The late 90’s/early 2000’s DVD boom brought about a renaissance for anime that went hand in hand with the late PS1/Dreamcast/early PS2 era of masterful, world beating Japanese game development, which would sadly be the last we’d see of eastern dominance in either field due to a variety of factors, be it over-saturation of too same-y releases, over-reliance on franchises with diminishing results, or the simple hubris of old guard Japanese companies who refused to see the writing on the wall when it came to a near future ruled by online connectivity and digital distribution.
Konami, creator of such once undeniable franchises as Metal Gear, Contra, Silent Hill and, yes, Castlevania, became the poster child of this phenomena of late, firing the majority of their game development personnel in disgrace and shifting their focus to cell phone gaming and the dubious, gambling and vice related Japanese obsession of Pachinko Machines. Similarly, the home video anime industry ate its own tail with innovative, once beloved companies like Pioneer/Geneon, ADV and Manga Entertainment dropping like flies in the wake of streaming services like Crunchyroll, Hulu and yes, Netflix, making the idea of shelling out $30 for a 3 to 5 episode DVD a baffling and obsolete proposition.
Which begs the question: how on earth, in the year of our lord (snicker) 2017 do we have a Castlevania anime series on Netflix? And how is it so goddamned (literally) good? I don’t know what sort of licensing black magic producer Adi Shankar (Dredd, the Punisher: Dirty Laundry and Power/Rangers fan films) had to conjure to make this series a reality but it’s seriously great, and one of the most reverent and respectful video game adaptations of all time, while also eschewing the eye roll inducing melodrama and misplaced comic relief that bogs down a lot of modern episodic anime.
Castlevania’s journey to Netflix began in 2007, when Comics legend Warren Ellis (Planteary, Nextwave: Agents of HATE, Iron Man: Extremis) was hired by Frederator Studios and began the project in earnest, initially envisioning it as an 80 minute direct to video animated film. Though Ellis wasn’t previously familiar with the franchise he immediately glommed onto it’s “Japanese take on Hammer Horror” milieu, and set to loosely adapting the story of 1989 NES classic Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. The project languished in development hell until 2008, when Shankar came on board to develop Ellis’ script as a live action feature in the Underworld mold, though he ultimately decided against it. Powerhouse Animation Studio acquired a deal with Netflix to resurrect the project in 2015, bringing Frederator, Ellis and Shankar back to collaborate on the series as it exists today.
Though this is both Fredator and Powerhouse’s first foray into this type of deadly serious action horror, you’d never know it from watching the show, which has an earthy, organic hand drawn style in the vein of gothic forebears like the original Vampire Hunter D, Hellsing and Berserk. If there is any CG involved here, it doesn’t beat you over the head with its artificial presence, creating a look that (especially in the series’ copious, whip-tastic fight scenes) animates smoothly and realistically, as beautiful to look at, with design elements sometimes cribbed whole cloth from genius game series visualist Ayami Kojima, at as it’s blood and guts strewn medieval landscape is nightmarish to comprehend.
Ellis though is, as one would expect, chiefly responsible for what works so well here. His clever and logical reimagining of these one note archetypes makes Dracula a sympathetic figure within the game’s mythos for once, he and his son Alucard at opposite ideologies about the fate of mankind with a sort of Professor X/Magneto dynamic, brought to a head by the catholic church’s savage treatment of the Count’s kindhearted and innocent human wife.
If you have any squirmy tendencies toward anti-religious ideas or imagery Castlevania may not be the series for you, and as we’re introduced to hero Trevor Belmont (The Hobbit’s Richard Armatige), he alludes to the church’s banishment of his family, due to their monster hunting, vampire killing legacy (one assumes that future seasons could deal with his ancestor Simon’s adventures in Castlevania and Castlevania II), and his heritage even gets him into some trouble with lowlifes in a bar, this incarnation of Trevor being a lovable sad sack in the vein of a Vash the Stampede or Spike Spiegel. Over the course of the series we see Trevor grow into his bad ass birthright though, as fans of the game would anticipate (without spoiling too much), meeting up with sorceress Sypha Belnades, and eventually, yes, the son of the dragon himself (and again, looking like he stepped right out of Symphony of the Night), Alucard.
Yes, this series is only 4 episodes long, and yes those go by in a flash, leaving viewers begging for more catacomb and clock tower raiding horror action ass-kickery. If struggling to be overly critical, I’ll echo a lot of the online complaints that the game series’ trademark soundtrack isn’t utilized at all here, and also add that the monster/demon designs thus far have been a tad on the generic side, with nary a flea man, medusa head or bone pillar in sight. But there’s always season 2. An 8 episode second season has already been greenlit for 2018 and will bring the entire creative team back together for our trio’s (Ellis thinks Grant is stupid and I don’t blame him) ultimate strike against Dracula and his undead forces. Until the morning sun vanquishes the horrible night…