Content Warning: Animal death (dog)
What’s it about? In an alternate universe version of the Cold War, the USZR and United Kingdom of Arnack are racing to launch the first human space flight. USZR cosmonaut-in-training Lev is assigned to a top-secret assignment: in order to test potential issues without it technically counting as the first human in space, he’ll be in charge of training a secret vampire test subject.
I wasn’t expecting much from Irina. It’s the kind of thinly envisioned alternate universe that more or less directly replicates real history (to the point where I struggled not to call the two competing nations the USSR and US) while stapling exactly one speculative element on top. But by the end, I was surprised to find it had won me over for at least another episode or two.
Like this season’s The Night Beyond the Tricornered Window, Irina is headed by relative newcomers. Director Yokoyama Akitoshi is an experienced key animator taking on his second director gig; and somewhat unusually, the series composer is the original light novel author Makino Keisuke in his first real anime writing role (which shows in the occasional awkward decision like dividing certain scenes with title cards). Unlike the crime scene over at Tricornered Window, this first episode of Irina is engaging if slightly stiff.
I always afford a small grain of extra respect to works like these (by which I think I mean male-targeted romances that are willing to admit to being part of the genre) that declare themselves love stories from the get-go, as it means there’s a chance the characters will talk about their feelings and progress their relationship before the last third of the show. The bar is firmly on the floor, but at least we’ve cleared it.
While about a third of the episode is dedicated to rather clunky exposition, which includes huge blocks proving that all the money in the world hasn’t taught Funimation how to code contextual subtitles for on-screen text, once Irina and Lev meet they get some actual scenes where we get to know them both together and apart. Despite the title, Lev’s definitely the protagonist here, but there’s an effort made to give Irina interiority beyond “mysterious love interest girl,” and the episode is free of fanservice barring a weird horny scene in Lev’s POV where he watches her eat caviar.
The vampires here are of the sanded-down variety: Irina doesn’t drink blood and can go out in daylight (though she’s apparently sensitive to heatstroke), crosses do nothing, and so on. It’s not even clear if she’s immortal, given that vampires are here referred to as a “race” –which, as you might expect, comes with the usual tropes of Irina being feared and discriminated against by other recruits. But she does have abnormally strong resistance to things like cold, so at least they made up a plot-integral reason for their gimmick. And there’s a cute little visual nod to Nosferatu, so I’ll take it.
More surprising was the decision to center the last major emotional beat on the sad story of the first dog in space (here Maly, though Laika’s name shows up in other places). It’s often repackaged more cutely without the remembrance that a dog got left up in space to die (and a monkey before that), and it ends up being a fairly poignant conversation without coming across as hack – nothing says easy tears like a dead dog, after all.
I doubt this series is going to make any list of all-time greats. It’s fairly easy to guess the broad strokes to come in Irina and Lev’s journey, and the ambitions here lean more toward competent than exemplary. But there’s a surprising amount of heart in the execution so far; enough to suggest that journey to that foregone conclusion might be a good time.