The Case Study of Vanitas – Episode 1

By: Vrai Kaiser July 2, 20210 Comments
Vanitas pulling out the grimoire

Content Warning: Body Horror, brief rapid flashing (11:00)

What’s it about? Sheltered vampire Noé has come to a bustling 19th century steampunk Paris in search of a legendary grimoire called the Book of Vanitas, which is said to curse any vampire who looks upon it by corrupting their “true name.” And find it he does, in the hands of a human who has taken the name “Vanitas” for himself. This Vanitas claims to be a doctor who specializes in vampires…and the only one who can prevent the species’ looming extinction.

Look, let’s be honest. This is an exquisite-looking BONES anime with vampires, homoeroticism, and liberal use of paper cutout-style aesthetics. Also, I read the manga. Here is my prepackaged review:

a giddy, sparkly Noe. subtitle: That was extraordinary!

Now let me say that in a lot more words.

There are quite a few star-studded names lending their talent to this project. Director Itamura Tomoyuki is best known for directing several installments in the almost cultishly beloved Monogatari series, which I personally mainly know as “that pretty, fanservicey thing whose chronology I can’t figure out”; the series composer is Kajiura Yuki, bringing along a fair few aural similarities to her work on Madoka; and the series composer is Mieno Hitomi (under the penname Akao Deko), whose body of work includes previous AniFem recommendations Snow White with the Red Hair, My Roommate is a Cat, and If My Favorite Pop Idol Made it to the Budokan I would Die. That’s an A-Team coming to an already strong piece of source material by master of Big Feels Mochizuki Jun.

It also looks quite pretty, and I don’t just mean animation quality. That’s liable to wax and wane as the show goes on, given the dire state of the industry and its strangling deadlines. What’s more important to me is how well this first episode weaves together action, horror, and comedy without feeling jarring or as though any one component is an afterthought. The bright, cheery chibi gags sit comfortably not just next to the fights but also the body horror, which are almost Halloween-y but also effectively unsettling in the same way that previous BONES hit Soul Eater was.

a paper cutout-style image of a woman in a cage made of vines

But most important of all are the leads holding it together, who both come off exquisitely here. Noé is my favorite male manga protagonist of the last few years, a ball of sunshine and curiosity who’s eager to help but also perfectly capable of holding his own in an acerbic battle of wits with Vanitas. He’s also notably a man of color, though I’m not in a position to comment on how successfully the series executes racial representation (as always, here is where I trawl for pitches from folks who are knowledgeable and interested in speaking on the subject). He’s our slightly naïve POV character, but he doesn’t feel like a gormless potato for the Smart Asshole to monologue at. He has his own goals and boundaries he’s willing to assert, and I love him. He is my son.

Speaking of Smart Assholes, Vanitas is peak trash, a self-proclaimed genius who—I don’t think it’s much a spoiler to tell you—has hidden sads beneath his boastful exterior. His voice actor Hanae Natsuki has been impressing the hell out of me with his range. Just to give an example, he comes to this young trashlord from last season’s ODDTAXI as the anxious and middle-aged Odokawa, and personal favorites Appare and Katsuragi Maki before that. That’s no slight on Noé’s actor Ishikawa Kaito, but Hanae is starting to become a draw for me on the level of greats like Ishida Akira. He hasn’t had much chance to stretch yet, but I look forward to seeing what he can do with the sinister and sad shades of Vanitas’ character as much as the comedic ones.

Also the opening is gay as fuck and I needed y’all to look at it

As a first episode, this is exemplary. It introduces some world-building and the both macro (world) and micro (character) levels of conflict, and it has that haunting flashforward at the very end that continues to torment manga readers. Because, lest I forget, this is based on an ongoing manga. I don’t mind an anime-original ending, especially from a studio as talented at it as BONES (the Soul Eater anime ending is good and so is Fullmetal Alchemist ’03; fucking fight me). But attempts to invent endings for Mochizuki works have gone poorly in the past, as any Pandora Hearts fan will tell you, so it’s worth reserving a little trepidation. There are also things we could discuss in regards to the show’s female cast (except to say that there are some, I love them, and they are very much active in the plot, if you were worried about the single lady in this premiere just being a damsel), but I’d rather save that for future check-ins where I’m not just guessing at the show’s adaptation choices. For now, this is the crown jewel of my summer watching schedule.

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