The queer blood ties of Vampire Princess Miyu

By: Camellia James January 27, 20210 Comments
anime promo image of Miyu and Larva

Spoilers for Vampire Princess Yui.

Vampire Princess Miyu is a 10-volume manga series from ’90s, with 4+ spinoff manga series and counting, a 4-episode OVA, and a lengthier anime series. The protagonist is the titular Miyu, an immortal vampire who looks like a young human girl. Her duty is to find rogue Shinma, god-demons who have escaped from their dimension into the human world and prey on humans, and send them back to “the darkness” whence they came. Miyu needs human blood to live, but she is careful to choose humans who are grieving or in pain, offering them an endless dream of happiness in exchange for their blood.

The series subverts and reinvents a number of vampire myths and stereotypes. Centrally, Miyu’s blood-drinking isn’t sexualized; rarely framed as an erotic encounter, it never seems to be a metaphor for sex or even any sort of sexual transgression. The manga never lingers on the experience of blood-drinking, and neither Miyu nor her victims seem to feel any pleasure from the process, and it goes by quickly and painlessly. Once it’s over, the victims appear glassy-eyed and unfocused, usually seeming to be unaware of their surroundings. Miyu explains that she has taken them into a dream-world, full of whatever makes them happiest.

Miyu between two shoji screens with a monster visible behind her

Just as interesting, Miyu is cast as a Japanese figure, not an exotic European one. Japan does not have any clear vampire figures in its mythology or folk tradition, so vampires and the vampire genre were largely inspired from imported Western movies. “Originally, there seemed to be no blood-sucking, immortal creatures in Japanese folktales or legends,” explains Shimokusu Masaya in his introduction to Vampiric: Tales of Blood and Roses in Japan. “With the huge influx of Western cultures, however, [vampires] started entering the mind-set of the Japanese. … In the 1950s and 1960s the film Dracula had a strong impact … the image of an aristocratic dark figure represented vampires for the Japanese in the late 20th century.”

Shimokasu points to Vampire Hunter D, the popular manga and anime series in which vampires are literally called aristocrats, and live in beautiful gothic castles with European trappings. Even before D entered the scene, there was another, hugely influential early manga about vampires: Hagio Moto’s shoujo classics The Poe Clan, which also sets its vampires in a stylized Occidental setting, with gothic European mansions in the woods and mysterious nobility with dark secrets.

Miyu, too, has imagery of the upper-class: much of the story takes place in large, old family manors, with gorgeous gardens and traditional tatami rooms. But what distinguishes these manors from the Poe Clan’s medieval European mansion or Vampire Hunter D’s gothic European castles is that, well, they’re not European.

Cover image of Vampire Princess Yui

Instead, Miyu is quintessentially Japanese, with nary a trace of the European exotic. The series is set in Kyoto, the home of traditional Japanese culture. Miyu wears a stylized kimono and, in the OVA, even speaks in Kyoto dialect, further emphasizing her connection to Old Japan. She’s also fully integrated into the series’ mythology of Shinma, gods, and demons. Even Miyu’s name is a complex game of reclamation: she is a banpaia, the Japanese pronunciation of vampire, but instead of being spelled with katakana characters, as is usual for borrowed words in Japanese, series creator Narumi Kakinouchi invented a kanji spelling for the word: 吸血姫. (For those who can read Japanese characters, this literally means blood drinking princess.)

Finally, unlike in most vampire stories (and notably The Poe Clan, which centers on the protagonist’s transformation into a vampire), vampirism is generally not transmitted or transmittable in Miyu. Miyu is born a vampire, and her bite does not seem to turn her victims into other vampires. In Vampire Princess Miyu, blood bonds become not something that transfers a vampiric condition, but something that creates connection. While in some vampire stories it can also forge mythical bonds, the conventional vampire bite crucially also transfers a condition (vampirism). But here, the connections are not accompanied by transformation. Rather than giving you new traits, its only effect is to create a link between yourself and another person.

This is true throughout the Miyu franchise. Miyu’s first bite was with a Shinma from “the West” called Larva, who wanted to kill her. But after the bite, he becomes loyal to her. Originally, this was a penalty from his own Shinma bosses: they force him to put on a mask, and to serve the Japanese vampire princess who defeated him as a sort of humiliation. But for Larva, this doesn’t seem to feel like a penalty. That is made blatantly clear when Larva’s former friends try time and time again, in the manga, the OVA, and the anime series, to “save” Larva from Miyu. Every time, he refuses to go back with them. He has learned from Miyu, and is loyal to her and her quest: he stays with her of his own free will, a bond instigated by that first connection of blood drinking.

Miyu reflecting on Yui's mother
Note: Reads left-to-right

Blood ties, then, become a place for connection in the Vampire Princess Miyu universe. Larva is not put under a spell or transformed into fundamentally different creatures by the vampire bite. Instead, he simply comes, through the bite, to understand and sympathize with Miyu, serving her of his free will.

And most intriguingly––and possibly most subversively of all––the connection that blood brings in Miyu is outside of heteronormativity. Larva, for example, is loyal to Miyu and she considers him the most important person in her life. But they don’t seem to have any romantic connection: they are, in a sense, platonic soulmates.

This last point becomes crucial in the first sequel series, where we see the birth of Yui, the second vampire princess. Yui’s mother is human and her father is a demon; when the father dies, Miyu drinks from the mother to give her a happy life dreaming of him. It’s never clarified if it is this that makes Yui a vampire, or just the fact that she has one human and one demon parent. But when she awakens to her powers, Miyu is the first person she drinks from, cementing a bond between the two. Miyu then describes Yui as “my sister, my daughter, and myself.” Sister, because they share blood; mother, because Miyu was involved in Yui’s creation; and herself, in that each has drunk from the other, and neither can fully die if the other is still alive.

Yui dreaming of her mother
Note: Reads Left-to-right

Yui, meanwhile, is not the product of a conventional heterosexual coupling: she is the product of three people, not two, and one of her “mothers” was not sexually involved with the other parents. She is connected to Miyu through a mutuality, and though Miyu is older, the two are necessarily on equal footing because each has drunk the other’s blood. The two share a queer bond, rejecting the idea that blood bonds can only refer to conventional family in the common understanding that “blood is thicker than water.”

In the sequel series New Vampire Princess Miyu, these queer connections become even more explicit. Since Larva won’t leave Miyu of his own free will, the Western Shinma invade and take him by force: they remove Miyu’s blood from his body, and by doing so erase all his memories of her.

This is crucial. If removing Miyu’s blood from Larva made him want to leave her, it would suggest that she had cast some sort of spell over him by drinking his blood––again, like a traditional vampire, whose bite changes its victims by transforming them into “monsters.” But that’s not the case. Removing Miyu’s blood doesn’t change Larva by undoing a spell. Instead, it takes away his memories. The legacy of blood bonds in Miyu isn’t magical transformations, it’s memories, loyalty, fondness, love––that is what gets taken away from Larva with Miyu’s blood.

Miyu reflecting on her love for Yui
Note: Reads left-to-right

Without it, Larva reverts to Miyu’s enemy and kills her, just as he had meant to do before he got to know her. But though she’s been killed, Miyu isn’t dead. She lives on in Yui, her “sister, mother, and self.” And when Yui comes to the rescue, she’s able to use their blood bond––the part of Miyu that lives on in her––to bring Miyu back. Because Miyu drank from Yui’s mother, to save her from the pain of losing a loved one, she became Yui’s second mother. Because they shared blood like sisters, Yui drank from Miyu once she awakened to her vampire powers. And because of that shared bond, Yui’s memories of, connection to, and love for Miyu make it so she can never truly die as long as Yui lives on. It’s hard to imagine a more overt metaphor for the power of queer love.

The world of Vampire Princess Miyu, then, is one in which the blood bonds conferred by the vampire bite serve as marks of connection. And that connection is freely chosen: a total queering of the idea that “blood” is a metaphor for the heteronormative, conventional family. Larva’s memories of Miyu are what are carried in his blood bond with her, and Miyu’s love and kindness for Yui’s mother is what brings about Yui’s blood bond with her and eventually brings her back from the dead. In the end, series creator  Kakinouchi Narumi does not just subvert the Western vampire myth; she adds a unique dimension of queerness to its story structure.

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