting edge at the time. Re-creating all the background paintings digitally, they were able to design three-dimensional camera moves and then animate the characters within the shots. All kinds of lighting and focus effects further create a live action feel even though you (hopefully) know you’re looking at drawings.
Though BLOOD was an original story that didn’t really go much of anywhere in its original movie, it became a franchise. It inspired a manga sequel (Blood: The Last Vampire 2002), three novels, a video game, and two alternate universe anime series, Blood+ and Blood-C, which themselves spawned all kinds of other stuff. The reason I’m reviewing the original BLOOD is that it caught the eye of director Ronny Yu, who bought the rights to adapt the original film as a live action feature, and tried to produce it independently. As early as 2003 when promoting FREDDY VS. JASON and as late as 2006 after FEARLESS he talked about it as his next film. When it finally came out in 2009 Yu was credited as producer, but he did not direct it. We’ll took a look at that next.
P.S. I always assumed “Blood” was the name of the last vampire, but it’s not. I guess I don’t really get the title.