Hellsing Ultimate

Hellsing UltimateIt is, by definition, impossible to give an “objective” review of art (though this review of Citizen Kane provides a hilarious example of what it might look like). Having a bad day can make an okay movie terrible; a great night with friends can make a mediocre movie seem a lot better than it is. It’s possible to cut through context to some extent, but when an artwork inadvertently connects to personal experience it’s harder to filter it out and establish any approximation of an objective perspective.

So it is, for me, with the original Hellsing anime. By all rights, it’s not a great series, squandering the potential of its gothic subject matter – all vampires and English aristocracy – with cheap production values and a story that clumsily ground to a halt after it outpaced its manga source material. But I first saw the series as I began university, in a year defined by isolation, depression and, eventually, romance. Despite Hellsing’s shortcomings, then, I folded its nihilism and dark eroticism into my own life experience, creating an experience greater than the artwork itself. Something about the mysterious, implacable monstrosity of Alucard and his subordination and pseudo-seduction of the policewoman Seras Victoria resonated with the darkness and uncertainty that defined that year. I imagine the fact that my first girlfriend and I connected over a late episode of the series is a factor here, too.

Hellsing Ultimate is, “objectively” a superior follow-up to the original anime. A series of ten hour-long episodes, it has some distinct and obvious advantages when compared with its predecessor. For starters, the original anime was produced as the manga was being written, meaning that halfway through the series the narrative veered sharply away from its source material to admittedly diminishing returns. Hellsing Ultimate, however, has a complete manga to adapt, which allows it to answer the unresolved questions posed by the original anime with the introduction of the neo-Nazi outfit Millennium.

The tone of the original anime is grim, with a self-serious, occasionally stilted atmosphere throughout. Ultimate’s tone emphasises the darkness to the point of conscious self-parody, with as much emphasis on exaggerated action and silly comedy as the story’s gothic elements (a closer fit to the jokey manga). The biggest difference, though, comes in the production values. Where Hellsing had the telltale signs of a series whose ambitions outstripped its budget – specifically, lots of static shots – Hellsing Ultimate looks like an anime with a lot of money behind it. Its striking black-and-red aesthetic is paired with fluid animation and strong character designs – in short, it looks fucking amazing.

Despite all these “objective” strengths, Hellsing Ultimate was a distinct disappointment for me, in large part because of the personal baggage associated with the Hellsing property for me. Much of the evocative material that resonated with me in the original anime has been either omitted or minimised. The mystery of Integra’s backstory (she’s the head of the Hellsing organisation, for reference) and her relationship with Alucard is spelled out from the get-go. More significantly, Seras’s role in the story is substantially reduced; her moral conflict (whether or not to drink human blood after she is turned into a vampire) remains, but is given far less emphasis.

What remains is primarily a vehicle for grand action sequences slathered with iconography and executed with unrestrained excess – occasionally interrupted by cutesy, cartoonish comedy interludes (which are sometimes impressively weird, like when Alucard dreams about Bruce Willis movies for no apparent reason). Despite a near ten hour runtime for the series proper (that’s like, Shoah length), there isn’t much of a story at all. Partly this is because of the emphasis on Alucard as pseudo-protagonist, but it turns out a near-invincible, immortal, immoral vampire isn’t the most interesting main character.

I love the character of Alucard, but as a supporting character. A focus on characters like Seras or Integra – who evince more recognisable human emotions and moral conflicts – would’ve elevated the series. (It doesn’t help that Ultimate repeats the same basic conflict of “Alucard encounters antagonist, seems to be losing, then demonstrates his unholy power and annihilates them” a half-dozen times.)

To its credit, Hellsing Ultimate recognises that Alucard’s presence tends to sap the show of dramatic tension and makes an effort to resolve this problem in its midsection. From about episode five on, Alucard is marginalised as the aforementioned Nazi troupe, Millennium, lay waste to England. Focus shifts to Seras, to some extent, but tends to stray back towards the particulars of London’s immolation or, say, Seras’s mercenary partner (an astoundingly uninteresting character whose backstory is – get this – his father was a mercenary and “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Characterisation!). There’s something vaguely discomfiting about such an unserious series essentially recreating the Battle of Britain or staging a confrontation between an army of Christian Klansmen and a horde of Nazi vampires.

Despite all this, I have to admit that I probably would’ve lapped up Hellsing Ultimate without any such reservations if it had existed a decade ago. It has so much style that it’s practically busting at the seams. Yes, it suffers from narrative shortcomings. And yes, it might eschew the dark eroticism I hoped for in the flavour of blunt, broad iconography. But ultimately my disappointment with the series is more closely linked to my personal experience of the original series than any properties of this remake.

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