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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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07/29/2005 Archived Entry: "Anime review: Vampire Princess Miyu, vol 1 and 2"

Vampire Princess Miyu, Volume 1 and Volume 2
By Narumi Kakinouchi
English translation by AnimEigo, 2005

Review by Kelly S. Taylor

There's something sexy about an import. This is true for cars, wine, and, surprisingly enough, folklore. The Japanese are as crazy about Western-style vampires as Americans are about ninjas and samurai. Like almost all cultures, the Japanese have their own home-grown vampire myths. However, in the same way that a BMW seems to glitter more brightly than a Buick, anime artists tend to evoke Dracula more often than native kyuketsuki.

Vampire Princess Miyu is an anime classic from the late 1980's that blends both these traditions into a moody and evocative exploration of the twilight world of damnation. In the same way Western vampires are rooted in Christian tradition and embody fears of uncontrolled metamorphosis and the defilement of purity, Japanese vampires spring from Buddhist beliefs about karmic self-destruction and chthonic manipulation. "Possession," one of the characters explains, "is a source of terror smoldering in the depths of the Japanese soul." The kyuketsuki, unlike the Count and his kin, are pathetic creatures who, usually from circumstances beyond their control, are cursed to rise from the dead and attack their own family. They are only one step above the gaki and jikininki, "hungry ghosts" whose jealousy, greed, and other selfish impulses in life condemn them to an afterlife of feeding on human corpses and feces. Decidedly not glamorous even by goth standards.

Princess Miyu is a creature who uses both the words kyuketsuki and vampire to describe herself. She was born human... or at least human-ish. She's a sort of a demi-vampire (or maybe a super vampire..?) with special powers and few of the weaknesses (garlic, crosses, sunlight) of the undead hoi poloi. Hordes of shinma (creatures that are both gods and monsters) are inadvertently released when Miyu's mother tries to prevent her from awakening to her vampiric heritage. Miyu, as a result, must now defeat and recapture all the shinma before she can have a normal (or normal-ish) death.

Assisting her is a powerful shinma who, though he originally sought to kill her, wound up becoming her devoted servant. There was originally a lot of speculation about this shinma's name. In Japanese, it's pronounced "La-baa." Since there is no "v" sound in Japanese, some fans chose to interpret his name as "Lover." However, the author, Kakinouchi Narumi, has come out and definitively stated that this character's name is "Larva." Again, not glamorous by any means, but not that inappropriate for a demon who might have grown up with kids called "Wormtongue" or "Hellspawn." Larva, as his name suggests, is a silent character cocooned in floaty layers of robes. A distorted mask conceals his beautiful face. In the manga the author reveals that Larva, Miyu's best friend and confidant, has agreed to kill his princess when she finally accomplishes her mission.

Pursuing this pair is Himiko, a spiritualist. A spiritualist, in Western terms, is someone interested in contacting the world of spirits. In other words, we would assume she is a medium. In Japan, spiritualist also connotes healer and exorcist (kind of like that weird little woman in "Poltergeist"). In a duality-heavy narrative like Miyu, it should come as no surprise that the author uses the character of Himiko to explore the symbiotic relationship between hunter and hunted. The more obsessed Himiko becomes with Miyu, the more hints we are given that Himiko may be an unawakened version of the same sort of creature Miyu is.

Alas, we will never know. Vampire Princess Miyu is an unfinished masterpiece. There are only four episodes in the OAV (original animation video) series. Himiko's storyline is not featured in the manga. There was a new Miyu television series aired in 1997 (and recently released on DVD by Tokyopop), but the tone was decidedly less philosophical than the original OAV series. One fan website summed the difference up best for me when she described the TV series as being the chronicle of Miyu's never-ending quest for bishonen (beautiful young men) er, I mean, souls.

AnimEigo has lovingly collected all four episodes into a beautiful, two-volume DVD set. The cover art is gorgeous. Speaking of gorgeous, I must mention that I was surprised at how dated Miyu's artwork looks. In the late 1980's, Vampire Princess Miyu was a graphic rose in the midst of a field of Robotechs. It was a beautifully nuanced vision of what anime could be. However, when compared to the state of the art today when even the most uninspired Poki-clone is presented in eye-popping, detailed, and delicately cel-shaded, computer enhanced graphics, a good deal of Miyu's ground-breaking visual impact is lost. It's like comparing pre-steroids Barry Bonds to post-steroids Barry Bonds. The original was great, but wow.

This is the first AnimEigo video that I've reviewed, and I'm pleased to report they did several things that made me clap my little fannish hands in glee. Like all anime DVDs, this production company offered the episodes several language options; English, Japanese with subtitles, Japanese without subtitles, etc. The default option is something I've not seen elsewhere. AnimEigo calls it, "English with signs". Using the same technology used to place subtitles, the translators will occasionally insert a little footnote to explain a Japanese term or place name. I thought this was great idea. The footnotes appear infrequently enough to not be annoying and serve to clear up points that could easily confuse the audience. Viewers who are adamantly against reading can simply turn the option off if it bothers them. I think this is fabulous idea and should be adapted by all other publishing companies importing anime post haste.

Captioning is done very nicely. Words appear a little higher up than other companies place them, avoiding bottom of the screen cutoff and allowing you to keep your eye on the action while you read. When two people are speaking, each character's dialogue is rendered in a different color again making it easier to comprehend quickly.

This might be a commentary on my own personal laziness, but I also liked way they handled the obligatory image gallery. Instead of having to figure out how to navigate one's way through, the gallery is an automatic slide show. My favorite part of the image gallery was the music. At first, you have the usual silent screen. Then after several frames, eerie Princess Miyu music begins to fade in so softly that it kind of freaks you out which what you want from a good vampire DVD.

If you've read other anime reviews by me, you know I am a xenophilic snob when it comes to voice acting. I think the Japanese actors are always better. The same is true here. However, there is not a marked degree of difference between the two sets of performances that will ruin your enjoyment of the translation. For an example of the kind of differences I'm talking about, the English-language actress voicing Miyu plays her as a creepy little girl. In the original Japanese, she sounds more like something creepy pretending to be a little girl. Too subtle for most people to notice or care. The beautiful thing about having this program on DVD is that the true connoisseur has the opportunity to sample the excellence of each and compare.

AnimEigo included liner notes inside the jacket of each DVD. This made me squeal with pure grognard glee that is, until I read the second liner which turned out to be a charming little note announcing that there were no liner notes for the second DVD. Cute, but why not just divide the information on the first card in two and use larger print or -- and this is radical, I know -- just write more? For mere money, I'd be more than happy to fill up an index card

As my ex-husband used to complain, I always want a little more. In addition to seeing the lovely full-motion menus and image galleries, I'd like to have seen more original content to complement the OAV. I'm inordinately fond of "making of" featurettes. If there's no original Japanese promotion material still available, I would have been satisfied to see a slide show of images with information on the author (Narumi Kakinouchi is one of the few very successful female anime artists. She is also married to another famous anime artist) the manga, the voice actors, and perhaps even a little historical context discussing the impact of Miyu on subsequent generations of anime artists.

Whining aside, I must say that the people at AnimEigo have done their job well. This collection of Vampire Princess Miyu embodies exactly the sort of careful, intelligent, and attentive handling of a classic title that every anime aficionado should demand of a publisher. "Do I need to buy a DVD of an anime that has been available at every local Hastings or Blockbuster from Kalamazoo to Possum Trot, Tennessee since 1989?" the hardboiled fan may ask. "Yes," this slick and lovely package will coo back seductively. "Yes!"

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