Vampire Princess Miyu (Volume 2) Review
It's been a couple of months since I posted a review of the first DVD in the Vampire Princess Miyu OVA series, but here at last is my write-up of the second (and concluding) volume. To briefly recap, Vampire Princess Miyu is a four-part, late-80s animé show which explores that twilight region between good and evil via the interactions of its two lead characters – the eponymous Miyu and the human spiritualist Himiko. As I've already covered the core aspects of this darkly supernatural series in the other review, this time around I'll try to flesh out a bit more of its history. If these sort of details don't particularly interest you, now might be a good time to scroll down to the 'Episodes' section.
Vampire Princess Miyu has a lot going for it, production-wise. For one, it features character designs and animation direction by the ever-popular Narumi Kakinouchi. (You could safely say she has a thing for vampires, as some of her other works include New Vampire Miyu, Vampire Yui, and Dahlia the Vampire, although she's done plenty of manga [Japanese comics] on other themes as well.)
Of course, however lovely the artwork, these OVAs [original video animations] would never have become the genre classic they have had it not been for the efforts of director Toshihiro Hirano and scriptwriter Noboru Aikawa. (As it's not immediately evident from their names, I should mention that Hirano and Kakinouchi are a husband-wife team who also collaborated on the subsequent manga and Vampire Princess Miyu TV series.)
Hirano himself is better known for his work on Iczer and the considerably-fluffier Magic Knight Rayearth series, while Aikawa has established a track record for gothic fantasy care of Hakkenden and his notorious Urotsukidoji titles. (In case you're wondering, they're notorious primarily because they're examples of hentai [pornographic] animé, with plenty of on-screen sex written into the stories.)
Seeing as for the better part of a decade the four OVAs were the only animated Vampire Princess Miyu stories available, it hardly comes as a surprise that the show's many fans rejoiced when a 26-part TV series expanding the history of Miyu – although not Himiko – began broadcasting in October 1997. TOKYOPOP has bought the Western distribution rights on these, and by now should have released the entire TV series on DVD.
While I'm at it, I guess I'd best take a quick stab at the whole 'name debate' for this show. The fact is, because every Japanese kanji character has multiple possible readings, it can sometimes be difficult to convey a 'definitive' translation of certain names/titles. In the case of this show, the kanji in question can be alternately read 'Kyuuketsuki Miyu' (Vampire Miyu) or 'Kyuuketsuhime Miyu' (Vampire Princess Miyu). Although the series is known by the former title in Japan, when AnimEigo went to bring it over to the West they contacted the original production studio and obtained permission to use the latter translation because it more fully conveys the subtle nuances of Miyu's role in the show. Neither version of the title is actually 'wrong'; one just highlights a linguistic aspect that the other glosses over.
Anyway, enough background. On to the final two episodes found on this disc...
3: 'Fragile Armour'
The series having clearly established its direction during the first two OVAs, episode number three smoothly segues into a slightly different dynamic between the two protagonists. No longer do Miyu and Himiko seem to be directly at odds with one another, and indeed Himiko's position is strengthened to the point where she can demand a price for assisting the vampire princess: information.
In exchange for Himiko's help in defeating a pair of supernatural foes – one a rogue Shinma with a hidden agenda, the other a mysterious manifestation bedecked in ancient samurai armour – Miyu begins to recount her own history, particularly as it concerns her Shinma guardian, Larva. As Larva has somehow been sealed away for the moment, Himiko has only a short time in which to solve the secret of the armour before a considerably-weakened Miyu must face a final confrontation with her opponents.
4: 'Frozen Time'
Himiko returns to her native Kamakura, but pleasant reminiscence of her childhood home is tainted by recurring memories concerning an eerie mansion up on the hill. Being 'all grown up' now, Himiko has long since convinced herself that these disturbing thoughts of a terrifying (and compelling) presence are nothing more than a half-remembered nightmare. However, when she decides to hike up the hill all the same – just to make sure there's no dark manor lurking there – she finds Miyu (and her own past) waiting for her...
Needless to say, this episode is charged with the duty of neatly tying up loose ends and bringing the four-part arc to a satisfying conclusion. Fortunately, it does so with panache. Somehow without ever appearing to rush matters, in half an hour's time the audience: 1, learns of Miyu's true origin; 2, discovers in what way Miyu and Himiko are inextricably linked; and 3, is shown the events that actually took place on that fateful night when the Shinma gathered together and were bound to the Dark. And (rather astonishingly for a gothic horror show), in the end the explanation all makes sense and holds together.
The video quality on this second Vampire Princess Miyu DVD is essentially the same as that seen on the first – which is to say, perfectly OK but hardly reference material, even for late-80s animé. The observations I made in the Picture section of my previous Miyu review (minor nicks and dust in the video masters, occasional jaggies, etc.) still hold true, with the possible exception of the comments about 'pulsing'... which I didn't notice nearly as much of this time around.
Also as before, the animation style may look slightly dated to viewers who have only seen more recent releases out of Japan, particularly ones that work in the same genre (e.g., Blood: The Last Vampire). However, such comparisons may not quite be fair, as Vampire Princess Miyu was produced entirely on an OVA budget – and as such couldn't afford all the polish that feature film animé benefit from.
Not much new to report on the sound front. Solid, serviceable audio on this disc, just like the last one. Don't go hoping for DD 5.1 or Dolby Surround, though... we're talking a straightforward Dolby 2.0 mix, which certainly benefits the dialogue in both the original Japanese and the English dub. It may be my imagination, but it seems these final two episodes make slightly better use of the stereo separation in the front soundstage, with on-screen sound effects actually evincing noticeable directionality.
Of course, what really makes the show in the audio department has got to be the stylish and sinister soundtrack crafted by Kenji Kawai, a composer who has worked on many live-action films as well, not to mention contributing to other popular animé soundtracks like Ghost in the Shell.
Also worth mentioning are the lead voice actors, both of whom do a great job. Miyu is played by Naoko Watanabe, who has voiced roles in several other shows director Toshihiro Hirano has worked on (Fight! Iczer-1, Dangaioh, etc.), but probably the bigger seiyuu star is Himiko's actress, Mami Koyama, who has played everyone from Kei in Akira to Minky Momo herself in Fairy Princess Minky Momo.
The menus for this disc are essentially the same as those used in the previous volume. Without question, they enhance your experience when watching the OVAs because their beauty and eeriness mirror the mood of the show itself.
Basically, the main menu is all in subtle motion: along the top of the screen is a band of blocks in primary colours which glide back and forth across one another, forming darker hues where they overlap. Additionally, a line of text fades in and floats across the screen, naming the two episodes included on this disc. Finally, in the main part of the screen there is a shot of the vaguely-Lovecraftian realm of 'the Dark', which undulates in a very creepy way while the ambient music swells and subsides in the background. Really stylish work here.
The actual main menu options include 'Play All', 'Scene Selections', 'Languages', 'Extras', and 'Credits'. The first and last selections are fairly straightforward, so I'll talk about the ones with sub-menus associated with them.
The Scene Selections menu is every bit as gorgeous as the main menu, with a stream of nine 'bubbles' containing the chapter breaks for each of the two OVAs. Each of these bubbles has an animated segment of that part of the show playing within it, while a floating line of text identifies the episode whose scenes you are currently selecting from. It's easy to toggle between the first and second OVAs or return to the main menu from here.
The Languages menu has every combination of audio track and subtitling option you're likely to desire. To be precise, the five are: 1, English dub with no subs; 2, English dub with full subs; 3, English dub with limited subs; 4, Japanese with full subs; and 5, Japanese with no subs. Sure, you could emulate any of these modes manually by messing with the AUDIO and SUBTITLES buttons on your DVD player's remote control, but it's much more handy to have them all set up here for you.
I'm sorry to report that this is where things pretty much fall down for this DVD. Not only is there only one special feature on the entire disc – an artwork gallery containing 20 images – but disappointingly it's merely a carbon copy of the one presented on the Volume 1 disc... a slideshow of the same exact pictures as before. Unfortunately, as if to further underscore the sparseness of the Extras menu, gone is the selection of previews of other titles that AnimEigo had included on the first DVD. The liner notes card that AnimEigo provides with all of its releases in this instance merely mentions that all of the cultural and linguistic notes for Vampire Princess Miyu are to be found on the card from the first DVD... even though this notice is in fact about the same length as the text to which it refers.
All in all, it's fairly disappointing on the special features front. I recognise that Miyu is an old animé series, but surely there must have been more bonus material available that could have been added to this disc. However, in light of the excellent (and apparently in-house!) menus, I've chosen to bump up the Extras score for this DVD slightly as there's no other place to indicate them.
If you are an aficionado of gothic fantasy, supernatural horror, or animé in general, you really should become acquainted with Vampire Princess Miyu. And if you're a fan of more than one of the above, then this show certainly deserves a place in your DVD collection. The story arc is superb, the lead characters compelling, and the ethical questions posed by the series quite engaging. The two stories on this disc are the stronger of the four that make up the series, but inevitably had to wait until the groundwork had been laid by the previous two. However, with a running time of only 55 minutes for this DVD and 50 minutes for Volume 1, you won't find it difficult to make time to watch through all of the OVAs in one go.
On the down side, there is the fact that the special features here are practically non-existent, the video and audio quality check in as merely what you'd expect for a show this old, and the entire series might have been better off bundled together onto one DVD rather than split across two like this. If you can live with these minor drawbacks, though, then I'd highly recommend both of these discs.