DVD £29.99, Blu-Ray £34.99
20 May 2013
Pop culture is often airily dismissed by sophisticated society as something transient and ephemeral. Its superficial sensual enjoyment fades with the physical sensation and its memory melts with no internal structure to give it firmness and no thoughtful weight to press itself onto a mind. Pop culture is a loud, noisy motor, fed with black bland oils of refined fads that burn a hard red and are exhausted as smoky vapours. It's quite easy to give the lie to this, though - many franchises, far from being a fifteen-minute infatuation, are actually extraordinarily lasting; as perhaps the perfect statement of it, Doctor Who - originally conceived as edutainment - is now celebrating its 50th anniversary.
Is that lasting character illusory, though? These franchises need massive work to sustain them - Bond films and Star Wars games are parts of multimedia conglomerates, to the extent one might wonder whether it's what their followers want or what the producers gives them. Even during its long period of not-cancellation in the 1990s interest in Doctor Who was maintained by a steady stream of books, magazines and frequent call-backs and references on television. We can block this sniping, however, with the shield of Hellsing. Its elongated release schedule - the first TV-series anime adaptation was broadcast in 2003! - has only had one manga series puttering away behind it, one which ended four years ago in 2009 at that. This third phase of animated Hellsing comes after an even longer gap, with the first four chapters of the OVA series ending in 2008. It's not so much a gap as a yawing crevasse... and yet standing beside it is Hellsing Ultimate. Despite everything, it's still here, and hasn't been led off the edge by the colourful lights of newer things. Whatever the series itself does, that's a compliment to endurance and lastability. Indeed, Hellsing Ultimate Parts V-VIII, releasing the next four chapters in the OVA series as one single block, is cockily confident that it can take a flying leap above that wide abyss of past time. Like any daredevil stunt, whether it lands to glory or crashes in flames, it'll be a sight to behold.
Hellsing Ultimate starts immediately in Chapter V. There is no plot summary or "previously..." montage, perhaps with the reasonable expectation that anyone who's stuck around for this long is going to be invested enough to already know the score. If you are coming in cold, though, as the giant Zeppelins of the Last Batallion of Nazi vampires stand to attention underneath their giant swastika, their leader The Major enunciates for you - it's 1940 all over again as Operation Sealion is back on track. Annihilate London! Destroy London! Wreck London! Devastate London! Smash London! With the Hellsing Organisation, Britain's last line of defence against the undead, broken and scattered, they proceed to do just that. Where can you go when you already start out with disastrous defeat? As Hellsing Ultimate promises, even further...
The anime thus plunges into a visual feast. There are the buckets of blood and decapitations punted like try conversions, and I honestly don't think that I've seen such detailed gore in an animation before this. When someone is dismembered their arms don't just end in bloody stumps but you can see the severed bones, ducts and arteries; when a face is bitten off it leaves behind a raw rind of gristle and jawbone. Bodies are pulped by falling masonry, soldiers are puréed by grapeshot pachinko kills and vampire bites aren't just two polite pin-prick beauty spots on a smooth neck, but rows of tusks that crush like vices as much as they greedily suck and quaff mortal ichors.
For those who've grown weary of "romantic" (or more honestly, "torridly sexualised") vampires, Hellsing Ultimate is the perfect tonic to dispel those vapours. The vampires of Hellsing have divested themselves of all the trappings of humanity, maintaining only the hollow shell of a man's shape to provide some reference to the misshapen negation pouring from them so as to make their horror more comprehensible - and so all the more tangibly painful. When Alucard unleashes his powers, he doesn't merely glow like a Dragonball Saiyan but dissolves into a ragged, jagged cloud as though he's intruding in on us from another plane, his image diffracted as he crosses dimensional mediums. To keep depicting him as a bipedal mammal would be confining, and so limiting his limitless potential. When Seras loses an arm, she doesn't merely regrow it but from the stump shoots not blood but a coronal darkness as if to say that the plug of her physical body, holding back the dam-pressured darkness within (and behind, and beyond), is being worked loose. Truly, Hellsing Ultimate's vampires are horrifying aberrations, dreadful monstrosities, and powerful entities effecting a solidly physical and humbling impressive presence. The zombies don't die from headshots either - now that's just unsporting.
It's not three unrelenting hours of cut/spray/gruff one-liner/rinse/repeat, either. As absurd as they may appear, zeppelins firing doodlebugs nonetheless have no uncertain effect. There is considerable variety in the fighting in regularly-changing situations travelled to by a great deal of motion (even in the smaller things, as the Nazi catboy Schroedinger emerges out of a dimensional rift, and trips a little on the ledge). There is room for quieter beats as well. The series isn't afraid to start off, not with swelling orchestras and grim-faced serried ranks of solemn armies, but a kooky dream sequence where Alucard's trying to work out his situation through the medium of Bruce Willis movies. It's not all about these sudden screeching flips into cut-out comic relief, either - it may surprise you for a series that has a reputation for being a bloody actioner, but Hellsing Ultimate is actually fairly wordy, with multiple characters giving long speeches that not only are breaths between the verses of violence provide a strong spine in a sense of grandeur between the clashing factions. There's also a pleasing level of confidence and lack of tiresome angst amongst the characters - particularly the noble Penwood who is not victimised by the lazy class caricature as a lumpen indolent aristocrat but someone who is acutely conscious of his own personal mediocrity but still earnestly wishes to fight on, aspire to duty and overcome that handicap; and the Wild Geese mercenaries fighting for Hellsing - plain, russet-coated captains with their cheerful resignation to interestingly brief times.
This diversity can sometimes slip into unevenness, though. As it splits between perspectives as the members of Hellsing try to reunite - and their enemies seek to intercept them and ward them off - there is a risk of becoming unfocused and losing pace. Alucard spends a great deal of time twiddling his thumbs on a boat. After a powerful mustering scene an invasion force heads for England and then it vanishes as if never 'twere for two whole episodes (maybe they did a few loops of the M25 looking for the right junction for Swanley). Integra wanders around firebombed London until her handlers can find a decent rooftop to hoist her up to so she can gaze down disapprovingly from it. A character is being shot to pieces but his allies stand around slack-jawed listening to his tortured blood-coughing monologue before it occurs to them that they could be, y'know, fighting off the people attacking him. You do notice these stumbles and they do niggle at the bakc of your mind, but each episode has sufficient drive in its main encounter to maintain momentum and propel it past them without falling down.
The ending animations really show what care has been invested in Hellsing Ultimate's production - each one is unique and they tell small but spirited stories which may not have been necessary to the central thrust of the story but add satisfying context and so give it a little sense of effort in art.
Hellsing Ultimate earns its '18' certificate with overtime. Not merely in anything so trivial as its gushing gore - that's barely adolescent. Hell, when I was a kid my favourite afterschool cartoon was The Animals of Farthing Wood, not so much for the fluffy forest folk but because it was the only show on CBBC which had blood and things getting killed. There are, however, some genuinely transgressive scenes which are not merely more of the same turned up past eleven but which shove the viewer into dark and uncomfortable and very vulnerable corners. You'll know'em when you see'em... and to be honest, when I was first watching I breezed right past them, which does leave me wondering if there is something to the claims of 'desensitisation' after all...
Once in this reflective mood I felt a pang of sympathy when the voice director Taliesin Jaffe recounted the trying experience of placating that vociferously contrary internet denizen, the "hardcore" anime fan. He's achieved an impressive feat in gathering back together almost the complete English-speaking voice cast for Hellsing Ultimate - even the minor bit-parts can have the same actors reprising their roles! As well as being a pleasing source of continuity, it's a real asset to the show itself as they are certainly amongst the best seen in anime, drawn from diverse acting fields. Alas, out of them all Seras's voice actress Katie Gray seems to have, erm, valued consistency in her performance; she still continues to be Miss. Murmur McMumbles, barely any more audible now than when her lines tapered away into vacant whispers during the original TV series ten years ago.
The special features on this release aren't only reviews and commentary, there's even more fresh meat to feast on in the new animation Hellsing: the Dawn, the first part of a prequel trilogy (continuing in the Japanese releases of Chapters IX and X of Hellsing Ultimate) depicting operations against Millenium during the Second World War. "The Dawn" does betray its side-project status - there's no real action to speak of, and movement is limited, but it's not a mere slideshow and provides the same mellifluously macabre art that we delight in, as well as linking into the main series by proving context for some of the historical allusions in Chapter V. This link though is frayed by the real shame that "The Dawn" is only subtitled - it seems churlish given the huge amount of content that we've already got, but there would have been a sheen of completeness in having the cast say just a few more lines - hopefully resources can be found for this in a future release of the last chapters.
In addition to over two hours of special content loaded onto the second disc, each episode of the OVA series itself comes with a complete commentary track, engaging with the full content of the episodes rather than just being interviews with a backdrop (as in rebuild of Evangelion 2.22), and it's quite obvious that the speakers are really enjoying the experience. I enjoyed Episode V's, featuring the Major's voice actor Gildart Jackson: when the character and his delivery sound key notes in Hellsing's melodramatic melody, it's hard to remember that it's the voice of a worker who does his scene and then heads out of the studio to his next job, so it's oddly fascinating to see such a fundamental pillar of Hellsing look up to what he's bearing up and respond with gentle bemusement and baffled questions about who Annie-May is and why she isn't in the credits. Also, even if you're not a fan of commentaries, be sure to listen to Episode VIII's, were Jaffe and Alucard's voice actor Crispin Freeman sit down and engage in a really illuminating extraction of philosophy and subtext from underneath the climatic confrontations of that chapter. The amount of space dedicated to it should suitably show that all of these special features are indispensible in elevating Hellsing Ultimate as a high-value premium product.
At the opening of this review I tried to avoid the "rising from the dead" analogies of Hellsing Ultimate's return - partially because they would be pretty tired and lame but mainly because I feel that it would give the wrong impression. Even though it's a show fixated on the dead, undead, and re-deaded again, Hellsing Ultimate is full of life. It is not exhuming old material like so many Special Editions and Blu-Ray updates. it's a fresh shoot of growth on an evergreen branch. It was said of another memorably bloody movie, Kill Bill, that it was not so much a case of "style over substance" but rather that the style became a substance all of its own. It's something that's very true for Hellsing Ultimate as well, but I've always been a bit leery of that statement because it can come across as damning with faint praise, an ironic 'guilty pleasure' excuse for superficiality. Hellsing Ultimate is a bravura performance displaying the splendid spectacle of violence and chaos, but we should not underestimate it - it does have wit, and it does have awareness. It is not visible on the surface, but all of the lashings of crimson would just wash into a turgid marshy mud if there was no canvas to back them on, which does enable them to light up in gleaming crimson.