What’s it about? It’s year 12 of the Taisho era (1923). Major Maeda Yoshinobu is called back to Tokyo to investigate a captured vampire in order to ascertain whether she could be trained as a combat asset for the government.
Despite being the team’s Resident Vampire Enjoyer, I wasn’t entirely sure that this series was going to be for me. But then I hit the scene where Maeda goes to investigate the theater where the accident occurred and a tiny vampire shitlord appears to monologue about the nature of art and dreams while the pair of them are framed by the still-bloody stage between them, emphasizing how this woman’s blood is on both their hands. And then I had to take a minute to recover from that hit directly to my veins.
MARS RED definitely isn’t going to be for everyone. In keeping with the episode’s subject of an actress afflicted by vampirism, the visuals are also extremely stagey in a potentially alienating way. Me? I did a little clap when the scene traded off illuminating two characters in a conversation, as if they were being spotlighted; I love the impossibly huge underground spaces on this underground military holding cell. I grinned ear-to-ear when Maeda was silhouetted foreshadowingly against a plot important poster for Salomé.
It tiptoes right up to the border of pretention, saved only by the restraint of its execution. The episode is in no hurry to unfold its tragic tale, opening with long shots of Maeda traveling across the city and trusting that the viewer will pick up on the subtle clues it’s laid out. Violence is implied rather than shown and the story’s take on the “living corpse” element of a vampire (sorry, “vamp”) is intriguingly unique, positing a character arrested at the moment of the violent accident that precipitated her turning. She moves but can’t connect or communicate except in brief snatches, and it’s an effectively melancholy take for a creature that’s often too romanticized to sell well as horror in modern media.
It’s an effective short story that sets itself up for future episodic meetings between Maeda and the mysterious blonde actor who definitely isn’t a vampire (spoilers: he’s a vampire) who briefly crosses his path. It puts me in mind of the old Vampire Princess Miyu OVA, which is pretty much the top tier of vampire anime.
The major difference is that that series had a compelling human protagonist in the form of driven spiritualist Himiko, while MARS RED’s single female character dies before the credits roll. And Maeda is….well, he’s stoic. The show gets a lot of mileage out of contrasting his stone-faced expression against the movement of his hands or the state of his clothes, but unless he starts doing some emoting soon he’s not going to be very engaging to follow. The heart and soul of this kind of story will be his relationship with our blonde vampire shitlord and what their interactions reveal about the other’s weaknesses. Usually with a healthy dose of homoeroticism sprinkled on top, but that’s not really coming across here as of yet.
I haven’t even touched on the simmering background tensions regarding the increasing amount of Westernization in the early 20th century, and the plot elements of Japanese militarization, mostly because my knowledge of Japanese history is pretty basic. But there is a lot going on here, all more delicately handled than the ostensible premise of “vampire spy unit” would suggest. It might not attract the viewership that a splashier action series would, but if it can nail its emotions and that central dynamic, this might end up being something exceptional.