Castlevania Ep. 2: Necropolis, Or, “Attack of the Ninja Priest”

Apologies for keeping absolutely no defined schedule lately; a long-distance move interrupted my life and only now am I back to something approaching normalcy. More will be up, and more regularly now!

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It begins:

Scene 1, the Intro: Brief, cut to almost nothing if you binge watch this.

Scene 2, a bar in a podunk village: We return to the podunk bar in the podunk tavern. A man complains about the major families, and directs his ire against the Belmonts. Trevor asks for a drink and is found to be a Belmont. A fight ensues that Trevor almost loses. He gets hit in the testicles, asks not to be hit there, is hit there again. It is unclear if this is a joke.

Scene 3, outside: Trevor vomits outside. He hopes his opponents “bleed out through their arses.” We hope Castlevania gets a new screenwriter.

Scene 4, on the road to Gresit: Trevor, on the road, wakes up. He now has blue eyes. He sees Dracula’s fellbeasts and the audience is treated to scenes of their nighttime handiwork. Dead baby count: +1. Total: 3.

Scene 5, inside Gresit: Trevor sneaks through the sewers and into the city. He prepares to kill a guard, but then restrains himself when he learns the guard is only sleeping. More scenes of death as he enters the town.

Scene 6, a market: Trevor canvasses the market, learning the opinions of the townsfolk. In general, they are not positive. The Bishop seems to have taken over the town (seems) and many people blame a group called “the Speakers” for Gresit’s woes.

Scene 7, an alley: Two “priests” in cassocks are leading a man in purple robes through an alley and past Trevor. He learns they intend to kill the man, a Speaker, and Trevor intervenes violently. We learn whips are not to be trifled with.

Scene 8, the Speaker’s hideout: Trevor brings the Speaker back to his hideout and we learn who they are and what they are doing in Gresit. The Speakers are staying to help the people, but also, one of their number was lost in the dungeons looking for the “Sleeping Soldier”, a hero that, according to Speaker lore, will awaken and save the city in their darkest hour. Trevor disagrees and tells them to flee before a planned progrom, but finally relents and agrees to help them in exchange for their leaving. Fin.

&&&

This episode is far meatier than the first in terms of dialogue, characterization, and setting, and also one that risks being boiled down into a line-by-line critique of Ellis. I’ll do my best to avoid this, but, well, this episode isn’t great and I know who to blame.

First off, a comment on the show’s format. I thought the ending of the first episode was far too quick and abrupt to be planned. I did some asking around and the best guess is that this was originally intended to be a movie that was then broken up into four pieces after it was already animated. It’s the only thing I can think of to explain the clumsiness of the first episode, ending as it does without even the planned suddenness of Jojo.

Speaking of Jojo (which I know you wanted me to do), Netflix replaced the gorgeous visuals of the first episode’s opening with a stunted 10-second blurb. The opening’s been gone one episode and I already miss it. I’m not sure I would have watched the OP every episode, but it added a level of care and craft that I appreciated. Without it, the show seems lessened and a little limp.

I note this because if western anime wants to be something other than “just cartoons”, it needs to take itself seriously. That means more than big budgets and big name voice actors. Good anime like Jojo and Yuri!!! on Ice are willing to put the time and effort into their openings not just because they set the tone of the show, but because an opening is part of the show. It’s important in and of itself, as it helps us understand, appreciate, and make sense of what’s coming after. Nerds on the internet might spend too much time talking about them, but the fact that it was so good is, if nothing else, a bit of a waste.

In any case, here we are back in a small bar in a nowhere town where our caprine friend is now complaining that the big and powerful families are to blame for the problems facing the people. He particularly hates the Belmonts, “who control all the power”, because the peasants are “shit”. In fact, he calls himself a “slave.” This right here could be a wonderful theme where we’re shown the Church and the nobles enslaving people in a way that’s uncomfortably similar to Dracula…but we don’t. The farmer goes on about how peasants are all shit and that’s all we get from that.

I must pause here: my main complaint about Ellis’ writing is his wasted potential. Already, we have an intriguing potential plot point that is thrown away for the sake of what amounts to bad dialogue. The peasant has no agency, he’s not there to advance the story or provide interesting thematic points. Ellis put him there to make crude jokes, swear a lot (because people saying “shit” and joking about goat-fucking is “real dialogue” that’s “gritty” and authentic”), and then be beaten up by our protagonist. The poor peasant calls himself shit and a slave, and then gets treated like that because to Ellis, if you’re not a protagonist, then you really are shit. Yawn.

I’ll say it again: Richard Armitage is great, especially when his character is drunk.

There’s a strange subplot that I don’t understand here: we learn that Trevor (Richard Armitage) is a Belmont, from the House Belmont, and that they lost all their land and money for dabbling in black magic. We haven’t learned what that means exactly, or how it’s affected Trevor other than he’s reduced to hiding his identity (rather poorly, as he’s wearing a shirt with the family crest on it) and drinking in peasant taverns. I assume we’ll learn more later, but this gap is more proof to me that Castlevania originally was a movie. For a show, this is absolutely not enough backstory, but for a movie where every second counts, it’s more than enough. In any case, our hero stumbles towards the town of Gresit, arriving as it wakes up from another night being besieged by Dracula’s monsters. Scenes of violence occur, which Trevor sees before muttering “Here we go” in Castlevania’s first legitimately funny joke.

The violence in Castlevania is getting ridiculous. Not only is our Dead Baby Counter up to 3, there are heads stuck on railings and entrails literally strung across the town. Hyperviolence will definitely get eyeballs on screen, but it doesn’t actually make for a great show (yes yes yes, I’ve seen John Wick, and this is no John Wick). One important shot among the entrails is that of a child clutching a blood-stained cross. Does this mean that religious iconography doesn’t work against vampires? What would the implications of that be?

Trevor sneaks into the city through a sewer in a wonderful visual homage to Castlevania’s platformer ancestry. Upon seeing a guard, Trevor pulls a knife and makes to silently kill him. This is a strange turn of character, especially when he stops. This raises some great questions, such as how did the guard sleep through the night? Or alternatively, was the poor guard awake in terror the whole time, listening to the ghoulish slaughter all around him and is catching a nap while he can? Or did he fight all night to protect his city and his family, only now resting from his impossible task? These are all great questions, but all we get is a throw-away scene that tells us Trevor will murder someone for no reason.

Speaking of murder, there are so many dead that the corpses are piling up in the river, a pile that Trevor spits on. Trevor is beginning to get interesting, but I think we’ve seen enough already to know how his character arc is going to go. I don’t have hope that the writing is strong enough to break out of the “gritty hero who doesn’t care learns to give a damn” cycle.

Ah, the market scene. I almost got angry when they showed a market surrounded by decapitated heads and streamers of guts. What person would (could) live that like? I was about to get mad but then, in the best scene of the episode, two peasants struggle with a box and a broom to try and knock down some of the intestines. It’s darkly funny and deeply humane, which means that I don’t think Ellis wrote it in. Trevor then speaks to some of the people and we see different opinions of the crisis facing the town.

Here again the writing stumbles. The point of the scene, I suppose, is to show that the Bishop is ruling Gresit with an iron fist and that in their terror the people look to him for protection. But that’s nonsense because the Bishop is terrible at his job. No-one is being protected. People who are saying they should listen to the Bishop are literally surrounded by decapitated heads. Impossibly, one woman says there’s no defence effort because they “don’t need it” because they know what to do. The severed heads beg to differ.

Where is the militia? Where are the guards (we already saw one)? Where are the people huddled in the church together for protection, listening to the Bishop intone against the terrors in the night while vampires scratch at the walls? Where are the soldiers, the grieving parents, desperate to protect the children they have left? Where are the orphans, taken en masse into the protection of the Church? Forget all that, where is the terror? Where is the fear? Why are these people not acting like people?

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If only a little bit.

The consensus seems to be that the first two episodes are the weakest, and I think scenes like this are why. We’re expected to believe unbelievable things because the writers can’t be arsed to make them believable. Don’t agree? Then I challenge you to re-watch the scene where the woman says with a straight face that they don’t need defences. I’m 90% certain you can see heads in the background while she says it.

The crux of this episode is that a persecuted group called the Speakers is being accused of causing the town’s problems. And if a small group of differently-dressed people in south-eastern Europe that are believed to be practitioners of magic being persecuted unjustly wasn’t on the nose enough, the Romanian word “greşit” literally means “unjust”. I wouldn’t have any issue with this plot point if the Speakers weren’t white. This isn’t some hollow complaint about how anime isn’t diverse enough (and oh boy it isn’t), it’s a historic and legitimate complaint because the Speakers are essentially stand-ins for the Romani people. As stand-ins, they need to represent the real thing, and the Romani are people of colour, persecuted for, among other things, being the people of colour in a mostly homogeneous area.

This is important. Removing that means that the parallels to the Romani (which are there whether we want to acknowledge them or not) become meaningless, but that meaninglessness isn’t value-neutral. It means that the viewer, recognizing that the Romani aren’t actually wizards and therefore aren’t being persecuted for their black-magic, can therefore assume they aren’t being persecuted for any other reason. That is not so. Having been to Eastern Europe (though not as far as Romania), I’ve seen people of colour treated badly because of a perceived association with the Romani. This matters, because the Romani are real people who are affected by real racism, not to mention grievous historic oppression. Worst of all, one of the Speakers is coloured, which means they could have made them all coloured and just…didn’t. Why? I make a point of this because this is a question that deserves to be asked and answered. It’s not good enough to say it doesn’t matter, especially when the parallels are there and are so significant.

There’s a fight in this episode, between Belmont and two “priests”. I use the quotation marks because these “priests” are unrecognizable as such. Not only are they wearing sashes, which probably means they’re monsignors and not priests at all, but the problem is that they don’t act reasonably at all. One of the priests threatens the Speaker for being the cause of the chaos, before admitting it’s made up but that “killing an old man might make me feel better”. There’s no attempt to show real, animal terror in the priest, nor is this some sort of socially-sanctioned murder. It’s just them walking through an alley. When Trevor intervenes, bloodily, the other priest suddenly becomes a ninja and pulls a thief’s knife out of his sleeve. I know it’s a thief’s knife because Trevor identifies it as such. Does this mean that, in his cruelty and iron-fisted…ness, the Bishop has resorted to inducting criminals off the street as his priestly Praetorian guard? Is society falling into a Lord of the Flies-esque nightmare where the strong openly prey on the weak? Or is Ellis not even pretending to try and understand the Church (which, by the way, has now been positively identified as the “Christian Church”)?

Ding ding ding! It’s the latter. The vicious social venom that false beliefs bring works by slowly poisoning the society until it’s normal to burn people at the stake, where such vile acts become sanctioned and praised. No-one sanctions back alley murder, because even if this was sanctioned, it wouldn’t work. The ritual of the stake and the pyre is what matters. If society believes the rot of the witch must be burned out, then it must be seen to be burnt out (we’ve all read our Foucault, I hope). Many of the innocent women killed by the witch trials of the 17th century were practising beliefs that until recently, had been accepted by the community. The trials and murder of those women was as much a trial and murder of those beliefs. If they had just shown up dead in an alley, it wouldn’t have served any useful social function…but oh wait this is Warren Ellis so therefore Church = bad.

But, in fairness, I’ll take a goddamned Ninja Priest any day. That was amazing.

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In fairness, it’s not like other anime really understand what a priest is either…

Trevor returns the old Speaker to the group and we learn that they’re a peaceful group of scholars and historians (and sometimes wizards!) who are trying to help the people of Gresit. We also learn about the “Sleeping Soldier”, which Trevor calls a myth. The Speaker disagrees, saying they might have received a message from the future(!) about a hero who will awaken in their darkest hour. That was unexpected and sounds awesome! Trevor begs them to leave, blaming the Church and the masses for the persecution of House Belmont. His morality is suspect at best, but Trevor actually seems wounded and hurt by his situation. You feel genuinely sorry for him, and Armitage’s excellent voice acting certainly helps.

The show ends with us learning that a Speaker is trapped below ground, and Trevor promises to help recover them (or their body) if only the Speakers leave the city before a planned pogrom wipes them out. The episode ends with Trevor saying “I don’t care”, right before he’s about to go show he cares very much about some people.

Whew! That was a lot, but this episode had a lot going on, thematically and plot-wise. Once again, I’m saying that it’s Ellis bringing this down. He’s not a bad writer, per se, but as far as I’m concerned, this show suffers for its lack of depth. The visual story-telling isn’t amazing either, but I’ll give them credit for doing what the budget lets them do. Now, I’m not asking for a magnum opus that delves into the social inequities of Wallachia as seen through the eyes of a freaking vampire-hunter. It’s Castlevania, not Dead Souls, but at the same time, we need more than we’re given. When I see praise for this show, it’s praise for how cool it is. Not how interesting it is, and not how important or relevant it is. It’s not and it isn’t. And who’s fault is that?

I’m saying this from a place of love. I want Castlevania to succeed, which it seems to be doing very well without me on the basis of fan love. But I don’t hear people talking about it. I don’t see people thinking about, because it’s not enough to be cool. If western anime and video game adaptations want to be taken seriously, then they have to take themselves seriously. This? This episode had all the depth of an above-ground swimming pool and all the cleverness of a teenage atheist’s Facebook posts about God. I want to like Castlevania, I really do, but right now, there’s very little to like and a great deal to pick at.

Two more episodes to go. Let’s see what they’ve got hidden up their sleeves.

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