Halloween hijinks: Japan’s best Dracula media (and maybe some other vampires)

With seemingly everyone gearing up for Halloween, a blog dedicated to monster media really ought to join the celebration, shouldn’t it? To that end, we’ll be having a series of articles posted during the weeks leading up to Halloween focusing on appropriate seasonal subjects.

We’ve covered Frankenstein and the Wolf Man, so for you Universal Monster fans, there’s one obvious character left to complete the triumvirate: Dracula. (I mean, I guess I could’ve gone with the Invisible Man, but I haven’t seen too many of those movies, and the only Japanese analogue to The Mummy I could think of was Yugioh.)

Vampires are the superstar glam rockers of the supernatural community, and as a result they’re so popular in anime and manga that it’s passed into cliche. Well, maybe you can’t swing a dead bat without running into a couple vampire protagonists, but limiting things to Dracula himself certainly reduces the field. Sure, he might be the most iconic horror character in the world, the second-most popular character in all of literature, but Dracula’s still a foreigner, which both complicates the prospects of getting gaijin actors and means competing with the lots of other Draculas coming in from the west.

Toho even made a whole trilogy of movies with Dracula’s name in which he doesn’t appear (okay, those are usually called the Bloodthirsty films, but still). They’re good, Hammer/giallo-inspired stuff, but the international titles are a little disingenuous!

That said, this list of my personal favorite Japanese Dracula stuff won’t dip nearly as obscure as the previous lists have (so you won’t have to worry about combing around for the likes of The Vampire Dracula Appears in Kobe based on my recommendation). Let’s get started:

5) Maybe I fibbed just now, because My Soul is Slashed (1991) is sort of obscure. Also known as From Dracula with Love, this movie features a hero getting a blood transfusion from Dracula and becoming a vampire himself, a precursor to the Korean movie Thirst (2009). The film won a few awards in Japan, and got some recognition for touching on the subject of HIV (a big deal in 1991), but mostly it’s significant for seriously launching the monster-movie career of Shusuke Kaneko.

4) Don Dracula is Osamu Tezuka’s comedy about a bumbling single dad Dracula. Sadly, the company producing the anime version went bankrupt during the run, so only eight episodes were made. Thanks to Tezuka’s star system, however, his version of the Dracula character has been able to pop up again in many subsequent works.

3) If there’s one thing I can appreciate in media, it’s the audacity of a doing something completely insane, and that’s what Dracula: Sovereign of the Damned (1980) is all about. Based on the Tomb of Dracula comics, which were pretty crazy even by 1970s Marvel standards (let that sink in), this anime movie features present-day Dracula stealing a virgin sacrifice from a demon (incurring the wrath of the demon’s followers) and marrying the woman, then her having a kid who gets killed and then grows up into a spandex-wearing hero who can turn into a bird. That’s just the tip of the WTF- meter; this movie is most famous for Dracula eating a hamburger, for reasons that may not be obvious until you watch. If that isn’t enough to intrigue you, there’s little more I can say.

2) Hellsing is pretty popular, but for those who don’t know, it’s a manga series about Dracula (now going by “Alucard” a la Son of Dracula), captured and made of a servant of the van Helsing family, on missions to fight Nazi werewolves and ghouls and psychotic priests and whatnot. For maximum violence and psychedelic imagery, I’d recommend going with the manga or the Hellsing Ultimate OVA series, and passing over the TV series incarnation.

1) Some might call foul since Dracula is not much of a character in Vampire Hunter D, yet I remain resolute in my selection for best Japanese Dracula with this one. Yes, VHD‘s author Hideyuki Kikuchi did write a straight-up Japanese Dracula novel called Dark Wars: The Tale of Meiji Dracula, but Kikuchi’s most famous and long-lived creation manages to overshadow even that in a discussion of the subject. Dracula mythos is all over the Vampire Hunter D universe, from the country of “Tepes” to the villainous Count “Lee” to… well, let’s just say that the initial “D” isn’t just for dhampir (please no drift racing or One Piece jokes). And that’s just the first book; there’s 26 novels and counting, plus short stories, a prequel series, and countless weird apocrypha.
For me, at least, it usually comes down to the anime movies: the first film was a staple of my middle-school VHS-renting days, and the second film was one of the earlier Japanese movies I caught in the theater (which, as it turns out was incredibly fortuitous; I only found out years later that it only played at six cinemas in the US!), so it’s got a lot of nostalgia value. So, if for some reason, you’re a Dracula fan who hasn’t given this post-post apocalyptic sci-fi fantasy epic a shot, I’d say check these movies out!

Wow, I didn’t even mention Castlevania? That just seems… wrong. Anyway, I figure while we’re at it, I can rattle off some other Japanese vampire stuff that I rather enjoy, starting with movies (skipping Vampire Girl vs Frankenstein Girl, since I just talked about it, as well as MarebitoGoke the Bodysnatcher from Hell and Red Tears, which are great but I wrote about them already):

  • Lady Vampire gets a bump in my book for doing vampires before they were cool. Granted, it’s not the first per se (Vampire Moth, by the same director, preceded it by a few years. It’s not about what the title would have you believe), but it certainly is the earliest Japanese film I’m aware of where vampires really take center stage, and the effects aren’t too shabby.

  • Sanguivorous gets points for being genuinely unsettling at times. It’s low budget and artsy, but still creeps me out.

  • Vampire Wars is one of those guilty pleasure movies: it’s dumb, violent, and not particularly well-executed, but nonetheless an artifact of the Manga Home Video generation of anime releases in the west (read: I have fond memories). I find it fascinating how little the poster on the Japanese box looks like the anime within; maybe it was to appeal to fans of the light novels?

vampire wars us vampire wars japanese

  • Higanjima is a strong contender for my favorite Japanese vampire movie. The harsh survivalist story of an isolated group trying to survive a vampire onslaught is compelling, but then it ends with them battling a giant monster, which really puts it over the top. There was also a TV drama version about a year or two back, which I’m keen to check out eventually.

  • Blood: the Last Vampire was significant for being the first all-digitally animated anime, but the cool little film also kicked off a franchise that includes a (Hong Kong/UK) live-action remake, a video game, manga, novels, two TV anime series and finally coming full circle with another anime film. Each incarnation has been a little different, but I’ve enjoyed them all so far (Blood C has been my favorite). Great monster designs, too.

Taking a break for now, because getting into all the vampire manga/TV shows out there could take a while. Expect a “Vampires, part 2” article in the future!

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