Vampire Princess Miyu (Volume 1) Review
Vampire Princess Miyu is yet another example of the popular sub-genre of the supernatural in animé. Where it differs from most shows in this category is in its mood, and – to a lesser extent – in its characterisation. Those of you who have seen massively popular pieces like Ninja Scroll and Demon City Shinjuku know that these shows generally pit a mortal (albeit usually a tremendously gifted one) against the Forces of Darkness™. A simple and clear delineation between good and evil thus established, these sorts of shows then concentrate on a series of stylish battles between the hero and the otherwordly monsters arrayed against him... punctuated here and there by an advancement of sub-plots and romantic interests (if any).
Then there's a show like Vampire Princess Miyu that approaches the supernatural very differently. For one, there's really no hero figure in this quartet of OVAs [original video animations]; there are two lead characters – Miyu herself and the 'spiritualist' Himiko – but each of them are somewhat conflicted. (Only in the very last episode does it become entirely clear why.) Throughout the series, Vampire Princess Miyu plays that fine line between Miyu and Himiko being at odds with one another and the two of them collaborating.
Which brings us to the question of Miyu's origins, one that remains fairly murky for the first two episodes included on this disc. I'm trying to avoid spoilers here, so please bear with me as I dance around the subject a little. If you've seen Blood: The Last Vampire, you'll recall that the heroine there was a vampire who hunted her own kind. There are many similarities between that protagonist and Miyu in this show.
In Vampire Princess Miyu, though, the otherworldly creatures that serve as antagonists are referred to as 'Shinma', an invented Japanese word that roughly translates as 'gods and demons' (yup, all rolled up in one). A long time ago they were relegated to 'the Dark', where they apparently slumber uneasily. Now and then a troubled human soul can unwittingly summon one to the mortal plane, however... at which point they wreak all kinds of havoc. Miyu, being of supernatural origin herself, has the ability to hunt them down when they show up on Earth... and with the help of Larva (a Shinma guardian that is bound to her service), she sends them back to the underworld.
One of the many nice aspects of this show is the fact that nothing is really cut-and-dried or black-and-white. After all, why is Miyu hunting down rogue Shinma? What is her own private agenda? What are theirs? Are Shinma actually evil, or just creatures with far too much power to be let loose on the mortal plane? (And now let's ask the same question about Miyu.) Moreover, Vampire Princess Miyu maintains a wonderfully eerie tone throughout.
Which I suppose brings us to another important point for those who might be shopping for animé for children: this isn't it. Vampire Princess Miyu is a moody and extremely dark piece. It's not a gore fest by any stretch, but it is definitely sinister and doesn't contain any easy answers about the nature of good and evil. In addition, the pacing is way too slow for kids (or, I suspect, even teens, who'll probably get bored and turn it off halfway through). Although the plot is certainly unfolding – and important hints about Miyu's background are gradually being revealed over the course of the four episodes – it may not be what you're used to from watching other animé, where something always seems to be happening. However, I feel that most adults will find this show quite compelling.
I do have one minor quibble about this DVD, however. For whatever reason, AnimEigo decided to release the four Vampire Princess Miyu OVAs spread over two discs. A quick peek at the back of the DVD case will reveal the truth: there's only 50 minutes of actual playing time on the disc. The average DVD can easily hold between 2-3 hours of material at a solid bitrate, so why didn't they put all four 25-minute episodes on one disc? The decision might have been understandable if each disc were chock-a-block full of extras, or if there were a commentary track, etc... but this isn't the case. Seeing as the first two episodes go very little way towards explaining Miyu's background, it would have been kinder to the fans if the company had bundled the last two episodes on the same disc with the first so it could all be enjoyed (and better understood) in one go. It is my personal feeling that the fans would have been happier to pay a little more for the convenience, and the resultant disc would have felt less sparse than each of the two volumes currently on release.
1: 'Unearthly Kyoto'
A series of apparently-vampiric attacks have turned up the heat on an already-broiling summer in the ancient capital of Japan. Police are mystified, but when Himiko – a woman gifted with genuine psychic powers who ekes out a living as a 'spiritualist' – arrives on an unrelated errand, she begins to sense that there is more to the situation than anyone comprehends. Her investigation causes her to cross paths with Miyu and her servant Larva... and now Himiko must wonder if this mysterious vampire girl is herself responsible for the recent wave of murders.
2: 'A Banquet of Marionettes'
After a rash of strange disappearances at a nearby school, Himiko's services are engaged by the father of one of the missing students. However, the only clue seems to be that a curious marionette doll has been left at the site of each abduction. It's not long before Himiko crosses paths with Miyu once again, the girl this time posing as a student. How is she involved? And what is her interest in the school hero, Kei?
The picture quality on this disc is good, but not breathtaking. Seeing as Pony Canyon originally put these OVAs out in 1988, it doesn't really come as any surprise that the video masters look a bit dated. (Which is to say, you'll be able to spot the occasional little speck or scratch from the source material, but not so many that they become a distraction.)
Rarer are the brief instances of artifacting in the background of certain scenes, but these are so fleeting that the only way I could verify I had actually seen them was to go back and frame-step through that section of video. I guess the only thing that struck me as weird, video-wise, were the various places where the hue of an object kind of gently 'pulsed', like someone was adjusting the brightness control, but only of that part of the image. My guess is that this isn't anything AnimEigo did wrong in the encoding process, but rather that these variations were present in the masters. Anyway, it's fairly subtle and unless you happen to be looking right at it as it happens, it's unlikely to draw your eyes away from other on-screen action.
Overall, eminently watchable video with some minor flaws.
Again, the sound is good but nothing to shout about. (I guess that's the best that can be hoped for in an OVA series this old.) Although both the Japanese track and the English dub are recorded in Dolby 2.0, I didn't notice a lot of stereo separation going on, nor much in the way of directionality of sound mapping to what was going on on-screen.
That said, what sound effects there were seemed to come across well, and the dialogue came across crisp and clear. Finally, I personally would recommend watching this show in the original Japanese rather than the English dub. Despite the voice actors sticking close to the translation found in the subtitles, some of the actual casting was well off and simply ruins the show for me. The most prominent example of this would be the English Miyu (who really doesn't sound right at all), although the guy they got to do the intro narration was pretty cheesy and comes in a close second. Curiously, the English Himiko is perfectly OK.
One of the highlights of the audio in Vampire Princess Miyu, however, is the soundtrack itself. Filled with dark-flowing and atmospheric music, it sets the tone perfectly for the events and dialogue of the show.
Apart from the actual story that is Vampire Princess Miyu, the best thing about this disc has got to be its beautiful menus. They're a little hard to describe, so I've included some screenshots to give you an idea of what I'm talking about.
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 from which Miyu comes, which undulates in a very creepy way while the ambient music swells and subsides in the background. Really stylish work here. (I took over a dozen snapshots of the screen trying to get one that really demonstrates this, and I've included the best one above... but it really doesn't do justice to it.)
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. (Again, sorry the photo came out so blurry.)
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.
The Extras menu is really nothing to sing about, but I'll cover that in the next section. (And since we don't have a scoring category for Menus, I'll add a point or two to the Extras section in recognition of the good job they've done with the disc menus.)
Well, you win some and you lose some. This isn't one of those animé DVDs you'll be tempted to buy for the extras alone... because there just aren't many. In fact, the only thing that can honestly be called a special feature is the brief image gallery, which contains only 20 production stills and other artwork. It's one of those auto-play deals, and takes about two minutes to run while some random atmospheric music plays underneath.
AnimEigo have padded out their 'Extras' section with a selection of previews of their other titles, including: Bubblegum Crash, Oh My Goddess!, Crusher Joe, Kimagure Orange Road, You're Under Arrest!, Riding Bean, MADOX-01, and (bizarrely) Vampire Princess Miyu. Still, I suppose these are fun to watch through just the once... and hey, there's plenty of empty space on this DVD, so why not?
Although not a listed special feature, this disc – like all AnimEigo properties – comes with a 'liner notes' card with a few linguistic notes concerning the show. Unfortunately, even this seems more cursory than the company's usual efforts, and after three paragraphs simply refers the reader to AnimEigo's website for further credits (even though there's a sea of white space left on the card).
Vampire Princess Miyu is a truly excellent series of OVAs. Granted, it is very compact – only four episodes – but the story arc is nicely executed and it's very satisfying to watch through them all in one sitting. (Of course, you'll have to buy the second volume in order to experience this.)
Although there's nothing glaringly wrong with this DVD release, nor can it be said that this is one of AnimEigo's best efforts. Having seen what a sterling job the company has done with some of their other properties, this particular disc comes across as ever so slightly disappointing... good, but hardly great.
That said, if you're not bothered by the meagre special features and late-80s video and audio, Vampire Princess Miyu is one of those animé classics that you really should see for yourself.