There often seems to be one new show that most people despise, but I think is outstanding.
A couple of summers ago, it was Mahou Tsukai ni Taisetsu na Koto, which it seems only I thought was one of the best shows of 2008. Last fall, it was the hilarious and deep Seitokai no Ichizon, which was derided by its early reviewers. This season, the show in question is Dance in the Vampire Bund. (click images to enlarge)
Posters on the show's AnimeSuki forum, and also many bloggers, have been enraged at the way the first episode bears no relation to the manga. They find the TV game show that is used to introduce the story quite stupid. They rail against the fuzzy drawing in the two episodes that have been aired so far. They repeat the common criticism of Shaft and director Shinbou Akiyuki that there are too many still frames and not enough actual animation. They ridicule the use of monsters and amnesia in the plot. They say the show is boring and trite.
But after watching episode two, I consider this by far the most promising show of the season, with great visual art, excellent voice-acting, unusual story-telling, fascinating rhythms in the direction, interesting characters, and a romantic story with strong elements of myth.
Japanese comments have been mixed, but nowhere near as negative as those in the West. Posters on the Japanese discussion board 2channel have compared the look of the show to shows of the 1980s and earlier. To me, it has echoes of the great German "proto-postmodern" artist Joseph Beuys and his school: dry, unemphatic, strange. The dramatic visual patterns of Shinbou's Bakemonogatari are still there, but muted and more complex. For me, Bakemonogatari took Shinbou to a new level, and this show -- or at least episode two -- is yet another step up.
The rhythms of the scenes are brilliant. The deft interplay of sound and silence, image and blank screen in an early classroom scene in episode two is a masterpiece in itself, embodying the protagonist's unsettled state of mind in a way that moves like music.
The basic situations are mythical: a queen of the vampires who looks like a child. A vampire island in Tokyo Harbor. A young man who has forgotten his true nature and his life's purpose. A spider/vampire who restrains the queen from crossing the water to her home, but whose attack on the hero releases him from his amnesia and launches him on his true path. The monster spider is like the guardian who blocks the start of the Hero's Journey in classic myth.
And mythic images keep appearing: the head poking out of a tiny window in a school wall is like some subterranean or subconscious god. The little queen's face peeking out of the shrubbery shows her integration with the power of the natural world.
There is a sequence in episode two where the queen, Mina Tepes, wears the Noh mask of a woman's vengeful ghost and gives a brief Noh-like performance introducing her real vampire nature: "First, drink the lifeblood of humans. Second, live a free life in an immortal body. Third, destroy anyone who interferes with my world." For me, this is a memorable 20 seconds of animation: script, image, and voice.
Vampires have always embodied forbidden sexuality. The queen is really the age of an adult, but appears so far in the form of a pre-pubescent child. The scene in which the hero rubs protective gel on her half-naked body is forbidden sexuality for our time, a time when most other forms of sexuality are considered perfectly okay.
This aspect of the anime is one that does justify people in shutting it off in horrified disapproval, if that is what they feel.
Her apparent age aside, the love story between the queen and her hero is already quite moving: she is searching for the boy who comforted her years ago and promised to protect her. When she comes to him, he has lost his memory. But at a time of crisis, he instinctively tries to protect her and suddenly remembers everything, and they are reunited in joyful tears. Meanwhile, the human girl who also loves him says, in a voiceover: "This is the story of a promise, a fairy tale about a great demon queen and the young man who offered her everything. A story of love, both beautiful and evanescent."
People who came to this expecting a shounen anime featuring vampires and fighting may find the emphasis on romantic myth less than ideal. Even if they just expected a faithful adaptation of the manga, they will be justifiably disappointed. The mangaka himself, Tamaki Nozomu, has approved the re-imagining of his manga and is working closely with the director, Shinbou Akiyuki (Tsukuyomi Moonphase, PaniPoni Dash, Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, Bakemonogatari, etc.), and the lead writer, Yoshino Hiroyuki (Mai-HiME, Macross Frontier, Denpateki na Kanojo, So·Ra·No·Wo·To).
Realism plays little part here. We have attack helicopters strafing the streets of Tokyo with no apparent response from the authorities. We have a hero being dashed against a building with great force and surviving. And so on. But this is myth, not reality. I have always believed that anime does myth best.
The voice-acting is really outstanding. Seventeen-year-old Yuuki Aoi (Murasaki in Kurenai) as Mina Tepes demonstrates why she is getting so many and such varied roles. She can be commanding and distraught in equal measure. She can scream and she can whisper. It is amusing to hear her in the totally different role of Ichigo, the aspiring young pastry-maker in the excellent little girls' anime Yumeiro Patissière. Mina is about the most varied character imaginable, ranging from vulnerable child to romantic heroine to confident queen to vicious and athletic vampire.
The hero, Akira, is played with a beautiful gentle strength by Nakamura Yuuichi, who was Alto in Macross Frontier and Graham Akers in Gundam00.
And Saitou Chiwa, who gave last year's best seiyuu performance, as Senjougahara in Bakemonogatari, returns as Yuki, the girl whom Akira leaves behind. And also in the important role of narrator.
But what most strikes me about this show is the ironic but powerful way the story is being told. There is a lightness that makes it seem as if some things are just being tossed off. Drama is not artificially induced. But somehow the feelings of the characters come through vividly.
The first episode -- which many are now calling "episode 00" -- introduced the situation by way of a cheesy Japanese TV panel show discussing whether vampires were real. The show was thrown in chaos by the revelation that one of the panelists was a vampire himself. He transformed into a ludicrous reptilian monster and then was killed by a glance from the tiny queen, who had been pretending to be an audience member. Serious events happen, but surrounded by bizarre humor.
The story is told with great economy. Each sequence has a meaning, and the links are brief and not explicit. Instead, there can be a punctuation of short scenes from elsewhere in the narrative: such as when we see a series of still scenes around the school, informing us that the afternoon has passed.
The still scenes work wonderfully well for me. But many people hate it when the screen is still, and say it is not real animation. For me, the still scenes can be drawn with more art and care than an animated sequence, and that has a force of its own. They are certainly a way for the director to save money in the production, which for me is a good thing, since it allows him to make money and therefore more shows.
The music is by Dobashi Akio, who was the keyboardist for the group Rebeccca in the 1980s, is a well-known music producer and DJ in Japan, and did music for the Wellber shows and Yozakura Quartet. The music is quite odd, and often used to undercut the message of a scene, either by trivializing it or working directly against it. This is a technique I usually find quite effective, to keep a scene from being too heavy or blunt.
The OP song is enjoyable, a cover by Nakano Aiko of the song "Friends," a big hit for Dobashi and Rebecca in the 1980s, used here apparently by special request of the mangaka. The visual rhythms are excellent in the OP animation, which was storyboarded and directed by assistant director ("series director") Sonoda Masahiro. He is a veteran key animator and episode director who has directed many episodes of various animes, including Welcome to the NHK, Di Gi Charat Nyo, Scrapped Princess, and some Galaxy Angel shows. He also storyboarded and directed episode 2.
The OP includes a passionate dance at faster than human speed by Mina Tepes, wearing next to nothing. It is an index the "dangerousness" (to quote the Moonphase blog) of the animation that I will not post it here. Look it up on YouTube, if you want. Some posters on the Japanese discussion board 2channel think it is the best OP of the season. So do I.
The art director is Azuma Kouji, who got his start in hentai, as art director in a couple of Bible Black anime, but has recently become a close collaborator of Shinbou and Oonuma Shin, having done many episodes of ef melodies, as well as being art director of both Natsu no Arashi series and the current Baka to Test.
The overall animation director is Konno Naoyuki, the director and animation director of 009-1, a fanservicey adventure show that looked great, whatever else it lacked.
A note about the title: bund in German means an association or league. But that is not its meaning here. In the period around a hundred years ago when Britain occupied Shanghai, the main waterfront area there was known as "The Bund." This comes from the Urdu word band, which means an embankment or dam. The connection to this show is that an artificial island rising from Tokyo Harbour is occupied by the vampire nation. There's apparently a "Bund" in Kobe, too.
Will the show continue to impress me? We shall see. But since one writer is doing all the episodes, and the director/storyboarder of episode two is the man who will direct more episodes than anyone else, I expect the quality to keep coming. At least for me.