Blood: The Last Vampire (2009) - Where's my Saya action figure?
This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.
The live action Blood: The Last Vampire was released on Blu-Ray October 20th. It was never released in theaters in Austin, and I did not manage to see it when I went to Chicago in July, so I felt like I had been waiting a loooong time for that red Netflix envelope to show up in my mailbox.
The film is set in Japan during the Vietnamese War. South Korean actor Gianna Jun plays Saya, a vampire-human hybrid whose mission in life is killing the demon who destroyed her father. Onigen, the demon, is played by Koyuki, who is Japanese. Aiding Saya in her pursuit is Alice McKee (played by white actor Allison Miller), the daughter of a military base commander whose run-in with the shadowy organization Saya collaborates with does not turn out well for anyone.
So far, that's already a big bunch of differences from the original animated film Blood: The Last Vampire, made in 2000.
The introduction of Onigen gives us another powerful woman of color. Unfortunately, though, for most of the film she is just the scary thing in the background. Pretty, young, skinny, white Alice replaces the character of the grownup, plump, Japanese nurse who becomes Saya's unwitting accomplice in the animated film. To me, it's an obvious effort to make the film more American, sexy, and accessible than casting the Japanese equivalent of Kathy Bates. (Now that I think about it, Qiu Yuen from Kung Fu Hustle would have been awesome in this movie.) Alice does a lot more than the character she replaced, but I was put off by the remodeling of the role.
Overall, many of the things that I liked about the animated film suffered a similar fate. Eerie pale little girl who doesn't talk and levitates before turning into a demon becomes trash-talking, bitchy high school girl with a sword. Three terrifying and possibly unstoppable demons become hordes of fairly disposable demon-looking people chasing Saya and Alice down alleys. The creepy, almost breathtaking reveal of Saya's past at the end of the first film does not happen. Instead we are given cues early on as to her nature. Everything is more and bigger, but in the process becomes more prosaic. In the animated film, I got the enjoyable feeling that there were far bigger things going on and we only caught a glimpse. Not so much in the live action film.
To turn a 48 minute animated film into a feature length movie requires adding, so there is plenty of additional subplot and extra characters. The implied shadowy organization from the animated film becomes The Council, with lots of white male personnel. The Council's front as CIA operatives does necessitate them sounding American when they talk, but despite the historical setting of the film, I would have appreciated a tiny nod to people who speak American English being not just white and male. (Especially since in the animated film, one of the guys was black.) We also spend time with Alice's father and his staff, all of whom are white. One of the demons is an instructor at the school, and he's played by black British actor Colin Salmon. Saya's guardian from her childhood, Kato, is played by Japanese actor Yasuaki Kurata, and Onigen's henchman is played by another Japanese actor, who I am having the most difficult time identifying from the IMDB credits.
The animated film felt like it was about an event that happened to two women, since the third main character was a man who functioned mostly as Saya's sidekick. The live action film feels different. We spend so much time away from either Saya or Alice, and there are so many male speaking roles. But Saya is a strong, fierce character, and the film is paced very well. Watching the "Behind the Stunts" feature on the disk gave me a lot of respect for Gianna Jun, too. This was her first action film, and she spent a ton of time in a harness doing wire work and most or all of her own stunts. It easily passes the Bechdel test since Saya and Alice spend a lot of their time talking about demon killing. Neither character is particularly sexualized, and there is no romantic plot or subplot. Alice does scream. A lot. Eventually, though, she gets useful.
This iteration of the Blood story is a straight up action film, though, not dark and haunting like the animated film. Saya is more of a person than an enigma, and even when she battles Onigen her fights don't have that desperate quality that characterizes her fights with the demons in the animated film.
Due to the two women of color as lead and big bad adversary, both of whom kick ass, the casting of three men of color in speaking roles, and the fact that Alice's character finally stops screaming and does something useful, I'm giving this three stars. I wish I hadn't seen the animated predecessor first, so I wouldn't have kept comparing the two, or it might have scored higher.
Now where's my Saya action figure?