Saturday, October 18, 2014

Dark Wars: The Tale Of Meiji Dracula

Dark Wars: The Tale of Meiji Dracula by Hideyuki Kikuchi. Originally published in America by Del Rey Manga, 2008 (in 2004 by Kodansha in Japan) . Approx. 250 pages.

Hideyuki Kikuchi could be considered an icon of the horror and vampire genres based simply on the voluminous body of his work. What grants him even more esteem is that his seminal work, Vampire Hunter D, was adapted into one of the greatest vampire films of all time:

Sorry, Youtube doesn't have a full version in Japanese with English subtitles. But this is the version people around my age grew up with, and it's not the worst dub you'll ever see.

A few years back, I wanted to try one of the Vampire Hunter D books, but my local Barnes & Noble of course did not have the first volume. Instead, I opted for Dark Wars as a Kikuchi primer. I wanted to see his usage of Dracula as a central antagonist, plus, the cover (by Katsuya Terada), was more aesthetically appealing to me than Yoshitaka Amano's VH-D covers.

So how was this vampire standalone? I will be honest, this is one of the harder books for me to grade. There is a simple delivery here which might be taken for amateur writing, which it isn't. There are opportunities for some real discourse regarding the changing dynamic of Japan in the Meiji era, but that was not the author's intent, so it is not on me to criticize. What I can say about Dark Wars is that it reads like a novelization of an anime storyboard; and as such, it is filled with as many stale tropes as it is with bold, imaginative moments. There are the touches of Kikuchi's authorial pedigree which transcend this yarn from simple Dracula fan fiction to something that sticks with you a bit. But I will say now, there is a major complaint I have regarding the ending (and I mean the last page), that might be considered a SPOILER when I get to it. So, consider yourselves warned; you might want to scroll past it later.

Dark Wars is structured as both a historical horror-fantasy and a Japanese parallel (of sorts) to Bram Stoker's opus. It takes place in the year 188- (seriously), in post-Bakumatsu Meiji Tokyo (formerly Edo). There is a nice little assortment of characters here, but the protagonist of note is Daigo, a seventeen year old kenjutsu (swordsmanship) prodigy. Daigo is a withdrawn, stoic, handsome type with a secret(more on that in the "tropes" section); and he carries a sadness over the loss of his father, an esteemed samurai who was lost at sea. He is close friends with historical figure Shiro Saigo, a prodigy of the newly founded discipline of judo, Both of them share close ties with sisters Chizuru and Akane, daughters of the Kashiwabara Isanosuke, master of a local koryu school. And how do these martial artists tie into the Dracula mythos?

Well, it turns out that our beloved Count is in Tokyo on personal business. A personal obligation, a promise to a man he met over four centuries ago, who has ties to Daigo's family. As with his expedition into London, Dracula precedes his Nipponese venture with a slew of real estate purchases (setting the stage for some rather convenient scenarios to integrate Kashiwabara's daughters into the proceedings).

Even though the Count's primary motives for being in Tokyo are to settle his debt and take in some of the foreign sights, before long, the tell-tale signs of a vampire in town soon begin to manifest themselves. And when the fangs start to sink close to home, it's time for Daigo and Shiro to go into action.

Aiding them in their chase, providing invaluable insight and help all along the way, is another historical figure; none other than the father of judo himself, Jigoro Kano. In Dark Wars, Kano serves as one of the greatest parallels to Stoker's classic; he fills the role of a Van Helsing type. He is schooled in certain Western cultures, and has dabbled in medical theory (this is admittedly added to further the narrative). So, starting from Kano, it is easy to see how the other characters match Stoker's English counterparts; Daigo is our Harker, strong and resolute although physically diminished, Shiro acts as an aggregate of Seward, Morris, and Holmwood (although his only skill is his judo), Mina and Lucy are represented by Chizuru and Akane, respectively, and later on, we meet Dracula's servant, Renta, who is our Renfield substitute. Well, while I am on the subject of characters, why not just start dissecting the book part by part? We start with...

Characters/Characterization: Weak. Oh so weak. Like I said, Dark Wars reads like a novelization of an anime storyboard. A good part of why I frame it like that is because so many of the characters are stock anime tropes. The two sisters? The depth of their character is that one is quiet and dutiful and the other is gregarious and somewhat tomboyish. Our main character, Daigo? Aloof, painfully handsome, consummate swordsman. But why so withdrawn? Because of pulmonary tuberculosis, which causes him to cough up blood at dramatic moments. the depth of character mined for Kano and Shiro is constant reiteration of their martial arts contributions. I mean, it is a very interesting gimmick to not only name drop famous historical figures, but weave them into the action as well. But that's it; it stays a gimmick. Other characters are relegated to the duty of window dressing. There are the yakuza members with honorable streaks, and a friendly girl who is fleshed out solely in colorful descriptions of how fat she is.

Dracula, on the other hand, fares a bit better. Although Kikuchi mentions some of the various forms he can assume, he spends his time alternately mostly between human form (as a young man, not the ancient he actually is), and bat form. His human form differs from other presentations, this Dracula is extremely tall and muscular. He is still suave and seductive. He is honorable, yet undeniably evil. And, towards the end, he gets a soliloquy that actually conveys emotion. Kikuchi mentions in the afterword that he was shooting for a Dracula that is in some ways weary of an eternal mortal existence. To a satisfactory degree, he succeeds in this.

Action: Lots of action here, and it is all rather well done. The martial arts are a central theme here; and always at play are the fading sword arts, the foreign sword skills, and the "new ways" of judo and evolving gun technology. Of course, people (and vampires) execute physical feats that defy reality, but that's all part of the fun here. The details are technically accurate, and Kikuchi goes to great lengths to attempt to integrate the mental aspects of the martial arts into the scenes he pens.

Fear Factor: There are a few tense moments and creepy creatures, but no screams here. But it is always fun to read about Dracula at Halloweentime.

Other Themes: As mentioned before, there was a great opportunity in this book to broach some themes that were both relevant and uncomfortable. The Meiji era must been an era that was equal levels exciting and terrifying as Japan changed so many aspects of their living. How uncomfortable it must have felt to have lived your life in an isolated country, and then start seeing an influx of foreigners with alien features and customs. Also, it must have been disheartening for many to see so many traditions and cultural institutions dying away.

It is fairly obvious that Kikuchi is using his primary characters as symbols for some of the emotions. Representing the dying art of Japanese sword arts is Daigo, our impossibly beautiful, perfectly skilled, dying young man. Symbolizing "modern Japan" is Jigoro Kano, educated, knowledgeable in Western culture, and creature of the perfect new martial arts style. And representing the foreign visitors and their interests is Dracula, a deadly, calculating, bloodsucking outsider who is threatening to buy all the real estate and seduce all the local women, making them his thralls.

In other news, this picture was found in Kikuchi's Japanese-English dictionary under the word "subtlety".

Writing: As with other foreign language fiction, there is the quality of the original story, and then there is always the risk of a poor translation. This is not the case with Dark Ways. It is immensely readable from the get-go. Due to the content (Dracula in 19th Century Japan), it does not require suspension of disbelief, but outright surrender of it. The prose is accessible, but not amateurish. And there is something about it that sticks with you after you are done with it. I can't put my finger on it exactly, so I'll just chalk it up to Kikuchi's skill.

Gripes: Well, now that I've listed all the things that I enjoyed in Dark Wars, not let's get to the quibbles. I've already punched through the paper-thin characterization. Another peeve here is repetition. How many times must we be beaten over the head with the "perfection" of a sword stroke or judo throw? There is repetition galore in conveying peoples' rationales and thought process. I don't want this misconstrued as a critique of Japanese single-mindedness, focus, or obstinacy (being married to a Japanese woman for a decade, I am more than familiar with all of those). It's just, how many times do you need to hear phrases like "It was so hard for her to believe that a man who created an art with the purity of judo would dabble in Western medicine/believe in people that turn into bats/etc.".

Another gripe that messes with the flow of the story for me are instances where Kikuchi references modern day places/technologies in a story that takes place 130 years ago. I am talking about lines like (paraphrasing): "The ball was held in the So and So Hall, which is on the third street in the Somewhere district in Tokyo, in the same building that is now the Acme Insurance company." or "They knew almost nothing about Transylvania. You know, back then, before e-mail and cell phones, they got their  information word of mouth." I the story was being told by a present-day narrator, this would not be an issue. But it isn't, and so those moments jar you out of a comfortable story flow.

My next to last gripe is a small one, and involves something that doesn't take away from the overall narrative: the arc involving Daigo's father. To be fair, once the Count makes his delivery, that portion of the story can be considered officially closed. However, in the small amount of time devoted to him, Kikuchi introduces a dynamic character, and a pretty cool time-travel element that begged for a heartier word count.

And now, the big complaint, the last page. If you don't want spoilers, scroll down to the final score.

Still here?

On the last page, Kano and Shiro are racing off to the docks, where a wounded Daigo is aiming to meet Dracula for a final showdown before the Count hops on his ship back to Transylvania. Now, I wasn't expecting a ten page, blow by blow account of their duel, but this is what we get (again, paraphrasing):

"They were almost to the dock. What would they find there?"

Yes. Seriously. There is a minor occurrence which hints at what the outcome was, but that is the ending we get. That's kind of a cop-out if you ask me. Ah well, if the Sopranos ending didn't kill me, this won't either....

Here's what it is:
A Dracula in Japan fanfic rises above the levels of forgettable fantasy thanks to the skill of one of the best vampire writers in the business. A fun romp (with a crappy ending), that I was able to enjoy a lot more once I looked at it from the eyes of my inner 14 year old (the point where I think my maturity capped off at). Some missteps keep it from being great, but some nice touches keep it from being bad. Fun vampire reading to leaf through while playing your favorite Castlevania soundtrack in the background.

This one.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

I absolutely love this cover. I really dig Katsuya Terada's artwork, especially the way he captures women's faces. Even better, you get an additional 14 black and white illustrations throughout the book. The action poses are a little weak, but some of the others are very nice. I have no problem admitting that sometimes it is nice to have some pictures in your book.

Cover Final Score:


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