Hellsing Ultimate Volume 01 Review
Few Anime series have captured the attention of Western Anime fans like Hellsing did back in 2002. Adapted from Hirano Kouta’s Seinen (Adult) Manga serial by Japan’s famed GONZO studio, the 13-episode serial was both popular in its original TV run on Fuji Television from October 2001 to January 2002, and then later gained a new legion of fans on DVD. Like many adult-themed shows before it (Bastard, Berserk, Cowboy Bebop) Hellsing was quickly leapt upon by fans in the U.S and U.K and garnered many favourable reviews from critics. You just have to read the reviews of the R2UK and R3SGP DVD box sets from my colleagues: Kevin Gilvear and Dave Foster, to get an idea of this.
However, there was one critic back in Japan who was considerably unimpressed with Gonzo’s work: That was Hirano Kouta himself. You see, his Manga serial was first published in 1997 and it took the admittedly work-shy Manga-ka 11 years to finish the story in late 2008. You knew Hellsing had a good year if he managed to publish two Tankoubon (Manga Volumes) within that year. So, while Gonzo did wait four years to start their Anime project, it was still far too early for them to remain completely faithful to the original source. So instead of trying to bring Kouta’s Hellsing to the TV screen, they hired accomplished Sci-fi writer Chiaki J. Konaka to come up with a rather liberal adaptation. Konaka has created and written for many an acclaimed show: Giant Robo, RahXePhon, Texhnolyze, Serial Experiments Lain, and his style is considerably more internal and downbeat than Hirano Kouta’s.
Indeed, Chiaki’s Hellsing became much more character-driven, adding Anne Rice-ian side characters and focussing more on Seras Victoria over Alucard and Integra, with her struggle to come to terms with becoming a vampire and fitting into the military side of the Hellsing organisation becoming the main theme of the piece. Chiaki also made a number of narrative changes that considerably altered the direction of the series, eventually making it increasingly difficult for GONZO to return to the Manga’s storyline. None of these changes impressed Hirano Kouta, who felt that GONZO had essentially bastardised his creation, and while I certainly feel that Hellsing: The Anime is a stylish and engaging series in its own right; Kouta’s criticisms are completely justified - it simply isn’t anywhere near as entertaining as the Manga.
The reasons for this were many fold; at such an early stage in the story in which the TV series is set, Seras is not nearly as intriguing or complex a character as Alucard, and the more sombre - even morose at times – tone doesn’t quite gel so well with the wild, frenetic elements that have been brought over from the Manga. They even removed the wacky comic interjections that Kouta used to alleviate the tension, instead incorporating this element into the “Next Episode” segments that played after the closing credits. Also, with only two volumes of Kouta’s work making it into the TV series, Chiaki completely dropped the main antagonists: The Millennium Group, in favour of a rather boring “voodoo” vampire that turns up out of the blue in the final 4 episodes for Alucard to do battle with in a rather generic confrontation that forgoes the usual revelry in violence, bloodshed and chaos that so typifies Kouta’s work.
Nevertheless, GONZO did return to Kouta sometime after the end of the TV series asking for the chance to continue the story with another series, but Kouta stuck to his guns. He had decided that he wouldn’t let any further adaptation of his series until the end of the Manga was in sight, and he particularly didn’t want GONZO to continue screwing around with his story like they had before. So, for a long time it seemed like Hellsing was destined to join other popular Anime adaptations like Rurouni Kenshin, Trigun, and Berserk in the graveyard of shows with unsatisfying conclusions. However, as fate would have it Geneon eventually expressed interest in taking over the project, and in doing it right. They would flick the reset switch and start from the beginning, and they would also release Hellsing in OVA form, allowing for a higher budget and no censor restraints on the violence. It was an offer too good for Kouta to refuse, and Hellsing: Ultimate debuted on DVD in Japan in October of 2006.
For the uninitiated, Hellsing tells the story of the Royal Order of Protestant Knights – aka: Hellsing Organisation – who are a private army charged by the Queen with protecting England against inhuman forces of evil. The leader of Hellsing is Sir Integra Hellsing, and their main assassin is Alucard, a seemingly unstoppable vampire who has pledged allegiance to the Hellsing family. One night, while on a mission to rid a small town of an evil vampire priest, Alucard ends up siring a young female cop named Seras Victoria, and brings her into the Hellsing fold as his subordinate. While Seras struggles to come to terms with her new life as a vampire, Hellsing comes under threat from the Catholic Church’s Iscariot Division and their maniacal immortal priest: Alexander Anderson. The Vatican is forced to work with Hellsing though, when the sinister remnants of the Nazi party – The Millennium Group – begin flooding the UK with artificially created vampires.
So the question is: Does Helllsing Ultimate do justice to Hirano Kouta’s Manga? The answer is a resounding: Yes! Ultimate is not only close in tone and spirit to Kouta’s work, but the story remains faithful to boot. Tomokazu Tokoro has taken a very aggressive approach to the narrative that streamlines the characterisation in favour of bolstering the action. He works wonders with Hellsing’s action pieces, adding style and pace to the sequences whilst also incorporating Kouta’s impressive talent for character compositions.
Visually Hellsing Ultimate is absolutely stunning, the significantly higher production values of these OVAs is definitely felt and Tokoro brings Kouta’s mixture of Neo-Gothic stylings and fetishistic gun paraphernalia to the screen extremely faithfully, and of course the omnipresent, lingering “fan service” shots of Seras Victoria’s curvy character design is there front and centre, although inevitably it is the quixotic Alucard: The agent of chaos, with his wildly expressive shape-shifting abilities that stands out from a cast of vibrant characters.
And yet, while stylistically Hellsing Ultimate pulls no punches, Volume 1 is a little too fast paced for an introductory episode. In economising the narrative Tokoro has dropped scenes from the Manga that gave the characters and the Hellsing universe room to breathe. The Manga has never been that deep, nor is it ever slow-paced, but published in roughly 20-page monthly chapters, it is a serialised entity, and so offers a more accessible way to read and re-read each chapter and take the time to rediscover details that may have been missed. In anime form things are a little more disorientating – and I can only imagine how fans coming to Hellsing Ultimate having only seen GONZO’s TV adaptation are going to feel if they’ve never read the Manga, as the TV series slowed the pace down considerably and adopted a character-centric approach. For instance this 52 minute opener of Hellsing Ultimate pretty much covers the 1st Volume of the Manga, which was spread across roughly six episodes of the TV series.
Hellsing Ultimate definitely redresses the balance of the mistakes that GONZO made with their series, while the opening episode does omit certain scenes and rearranges the order of a flashback here or a character introduction there, it is essentially Hellsing as it was originally conceived, and we are very lucky to have a second – high budget – chance to experience Kouta’s bloody, funny, wild, gothic masterpiece in all its glory.
PresentationBefore discussing the technical merits of the DVD, it’s worth pointing out that MangaUK originally intended to release Hellsing: Ultimate in 2-disc, double volume sets, which was exactly how retailers had listed the release for quite some time (Indeed, HMV still do list it like this). Unfortunately because of their distribution deal, they were forced to release the series one episode at a time, albeit at a cut down price for each volume. This may have been for the best when you consider the extremely slow production rate of the series, with just 5 episodes made in its first 2 years.
As for the transfer, Hellsing: Ultimate is presented Anamorphically at 1.79:1 and has been given an attractive transfer that is bogged down a little by the usual NTSC>PAL foibles (ie: poorly compressed interlaced frames). Those foibles aside for a moment though, I have to say the contrast and brightness levels are excellent, the image is bright without blooming and the blacks of deep without affecting shadow detail. The colour scheme is similarly very strong, with bright attractive colours that do not bleed. There is some chroma noise in the image, as well as low-level noise, which is probably down to the OVA’s earthy colour tone, and there’s also some minute mosquito noise that probably won’t be spotted unless you do a frame-by-frame analysis. Nevertheless for a 52minute episode you’d think there’d be pretty much no compression issues at all.
Image detail is strong thanks to the thick lines and high production values, and the print is in excellent condition, with only one or two nicks or scratches here and there. There’s a fine layer of grain present, which is rendered well enough, and there’s also some very slight Edge Enhancements. The only real problem I had with this transfer beyond the automatic standard conversion woes is that there’s quite a bit of digital banding throughout the OVA. It’s a very nice transfer – certainly better than pretty much any TV show. It’s just not a fantastic one, and I kind of expected something closer to fantastic given this series was produced for DVD.
Comparing the NTSC offerings of the R1 LE and R2j DVD, the transfers are almost identical across all three releases. Obviously the standards conversion lets the R2UK release down in comparison to the others, but there’s also slightly more frequent use of EE on the R2j release. If you look closely at the comparison grabs included below, you can see that the R1 LE shows a couple of lines of extra picture info at the top of the screen compared to the R2UK and R2j DVDs, but also the R2UK transfer has a couple of lines extra picture information at the bottom of the screen compared to the R1 LE and R2j. The R2UK transfer is also very fractionally squashed vertically, but not enough to be noticeable in playback.
In the audio section we have a choice of three soundtracks: Japanese DD5.1, English DD5.1, and English DTS. All 3 tracks are excellent, the Japanese DD5.1 has deep, resounding, and tight bass, augmented by a clear, vibrant soundstage across both front and rear channels. The audio dynamics are excellent, breathing life into the brand new score and bringing clarity and punch to the action sequences. The dialogue is also crisp and clear throughout.
The English DD5.1 and DTS tracks are pretty much an exact match for the Japanese DD5.1. The DTS track is half bitrate, and I couldn’t really detect any discernable difference to its DD counterpart. The Hellsing: Ultimate English dub is handled by the people who did the dub for the original TV series. They did a good job then and do a good job now. Most of the actors suit their roles well and the idea of watching Hellsing with a proper English context is certainly appealing.
Looking at the R1 LE, we have the same audio options, but the English DTS is actually full bit rate. I can’t say I detected any difference between it and the DTS track on the R2UK release. The Japanese and English DD5.1 tracks are also a match for the UK releases tracks. The R2j release only has a single Japanese DD5.1 track. It’s actually quieter than the Japanese tracks on the R2UK and R1 LE, but if you just turn the volume up it sounds pretty much identical to them.
Optional English subtitles are included on the R2UK and R1LE DVDs, with no spelling or grammatical errors that I can recall.
ExtrasThere’s a small but worthwhile selection of extras here, I’ll just list and briefly discuss them here:
Commentary with Taliesin Jaffe (English Voice Director) and Crispin Freeman (Arucard): Usually when I sit down to do Anime DVD reviews that have audio commentaries, I always have a sense of dread before listening to them. This is because most American dub directors and actors just sit there pointlessly describing what’s going on in each scene and name calling the cast members who they think are cool. Thank god for Jaffe and Freeman then, because they have created an excellent audio commentary that comprehensively covers the episode on this disc. Taliesin Jaffe is a bona-fide Anime and Manga geek, who is a big fan of the Hellsing Manga and Anime adaptations, and in his capacity as director of both the TV series and OVA has thoroughly researched all the themes of the piece, as well as having met Hirano Kouta a couple of times in person. As a result, Jaffe comes across as both the guy who did the American dub, and a genuine Hellsing buff, explaining the differences between the 3 incarnations of Hellsing and pointing out some general information on the series themes. Crispin Freeman isn’t quite so knowledgeable on the subject of Hellsing, but he partners Jaffe well and goes into detail on the character of Alucard and the difficulty of bringing him to life in an English language context. Both men make for charismatic and entertaining commentators.
Interview with Taliesin Jaffe (English Voice Director) and Crispin Freeman (Arucard): This is a lengthy, straightforward sit down interviews with Jaffe and Freeman that is let down a little by poor recording quality, with the softly spoken Jaffe fall victim to a couple of audio dropouts during the interview. There’s nothing wrong with the content though, as the pair discuss at length the technical challenge of bringing Hellsing to life in the English language, not once but twice. Freeman is much more vocal here than in the commentary, going into more detail on his approach to dubbing Alucard.
Promotional Videos: There are four trailers for Hellsing Ultimate in this section, the first two were cut to promote the series when it was first announced and are pretty long at 6min and 5min respectively, while the latter two are more standard length DVD trailers at 3min and 1min respectively. All videos are high quality and shown in Anamorphic Widescreen with DD2.0 audio (No dialogue).
Japanese TV Commercials: Two 30sec TV spots and two 15sec spots that were aired in Japan to promote the DVD release. All shown in Anamorphic Widescreen with Japanese DD2.0 audio and English subtitles.
The rest of the extra features are self explanatory: Textless Closing, a Characters Gallery, and a Props & Backgrounds Gallery. Again all shown in Anamorphic Widescreen with DD2.0 audio for the Textless Closing.