This is a post-episode discussion of the show so of course there will be spoilers, but we’ll try to keep them small. Regardless, you have been warned.
Scene 1: A field of skeletons and a flurry of bats. A woman kills one because. She meets Dracula, and explains she seeking knowledge so she can become a doctor. She believes in “science” (which begs the question of why she went to a vampire) and scolds Dracula about his manners, showing us how the show will fail at being funny. She wants to show him how to “like people again” and will use his knowledge to improve the lives of her fellow people. Dracula agrees.
Scene 2, Targoviste, Wallachia: Ominous church music. The woman is being burnt at the stake while priests hold aloft crosses. Designated Bad Churchman (DBC) #1 looks on in approval. Is very concerned because of bottles the woman had and expresses disapproval of “science”. The woman calls to the sky, asking someone not to hurt them. DBC shows he doesn’t understand what religion is or what church he’s part of, while woman screams that “they don’t know what they’re doing, be better than them please!”
Cut to title.
Castlevania caught me by surprise, and it is a pleasant one. Netflix has been hit-or-miss with its anime but I am always down for a decent video game adaptation. I’m especially interested in shows over movies, where the writers and animators can flex their creativity and not be bound by a mere 90 minutes. That said, I wish the writer wasn’t Warren Ellis, but we’ll get to that. The series is very cool, and cool enough to warrant thinking about with a little depth.
I have a rule for analyzing books: first word/line, first sentence, first page. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but the idea is that the first words, the first sentence, and the first page should tell you something important about what’s coming next. The reader should get an immediate idea of what the story as a whole is about from the little pieces that come first. In that sense, Castlevania has a promising start that fizzles quickly.
I missed it at first, but re-watching it, the intro immediately sets up the conflict between SCIENCE (in this case, represented by brass instruments and glass bottles that do…?) and Church. I say “Church” and not religion because the actual function of the religion is irrelevant: it exists to be a symbol of conservative backlash against progress, for reasons that are only teased at. There’s a fantastic line the Bishop (yes, he doesn’t even get a name) says as he looks at the pyre: “The archbishop would prefer that life in Wallachia be kept simple.” This could be the germ of an excellent conflict, that of an institution that is desperately clinging to a past where it had power and prestige and yet is losing ground to progress even as it holds onto temporal power, or, better, a naive institution that really thinks it’s trying to help people even as it betrays itself and everything it stands for.
Instead, in one corner there’s Dracula’s science to be used to improve the world, and in the other, a poorly-defined “church” that hates “science”. This could have been promising, considering that the Church might have good reason to oppose Dracula’s knowledge (re: he’s a goddamn vampire), but it seems not because Ellis doesn’t seem interested in that level of complexity. He immediately reduces the conflict to “science good, church bad” and is content to leave it at that. Oh well.
Scene 3, intro: Simply beautiful. Done in a gorgeous sketch style that literally bursts into flames, it’s a joy to watch. So enjoy it now, because if you binge this on Netflix they’ll automatically skip the intro for the next episodes.
Scene 4, a small town: A man, Dracula, comes to a ruined house and we learn that Lisa was his wife. He threatens to destroy Wallachia and rejects his attempt to live as a man.
Scene 5, Targoviste: Return to the pyre. Lisa is very dead. The Bishop says there is so much work to be done on Earth and decides burning everything is the way to do it. Dracula appears and gives them one year to flee or he will destroy Wallachia. Fire rains on the city.
Scene 6, Dracula’s castle: He begins to create his dark army. Someone challenges him, and they fight.
Scene 7, Targoviste, one year later: The ancient and corpulent archbishop gives a speech but is interrupted by Dracula’s army attacking the town. His castle warps in. Scenes of death and destruction. Dead baby count: 2.
Scene 8, a bar in a podunk village: We are treated to a minute-long discussion of goat-fucking. It is unclear if it’s meant to be funny. Trevor Belmont, our protagonist, drinks in the corner while a man runs in, saying Dracula’s horde has been sighted nearby. Peasants gripe about how this all comes down to the great houses and the nobles, and how the Belmonts are the worst of them all. It is unclear why. The episode ends with Trevor saying “shit”.
This episode is a fairly straightforward introduction to the conflict and overall, it works. The attempt to literally humanize Dracula was interesting, but it raises more questions than it answer. Did he “reject” his humanity to become a vampire, and if so, why does Lisa bring him back only to be rejected again in turn? Was he always a vampire? Does he drink blood, or is he simply magical? The show doesn’t care about these questions, so we’d best just go “yes, of course, man is the real monster”, and move on.
I find it funny that our protagonist barely merits a mention. He appears long enough to ask for a beer and to say “shit”, but we don’t even get his name. We can guess he’s a Belmont because of his reaction to what the peasant said, but even that is supposition if you don’t know the series.
All in all, episode 1 is fairly strong for an introduction, but is it strong enough considering there are only 4 episodes this season? This was all set-up, which is completely understandable in a 23 minute episode, but for this to be 25% of the season? It’s going to have to move fast.
And now, I proceed to rip into Warren Ellis for some time.
I’ve read Ellis before, in comic and book form, and I don’t care much for him. Much of my dislike is for his style because I find Ellis’ style is all edge and no substance. Unless there’s violence (hyperviolence, even!), extreme gross humour, or someone rebelling against the system, it’s just not Ellis. That’s all well and good (God forbid I ever tell someone not to write what they like), but whenever he lets loose, I lose interest, and it shows in this episode.
Of the scant 23 minutes, Ellis decided that one of them should be spent listening to a man talk about fucking a goat. Even if it was funny (it isn’t), I wouldn’t spend that long on it when I have a protagonist who hasn’t even been introduced yet. Jokes like that are best used sparingly and swiftly, but considering all the jokes fall flat in this episode, we’ll just throw that one on the pile too.
Although not to my taste, I will forgive the hyperviolence once Dracula’s minions attack. We’re treated to several lingering shots of entrails draping the streets. Violence which is only meant to shock and titillate is not to my taste, but I’ll admit the scenes set the tone and highlight the stakes (hah!) of the conflict. Considering this is based off the the NES game Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, which probably didn’t even have blood in it, I’m willing to see where they go with this. Knowing Ellis, it’ll be the gutter, but I’ll hold out hope. Tasteful violence is fine, and with vampires, one has to expect some blood to be spilled.
A final comment on Ellis’ edginess: it’s one thing to be a “radical”, but it’s another to endlessly recycle old tropes. I’ve read plenty about how Ellis has no time for organized religion, and that’s fine, but I’ve seen enough of it, too. It might have been radical once, but we’ve all seen the same old trope of the manipulative religion so often that we seem incapable of conceptualizing religion as a thing people actually do with some level of sincerity. I’ll eat my words if this goes somewhere new, but it doesn’t look like it.
This shows up, painfully, when I say that religion in Castlevania has no connection to anything or even has a seeming purpose in the story. There is no government, period, only the Church, and it has no clear religious purpose. They talk about destroying evil, but their goals are vague and nebulous (and considering that in this world there are actual demons and monsters, I’d say it’s fair to want to destroy them). Even the Bishop(!) says that heaven has no appeal for him, which is a hilarious way of reading Christianity and the stated goals of the religion. Why do the people believe in it? Why is the Church an institution if the very people running it don’t even believe in what it teaches? Ellis will probably suggest it’s because they, gasp, don’t actually believe in it and it’s all a cynical lie for power, but considering there are vampires and demons and monsters running around, well, he’ll have to try a little harder than that.
It might sound like I’m griping, but I have hope. The visual style of Castlevania is excellent, and it’s a clear improvement over most “western” anime I’ve seen. Further, it’s not bad, which is a hell of a lot to say for a video game adaptation. Even Ellis is fine when he’s not indulging his worst impulses. Overall, Castlevania is pretty cool, if a little shallow, so let’s hope the rest of the season goes somewhere interesting.