It's a bit uncomfortable but great, if you can take the child porn.
There's nothing even remotely illegal, mind you. It's just nudity and no one does anything to a minor... well, apart from biting them and turning them into vampires. (That's wholesome and to be encouraged, obviously.) The show has a mainstream uncut DVD release in the West, even if FUNimation had to think about that, since they'd edited the show for online streaming. The UK R2 DVD has a 15 certificate.
Nonetheless this show has a fair bit of fanservice, sometimes involving the lead vampire, Mina Tepes, who has the body of a nine-year-old girl. She dances naked in the opening credits and she wears lingerie in the closing credits. (Don't watch those. Skip the credits and you'll have a more pleasant viewing experience.) As for the show itself, there are scenes where the camera leers at Mina's pre-pubescent body as if trying to pander to paedophiles... which of course it is. That's part of the landscape in Japan. When they recently (18 June 2014) became the last OECD country to ban the possession of child sex abuse images, an exception was made for anime and manga. That said, though, this show was edited for Japanese TV transmission and what I've been watching is just the DVD/Blu-ray edition.
I'm not going to defend any of this. It's creepy and disturbing. The only upside is that it's only occasional, while you may or may not think it helps that Mina is a scary stone-cold killer, the queen of the vampires and centuries old. Besides, much more of the show's nudity is conventional, i.e. buxom women, so at least the show's not principally targeting a paedophile audience.
The fanservice isn't equal opportunity, though. When a werewolf de-wolfs in episode 9, for instance, his modesty is hilariously preserved.
None of that should matter, though. I shouldn't be spending the first five paragraphs of my review on fanservice. What about the plot, characterisation, mood, tone, style, art, animation quality and story content?
Apart from the creepy stuff I just mentioned, I really like this series. I am, however, relatively unusual in this. Some people dislike it. Others think it's "meh". I can understand this, since the show's not afraid to be spiky and unlikeable and because it keeps shifting underneath you, just as you're starting to get used to it.
Episode one is a one-off, in which a savagely characterised TV show is doing an episode on whether or not vampires exist. It'll make your fists itch. Just being in the same universe as these people will damage your IQ. However then two of the panellists (a professor and the creator of this anime's original manga) start deconstructing the concept of the vampire and things get interesting.
Of course we know that the nay-sayers are going to be proved wrong, but it's funny to see one of them still in denial even when someone's blood is being drunk in front of them. We're introduced to Mina, who has such power over other vampires that she can kill one just by telling it to die...
...and then she announces on television that she's going to buy an artificial island nearby and set up a vampire kingdom. ("Bund" is German and means "federal", or something like that.) What's more, the next few episodes show exactly that. She does it properly, too. She insists on getting full acknowledgement from the Japanese government, not just buying the land but getting rights to build, self-govern and set up a police authority. She has an economic policy and she's analysing Japan's strengths and weaknesses as a modern state. She has her own undead staff, vying among themselves for influence and position. She gives press conferences.
This is fascinating. It's also dry and not particularly engaging, but I was mesmerised by the realism with which the show was tackling this idea.
Fortunately, though, there's also a human angle with Akira (a boy), Yuki (a girl) and their school. Mina's about to enrol there and there are some cool twists and developments in store. Mina's not even remotely nice or sympathetic at this point, being as chilling and ruthless as any other vampire, but Akira has the personality of a normal boy and Yuki's sweet on him. This gives us people we can care about and hence a hook to get us into the story, especially when it transpires that Mina is fixated on Akira. They have a personal connection. He doesn't remember the details, because he has amnesia, but in essence we're looking at the distant, undead equivalent of a love triangle.
This isn't cheap harem nonsense, by the way. It's horror. I like this show's intelligent, often chilling touch with character. It can be understated, mind you, with character points left unspoken for the audience to notice for themselves. You're not being clubbed over the head. Personally, I don't think that's a problem.
There's a lot of meat in all that. You could devote a full 26-episode series to that storyline... and yet this show wraps it up in seven episodes. About halfway through, we get a pretty good season finale! The show does all that, then doesn't stop and instead keeps moving on. I approve of the modern trend for shorter series, since the traditional 26-parters would spend a lot of time treading water, but this show's pace is something else. It tears through its ideas, then the last episode throws in more still to make you want to watch a second season that hasn't yet happened. It's positively burning up the source material. It also made me want to read the manga, just to see where it goes next.
(I've also heard that fans of the manga weren't happy about changes made for the anime. That makes me even more interested.)
The story's always pressing onwards, always revealing new subtleties and layers. It's all been thought through, with significance to be found in details and apparent puzzles when we eventually understand them. Consider Mina's claim that all vampires would be destroyed if she got killed, for instance. At the time, that just sounded like a Chekhov's Gun, threatening a certain kind of ending in the final episode. Later, though, with the three nobles, we learn its meaning. (That also explains Mina's fondness for her pre-pubescent body.) Similarly, I'd been wondering how everyone was feeding themselves in a human-free kingdom of vampires. Were they all visiting the human world each night for dinner? Was the Japanese government okay with that? The Stigma spray gave me an explanation.
Among other things, it's about government and power. Mina's ruling like a modern prime minister, with her challenges involving politics as much as bloodshed. (Still plenty of the latter, mind you.) She's torn between what she wants and her self-appointed responsibilities. There are also terrorists and a unique kind of suicide bomber, in the Tokyo underground.
In the end, it becomes a chaste, supernatural love story. I really liked how that unfolds, but not everyone shares my opinion. I've seen it argued that a promise made at age seven wouldn't be the determining factor in anyone's decisions as an adult (even if that's a wildly oversimplified interpretation of the situation here). I have some sympathy with that argument, but I think it's a fundamental misreading of this story. These are evolving characters, not static ones, and what they become is the result of the events that have unfolded around them. Mina clearly grows as a person, starting out as someone who can't be bothered to prevent a massacre of schoolchildren and yet ending up as a leader of loyalty, sympathy and determination to do the right thing. Of course she's still a scary manipulative bitch, but what the heck. She's our scary manipulative bitch! She's also clever. Admittedly we can't be sure that she hadn't always been like that underneath, but her relationship with everyone at school, for instance, is clearly something she'd never had before and we see that developing. She gets close to Yuki. They become friends and even confidantes. By the end, she's cool enough to have become one of my favourite vampire characters in fiction.
Akira's feelings and relationships are just as clearly in flux. They have bad times as well as good. He and Mina fight. Promises are clearly important to Akira, but he moves beyond that. It's not just his upbringing, vows and training. In the end, it's her.
There's no real comedy, except with the Dance of the Vampire Maids that follows the closing credits instead of a Next Week trailer. Those mini-episodes were funny. When you skip past the end credits, don't skip past the maids.
The names interest me. Mina Tepes, for instance, combines Mina Harker (from Dracula) and Vlad Tepes (aka. the Impaler)... but in Dracula, Mina's one of the good guys, albeit one who gets bitten by the Count and is in danger of becoming a bloodsucker herself. I wasn't wild about her mum being called Lucrezia, though. My strong suspicion is that Lucrezia Borgia didn't deserve the reputation she earned from her family.
Ancient Sumerian. Wow. Is she that old?
I'm a fan. I love Mina, I like Akira and I like the show's intelligence. I like the way Mina combines political power and responsibility with a body that looks physically weak. The scenes of underage-looking fanservice are an ugly problem, but I liked everything else enough for me to be able to withstand that. It's in no way a lovable show, mind you. The characters are anti-cuddly and the show often seems to be keeping its distance. It's easy to imagine plenty of people finding no point of emotional connection and hence either disliking it or not just finding it particularly memorable. Me, though, I'm hoping one day they make season two.