Spoilers for Vampire Knight and Vampire Knight Guilty
Content warning: blood, romanticized incest
The year is 2008, and the vibes are Hot Topic, Myspace glitter text, and images of Gir from Invader Zim overlaid with (impact-font) text like “TEH WAFFLEZ” or “TACOS!!!!! XD”. It’s in this environment that a certain vampire romance that revolved around two “smexy bishies!1!! >w<” falling for the same girl-next-door got pretty popular: Vampire Knight and its second season, Vampire Knight Guilty, which both originally aired in 2008.
While it would never completely dominate anime fan culture, Vampire Knight nonetheless achieved a respectable degree of popularity for a fleeting moment in the late 2000s. Nowadays it’s far from being an obscure anime, but it still definitely hasn’t had the staying power of other popular shoujo series of the decade like Ouran, Nana, and Fruits Basket. But upon zeroing in on this series today, one can’t help but feel like Vampire Knight was very much a product of its time—more so than any of the aforementioned titles. The cursed tomb from which this creature of the night wakes is a time capsule, one that captures the schlockiest aspects of late 2000s teen girl pop culture.
Rising from the grungy, punk ashes of the ’80s and ’90s, the goth aesthetic/subculture (and its many subgenres) rose to unprecedented prominence in the 2000s. Upon bleeding into teen fiction, it was only natural that it would also manifest into a growing number of titles (both in Japan and overseas) interested in exploring the idea of paranormal romance.
These newer titles were often more accessible and easily digestible to younger, more general audiences than the equivalent material from prior decades, letting their popularity really fly through the night sky in a way that, while not non-existent, was considerably more rare in the paranormal/gothic fiction from yesteryear. Parallel to the growing popularity of such titles, demand for new ones was growing as well. This is all to say that during the mid/late ’00s, it felt like a matter of time—of when, not if—before a gothic, paranormal romance series aimed at teenagers would see particular success. Enter the sparkling elephant in the room: Twilight.
Although the two series were conceived completely independently of one another (Twilight and the first chapters of Vampire Knight’s manga both came out in 2005—and weirdly enough, the Twilight movie and both seasons of Vampire Knight’s anime all came out in 2008), comparisons between Vampire Knight and Stephenie Meyer’s iconic YA series were inevitable. Though admittedly, this flame was stoked by a noticeable number of structural and superficial similarities between the two: both series revolve around having a “love triangle” (which is more like a love wedge symbol, but I digress) between two heavily idealized, paranormal boys and an every-girl. Both series involve vampires taking on alternative diets so they can secretly live among humans. Both series have a tendency to treat the overtly toxic traits/actions of their romantic leads like cute quirks that somehow either make them more alluring, or prove their devotion to the target of their affection. Arguably, English-language fans pitching Vampire Knight as “the Twilight of anime” (whether affectionate or derogatory) contributed to some of its place in the zeitgeist.
While, again, these similarities can’t have been intentional, Vampire Knight still undoubtedly exists in conversation with the global paranormal romance wave that Twilight so neatly represents. And, intentionally or otherwise, Vampire Knight encapsulates some of the problems the genre has become associated with. Is it the first teen girl vampire melodrama? No, but it’s the most teen girl vampire melodrama.
It’s difficult to briefly recap the entirety of Vampire Knight, as it has a lot of moving parts that make up its plot by the end. But the (spoilery) elevator pitch for the series is that it follows the lives of Yuki, Zero, and Kaname at Cross Academy—a school for both vampires (the night class) and humans (the day class). The human students are in the dark about the school’s vampiric cohort, with the exception of Yuki and Zero, adopted siblings who make up the disciplinary committee. The vampires, however—such as Kaname, a full-blooded vampire who seems to rule over the others—are aware of the secret.
Zero, who hates vampires because they killed his birth family, is trying to suppress his own vampiric transformation. By the end of the series, Kaname reveals to Yuki that she’s his sister—a full-blooded vampire princess whose memories were sealed to protect her. And in the midst of trying to balance school life and their own personal issues (and the murderous antagonism of other pure-blooded vampires and their followers), Zero and Kaname are both vying for Yuki’s affection.
Words like “complicated” and “problematic” barely scratch the surface of how deep Vampire Knight’s issues run. The most obvious and prominent example of this is Yuki’s romance options, which are her adopted brother (Zero) and blood-brother (Kaname)—something that the series never seems to reckon with or even address in a meaningful way. Vampire Knight is hardly the first shoujo series to include an incestuous relationship—in fact, they were a fairly prominent “forbidden love” trope among Vampire Knight’s predecessors and several of its popular contemporaries. But rather than unpacking the implications of these incestuous romance options, the anime instead just drops them at the viewer’s feet and leaves without a word of explanation. Seemingly, they’re only there to add to the vibes, so Yuki’s already-forbidden vampire love is even more spicy and forbidden, and is only worsened by elements like Kuran vampires being historically incestuous as a way to “keep the bloodline pure”.
To say Vampire Knight is bitingly pulpy is an understatement. A top-ranking vampire hunter (who helped train Zero) shows up at the school to see if Zero is dangerous enough to warrant killing, is convinced that he’s not, becomes a teacher, and then does nothing of particular note for the entire rest of the series. Zero has an evil twin brother. The main villain is eventually revealed to be Yuki’s shirtless uncle Rido, who was in love with Yuki’s mother-slash-aunt. In other words, Rido was in love with his own sister (who, as a reminder, married and had children—Yuki and Kaname—with her and Rido’s brother). Once more, messy and melodramatic are understatements. But the success the series nonetheless had does tell us something about the gothic, tangled, and often problematic fantasies being sold to its adolescent audience in this time period.
The ‘00s was chock-loaded with plenty of thoughtful, mold-breaking shoujo series. The prominence of this refreshing writing with complex characters and explorations on new themes had very much set the stage for Vampire Knight to be a highly successful, groundbreaking subversion of any number of paranormal romance tropes—or even shoujo tropes—if only that’s what it was. But alas, Vampire Knight was instead much more shallow in its approach to storytelling, and more interested in playing into these tropes than deconstructing, discussing, or revamping them in any worthwhile way.
At the core of Vampire Knight’s issues on this front is its main protagonist, Yuki Cross (later revealed to be Yuki Kuran). The treatment of her as a protagonist mirrors much of the overall narrative weakness of the series as a whole. Namely, despite being the protagonist, Yuki is very rarely allowed any agency or relevance outside of serving as a reader-insert blank slate and a means of showing off how bewitching (bevampiring?) Zero and Kaname are meant to be. She exists as little more than a fly-on-the-wall who sees everything, is loved by many, yet directly affects very little despite the whirlwind of events happening around her. Her greatest impact on the narrative is her influence on the lives of her two love interests: keeping Zero alive with her blood, and acting as a source of motivation for Zero and Kaname to stay alive.
To this end, Yuki experiences very little personal growth outside of her vampiric transformation at the end—though even this transformation grows little more than her hair. Her goal at the beginning of the series was to learn more about her mysterious past, but this often-sidelined goal is instantly (and anticlimactically) fulfilled upon her transformation. In short, she’s a bland heroine lacking in personality or a strong sense of self, presented as painfully, “relatably” ordinary until she is suddenly revealed to be a pure-blooded vampire princess.
Watching Vampire Knight today, Yuki’s being so blank stands out for all the wrong reasons—especially knowing that innovative protagonists like Ouran’s Haruhi were still a recent memory at the time of Vampire Knight’s airing. Despite being the main character and the series’ supposed focal point, Yuki is often little more than a walking, talking blood bag through which the presumed audience is invited to experience the world and its other characters—primarily, love interests Zero and Kaname.
Yet despite how bloody often the series tries to draw focus toward them, these love interests are hardly better than Yuki. Zero, for example, is a self-hating vampire throughout the entirety of the series; a quintessential tormented bad boy frequently portrayed as being chained up in what can only be described as an angst dungeon. As mentioned earlier, he’s kept alive by Yuki’s blood, and the odd power dynamic between them is never really addressed in a way that’s meaningful or enriches the writing of their relationship.
The anime’s ending stands out as an especially sigh-inducing example of this: when faced with the reality that Yuki is a vampire, Zero says that they can’t stay together because he’ll eventually kill her. Rather than dissect the actual issue at play, this threat is played out as melancholy melodrama, with Zero brooding consistently over (ultimately unanswered) questions of redemption but never really growing as a character.
Kaname, on the other hand, lords over Yuki, Zero, and the vampiric student body as a manipulative puppet master at the beginning, middle, and even end of the series—something that’s framed as okay because everything he’s doing is for Yuki’s safety and affection. He’s a textbook example of a controlling, toxic paranormal love interest, his actions justified by his love for Yuki and the destined love (read: them being siblings) that binds them together.
Suffice to say, despite their stronger bonds with Yuki, neither Zero nor Kaname feel like particularly different characters by the end of the series; they’re still as brooding, angsty, and mysterious as ever. And when the main ensemble of characters are supposedly the main attraction of your show, it’s a very bad thing for them all to feel so one-dimensional. One can’t help but exit Vampire Knight wondering what made it so popular once upon a time, and what happened that finally made it fall from grace.
To answer this question, we first need to ask: did Vampire Knight sour like milk, or was it spoiled to begin with? While there’s no singular, definitive answer for this question (especially for anime fans with a lot of nostalgic attachment to this show), the answer I think I’ve arrived at is … it depends. While the show itself hasn’t changed, the cultural context surrounding it has. More than most years, 2008 felt tailor-made for a story like Vampire Knight—a gothic, paranormal teen romance with just the right blend of toxicity, wishfulness, edginess, and being-but-also-not-being-Twilight-ness—to succeed.
Yet its success was much more short-lived—more tied to the cultural context that lifted it up in the first place—than that of its more timeless peers, many of which are to this day considered to be among the medium’s all time greatest offerings. For a brief, flickering moment, Vampire Knight was a beloved, popular series that felt like it could’ve eventually gone on to be a massively influential work—all without really doing anything to innovate, subvert, or otherwise flex the muscles of its genre. And that’s extremely hilarious.
So keeping all that in mind, we again wonder: how did Vampire Knight get so popular in the first place, and why isn’t it still popular the way other beloved shoujo from the decade still are? It’s because unlike Fruits Basket, Ouran, Nana, etc., Vampire Knight’s anime was riding a wave that quickly crashed, and all these years later, has ended up as a distillation of the genre. While this doesn’t excuse Vampire Knight’s most problematic elements, it can at least offer some interesting insights into how it once tapped into a pop cultural movement of dark fantasies, brooding love interests, and the suggestion that the most ordinary of girls could secretly have magical vampire blood; how even the most transparently undeveloped stories could, against all odds, still achieve popularity.
Vampire Knight is an exemplary case study in why, when examining a work, it’s important to examine both how it’s held up, and what it was like in the context of its own time. I said this earlier, but it bears repeating: words like “complicated” and “problematic” barely scratch the surface of how deep Vampire Knight’s issues run. But as an irony-heavy encapsulation of all things 2008, Vampire Knight is simply without rival. It’s ripe for repurposing as a piece of unintentional, camp comedy… but then again, maybe it’s better left in its coffin.