Blood: The Last Vampire
Saya is a high-school vampire slayer who could take a bite out of Buffy
Blood: The Last Vampire
Production I.G.
Directed by Hiroyuki Kitakubo
Japan, 2000
"Welcome to the North American premiere of Blood: The Last Vampire, Japan's first full-digital feature," said Maki Terashima, International Operations Manager for Production I.G. I was at the Fantasia film festival in Montreal, and the crowd had just been warmed up with a quartet of computer-animated shorts. Terashima worked the crowd a bit more, reminding us that Production I.G. was the studio behind Ghost in the Shell and Jin Roh; directed by Hiroyuki Kitakubo (director of Black Magic M-66 and a contributor to Robot Carnival); and co-created by Ghost in the Shell director and anime legend Mamoru Oshii.

Well, that film just couldn't start soon enough.

Terashima later elaborated that "full-digital" meant that Blood: The Last Vampire is mainly animated on paper, but after scanning physical artwork in, the entire process is digital--the way Disney and many other Western studios have been doing feature animation since 1990. Granted, it's significant that Blood is Japan's first film done this way in its entirety, but that it was mentioned first, before even the director's name, implies that the technique has a certain significance to the content of the film. But from the first scene, the technicalities are forgotten. Blood grabs the audience and doesn't let go.

The movie's focus is on the young Saya, a teenaged girl who, as part of a special and secretive US Army operation, fights tirelessly to eliminate vampires. These vampires, it should be noted, are not the undead bloodsuckers we're so familiar with--in Blood, they transform into grotesque creatures before they feast on human flesh. While you're at it, forget stakes through the heart, garlic, or crosses; these beasts have to lose tremendous amounts of blood quickly before they can die.

That means a lot of action, of course, and a fair bit of gore. But unlike, say, From Dusk Till Dawn, the hack 'n' slash isn't the point. As befits any project Oshii is involved in, the prevailing element of Blood: The Last Vampire is its mood--a dark, somber disquiet that envelops every scene and every line of dialogue. At the center of it is Saya, her scowling face at turns dispassionate, angry, or hateful. She's very much a mystery, and a compelling one at that. We're left to speculate as to who (or what) she is, and why she does what she does, assisted only by the tiniest morsels of clues doled out as the movie progresses. Not once does she ever smile, and she only truly comes alive when she explodes into action, a terrifying ball of fury carving up her enemies with an intense, almost palpable hate.

Eventually one realizes that hate just might be the only emotion Saya feels, and oddly enough this draws us to her rather than pushes us away. The question is, what does she hate? Her sworn foes? What she does? The people she defends? Herself? The obvious answer seems to be a mix of all the above, but the one time she doesn't frown--a surprising moment of profound serenity mixed with sadness near the end of the film--provides some insight into her origins and her feelings. It's a rare thing that a character, animated or otherwise, can be so cryptic and yet so enthralling. That, and not digital wizardry, is Blood's real achievement.

A Critical Eye exclusive (September 11, 2000)
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