vampires as political metaphor in Mamoru’s Blood

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This was also a really interesting article… Christopher Bolton presents a very interesting analysis of Oshii Mamoru’s Blood: The Last Vampire, which includes discussion about the  semantics of anime that I really enjoyed. Bolton writes:

“In the films of Oshii Mamoru, political struggle is not only palpable—it is positively sensual. Oshii’s films chart the efforts of people to make a difference or leave a trace in a politicized, mediated world where the importance of the individual is increasingly uncertain.” (p.125)

Blood[: The Last Vampire, directed by Kitakubo Hiroyuki and a team of young artists working under Oshii’s tutelage] is a vampire story set on an American air force base in Japan during the Vietnam War. Released in 2000, it was one of the first anime to make heavy use of photorealistic digital effects, though at many points it preserves the stylized quality of conventional animation. While the vampires and human characters are largely two-dimensional, the planes taking off and landing in the background are rendered as more photorealistic three-dimensional forms. At one level, the planes disrupt the film’s fantasy by evoking the realities of Vietnam, realities that are in many ways more frightening than any ghost story. But at the same time, the planes have a ghostly quality of their own that makes them much more complex signifiers. They represent not only the reality of politics but its unrealities as well. [/] These unrealities include the cracks and contradictions in the national identity that was forged for Japan after World War II.” (p.126)

In Blood, the planes visually represent the weight and solidity of present realities, as well as the illusory quality of Japanese politics and the country’s suppressed but still-haunting memories of its own wartime aggression. At the same time, the film’s two-dimensional vampire heroine Saya seems at first to be a cartoonish fantasy—a camp parody of anime vixens. But Saya’s sexiness and violence have a reassuring physicality that promises an escape from the intangibility and uncertainty of politics. In this sense, Blood is a film that could only have been made as an anime: it is the work’s strange [-p.127] admixture of fantasy and photorealism that comments most provocatively on Japan’s present historical moment. This essay begins by examining political dynamics in Blood’s plot and then links this to the film’s physical dynamics—the way mass and motion are portrayed by the film’s unique combination of two- and three-dimensional animation.” (pp.126-127)

“In Western literature, the vampire is a privileged figure for otherness and a powerful metaphor for racial or cultural mixing. The vampire is familiar but also foreign; it crosses gender lines as an effeminately alluring male or a castrating female; and it breaches blood and body boundaries in a way that suggests sexual communion but also perversion and pollution.” (p.128)

“Kotani Mari argues that the vampire represents a similar kind of otherness in Japanese manga and prose fiction, but an otherness that is doubled because the vampire enters Japanese literature as a foreign genre. Kotani writes that vampires have represented the threat and appeal of a Western other since the first Japanese vampire fiction in the thirties.” (p.129)  “Blood […] shows the confusions and reversals that Kotani predicts. It is a film about familiarity and unfamiliarity: the way that one culture can regard another as monstrous, but also the blurring of boundaries between the monsters and us.” (p.129)

The chiropterans can probably best be associated with violence, militarism, and war itself—not only U.S. cold war imperialism and interventionism but also the Japanese militarism of World War II. Like the hibernating monsters, that militarism has lain dormant or disguised since the occupation, but now it threatens to reemerge. Clothed in a military-style school uniform and armed with a samurai sword, Saya seems to represent a truer, nobler, and more disciplined warrior spirit that will actually rein in the violence. In the logic of this and other films connected to Oshii, Japan is threatened by a crisis of that true spirit, symbolized by the sword that turns out to be fake. If it does not regain its martial and cultural identity, Japan will fall into the kind of violence represented by the chiropterans—supporting U.S. imperialism by proxy or resorting to military adventurism itself. Japanese and not-Japanese, Saya represents a new Japan that rediscovers its samurai values, a strong Japan that now fights against war itself. [/] The contradiction of a warrior who fights war stems in part from the collision of Oshii’s leftist politics with the violent military/action genre he favors. But it is also a tension that reflects the contradictions and conflicting desires of postwar Japanese national identity.” (p.132)

Blood seems to yearn for a Japan that is militarily strong and independent but also peace loving and noninterventionist.” (p.133)

“In the ironic, self-referential style that characterizes so many anime, the film is shot through with a stirring but always slightly sardonic optimism.” (p.133)

Thomas LaMarre has argued compellingly that the most interesting approach to anime connects its meaning with its specific visual qualities, particularly those qualities that set it apart from live-action cinema. LaMarre’s essay “From Animation to Anime” takes up the case of “limited animation,” anime’s practice of reducing the number of illustrations that make up an animated sequence. Originally a cost-cutting expedient, limited animation has given rise to a number of specific effects that have now come to be regarded as positive parts of anime’s aesthetic. Among these are long close-ups in which nothing moves except the characters’ mouths or eyes, a jerky energy when characters do move (caused by drawing fewer intermediate stages of a given motion), and an image-compositing technique that replaces an articulated moving figure with a single static drawing of the figure, which is then photographed as it slides in front of a static background. This last practice of “moving the drawing” instead of “drawing the movement” produces rigid [-p.135] figures that appear to float across the background in a layer of their own, rather than articulated figures that move in and out of the background in three dimensions.
For LaMarre, this last effect generates a kind of weightless, floating quality that creates a sense of freedom for the character and spectator alike. LaMarre supports this with a clever reading of the flying scenes in Miyazaki Hayao’s Castle in the Sky (1986, Tenkū no shiro Rapyuta), where these static figures in horizontal movement produce a sense of gliding weightlessly on the wind. In this way, the formal visual quality of the movement mirrors the story’s theme (and that of several other Miyazaki stories), in which characters gain freedom by harnessing the wind and their own inner potential rather than by relying on a mechanical technology fueled by scarce resources. “Minimum technology” becomes both the environmentalist mandate of Miyazaki’s films and the philosophy of their production.” (pp.134-135)

While many of the characters in Blood are two-dimensional caricatures, the planes in the background are rendered in three dimensions, in historically accurate detail (Figures 3–5). Harnessing a persistent bias that cinematic or photographic realism is somehow closer to unmediated experience than two-dimensional drawing, the filmmakers use this photorealism to associate the planes with a more profound reality. As they take off or return from [-p.136] a destination we can imagine as Vietnam, these aircraft are the film’s most prominent signifier for the world of war and geopolitics outside the vampire story.” (pp.135-136)

“At the most intuitive level, Blood lulls us into a fantasy world not only with its occult plot but with its flat visuals; yet, whenever a plane appears, it has a cinematic realism that calls us back to the reality of Vietnam.” (p.136) … “The planes also gain a ghostly quality by combining detailed three-dimensionality with a drawn quality that they never lose. They become uncanny by approaching cinematic realism and stopping short.” (p.136)

Blood leverages the uncanny limitations of CGI to good effect, using them to acknowledge and foreground issues of lost agency and lost or repressed memory. For a Japanese audience, this includes the perceived loss of Japan’s [-p.139] historical or political agency after World War II, as well as the fear of reclaiming that agency and risking a return to prewar aggression. For many in and out of Japan, what has been repressed is thoughtful debate about Japan’s wartime responsibilities and history. U.S. viewers may also be reminded of America’s own repressed complicity in all of the above, as well as the willfully forgotten lessons of Vietnam. This is why the F-4 Phantoms and other planes are the film’s true ghosts, spookier and scarier than the chiropterans: they haunt us with the return of an uncomfortable reality—not just an everyday reality we set aside when we entered the theater but political truths we have suppressed in our everyday lives.” (pp.138-`39)

Ref: Christopher Bolton  ‘The Quick and the Undead: Visual and Political Dynamics in Blood: The Last Vampire’ Mechademia, Volume 2, 2007, pp. 125-142

Reference is to: Kotani Mari, “Techno-Gothic Japan: From Seishi Yokomizo’s The Death’s-Head Stranger to Mariko Ohara’s Ephemera the Vampire,” in Blood Read: The Vampire as Metaphor in Contemporary Culture, ed. Joan Gordon and Veronica Hollinger (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), 194.

Thomas LaMarre, “From Animation to Anime: Drawing Movements and Moving Drawings,” Japan Forum 14, no. 2 (2002): 329–67.

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