Blood: The Last Vampire (2000) - Yay on the girl power, nay on the racism
This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.
I found a Blu-Ray copy of the original anime Blood: The Last Vampire at one of the soon-to-be-closed Borders. I was skeptical that the Blu-Ray would improve our viewing experience, and my skepticism was well-founded. However, the acquisition gave me an excuse to re-watch the film, so all's well that ends well.
Blood: The Last Vampire is one of my favorite films in the women in action genre. It takes place in 1966 Japan over about 24 hours in the life of Saya, one of the "originals," a female Asian demon-hunter with a sword. The organization that supports / controls her (it's unclear) enrolls Saya under cover in a high school on a U.S. military base because they believe demons have infiltrated the school. Which of course is true, and requires a bunch of violence to resolve. Luckily, Saya is more than capable of meting out punishment to demonkind.
Watching Blood: The Last Vampire the first time was possibly the creepiest 48 minutes of my entertainment life. The creep factor has faded with successive viewings, since I know what's going to happen next. It's still a spare, haunting, tense film, though. The film's creators are restrained when hinting at the larger battle, the conspiracy and the entities that surround Saya and yet leave her entirely alone. All of the elements tell you "there's something big here, there's so much backstory, and we're only going to give you a glimpse." Youki Kudoh's voice acting of Saya is outstanding. During a battle late in the film, Saya calls out "SWORD!" as she's about to fall prey to one of the demons. The mix of desperation, need, strength, and exhaustion in that one word never ceases to amaze me. The note of exhaustion seems bigger than just that moment, feeding back into the feeling of larger-than-life forces moving in the night.
Saya travels with David and Louis, a couple of handlers / minders / support staff from an unnamed organization. They both sound like U.S. Americans, respectively white and African-American. David is obviously the alpha dog, having to read Louis the riot act and bring him up to speed. David and Saya are the heart of the film. He will do anything to protect and help her, though it makes her seem even more alien and isolated, since his actions seem motivated by her utility - and his fear of her.
The school nurse, a middle-aged Japanese woman, is unwittingly dragged along Saya's trail of destruction. In 2009's live action adaptation, she's replaced by a perky young American teenager so the audience can have someone to identify with. Not so here. The nurse spends most of her time screaming. She's the bewildered onlooker, never understanding what the heck she's stumbled into, even at the end when Saya's true nature is revealed. Whatever the big thing was that swept through her life that night, it's gone now, leaving no explanations behind. If the audience is meant to identify with anyone in this film, I think it's supposed to be David. Saya's too prickly, she's too distant - and identifying with David means we're supporting her, but we also see her as unpredictable and deadly, someone to be managed.
This time around, I spent a lot of time looking at the background characters. Early in the film, we see a conversation among several women who make a living through prostitution outside the military base. The prostitutes are wearing full-length coats, because it's cold outside. Granted, this is supposed to be a period piece set in 1966, but I appreciated the lack of exploitation for exploitation's sake here. And while one of their friends seems to have fallen victim to the demons, so do two white U.S. high school students on the military base and also two U.S. soldiers, one white and one African-American. We didn't see this conversation and these characters so early because they were going to be picked off as victims. They're just the locals, discussing the local happenings.
In that conversation, the only character not wearing a coat is the local bartender, Mama-San - who I'm pretty sure is supposed to be a trans and/or queer character. Most people would probably describe Mama-San as "a man in makeup and a kimono." Since we don't get any information about the character, I hate to jump to labels. (And if Mama-San were a real person, it wouldn't be any of my business anyway.) The film is so short and tightly constructed, there would barely have been any room for even one joke at this character's expense, but there aren't any. I liked that.
Unfortunately, things don't go so well for the African-American characters. There are two with speaking parts: Louis, the handler, and an unnamed male U.S. soldier. (Which, come to think of it, put this film ahead of many we've reviewed here for casting diversity.) Louis gets schooled by David early on, and he doesn't get a lot of time later to make up for it, but I felt like he had potential. However, the soldier is a mess. As Daniel Blak puts it at Afro-Punk: "big lipped, 1940's WWII guard." He's drawn so out of line with the rest of the animation. It's an appalling racist stereotype. What made this even more bizarre to me was the comparison of this character to Louis and to the rest of the background African-American characters, including the jazz musicians that Blak also mentions in his post. They look perfectly normal! As pointed out on TV Tropes, the solder is also an example of Black Dude Dies First, making this a Fail all around.
I want to give Blood: The Last Vampire four stars. But if I have to cover my eyes and shake my head to avoid your horrible caricatures of Black men, then you lose points. It's hard for me to decide how many. It's films like this when I wonder if we should split the ratings, so the heroine and the overall film can get different ones. Saya gets four, the rest of the film gets zero?
I guess that means two stars. So close... if not for the racism? I have so much love for this film, I hate to do it. But that gives it the same rating as the Tomb Raider films, another one of my painfully split reviews - yay girl power, boo colonialism. So let's go with that.