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Hellsing Ultimate and re-imagined Britain

Friday 17th May 2013

Helen McCarthy on the hidden connections between Hellsing and… well, everything else.

Hellsing UltimateSince its first appearance in 1997 Kota Hirano’s Hellsing manga and its anime spin-offs have used the Dracula story to examine Japanese issues through a re-imagined Britain. They also draw on world popular culture to embed Hellsing in a shared global mythology. The premise: that the vampire Dracula was not destroyed by Professor Van Helsing, but survived to serve the Prof’s descendants in England.

Hellsing UltimateThe head of the Hellsing family, Sir Integra Fairbrook Wingates Hellsing, has inherited the family name, the vampire-fighting tradition and, and the service of the vampire. Alucard is the chief weapon in her vampire-fighting secret organization, which is also called Hellsing. Van Helsing’s descendant is not the bride of Dracula – she’s his mistress, his feudal overlord, a virgin queen with a vampire in her service.

Feudal heredity is a key concept in Hellsing. Hellsing’s Britain is ruled by a female monarch, as the real country is – and as Japan might have been, but for the birth of a son to Prince Akishino in 2006. Ties of blood loyalty are as vital in the real world as in Hellsing.

The other central institution of English life in Hellsing is the Church of England. The war between Catholics and Protestants echoes Japan’s ancient struggles between incoming Buddhists and native Shinto priests. The great schism of Christianity was dragged back to prominence in the 20th century when the IRA bombed mainland Britain, and followers of Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo cult released poison gas on the Tokyo subway. In Hellsing both sides of the debate are presented as equally bloodthirsty and chaotic.

Hellsing UltimateHellsing also nods to the history of Britain’s politico-religious conflict through the Wild Geese, an elite mercenary fighting unit. Their name refers back to an Irish Catholic army that left its homeland for France following defeat by the Protestant King of England, though it is also the title of a 1970s film about honourable mercenaries betrayed by their masters. They are hired by the Hellsing organisation to replace soldiers slaughtered in a fight with two vampire crime-lord wannabes, the Valentine Brothers.

Disaffected youth are a common motif of the developed world. With options limited by rigid social or educational structures, or lack of money, the young have turned to violence to get status and purpose, sometimes disguising their behaviour as loyalty to an ideal. The Valentine boys could be any buddy movie pairing gone bad – the young, freaky, hyper guy and the more thoughtful, laid-back, reserved type. They want all the good things they see the rich enjoying. They’re willing to do anything to get them but somehow they don’t think that hard work and good behaviour is going to do it, so they get themselves artificially augmented.

Even if you don’t think cyber-crime, fraud, identity theft or cosmetic surgery are suitable parallels for the Valentines’ roaring rampage of rage against society, it’s undeniable that Britain has growing problems with youth violence and disengagement. Japanese society is increasingly concerned about youth bullying, group suicide, attacks on others and disengagement from society.

Hellsing also touches on Japan’s remilitarization debate. Hirano raises interesting questions through the tensions between the outside world of the Vatican and the interior struggles of the British against their vampires, and the Government plot to depose Integra and take over her powerful military machine. Should states have secret armies? Should nations should allow outside forces to dictate domestic policies? How to suppress terror and revolt? These issues have been raised more explicitly in manga like The Silent Service, but in Hellsing they reach an audience that might not read an overtly political work.

Naturally there are strong links between Hellsing and the Dracula mythos, but there are nods to other vampire movies, and to science fiction, Japanese and foreign. James Cameron’s influence shows in extended sequences in which platoons are cut to pieces, with most of the horror happening out of shot. The spirit of the Harkonnen cannon looks suspiciously like a character of the same name from Frank Herbert’s Dune. Even Gundam is referenced. But the most interesting influence comes from a British TV series.

Gerry Anderson’s 1960s TV shows were successful the world over. His live action series UFO, made in 1969, has many parallels with Hellsing. In England, a secret organization protects the world from a terrible threat. Its headquarters conceal a private arsenal, of specially designed weapons. Its name is a typical Anderson contorted acronym – SHADO: Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation.

HELLSING (Her Royal England Legions of Legitimate Supernatural and Immortal Night Guard) is an English secret organization protecting the world from a terrible threat. Its headquarters conceal a private arsenal of specially designed weapons.

The threat must be kept secret to prevent public panic. In UFO, when a reporter threatens to reveal the truth, the organization has to stop her, and the head of the organization is the target of an assassination attempt using a trusted friend whose mind has been taken over. Similar storylines occur in Hellsing.

The leader of SHADO is an icy blond control freak with no remaining family. He dresses formally in smart suits. He smokes cigars. He’s a crack shot. He inspires loyalty, irritation, anger and fear in his underlings. He has a loyal Number Two who has worked with him for years. His organization is answerable to a political body which constantly seeks to undermine and depose him. Switch pronouns and these statements also apply to the leader of HELLSING.

So Hellsing mines two cultures for its subtexts: it mirrors both fact and fiction about Britain to reflect on issues in Japan. If only other popular vampire sagas were so intelligent…

Parts 5-8 of Hellsing Ultimate are available next week on UK DVD and Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment.

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