Hugh David on the vampire-hunter’s vampire
“Blessed by the Church, licensed by the State, Damned for all Eternity… All that stands between England and the Undead!” The modern-day tale of Britain’s holy warrior order (the Hellsing of the title) fighting vampires with their own supernatural WMD (Dracula himself, here named Alucard), Kouta Hirano’s original manga debuted back in 1997. Its stylised bloody action predates the global success of Blade by a year, while the idea of Dracula surviving into the modern era was being explored then by British author Kim Newman, in the first two volumes of the Anno Dracula series.
This new wave of international vampire fictions were more stylised, more violent, incorporating influences from comics, books, television and films other than just the varied Bram Stoker adaptations. Hirano’s manga liberally applies the zipatone and ink, his characters stalking through a world of deepest shadows and large splashes of black blood. The contorted poses and angular faces are instantly recognisable, as well as the oversized, intricately detailed weaponry. Not much looks quite like Hirano’s visuals, and this set a real challenge for the inevitable TV adaptation when it came.
CG anime specialists GONZO took that challenge head-on, and their proof-of-concept showreel was gob-smacking, promising something genuinely different in the anime world. (It can be seen on the DVD set.) The final product effortlessly carried over the stylishness, the violence and the darkness (now a well-discussed issue in anime – drawing in black was expensive, meaning most anime took place in daylight, but CG changed this), from the manga, whilst only telling the earliest part of the story. Ending on the mother of all cliffhangers, there was no sequel, however – the creator was not happy with the adaptation, and wanted much greater control of any further animated work.
While GONZO and Hirano went back and forth, the series became a world-wide smash hit for every label releasing it. On its original UK release single-handedly made the fledgling ADV’s UK operation’s reputation with retailers and public alike – for years, HMV and Amazon would ask ADV’s UK sales team “Can we have another Hellsing please?” A boon to European cosplayers, given the characters were mostly British, it became another in that pantheon of “gateway” titles that draw in new fans to anime’s thrills (alongside such TV greats Trigun, Sailor Moon, Cowboy Bebop, and Evangelion). An audience hungry for more episodes was no longer Japanese, it was global.
Inevitably, the creative forces could not ignore the market ones, and so in 2006 came the first 50 minute video episode of Hellsing Ultimate, starting back again from the beginning of the manga. More digital, more literal, it is exactly what the creator and the fans wished for, a rare case of both responding in sync. Episodes have come out slowly in the years since, everyone an event release, but now the first eight can be enjoyed in high definition, and they make for almost as much of a bloody thrill ride as the original manga.
Hellsing Ultimate 1-4 is out now on UK Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment.