Vampire Princess Miyu (TV Volume 1: Initiation) Review
Some time ago I reviewed the 4-part OVA [original video animation] series of Vampire Princess Miyu, where I mentioned that the show's enduring popularity had resulted in a 26-part TV show being produced almost a decade later. TOKYOPOP owns the Western distribution rights to this latter title, and has released it in its entirety over 6 DVD volumes... the first of which is the subject of this review, containing the first 3 episodes of the new series.
Not to retread too much of the ground covered in my previous write-ups (here and here), Vampire Princess Miyu is a series that focuses on the eternal obligation placed upon its eponymous protagonist... namely, to uncover rogue 'Shinma' (roughly translated: 'gods and demons') lurking – and causing all manner of evil – in the mortal realm, and to return them by force to 'the Dark' (an alternate existential plane where Shinma were long ago sealed off from humanity).
In the original OVAs, Miyu's role as heroine wasn't all that cut-and-dried because there was a lingering moral ambiguity concerning both her and her actions. This was partially facilitated by the presence of another strong female lead named Himiko – a human spiritualist who spent much of her time strongly questioning Miyu's motives. Fans of the OVAs should be aware that much of this ethical uncertainty has been eliminated in the TV version – not only is there no Himiko to serve as foil, but Miyu's behaviour seems less questionable; in the new stories she appears to be definitely on the side of 'right' (if not necessarily 'good') and fighting against Shinma who so far have not exhibited any redeeming qualities.
Another major departure from the OVAs is Miyu's coterie of chums. In the original series she was seen as a particularly lonely figure, accompanied only by her silent protector – a Shinma (named 'Lava', 'Larva', or 'Labaa', depending upon who did the subtitles) who had turned against his own kind in order to serve her cause – and occasionally enlisting the help of Himiko when she got in a tight spot. In the TV show, she not only has Larva but has picked up another Shinma pal... a wild-eyed rabbit creature reminiscent of a warped Pokémon, named Shiina. (In fact, for those very few of you who'll know what I'm talking about, Shiina looks like something out of Pokéthulhu.) Further, both Lava and Shiina seem quite talkative, so we can expect to see a lot of her consulting with them before taking action on things.
As if to counterbalance the weirdness factor of Miyu suddenly acquiring a fluffy mascot, there's a taste of normality in the fact that over the course of these three episodes she not only hooks up with some mortal friends, but keeps them for more than one episode. (For the uninitiated, Miyu is locked forever in the form of a teenage girl, and has been for many decades now. Since it's her duty to search for Shinma – which can take almost any guise in the mortal realm – she tends to assume the role of a student at a succession of schools, as this affords her good cover as well as letting her sate an unvoiced desire to be in the company of humans, particularly those living the childhood that she had stolen from her.) In the TV series, she appears to have settled down for the time being at one school and in the end gets invited into a small group of friends. The fact that the show is actually paying some attention to developing Miyu's relationship with these mortal schoolgirls is promising, as it suggests that they aren't throwaway characters.
Another subtle change is in the depiction of Miyu's opponents. In the OVAs, there were certainly a number of Shinma for Miyu to track down and dispose of, but the story focused more on their mortal victims, who were without exception painted in shades of grey... people who perhaps should have known better, but who unwittingly allowed a Shinma to exploit some flaw in their personalities. Although the format of 'human(s) being tricked into making fatal mistakes by Shinma' is still present in the TV series, there seems to be less attention paid to the torment of their victims and more to their battle scenes with Miyu. In fact, these final confrontations take on a very stereotypical shounen [male animé] feel, with each antagonist Shinma being frozen for a moment in an action pose with his name overlaid in an angry font before the fighting resumes in earnest. (I have to say, it made me smile.)
Which is all to say that this is a very interesting new take on the Vampire Princess Miyu universe. Whereas the OVA series had a wonderfully-gothic feel and presented the viewer with real questions of good and evil (and right and wrong), it's clear that the TV show has opted for a somewhat simpler structure, but one that still incorporates many of the aspects favoured by fans of the original series. Yes, it looks like the show is going to use the 'each episode, a new foe' model, but on the other hand here's a Miyu who has time to spend chatting with friends... and that could lead to some very interesting character developments indeed. Nor is it a bad thing that the handsome Larva seems set to get more face time (no, really... he takes off his mask!) – and I'm still curious to learn more about Shiina.
Perhaps unsurprisingly in a show that wants to earn the trust of an established fanbase as well as get off to a secure start, the TV series opens with three episodes which are remarkably like the stories presented in the first three OVAs. I can't elaborate too much if I want to keep this review spoiler-free, but the similarities are obvious to anyone who has seen the original series. This isn't necessarily a bad thing... it's reassuring to see a healthy amount of respect for the canon, and the stories presented here are interesting in their own right.
1: 'The Fang Knows!'
It seems that Miyu's now posing as a student at Kabiya High School, where a number of schoolgirls are being killed in a disturbing turn of events. It soon becomes clear that blackmail is involved... but it takes deeper examination on Miyu's part to unearth the Shinma behind the murders. In the meantime, her steps are being dogged by a male student who's convinced she's behind it all. (Compare to 'Unearthly Kyoto'.)
2: 'At the Next Station'
After a series of mysterious disappearances, the last carriage on a specific underground line begins to earn a sinister reputation... it's said that women travelling alone often vanish from it without a trace, as Miyu learns from her newfound schoolgirl companions. But why does the Shinma responsible refer to himself as an 'artist'? (Compare to 'A Banquet of Marionettes'.)
3: 'The Forest Calls'
When another schoolgirl comes to Miyu's clique for help, saying that her college-age brother appears to be going mad, our heroine tags along to investigate. She discovers that the evil at work is somehow embodied by a shamanistic mask owned by the boy's father... but how can she convince him to get rid of it? And in what way is her guardian Larva tied up in all this? (Compare to 'Fragile Armour'.)
The video quality on this disc is something of a mixed bag. Although for the most part the picture comes across as crisp, with vivid colours (important, since more of the TV show's action occurs during daytime than was the case with the OVAs), excellent contrast, and only the most minimal of background grain, there were some problems (especially in episode 2) with macroblocking showing up in the pitch black scenes and weird shimmering happening around objects in the distance. There were also one or two places where I noticed a bit of 'pixel crawl' in vertical pans.
The way TOKYOPOP handled the opening and closing segments of the show was also a bit of a disappointment to me. As has no doubt already been mentioned in other reviews of this DVD, the three episodes on this disc have been 'spliced together', excising the end credits from episodes 1 & 2 and the intro sequences from episodes 2 & 3. In fact, there's no indication whatsoever when you finish one episode that it's over and you're beginning the next, because it starts about one second later. Although I'm sure the intention was to make viewing the entire disc at one go a smooth process without the perceived redundancy of viewing the OP and ED sequences over and over, the lack of any clear breakpoint only ends up confusing the viewer.
Nor are die-hard fans likely to be very happy about the modified English versions of the credits, as nowhere on this DVD are the original Japanese opening and closing segments provided, and in the case of the ending sequence the left-hand side of the screen has been completely blacked out so that the English credits can scroll unimpeded, which also looks a bit strange.
The good news is, TOKYOPOP actually listened to the fans' comments when this first DVD volume of the Vampire Princess Miyu was released, and corrected both of these issues. As I understand it, volumes 2-6 of the series all feature complete OP and ED segments for every episode... not to mention the (non-blacked-out) original Japanese end credits sequences followed by the credits in English as well as the original Japanese openings included as a special feature. Sounds like a spectacular return to form, so the mistakes made on this disc are certainly forgivable.
I would like to mention that one place that exhibited no video problems at all – very much the opposite, in fact – was the subtitling. If you tend to watch animé in the original Japanese with English subtitles on (as I generally prefer to), you'll grow to appreciate it when a company takes the trouble of using a bold, super-readable font (in this case, a rounded sans-serif one) in a vivid colour (yellow) with excellent character shadowing so the text stands out against the background animation. In short, excellent subs on this disc... although I did notice that they do not include English translations for the Japanese signs encountered now and then in the show.
Fortunately, I've no complaints on the audio end of things. The sound is as good as can be expected from Dolby Digital 2.0 on both the original Japanese and the English dub tracks. Dialogue is crystal-clear with no dropouts, both incidental and theme music uses the stereo mix to good effect, and the show's effects borrow heavily (and successfully) from the lovely atmospheric sounds of the original OVAs. There's not a great deal of directionality present in either soundtrack, but as Vampire Princess Miyu is primarily dialogue-driven with only the occasional major action sequence (the obligatory Miyu-vs-Shinma battle scenes), this really isn't a drawback.
I did listen to extended sections of the English dub track and found it to be acceptable as well. There are no 'problem voices' as far as I can tell and the woman they have doing the voice of Miyu has managed to carry off that same sort of emotional neutrality/vagueness that the Japanese voice actor excels at. Overall, I'd say watch this series in whichever language you please, although be advised that there seems to be quite a bit less of the English dialogue than there is Japanese. (That is, many places where characters say something in the original version are dead silences in the English version of the script.)
There's not a lot to say about the menus on this disc; they essentially consist of one animated main menu screen linked directly to an image gallery and three sub-menu screens ('Episodes', 'Previews', and 'Languages'). However, there appears to be a problem with the way the three animated screens were encoded, as they look much more 'blurry' than they should... in fact, very much as if they were designed in a lower resolution. (The difference is particularly evident when comparing the 'fuzzy' TOKYOPOP logo found on any of the animated menus with the beautifully-crisp one on the static 'Languages' screen.)
Fortunately, the image gallery itself is comprised of static screens and thus does not suffer from the aforementioned problem – all 12 images are sharp and gorgeous to behold. Most of these pictures, though, feature characters who weren't introduced in these first three episodes of the TV show, so in some ways this is a teaser of interesting things to come. The only other thing which might be considered an 'extra' are the short previews for two other TOKYOPOP titles: Spring and Chaos and Saint Tail.
If these first three episodes are anything to go on, it looks like the TV incarnation of Vampire Princess Miyu is going to be just as entertaining as the OVAs were. The focus may be a little different, but that's actually a good thing as it means the series won't be a lacklustre carbon copy of the original show. There's something very appealing about the idea of Miyu having 'friends' (both human and supernatural) to interact with, and the image gallery on this disc suggests there are a number of intriguing recurring characters waiting to be turn up in future episodes.
It's true that in many ways this disc was a learning experience for TOKYOPOP, but a very successful one in that the company seems to have corrected all of the major flaws in the remaining DVD releases in this series... not only has the 'splicing' issue been resolved, but volumes 2-6 boast better special features and more episodes (either 4 or 5) per disc. I look forward to seeing where the show goes from here, and will put up further reviews as I get the discs.