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Stephen reviews: Vampire Princess Miyu (1988/1989)

737187003622Vampire Princess Miyu [Kyuuketsuti Miyu 吸血姫 美夕, Vampire Miyu] (1988/1989)

Starring Mami Koyama, Naoko Watanabe, Mayumi Shou, Katsumi Toruiumi, Ryo Horikawa, Yuji Mitsuya, Masako Ikeda, Kiyonobu Suzuki, Tesshō Genda, Kaneto Shiozawa

Directed by Toshihiro Hirano

Another series rather than film, Vampire Princess Miyu is one of my old favorites from my high school years. It was refreshing coming back to this series and finding that it still holds up pretty well. This is not the late ’90s TV series, but the decade older direct-to-video mini-series. At only four episodes the entire series is no longer than a feature film, making it easy to watch in one sitting although each episode stands on its own fairly well. They are all interconnected and combine to tell a broader story, but each episode is also a single adventure in itself.

The franchise has a rather oddly translated title. “Princess” is nowhere in the Japanese title. Miyu herself is not, and never was, a princess of anything. One can only wonder what made the translators insert that word. I guess it just sounds better than the more basic Vampire Miyu (though I do wonder if the original title might be a reference to Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat). In any event, the erroneous title is the one by which the franchise is most commonly known in English (the original manga used the literal translation Vampire Miyu when it first came out in the US, but later releases apparently added in the “princess” bit).

In basic description, Miyu is very similar to Saya from Blood: The Last Vampire and its various sequels. They are both immune to the standard vampire weaknesses like crosses and sunlight. They both hunt down monsters that prey on humanity. They both disguise themselves as schoolgirls to track down their opponents. They both have glowing eyes when they use their powers, though Miyu’s are gold instead of red. They both have bitter pasts that drive them to shun human relationships. But at the same time, the characters couldn’t be more different. Where Saya is brash, surly, and violent; Miyu is demure, coquettish, and philosophical. Saya’s answer to most problems is to hit them over the head with a sword, where Miyu is more manipulative and mystical. If Saya is a warrior, then Miyu is a wizard. She relies on magical illusion as her primary weapon, and when forced into direct combat, Miyu fights with a globe of flame rather than physical contact.

Stylistically, the series is fantastic. It is the mood and tone of the series that is perhaps its most impressive aspect. Miyu is always garbed in classical Japanese clothing. The look and feel of the settings evokes a distinctly Japanese flavor as well. The magic has a disturbing feel to it, always lurking and creeping rather than blasting forth. The animation is well-made for the time, and brings it all together quite well.

Miyu, and the series as a whole, are defined by a mysterious and distant nature. Miyu is an enigma, and each of the four episodes unveils another layer of her character. Yet she is not the protagonist of the series. If anything she is the antagonist. The story actually centers on Himiko, a spiritualist that discovers Miyu and hunts her down as a threat to humanity. As the story continues Himiko becomes more confused and daunted by Miyu’s nature, as well as the monstrous shinma creatures that Miyu hunts. These gradual revelations work very well because by the time we get a full explanation of who Miyu is, the mystery has been built up enough to make any information seem like rain in a desert.

Perhaps what makes Miyu most mysterious is her magic. She fades in and out of existence at will, and frequently sucks people into an illusory realm of eerie red light and twisted black trees. There is never any explanation of what this place is or where it is, or what might be lurking within. But Miyu’s enemies are perhaps even more frightening. Each shinma she faces is completely different, and presents its own brand of creepy visuals. Like Miyu, though, they primarily work through subtlety and manipulation. They are disturbing not because of how big and ugly they are, but rather because they are so insidious, manipulating people’s desires to fuel their own dark magics.

Miyu’s sidekick Larva is just as mysterious, though more one-dimensional. His name has also been translated as Lava, but I wonder if it might have been a Japanese attempt to pronounce the English word “lover.” His own nature is touched on only slightly and his relationship with Miyu left vague, but “lover” doesn’t seem out of line. Larva is Miyu’s servant, tall, dark and silent to contrast with Miyu’s dainty bright and cheerful appearance. He is the brawn of the team, acting as bodyguard and sometimes as offensive front line while Miyu works her magic from afar.

There are times when the series gets a little too sappy. The second episode is definitely the weakest in this regard, which deals with a bizarre high school romance, but I think a lot of this is just that I am so familiar with the tale. The story is about mysterious creatures of darkness, and when you already know the answers it’s harder to keep the interest going. For a newcomer, however, I think the mysterious creepy vibes will overwhelm any of these misgivings.

Vampire Princess Miyu is a very stylish and evocative tale. It has a lot of cool visuals and a creepy sort of elegance that I find very endearing. If you want a more thoughtful approach to a vampire character, then this is a great series to try.

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