Friday, 18 January 2013

Vampire Hunter D - Book Review

Vampire Hunter D, by Hideyuki Kikuchi: 12,090 A.D. It is a dark time for the world. Humanity is just crawling out from under three hundred years of domination by the race of vampires known as the Nobility. The war against the vampires has taken its toll; cities lie in ruin, the countryside is fragmented into small villages and fiefdoms that still struggle against nightly raids by the fallen vampires - and the remnants of their genetically manufactured demons and werewolves. Every village wants a Hunter - one of the warriors who have pledged their laser guns and their swords to the eradication of the Nobility. But some Hunters are better than others, and some bring their own kind of danger with them. (Synopsis from Goodreads)


I’ve watched the anime film of Vampire Hunter D, and was intrigued to see what the book’s like. As January is vampire month for the Paranormal Challenge, I thought this seemed like a good time to give it a try.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the book at first because it’s written in a very odd style. I suppose this could be down to the translation, but to me it felt like a deliberate choice. It seemed to be going for a kind of ‘pulp’ style, which suits the weird setting and atmosphere, but it definitely slid over into the realms of cheesy at points. This includes a detached non-character narrator who occasionally appears to talk back to himself, sometimes talks directly to the reader, and who observes events without hindsight or omniscience, as if watching a film for the first time: there was a black shadow in the corner but D didn’t notice it... D looked around the room... a cat rubbed up against D’s leg – oh that must have been the black shadow! (Okay, so that wasn’t an actual quote, but it gives an idea.)

However, though this was a little disrupting at first, I did get used to it, and I began to see why Hideyuki Kikuchi had chosen to write like this. Vampire Hunter D clearly owes a lot to old Hammer Horror films: there are constant references to them, the vampire count is called Lee, the book is dedicated to the cast and crew of Horror of Dracula (’58), and the author talks about the influence such films had on him. The sometimes cheesy and hammy (mmmm ham and cheese...) dialogue and narration did actually capture a sense of this kind of over-dramatic, fun-yet-still-frightening horror. Combined with Japanese elements, the author’s own unique style and vision, and a lot of manga/anime influence, this actually blossomed into what was quite a quirky, different, and fun style.

The story is a very simple white-knight and damsel-in-distress tale, made more interesting by the unique world Hideyuki Kikuchi has created. It’s 12,090 AD, a far future in which mankind has almost ruined the Earth, blown itself up in nuclear world war, slid into another Dark Ages, been taken over by vampires, risen against the vampires, and now exists in a kind of uneasy state of freedom. There are futuristic gadgets and inventions, the horses are cyborgs, and the vampire castle has laser defence systems. Yet the world has also reverted into a kind of small-town, agricultural, past age, with a society to match. Pretty much everything technical the humans possess came from the vampires, and there is a sense that there is no innovation or invention anymore. On top of this, there are all kinds of bizarre supernatural creatures roaming the Earth, most of them bioengineered by the vampires for the lolz.

This is a fantastic setting, and the weird mix of fantasy, old-world, paranormal and futuristic works very well. I loved it. But, unfortunately, the story did not really live up to this amazing creation. Doris Lang is bitten by a vampire and hires D, a vampire hunter, to help her with her unwanted admirer. D runs off to the castle, and the rest of the story is a series of incidents designed to instigate as many fights as possible, while Doris is constantly whisked away, providing more chances for D to save her. This got old very quickly for me, as did the never-ending introduction of more elite bad guys. The story is full of people who are so quick and incredible at fighting that none of them actually appear to move. D is always the very definition of cool – calm and unafraid of anything, not because he’s brave but because he knows he’s the best – and this kind of character tends to irritate me. Where’s the emotion, the tension, the character development? There were odd points where D did show a real person lurking beneath the surface, and these were the most interesting parts. It was a shame that this never lasted very long.

I also found Doris’ character to be rather annoying. She starts out with an incredible strength; she is brave despite her fear, looks after her little brother and the farm with no help, deals with all manner of problems, is self-assured and determined, but also kind and well-meaning. She seeks help because she knows a vampire is a formidable foe that she cannot face alone. Then she meets D, and as D begins to do more for her, she gets steadily weaker. By the end of the story, a girl who took on everything and anything on her own can’t even lift a bucket without D’s help. She tells her little brother that she now doesn’t think she can manage on her own. I understand that she would be tired and in shock after everything that happened, but I do prefer characters to grow with their experiences rather than become more helpless.

Vampire Hunter D is an interesting and quirky book, and certainly worth reading for its weird and wonderful world alone. The story is simple, and at points it lets the book down, as does some of the characterisation. A short and light-hearted read, often entertaining, sometimes frustrating, but very unique.

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