As we all know (and like many of the things we all know, it's only partially true), Japanese animation got through its "this is just for kids" phase much earlier than the animation industries of every other country. And once it got out of its "this is just for kids" phase, it very quickly arrived at its "some of this is very specifically just for adults" phase, and soon we have all the geysers of blood and violent sexuality that were, for a good long stretch in the '90s, the dominant stereotype of anime in the West. It hardly needs saying that this was never as true in practice as in the popular imagination, but that there was and still is a tradition of ultra-violent animation designed for a narrowly-targeted audience of young men can hardly be denied, and we have here one of the key films in kicking that tradition off. Vampire Hunter D came into the world as an original video animation in 1985, adapting the first in a successful series of novels written by Kikuchi Hideyuki and illustrated by Amano Yoshitaka, and it proved to be quite a substantial success, helping to legitimise both the growing direct-to-video animation market and the graphic content that market encouraged. This doesn't mean that we can breezily state that a whole branch of Japanese animation is directly descended from this film, of course. But more narrowly, its director, Ashida Toyoo, went directly on to make Fist of the North Star, and while I can imagine the subsequent history of anime developing more or less the same way without both of those films, I have a much harder time imagining the same thing with neither of them.

So much for historical context. While you're watching it, Vampire Hunter D doesn't feel like the vanguard of anything: it's just a down-and-dirty violent horror movie with some terrific world building and creature design to take advantage of the fact that, in animation, an eldritch monstrosity of incomprehensible origins isn't really all that much harder or much expensive to put across than a run-of-the-mill human. The setting is thousands upon thousands of years from now, in a future where nuclear war leveled humanity, which has since managed to regrow itself up to roughly the point of 18th or 19th Century Europe, in the barely-lingering ruins of the old world. Possibly as a result of all that nuclear radiation, possibly as a result of the war ripping open barriers to demonic planes - the film doesn't suggest anything, it just depicts the present state of things - the countryside has been overrun by monsters, of which the most dangerous are the Nobles, vampires who have set themselves up in the best-preserved castles of the old world, to act as something akin to feudal lords.

The name of the game here is to build out that world and saturate in a mood of almost comically ominous forboding, not to tell a story, so it's no surprise that the actual narrative is pretty thin. Doris (Tomizawa Michie) is the young heir to a monster-hunting dynasty, and on a thoroughly atmospheric night of windswept terrors, her hunting puts her in the path of Count Lee (Kato Seizo), an enormously powerful 10,000-year-old Noble. Now bitten, Doris has to kill Lee without delay, before falling entirely under his power, but she lacks the strength to do so herself; only a fully-trained vampire hunter will do the job, and she's lucky to cross the path of just such a man, a taciturn, tall and slender fellow who simply goes by D (Shiozawa Kaneto).

That's both the whole of it, and just scratching the surface. Hirano Yasushi's script (based fairly closely, as I understand it, on the novel; I have not read it) fills this up with colorful creatures and humans, gives us subplots about the power struggles within Lee's castle, and the personal tension in D himself (he is a half-human, half-vampire hybrid, and the closer he works with Doris, the more he finds himself tempted to attack her). But at the level of conflict, it basically spends the rest of its 81 minutes switching between scenes of D moving in the direction of a new villain, and D fighting this villain. It gets a bit repetitive, frankly, especially because Vampire Hunter D was by no means a resource-heavy production, meaning that there's not a lot of room for much variety in how the fights are animated. The film makes extensive use out of a background of shimmering grey blur lines with characters striking intense poses in front of it, shall we say. And this does tend to suck the fun out of what feels like it ought to have the stuff to be a fun wallow in genre. The character designs, a blend of work done by both Ashida and Amano, create a varied enough mixture of creatures and humans that even when some of them look individually stupid (Lee's powerful human servant Rei (Sogabe Kazuyuki) has a design that suggests that Mad Max 2 remains an important cultural touchstone 10,000 years in the future), the sheer variety of them is enough to remain interesting.

Better yet, the film has a good understanding of what ultimately makes any worthwhile horror film work: its atmosphere. The film's opening scene is a world-class dive right into the stuff of creepy old B-movies (the '50s and '60s Gothic horror films of England's Hammer Film was a conscious touchstone - hence the vampiric Count "Lee"), with dark grey-green grass poking up into the black background, and some really cunning use of multiple layers of cels - foreground grass simply being moved left to right at a high framerate, making it seem to crush forward at top speed - to make Dori's walk into the gloom feel impossibly dramatic. Her meeting with the vampire is all done using maximum negative black space to make her feel extremely tiny and him extremely menacing. Plus, she's been colored in a strange spectrum of teals and purples that suggest something horribly oppressive about the weak night lighting. After the opening three minutes, I was prepared to forgive Vampire Hunter D just about any sins it might have in store for me.

I am, admittedly, disappointed that it ended up with quite so many sins, even so. To be fair, it's not the film's fault that it was a 1985 OVA, and cash was tight, and the filmmakers do absolutely everything they can to stretch their budget. The use of color in the film is, particularly quite striking, especially the contrast between boldly saturated colors and pitch black shadows on the characters, D most of all, to give a great deal of definition and weight to the drawings. This ends up going to some weird places, like the magenta suit being worn by the sleazy human villain Greco (Yara Yusaku), but it's a weird movie, and having some otherworldly, impossible colors feels very right, especially as the film starts shading in details about its setting and we start to find what a bizarre mish-mash this post-apocalyptic world is, bringing in a desolate vision of the American West as a horror landscape along with neon lights that feel somewhat like a midcentury small city, to go with the Gothic horror and Mitteleuropean elements, as well as the ghosts of the sci-fi future. The more strange extravagances of color, the better, after a certain point.

But while the bright colors and the menacingly austere backgrounds are on point, the character animation is pretty damn rough, and it gets rougher the further along we go. While Ashida pulls out the stops when he absolutely must - a trio of sirens who morph suddenly and smoothly into giant snakes is a splendid example of using the simple lines of the character design to good effect, rather than being shackled by them - for the most part, this turns into a lot of scenes of characters holding vaguely kinetic poses in the hopes that the fact that they look active means that they'll feel active. It's a very familiar strategy to anyone who remembers the limited television animation that American companies farmed out to Japaneses studios in the '70s and '80s: well-drafted at the level of the line and the individual frame, but somewhat stiff and awkward when you're watching several frames all in a row. Given how much Vampire Hunter D bets on maintaining a moody visual style, every time the visuals scream "we're doing this on the cheap!", another bite gets taken out of the film's quality.

But again, that's not something that anybody could control. This film, in 1985, was not going to be well-funded, and that is that. What they could control were the story problems, including that deadning redundancy from about minute 20 to minute 45 or so, when it feels like the same three scenes on repeat. And they could control the stereotypical dialogue, full of characters shouting florid tough things at each other while bizarrely refusing to either fight or retreat. And they could have refrained from including some unusually gratuitous and inconsequential fan service in the form of a shower scene that threw me right out of the movie (they have showers in this post-apocalyptic barely-there civilisation?)

No classic, then, this Vampire Hunter D, but a somewhat rocky experience held together largely through the sheer willpower of its wonderfully gloomy visual style (see, it is just like a Hammer production!), and the joy with which it comes up with gory new ways to show animated blood. And I will admit, I admire its commitment. Nobody quite knew how much crass, lurid violence you could get away with at this point in animation history, and in its own weird way, this was a trailblazer. And there is some terrific crass violence in the film, at that. There's no question that the film would be bettered, both in artistry and fun trashiness, several times down the road, but it's still pretty fun to watch if you find yourself with 80 minutes to kill and a urgent need to watch monsters get chopped apart by a sword against a spooky Gothic background. And I will confess that I am not unfamiliar with that need.