Vampires are a dime a dozen, so what does it take to make a bloodsucker show stand out? MARS RED aptly blends a period piece, the anxiety of Westernization, and a growing military with all the showmanship of the theatrical stage. Is it too obtuse for genre enthusiasts or just what vamp fans need?
This series is streaming on Funimation
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Spoiler Warning for discussion of the movie ahead.
Hi, I'm Jean-Karlo, that there is Nick and AAAAAARGH
That, dear readers, is the sound Jean-Karlo made when he found out we tricked him into covering another vampire show! Surprise!
You call a show "MARS RED" and you think, "Huh, maybe it'll be a fun sci-fi. Maybe some giant robots, maybe a cute futuristic OL." Nope. Just these pasty losers whining about a beast they be lest a beast they become. You couldn't even get Aaliyah involved, ya cheap bastards...
Hey now, this isn't just any old vampire show. This is an artistic vampire show. You can tell because they tweaked the aspect ratio to personally make all our screencaps awkward. Also the premiere opens up with a vampire lady reciting Oscar Wilde with no immediate explanation.
Vampires reciting "Salomé": for when "Carmilla" references just aren't enough.
I think Hammer Film Productions put the nail in that particular coffin decades ago. Ba-dum-tish
But yeah, today we're covering MARS RED, the surprisingly esoteric supernatural action show of the season. And since I don't have your particular bias against the undead, I'm happy to say I'm really digging this show so far!
So, here's the story:
Secret vampire government taskforce in Taisho-era Japan.
...My editor would kindly appreciate for me to expand a bit more, I'm told.
So, we have a secret vampire government taskforce in Taisho-era Japan. The main character, Maeda, is the head of a team of vampires who are the prototype of a proposed initiative for vampiric soldiers for Japan's armed forces. He's in charge of a zany team of two soldiers, a mad scientist, and a weird loner. He's a human, the rest are blood-suckers.
The premise is very basic, yeah. Outside of the novelty of its time and place, there's nothing particularly unique about this show on paper. In presentation, however, this show is some of the artsiest fartsiest gothic theater I've seen in a good while. They even do shit like include weirdly spaced hallway lights just to simulate spotlights while 2 characters talk. It's great.
Full disclosure, I (begrudgingly) give MARS RED the nod for that first episode. The lighting effects on Maeda and his junior while they were talking in the hallway was inspired and well-executed. And sure, you could just excise that first episode entirely, but the emotional climax was wholly and entirely earned. Like, this is one of those weird cases where I see a thing and think up an entirely different show I'd much rather be seeing.
I don't hold it against MARS RED for Maeda being an emotionally constipated gruff of a lead, but I do think Misaki up there got off easy--even as a vampire, she's too spirited for the guy. Even if a domestic romance between a Taisho-era militiaman and his arranged-vampire-actress-wife would be cute. Think The Way of the Househusband meets A Bride's Story.
I really love that premiere, and it's largely because of the balls it takes in this era of anime to make something propelled entirely by subtext and implication. It's a kind of writing that demands the viewer pay attention to get anything out of it, and it's one of those episodes that just gets better the more I thought about it.
The episode never tells us Misaki was Maeda's arranged wife. Maeda just makes a throw-away comment and the character interactions fill in the dots.
I feel like a jerk for applauding such a detail for a first episode (I swear, this isn't performative damnation by faint praise), but this is a textbook case of showing and not telling and it's sad that this show made it look so effortless when so many other shows can barely pull it off. I live for this kind of lowkey, smart storytelling. Like, snark aside: I would just recommend this one episode to people because it's such a good stand-alone episode.
That said, I do get it if people were put off by that kind of intro. Even as somebody who paid to pay attention it took me three viewings to realize Maeda has a prosthetic arm because it's established with a single piece of dialogue 30-odd minutes before it ever becomes relevant.
I didn't catch on for ages; I figured he was just such a brute that he let a vampire gnaw his arm off and didn't flinch. But looking back: yeah, the episode is so lowkey it just gives you visual cues to show Maeda has a prosthetic.
Again: this is a stellar first episode, and it'd be cool to see, like, some kind of stageplay or some such adapted from it. It's creative and well-written and ride me sideways, there's a whole other show we gotta talk about.
Funnily enough this is actually adapted from a stage-reading, and the original author is largely a playwright. So while the theater elements are definitely at their highest in episodes 1, the rest of the show has plenty of it, too.
And not just the fact that this blond obviously-undead twerp is hanging around like he got lost on his way to Anne Rice's house.
GEE, I WONDER IF THIS LITTLE BLOND FUCKER WITH THE NOCTURNAL PUPILS IS A VAMPIRE. I FUCKING WONDER, MARS RED.
Hey now, everyone knows vampires have red eyes. At least all the ones they know. So it's a perfect disguise!
This at least makes for a halfway-interesting Vampire The Masquerade party. So, you have Yamagami, a lifelong military man who has only recently been turned and doesn't have full grasp over his powers. He's very non-conventional as far as vampires go: he's not a goth twink, he's not conventionally attractive, he doesn't even have special powers. He was just a dude in his 40s who is getting dunked on by a bunch of kids.
Yamagami is my favorite, and if anything happens to him I will personally go Van Helsing on every godforsaken bloodsucker in this show. How can I not love somebody who's introduced getting shot in the ass?
He definitely has the emotional highlight early on; he has one of his teammates help set up a fake "Bon Ghost Appearance" with his wife so he can have a formal goodbye with her. And it's a really nice scene. He's emotionally stunted, but he's in the Army and he did care about his wife. All the while, his wife appreciates the gesture and looks forward to meeting him next year.
That's some of that good-good right there.
I wouldn't say he's emotional stunted. He's reserved, but MARS RED's script by and large prefers to leave the most important parts unsaid. And just the way they talk so familiarly with each other immediately tells you so much about their relationship. Well, that and them quoting historic love poems as a greeting. But that's how you keep a spark in a marriage!
So then we have Kurusu. He's the youngest vampire in the team and the newest recruit--but he was turned by a very powerful vampire, and thus has the strongest powers out of all of them. But he's still getting a grip on them and the rigors of being in a military unit.
The added wrinkle of militarism adds to his character, because otherwise he's just a light novel character waiting to happen.
He's also getting a grip on drinking blood which, yeah. I had a rough enough time with a sip of deer blood, I can't imagine what actual human juice feels like going down.
He's def got the most conventional arc though. Basically Maeda's protégé who has to learn to fight when necessary to protect innocent people. He's not bad, but definitely the lower tier in terms of compelling personality.
Doctor Takeuchi is weird. He's a mad scientist, and apparently he only became a vampire when some blood accidentally got into his eye. Which is creative, and him being a man of science means he's fine with being immortal forever. But also: eh. Zany mad scientist. It's watered-down Professor Tomoe.
Hide your face in the shadows and get possessed by Germatoid, you bum!
There you have it kids, an unliving example of why you gotta wear proper eye protection in chemistry class.
I also like the implication vampirism turned his hair pink.
Speaking of weird hair, there's Suwa, who is apparently the oldest vampire among them all who was turned when he was just a child. He wears a gas mask. Because.
Hey, I get it. The aspect ratio and quoting plays is gonna turn off the emo teens who usually eat these shows up, so we gotta trick them into thinking this is Tokyo Ghoul. And if Suwa's not enough then we'll just get the guitarist from Escape The Fate to help write the ED song!
Sidenote: That song is some glorious Hot Topic Rock, the likes of which I haven't heard since Deadman Wonderland's OP. I love it.
He has a nice humanizing bit when he spends an evening with a sex worker and... it's cute? For a guy who doesn't even know any songs, it's an okay bit of giving him some depth.
That particular storyline ends up a little half-baked, but I do like the way it intertwines with the overarching ideas the show keeps building up. Like, Suwa's got the typical immortal vampire angst going on, but it specifically manifests with his unease at the growing westernization happening in Japan at the time, to where visiting a "traditional" sex worker like Akesato is a comfort, even if all he does is nap in her lap.
It's the same with the show itself: the impetus to make a team of vampire soldiers is so that Japan can keep up with the rest of the world's growing military advancements. And if Japan can nail the "vampire supersoldiers" bit it'll give them an edge on the British army, who apparently only use their vampires for subterfuge. Much ado is made over how Code Zero isn't quite cutting the mustard for the brass. It's almost like Vampires are totally lame!
OK I actually really dig that angle. The supernatural super soldier thing is played out, but specifically the man behind it is driven by a desire to keep the men in his command alive. That's an angle I don't see too often with this particular kind of story.
He does have a militaristic streak that would be worrisome if it were more prevalent, doing stuff like talking about how people have gotten soft in peacetime. But yeah, he does have a refreshing bit of humanism towards his team of leeches.
Oh yeah, General Mustache is certainly not an unambiguous good guy. But MARS RED seems to be trying to tightrope between acknowledging the humanity of soldiers and individuals while being deeply suspect of the men and cultural forces that direct them into danger in the first place.
A pity, then, that the show deign it necessary to waste our time with this choppy-choppy-slashy-slashy junk.
I mean, it's still a vampire show! There's gotta be some blood in there. Though on MARS RED's list of priorities "cool vampire fights" seem to land somewhere between "let the cat out" and "pick up some cigarettes from the store."
Considering how good this show gets when it lets us get into the humanity of these characters, that it still has to bother with the intrigue and action just makes me seethe. You don't have to try this hard, guys!
I'll grant MARS RED that it's nowhere near as boring as Noblesse in any capacity. But much like Noblesse, the show is at its best when the characters are allowed to be themselves and breathe. The actual "action plot" is the least interesting thing about this show.
Well we do need some stakes here. Wouldn't be anything to angst about if these guys were just hanging out at base and playing tiddlywinks on the government's dime. But I think the show actually agrees with you, as nearly every climactic fight happens basically off screen. The gore and hyperviolence I usually expect from these shows is largely absent, and the most gruesome moments are kept wholly out of frame.
Your fearsome children of the night could just, y'know. Not angst.
...Just a thought.
I think you're in the wrong genre dude. Angst is to vampire fiction as people-salsa is to vampires.
Though another wrinkle I appreciate is the time in which this whole thing takes place. Vampire shows are no stranger to period pieces, but the Taisho setting makes for a really unique place for it. Our pal Steve caught on in his episode reviews that there are hints this is all building towards the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, and in general there's just a sense of a changing world in the rapidly evolving culture surrounding these pasty boys.
Yeah, Taisho-era Japan is an inspired setting, and MARS RED takes great pains to really let you stew in the aesthetic of the era. Day shots are a little washed out in sunlight, appropriate for a town covered in low buildings. Interiors have good yellows from artificial light. The colors really pop at the red light district. It's a visual feast.
There's also some growing tension what with the aforementioned British vampires. Specifically this guy with the most Posh name I've ever heard.
It seems the British vampires are introducing some kind of narcotic fake blood into the Japanese market, and That's Bad.
It's still left a mystery what, if anything, they're trying to accomplish, but it holds the potential for some interesting historical commentary. Like hey, British aristocrats smuggling drugs into an East Asian country to undermine the populace? That sure sounds familiar.
I know my tastes are unique, so my griping aside I can confidently say people are really gonna get a kick out of MARS RED. The visuals are sumptuous, the writing is nice when it delves into the emotional core of the cast, and the music is pretty good too. Also vampires, folks like vampires I guess.
It's not reinventing the wheel, but this particular mix of ideas and artistry have made it one of my favorite series to watch each week, and I'm really glad to have it around.
You might even say I can really...sink my teeth into it.