You might be wondering what you’re watching when you slip Vampire Princess Miyu into the DVD player. To start with, there’s the whole vampire thing, as in Miyu is one. But hang on, Vampire Hunter D this isn’t, or even Blood: The Last Vampire. For a start, Miyu’s kind of cute. She doesn’t much look like someone who could tear your throat out, and speaking of which, where’s the action? Where’s the fight scenes, the bad guys, the blood?
Welcome to the world of Shoujo anime.
Shoujo anime and manga, and you might have heard the term bandied about before, is typically regarded as anime and manga for girls. That is, stories that are meant to be of more interest to young women than boys or men. Sailor Moon, Cardcaptor Sakura or Magic Knights Rayearth, rather than Digimon, Zoids or Dragon Ball Z. There’s an emphasis on growth, on self, on relationships and emotional attachments that typify shoujo anime throughout, no matter the genre.
But in Vampire Princess Miyu there is something more. Perhaps it comes from the subject matter and its classical Victorian gothic origins. Perhaps it comes from its moralism — the tales in Miyu do not necessarily end well, for either the main character or the victims. There’s no molly-coddling here, no saying ‘It’s okay. It’ll all end Happily Ever After’, no dumbing down of the viewer. Miyu’s themes can in fact be quite disturbing if one thinks about them enough, and that fact in itself elevates it above some of its shoujo contemporaries.
And watching the first volume Initiation, it becomes obvious why Miyu was, is and continues to be such a popular title. There’s something magnetic about it, about Miyu herself who is so obviously not human because she possesses none of the flaws or emotional weaknesses the humans surrounding her possess. She passes an almost impartial Outer Limits sort of judgement on those individuals who fall victim to the Shinma, or demon gods, she is sworn to destroy yet is herself somehow poignant in her humanity, a picture of isolated loneliness not of her own choosing.
One of the other more interesting aspects of this series is the depth of character that many of the villains have; although demons, they also have personalities, yearnings, that go beyond “I want to kill people”. Miyu’s Shinma servant Larva is perhaps the most fascinating and complex of them all, an outsider who seems to live only to serve Miyu yet who is demonstrably an individual with a past, a history, a mind of his own.
There’s also something alluring in the absence of non-stop action in this series, in the silence of thought and meaning inherent in gesture that the animation often infers. It’s all very low-key, as if it has been lit in psychological noir. Miyu as both a character and a plot device stands outside what is happening, making her the perfect foil for unspoken questions of morality, of right and wrong and human frailty. Sailor Moon was never quite this challenging.
But for all its sublevel complexity, Miyu is in many ways still constrained by its shoujo origins. The three episodes on Initiation are both an introduction to and indication of what can be expected throughout, and yes it is formulaic and it may not make as much of a first impression as other more action-orientated series.
However, the power of Miyu to capture lies in its details and it is on this level that the series has a lot going for it. It’s somewhat above your average costumed-heroine show, even while it employs many of those formulas. It has action, but that is merely conclusion for an instigating issue. It has conflict, but it is mostly internalised. The animation sometimes appears a little dated, but there is something charming in its classical look. While it probably won’t get your blood pumping, so to speak, it is a good, solid, interesting series, unexpectedly creepy and just complex enough not to get too boring. Perfect for whiling away a lazy weekend afternoon.