Although horror has been a staple of anime for some time, only recently has it made inroads onto Japanese airwaves. Most horror entries tended to be OVAs or films throughout the 80s and 90s. However, with the advent of special cable programming and late-night slots dedicated to unique and adult oriented anime, we're seeing an increase in supernatural television shows. Boogiepop Phantom and Vampire Princess Miyu are just two such examples. The most hyped of the lot, though, is Hellsing. A 13-episode action/horror blend with enough gruesomeness to send a network censor into apoplexy, Hellsing is an exciting romp patterned in many ways like the successful Cowboy Bebop and Trigun. It has enough problems to make it less than a first-string title, but enough flair to be a fan favorite anyway.
Seles Victoria is faced with an awful choice. A British policewoman caught in the crossfire between two vampires, she must choose whether to die a human or live on as a member of the undead. She decided she's not quite ready to face the eternal yet, and so the mysterious Alucard drinks her blood, turning her. She soon finds that Alucard is actually the servant of the Hellsing Organization, a royal knighthood charged with protecting queen and country from the ever-growing vampire population.
Headed by Sir Integra Wingates Hellsing, the only known surviving daughter of the Hellsing family of vampire hunters, its operatives are facing their greatest challenge yet. A large new strain of vampires is showing up--young, brash, reckless, openly violent--and no one knows why. As Seles starts coming to terms with her new life and becomes a member of Hellsing under Alucard's direction, she will face terrors untold. Faced with enemies ranging from evil undead brothers bent on destruction to the Vatican's Iscariot Division, the Hellsing Organization may crumple under the strain.
Hellsing is a mixture of greatness and mediocrity in many ways, and so I'll start with talking about the animation. For a TV series, this thing looks gorgeous 95% of the time. The art direction is creepy and mysterious, with vampires that constantly smile maniacally in hazy streets flowing with the blood of the citizens caught in the wake. Atmospherically, it's brilliant. But as with any television show, look closely enough and the budget shows. In this case, it's the character models themselves that show the inconsistencies. Though the close-ups are all excellent, nobody seems to know exactly what these folks are supposed to look like standing straight up. Sometimes, Integra is Calista Flockhart skinny, and other times she's buff. Meanwhile, Seles has the unfortunate problem of an ever-changing bosom. Seriously, she goes from a B cup to a double D from scene to scene as if female bloodsuckers are automatically issued the Wonderbra From Hell(tm). If you can forgive this oversight, it's not a huge problem otherwise (pardon the pun).
Despite the animation problems, Hellsing has some remarkable concepts floating around in its narrative. At the same time, the viewer looking for a lot of action and violence will be enthralled; it's rare to find a horror show to feature this many explosions and gunfights (handled well, no less). Though a TV show, there is an amazing amount of blood and carnage--if it were a movie, the MPAA would certainly have rated it R--and though I'm not a fan of such things, it is very appropriate to the story being told. The plot also does the audience a favor by sticking with Seles for the majority of the story. Placing Alucard, the awesomely cool yet awesomely disturbing nosferatu, in the background is a very wise choice. Ultimately, it's Seles we relate to and Seles who brings the human element to the tale. It's only when we lose track of Seles that the show goes astray.
But stray it does, and several times. The ending of the show gets off track (and apparently wanders from the manga) when it stops being Seles' story and becomes an Alucard grudge match. Although we have a variety of "enemy of the week" stories, up to the final few episodes we see the conflicts through Seles' eyes. Not so the ending. The story also has a nasty habit of introducing threads that are not resolved in the show's length. The coolest story elements go nowhere, intentionally left open perhaps in hopes of a follow-up series. Although I really liked Hellsing and would welcome a second season, in its current incarnation it is incomplete.
What some fans will find more disconcerting, as I did, is that there is a lack of character development. Alucard is obviously supposed to be mysterious and needs to remain that way--after all, spell his name backwards and you have all you really need to know, right? (Actually, versions of Alucard have existed all the way back to the 1930s with the film Son Of Dracula. Those who think that the creators of Hellsing were being silly or goofy with this name don't know their vampire lore.)
But other characters like Seles really need a lot more background than what we're given. Does Seles have no family that she wants to see? Did she have a boyfriend? What did she give up to become a vampire and live past what would most certainly have been her end? I've complimented the show for keeping us focused on her, and yet I also have to admit I'm conflicted about how little we know about her and how easy her transition is. Though she fights drinking blood and likes to think she's still human, we don't have enough answers about who she really is as a person.
The final element I have to mention is that of the show's religious symbolism. As a Christian, I could just choose to be offended by some of it. But I'm not. As it exists in Hellsing, it is nothing more than an adaptation of Eastern superstitions and prayer forms with a Christian flavoring. Alucard's gun has the inscription "Jesus Christ is in Heaven now" written in English on it. What is this supposed to mean? Is it to bless the gun? Is it a statement of fact, meant to show victory over the undead? Is it to be Alucard's subtle jab at his masters? Here is the secret: the creators thought it looked and sounded cool. Nothing more. If they had taken a little more time to explore the Christian elements of vampirism threaded throughout all the old stories, they could have come up with something really scary and appropriate. But for all intents and purposes, it's window dressing.
Having expressed the negatives, I have to say that I thought Hellsing was a thoroughly enjoyable, if essentially slight and unfocused, vampire series. It radiates cool from every pore. I'm a little past the point where style alone impresses me, and still Hellsing is a strong show based on its story and substance. It makes many mistakes along the way, and it's too violent and dark to casually recommend. But fans of vampire lore will love it, action buffs will get a kick out of it, and it's a welcome alternative to some of other clutter on the anime shelves.
Hellsing -- graphic violence, strong profanity, disturbing imagery, sensual imagery -- B+