England has a vampire problem. They're on the streets, they're running criminal gangs and they're even infiltrating positions of power. However even their existence is an official secret. Waging war against them in the shadows is Sir Integra Hellsing and her Royal Order of Protestant Knights, also known as the Hellsing Organisation. "Protestant?" I hear you ask. That's right. There are also Vatican vampire hunters, the Iscariot Organisation, but the two sides don't get on. This won't seem so surprising once you've met the Vatican's insane Glaswegian agent, Alexander Anderson, and his fondness for killing everything in sight with sharpened masonry trowels.
The Vatican's objection to the Hellsing organisation is that it has two vampires on its payroll. One is Ceres Victoria, whom we first meet as an ordinary policewoman having an apocalyptically bad day. Episode one concludes with Victoria facing the choice of death or undeath, but that's only the beginning of her troubles. She shouldn't have been a vampire. She finds her new self creepy, she finds even simple things difficult and she's the audience identification figure as she struggles with her new role as a soldier in a secret war against the bloodsuckers. Your reaction to this show will depend on your reaction to Victoria. Personally I think she's indispensible as the paradoxically human heart of the story, grounding its fantasy in reality as did Kim Basinger's Vicki Vale in Batman. I'm not particularly a Kim Basinger fan, but I can hardly imagine that film without her character. However it must be admitted that in her early episodes she's almost ineffectual and it seems that some reviewers would have preferred a more macho hero.
As an aside, one of the Japanese video covers shows a vampiric Victoria happily applying lipstick, which is hilarious in how perfectly it captures the confused psyche of the character.
Sir Integra's other pet vampire is Alucard, who supplies more than enough ultra-violent coolness for the entire organisation. Alucard is simply unstoppable. He's a terrifying monster who's sworn allegiance to Sir Integra and now stalks the night slaughtering his kith and kin. He wears a trenchcoat and a hat, carries a ridiculously big gun and has lots of weird vampire powers to boot. He's also really cool. He's the best kind of badass hero, the kind who should frighten anyone with a lick of sense on either side, and he seems to find carnage amusing. Sir Integra is the only person he answers to and even for her he's sometimes a handful.
I love this show. I've heard it described as a gateway drug... you show it to anime newbies to get them hooked. They start on Hellsing, then before you know it they're clearing a second bookshelf to make way for their Azumanga Daioh and Rurouni Kenshin DVDs. I've seen anime veterans getting sniffy about the series, but even they admit that it's probably because they didn't much like vampires in the first place. It's not a deep show, although the manga is even more violent. Admittedly the art and animation are variable. You'll see still shots and other budget-saving shortcuts, while Victoria's breasts are a different size in almost every scene. Nevertheless I still love this show's visuals. There's a stylisation that's taken from the manga, with lots of detail, especially on clothes and handguns. It's violent, grotesque and full of heavy shadow. The characters in particular can look rather angular, almost insect-like at times, especially the downright androgynous Sir Integra.
It's cool, hard-edged and blackly funny. Even if you don't like vampires, this is a slightly unusual take on them. These ones aren't dressed up in dinner jackets lamenting the loneliness of the night, but instead they're selling drugs and having gun battles with the military. I also enjoyed its Englishness, which felt authentic despite having eccentric goofs ("Sir" Integra, "lootenant" rather than "leftenant" in the dub, that whole Protestant-Catholic thing as if this was still the 17th century, etc.). I should also praise the English dub, if only because I normally spend so much time heaping deserved scorn on dub actors. It's very good indeed. The English characters actually have English accents and the actors can act. It's a very watchable dub, which is another factor in the show's newbie-friendliness.
I love all the characters, my favourite being Sir Integra. In a world of soldiers and superpowered vampires, she's more impressive than any of them simply for her force of will. She took over the Hellsing Organisation at the age of thirteen, since which time she's let absolutely nothing stand in her way.
The music's awesome too. I love the opening theme, while the soundtrack by Yasushi Ishii is a mix of rock, blues, jazz and experimental elements.
The show goes off the rails in its later episodes, when they run out of manga to adapt and introduce an all-new baddie called Incognito. The story falls apart and doesn't even manage to wrap itself up properly. Instead it does that Japanese thing of blinding us with an incomprehensible battle between creatures so powerful that there's no drama, just megadestruction. And as for all the loose ends... you'd think they were laying ground for a second season! That Vatican assassin, Alexander Anderson. What about him, eh? 'Twas still good, though. Fans of the manga will probably be more excited by the OVA series, part one of which was released in Japan on 10 February 2006. Its trailer even includes scenes from Hellsing: The Dawn, a prologue series set in Warsaw, Poland in September 1944. The manga's full history is complicated, especially if you include the Crossfire side-stories which are by the same creator and star some of the same characters but are supposedly not canon.
I'd like to discuss nomenclature. Yes, Alucard is just Dracula backwards. However by now it's a long-established vampire name, going all the way back to Lon Chaney Jr in Son of Dracula (1943). That's not the only Bram Stoker nod, with the very title of the series being taken from Van Helsing. Incidentally it's also weird to see a woman, Sir Integra, being called Sir. This is almost certainly just Engrish, but it's possible to construct legitimate arguments for it. Sir Integra is a woman in a man's world, dressing mannishly and using the gender-neutral personal pronoun in Japanese. She's a Knight of the Round Table and the leader of a covert paramilitary organisation. There are historical precedents for women in analogous positions of power choosing to go by the title Sir instead of the more feminine Dame.
There are also quirks in the romanisation of the original Japanese names. Japanese doesn't distinguish between L and R, so you'll see Alucard written as Arucard in a feeble-minded attempt at purism, despite the fact that in the manga Alucard acknowledges that his name is an anagram. Further examples of this include "Andersong", "Integla" and "Seras", the proponents of which presumably think that the show is set in Rondon, Engrand. However regarding the last of those, the original manga's creator Kouta Hirano has admitted that he invented her name in a hurry and there isn't a single correct romanisation. There are arguments for Celes (a real British name) or Ceres (a Roman goddess, since Hellsing is steeped in mythology), although a strict transliteration would be Serasu.
The manga deals in deeper themes than the TV series, but that doesn't make the latter worthless. On the contrary, it's a class package with enjoyable characters and lots of cool violence. Admittedly that's hardly highbrow appeal, but sometimes you just want to see a soldier shoot a vampire with a bazooka. From that Neanderthal perspective, Ceres Victoria is almost the show's worst mis-step. She's the fallible human heart of the story as she struggles with the horror of her new undead existence, but for precisely that reason she's likely to disappoint fans who just want to see Alucard and Sir Integra kicking arse. Personally I thought she was fantastic and I couldn't imagine the show without her. Hellsing is practically its own genre of Hammer Horror crossed with Trainspotting or Dog Soldiers, but Victoria makes it more than that. Thanks to her, it's not just shallow nonsense.
Overall, I really admire this show. It has visible problems, mostly caused by not having enough budget to do the manga justice and not enough manga to fill its thirteen episodes, but at what it does well it's astonishing. In some ways it's better than the OVAs. I love the music, the visuals, the characters and the sheer visceral energy of the production. It's a blast.