“I’m ready to strike them down without a moment’s hesitation or the slightest hint of regret. I can do this for you. I’m a monster and I will do what needs to be done. But what will you do? My guns are prepared for battle, my sights are trained, my magazine is fully loaded. I pull the slide and remove the safety; everything is waiting and ready. Still, you must be the one to pull the trigger. So, what will you do? I’m waiting for orders, my master…”
Everyone always remembers their first title, but sometimes it takes several before you find the one that becomes the most influential – the one that sparks a lifelong relationship with a medium. My brief history of how I came to discover my passion for anime is not worth remembering, much less recounting, but to be able to tell this story right, I think it might help for you to understand what my relationship to the medium is and how it evolved to where it is.
Like most folks, I started out with the all the usual suspects. From Saturday morning cartoons as a child to whatever was airing on Toonami by the time I started High School. I think it was… Naruto? Or maybe it was Full Metal Alchemist? The details aren’t important, but at the time, I thought this was peak Anime. So much that I boldly put out a random top 10 list of my favorite anime of all time when casually asked over the Internet. I care not to share that list (on account of not remembering half of it), but in retrospect, it was one of the most vanilla lists one could come up with.
As the years passed, my exposure and tastes grew exponentially, so I’ve had a variety of new experiences to draw on to further shape my interests. It’s been at least 10, maybe 15 years or more since I’ve thought about that list, which means I haven’t updated it at all this whole time! I’ll have to rectify that at some point, but if I had to make a top 100 list today, I can say with upmost certainty that most of these would not survive the culling – though I’d probably keep FMA and Death Note somewhere in top 50!
All except one.
“Yes...excellent! I haven’t had this much fun in ages!” - AlucardScreenshot: Funimation
Based on the manga by Kouta Hirano, Hellsing has long been a longtime favorite of mine, taking advantage of my love of both anime and horror to new delights. It all began one uneventful afternoon when an old high school friend who knew I was in the market for anime recommendations decided to see if he could get a rise out of me. Folks that know me in real life know I tend to be much more reserved compared to my online persona, so I’ve been told it’s difficult to gauge what exactly I’m thinking at any given moment. He had a bit of a dark sense of humor, often starting our conversations with “Hey, you want to see something really fucked up?” Clearly, he was onto something when he decided to recommend Hellsing as my next watch – or he didn’t intend for me to actually enjoy it as much as he did – but 13 episodes later, I was left wanting more.
My wish would be granted with the second attempt at an anime adaption in the OVA series, Hellsing Ultimate, which would adapt the entire manga up to its conclusion – only it didn’t happen quite so easily. In 2007, Geneon USA would stop distribution of its titles, leaving Hellsing Ultimate incomplete and stuck in limbo until Funimation would later pick it up the following year. Rereleasing the first three OVAs and following up with the 4th, it would take another six years before the OVA collection would complete production following a change in Animation studios, distribution licenses, and taking the time to completely finish dubbing the series. Even after Toonami picked up the broadcast rights to air in 2014, fate had other plans as the final two episodes would not air until December, with the runtime having reached movie-sized length – the final two episodes that I had been eagerly waiting on as they had not been dubbed until that point.
Though it was roughly eight years when all was said and done, what started as a multi-year commitment to seeing this story through to the end became a lifelong relationship as to why Hellsing Ultimate continues to rank among my favorite anime of all time, with the original manga not falling far behind – though that seat could potentially become vacant in the distant future. So now that I’ve gotten that long winded story of how I came to be, is Hellsing’s second adaption still the Ultimate horror show?
Screw your top anime rivalry. These two are untouchable!Screenshot: Funimation
As previously noted, Hellsing Ultimate is the second anime adaption, following the original manga more closely than its predecessor. Founded by Abraham Van Hellsing, the Hellsing Organization has protected the crown and the country from the supernatural and the hordes of the undead for generations. Now under the command of Sir Integra Fairbrook Wingates Hellsing, she continues her family’s monster hunting business by deploying her wealth and knowledge to even the odds. But among the Hellsing Organization’s most well-kept secrets lies an even greater monster who serves as the family’s vanguard. Swearing loyalty to the original Vampire Hunter, the vampire known as Alucard serves his current master Integra, leaving a bloody trail behind against those foolish enough to cross his path.
Let’s just get the obvious out of the way: Hellsing Ultimate is first and foremost, a gore-soaked horror story about a monster killing other monsters. Within the first episode, it quickly wastes little time introducing our protagonist Alucard as he violently massacres his foes with ease. In a lesser series, this formula would easily get tiresome as very few creatures are capable of challenging the progenitor vampire, but Hellsing succeeds by understanding what makes a compelling horror story: by treating its main anti-hero as the show’s true terror whenever he enters the picture. Going back to the first episode, Alucard is tasked with hunting down a vampire priest and his followers. Taking a police officer captive to avoid certain death, he gives Alucard an ultimatum: let him go or the girl dies...
...a choice that takes Alucard *Minor Spoilers* less than two minutes to process as he leaves the choice in the officer’s hands: die as a human or be reborn as a vampire. Choosing the latter, he shoots them both straight in the heart, killing one vampire and creating another one. As the series turns its focus on Alucard’s new assistant, Seras Victoria, the show begins to pull in its extensive cast into the mix before jumping to the next monster to slay. Several episodes in, Alucard makes subsequently less appearances as the rest of Hellsing’s mostly human cast is often on the frontlines when the monsters come knocking on the front door.
One of my favorite episodes doesn’t even involve Alucard for the bulk of the conflict. When a pair of vampiric brothers are sent to assault Hellsing’s HQ, Integra takes the lead as she orders the last line of defense, including former vampire hunter turned butler Walter C. Dornez, and the newly recruited Seras. Despite being more than capable of demolishing the undead, the same cannot be said about Hellsing’s mercenaries who meet their untimely end by the time before the situation is resolved. Even so, they are not completely defenseless as one of the brothers is eventually gunned down while the other finds the mansion’s basement...
“If I’m a dog, then you’re dog food.”Screenshot: Funimation
It’s a gory end with a body count that would rival most horror films, but it works to great effect. Like all good horror stories, Hellsing is at its finest during the buildup leading into the inevitable showdown of the week, salivating that final moment before unleashing its form of unspeakable horrors on screen. As people are either killed horribly or turned into zombies called Ghouls, the show holds nothing back in showcasing the brutality and highlighting the resolve (or futility) of some of its other members as the tension escalates before Alucard ever lifts a finger.
As my fellow AniTAY contributors discussed earlier today in their write up of Higurashi, composing a list of great horror anime is a daunting task for even the most veteran of anime viewers and/or horror buffs. Up until now, I’ve been describing Hellsing Ultimate as a horror anime, but that’s only part of it. While this descriptor is technically accurate, the madness genius of Hirano’s original magnum opus lies in the author’s fixation in Hollywood media, his obsession with describing armaments in excruciating detail, and his weird and dark sense of humor. In some ways, I’ve come to liken him to Hideo Kojima of Metal Gear Solid fame, who pays a lot of homage to western pop culture and other influences, often dropping an occasional reference or throwing a bizarre joke during the show’s brief moments of respite. Tonally, this should not work, but like Kojima, Hirano’s odd perspective lets Hellsing play with its audience’s expectations by knowing when to tease its audience and when to go guns blazing.
But Hellsing is more than just odd skits and killing tons of monsters….
***Because it’s impossible to talk about this series without bringing up this plot point, I need to add one major early SPOILER here, although I think most of you who clicked on this piece know what’s coming.***
Beware the Millennium.Screenshot: Funimation
On second thought, it really is all about the killing – and that’s before we get into the Nazi vampires.
Jokes aside, there is a grander plot spanning a history of 55 years between Alucard, Walter, Hellsing, the Vatican/Iscariot, and the mysterious Millennium, but it’s really just a backdrop to burn London down and let Hellsing’s monsters come out to play. Whether it’s for country (Integra), duty (Seras), for sport (Alucard), or even the act of war itself (The Major), as the death and destruction escalates, all that remains is one unavoidable truth:
For those seeking a greater meaning or thematic relevance to Hellsing’s bloodlust, you may come away disappointed in the show’s second half, even as the histories of its characters are thoroughly explored – not always to its benefit. There are some odd narrative decisions in the show’s final episodes, some of which raise further questions that to this day that has become the butt of many jokes (for those familiar with Team Four Star’s Abridged take on the series). Even rewatching the series now, I find myself remembering some of the manga’s shortcomings at the original time of viewing. This is more of a nitpick than a critique because while it comes out of left field, none of it actually diminishes their respective characters or undermines the general flow of the narrative. By tying up all loose ends, Hellsing achieves closure, ending on a key final moment that allows the main cast to settle into their ultimate fates as the story reaches its inevitable end.
Sure, there are some grander ideas above that are only briefly explored, but at the end of the day, it’s a story about killing Nazi vampires and other unholy creatures of the night. If you’re going to go full madhouse, then you might as well step on the gas because Hellsing Ultimate certainly delivers on that with one of the most insane villains of any medium. Leader of Millennium, a group of Nazi loyalists and last remnants of the Second World War, the unknown figure simply known as The Major and his undead army have one objective: to live and die in an endless war. Like Alucard, The Major and his subordinates under Millennium is another monster tied to the cycle of death, fated to rinse and repeat until one side is completely annihilated. There is no need to sympathize with cold blooded monsters and both the characters and the show effectively remind the audience of this fact by routinely presenting their true nature as warmongers.
“Makes you wonder, doesn’t it. If there are normal people under this uniform.” - SerasScreenshot: Funimation
I started this article off with my own brief history along with the painstakingly long process that Hellsing Ultimate went through before finally wrapping up in 2014 – at least for North America. English dubs get something of a bad rep, but in today’s market of simuldubbing, it’s something that gets easily taken for granted with the increase of availability and advancement in technology. Throughout this time, it’s incredible that the cast managed to stick around for this long given the series troubled development and change of both animators and licensing distributors multiple times. Directed by Taliesin Jaffe, many of Hellsing’s original voice cast from the first series reprise their roles, with some other recognizable names filling in for some of the new characters introduced in the reboot. As always, there are far too many names to cover, but here are some of the highlights.
Crispin Freeman’s voice work will certainly be recognizable to anyone who has dabbled in English dubs (Itachi in Naruto, Winston in Overwatch), and his turn as Hellsing’s Alucard is probably among his most famous roles. Its times like this I wonder what the recording sessions must have been like, because his performance as the man in red pushes the line between theatrical and maniacal. From his trademark devilish laugh to his almost poetic view of his role as a death dealer, Freeman’s take on the iconic vampire distinguishes Hellsing’s protagonist as more than just a mindless killer.
“I really don’t care who you are. just tell me what you want.” - IntegraScreenshot: Funimation
K.T. Gray voices “police girl” turned vampire Seras Victoria. As one of the few “ordinary” people in the Hellsing Organization, her naivete and comedic tendencies complement her heroism and last remaining elements of humanity as she slowly comes to accept her new circumstances. Victoria Harwood plays the titular Hellsing of this series as Integra Hellsing. Of all the anime/manga heroines I’ve come across, very few hold a candle to Integra, who despite being human, is still a formidable force to be reckoned with, gaining the respect of both ally and adversary. Integra is a woman that is not to be underestimated and Hardwood’s performance instills a sense of authority along with a certain English charm and wit that would intimidate even the most demonic creatures of Hell.
“Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. We are nothing, but dust and to dust we shall return. Amen.” - AndersonScreenshot: Funimation
Another refined character, monster hunter and family butler Walter C. Dornez is voiced by Ralph Lister. As Integra’s right hand man, he takes great pride in his duties and is more than capable of instilling his own brand of punishment with his razor wire strings. Lister’s mannerisms and chemistry with the other cast members give Walter a sense of familiarity among the Hellsing Organization, even as the nicknamed “Angel of Death.” Iscariot’s Alexander Anderson, played by Steven Brand, is another personal favorite of mine. Often considered the “rival” character to Hellsing’s Alucard, Brand (who hails from Scotland) lives up to his role as the vampire’s nemesis, delivering his own twisted sense of religious scripture while putting the Count on notice in one of their final confrontations. Last, but certainly not least, is Gildart Jackson, who was tasked with bringing The Major’s ravings to life. Though I’ve highlighted Hellsing’s primary antagonist briefly, if you need further evidence to the show’s effectiveness in creating a monster, then look no further than this six and a half minute speech:
Although I’ve been fairly positive, if there is one minor nitpick that hasn’t aged as well, it would be some of animation choices. Personally, I’m of the belief that animation is not the Holy Grail most fans/critics seem to think it is, provided its serviceable enough to begin with. Sure, our anime should be presentable at bare minimum, but if there is one lesson I’ve carried over in my brief time doing these reviews, whether it be video games or anime, it’s that it should not be the only criteria we look at. If the writing is bad, if the characters suck, and if there is constant need for the audience to defend your intent, then it’s a failure.
Fortunately, that is not the case with Hellsing Ultimate, though as a 2006 to 2012 project, it’s definitely beginning to show its age. For the most part, the animation is stylish, with some killer fights and set pieces in between. Having gone through three different directors and animation studios, it’s not too surprising that there would be varying degrees of quality. I won’t bother highlighting the differences, but it’s a bit of a miracle that there is some level of consistency in the art direction, to the point that I wasn’t even aware of the change until after the fact. It’s another fascinating story of the development behind this series, although it did not come without some compromises. For as much blood is displayed, I was a bit surprised how much of it was CGI revisiting it. There’s a bit of as well inside the Zeppelins with some of the soldiers if you look closely enough. Again, small inconveniences, but hardly deal breakers.
Finally, I’d like to end this review with the music. Composed by Hayato Matsuo (Final Fantasy XII, Shemue series), Hellsing Ultimate’s original score pulls from a variety of sources. From a gothic choir and an entire symphony, to heavier instrumentation and military chants preparing for war, Matsuo delivers an epic soundtrack fit for Hellsing’s unique slice of dark fantasy and pure, unrelenting terror, with the occasional reprisal tune to highlight a triumph counterattack. Hellsing’s opening theme, Song of Demeter, is a sad hymn likely a tribute to the Count himself who lost everything after his defeat by the hands of the first Hellsing. Though I could go on, the tune that deserves special recognition is Die Fledermaus, which plays in the very first encounter with Father Alexander. As Alucard makes his grand return to the stage, the classical arrangement is played to welcome back the antihero as the two warriors cross blades once more in a dance of death.
Your guess is as good as mine as to how this ended up happening.Screenshot: Funimation
From its iconic characters to its epic tale of monsters and insatiable appetite for violence, blood, and the bizarre, Hellsing Ultimate is a classic anime and the complete edition of Hirano’s crown achievement. Though it’s definitely not for everyone, those who do not fear the dark and can appreciate a story that doesn’t take itself too seriously should feel right at home in Hellsing’s nightmare filled dreamscape. And if you happen to be reading this on Halloween night, it’s got more than a few bullets for all the shadowy creatures that go bump in the night.
To those of you who made it this far, thank you, and have a pleasant evening. I hear there’s a full moon tonight… Not to worry though. The dawn is approaching.
Hellsing Ultimate is available for streaming on Funimation.
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