Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Vampire (Japan, 1968)

The practice of describing non-Western pop cultural figures by equating them with Western ones is always dubious, and nowhere does that lazy shorthand do more of a disservice to its subject than when it refers, as I admittedly have on occasion, to manga artist and animator Osamu Tezuka as the "Walt Disney of Japan". While the term does go some way toward giving a sense of Tezuka's impact on his homeland's culture, and the affection in which he's held, it does nothing to communicate the breadth of his work. Of course, to those only familiar with those cuddly creations -- like Kimba, the White Lion and Astroboy -- that were Tezuka's most successful exports, the comparison might seem apt. But those same people would likely be taken aback by the darker, less kid-friendly nature of some of the artist's later manga works like Black Jack and the Phoenix series. (And, for my purposes, let's just forget for the moment about the banshee in Darby O'Gill and the fact that the witch in Sleeping Beauty practically scared my sister to death when she was five.)

Tezuka's 1966 manga Vampire marks something of a transition point between his Kimba days and those more thematically sophisticated works of his later years. The story revolves around a pre-human race of human-to-animal shape-shifters who have designs on overthrowing their Earthly antecedents and reclaiming their place as masters of the planet. If I understand the description of the manga that's provided on the Tezuka in English website, the title "Vampire" here refers to the fact that the shape-shifters, when in their animal form, prey on humans, and isn't intended to suggest the presence of anything like what most Westerners would be lead by that term to expect. In fact, each of these creatures transforms into a different animal -- that transformation prompted by a visual trigger that varies from vampire to vampire, with our lead character, the teenaged Toppei, changing into a wolf whenever he spies the moon or gets overly anxious. So, really, if one were looking for a comfortable genre tag to hang on it, Vampire is more of a werewolf story.

Toei Studio's TV adaptation of Vampire (aka Banpaiya), which had a 26 episode run on Japanese television beginning in 1968, is unusual for a couple of reasons. For one, it's an early attempt at combining live-action and cell animation within a TV series format, and, while most of its scenes involve human actors, the latter technique is always used to depict our protagonist Toppei in his wolf form. The second thing that makes Vampire stand out is the presence in the cast of the original manga's creator, Osamu Tezuka himself - and playing himself, no less. Tezuka drew himself into the comic version of Vampire and, while I can't say to what extent Tezuka/"Tezuka" ultimately becomes involved in the plot of the TV series, in the book he was a major player, going from being Toppei's employer to becoming a key ally in his fight against the dark side.

Having only seen the first four episodes of Vampire, I can't really give much of a sense of the series' overall shape, or judge the degree to which it adheres to the original manga's basic concepts. As one might expect, what those initial episodes provide is an introduction to the main characters and some of the conflicts that will play out over the course. In the first, we see Toppei, who has left his vampire village to join the community of humans, arriving in Tokyo and taking a job as an assistant at Osamu Tezuka's studio. It is here that we also meet the main villain of the piece, the sinister boy genius Rock, who becomes privy to Toppei's secret and seeks to manipulate it toward his own evil ends. In the second episode, Toppei's little brother, Chippei, who turns into a wolf cub at the sight of any spherical object, hitches his way into town and joins his brother in his struggles. Finally, in the third and fourth episodes, we get a hint of the depths of Rock's villainy as we see him carry out an extortion scheme against a wealthy family who have taken him in and cared for him as their own. This scheme involves the kidnapping of the family's youngest daughter, Mika, a potential love interest for Toppei, and culminates in a tense, train station ransom drop sequence more than a little reminiscent of Kurosawa's High and Low.

Young Chippei confronts the evil Rock in female guise... and Toei repurposes one of the gill-man masks from Terror Beneath the Sea as a wall hanging.

While saddled with the stripped-down production values typical of such TV fare, Vampire also boasts some visual elements that make it pretty distinctive. For one thing, the blending of live-action and animation is done surprisingly well. While there is some obvious cutting of corners, there are also many instances of interactions between the human actors and their cartoon costars that are quite ambitious in conception and impressive in execution. Furthermore, the setting of so much of the action in a nocturnal urban landscape provides for a nice horror-noir feel. This is further enhanced by the genuine creepiness of much of what's on display, from the trio of cackling witches consulted by Rock in his quest for power to Rock himself, who is portrayed as a junior sociopath with an icy veneer of bloodless amorality. Rock's eerie androgyny also allows for some bizarre "master of disguise" moments in which he assumes the guises of various comely young women to throw his opponents off their game. (I couldn't help being reminded of Kinji Fukasaku's Black Lizard.) All in all, it makes for something very different from anything that was being attempted on American TV at the time… or since, come to think of it.

Plus, the series' boy-to-wolf transformation sequences, while not "realistic" in the way we ascribe to contemporary special effects sequences, are, once seen, very difficult to forget:


Anonymous said...

Wow... this looks pretty cool.

I gotta say: analog FX rule!!

Prof. Grewbeard said...

i hate to bug you about this again, i was all set to pick a copy of this show once but my source dried up- can i haz yours? (source, i mean...)

Todd said...

Prof: http://allcluesnosolutions.com/index.php

Prof. Grewbeard said...