There is no creature in our dark, collective imagination more reinterpreted than the vampire. Considering how many national borders the vampire has crossed, its prominence in literature, cinema, and animation is surprising. Possibly due to its early cinematic prominence, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and its various adaptations–including the (illegal) German adaptation Nosferatu–codified many of the tropes associated with vampires. While anime has often incorporated fiends and monsters from Shinto traditions–including yokai and oni–many creatives have appropriated Western vampires as a common trope and monster in its media. Of the various anime to showcase vampires, however, two of the most interesting are Vampire Hunter D and Hellsing, which both reimagine Bram Stoker’s Dracula in new and fascinating ways, often divorcing themselves entirely from the trends Western adaptations of the text utilize.

Vampires in Japanese media are fairly common. One only needs to have a passing knowledge of video games to remember Castlevania, which is centered on the Belmont family’s grudge war against Dracula and his unholy legions. However, beyond that, vampires are reoccurring, albeit often in ways that diverge dramatically from their usage in Western media. Vampire media in the west can often be broken up into eras.

Actor Christopher Lee dressed as Dracula.

Christopher Lee as Dracula in Hammer’s Dracula. (1958)

Universal and Hammer Studios led the charge on vampire media from the 1930s to the mid-1970s, up until Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire reworked our cultural perspectives on vampires, turning them from bloodsucking monsters to sympathetic, cursed humans. Over time, the battle between vampiric humanity has resulted in media pushing the envelope in either direction. Some vampires are grotesque, as seen in Salem’s Lot or 30 Days of Night. Others are almost like elves from Tolkein’s legendarium, as seen with Underworld or Twilight. It is interesting, therefore, how anime have both embraced and diverged from this divided tradition.

JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Blood: The Last Vampire, Trinity Blood, and Vampire Knight have all very memorably remixed vampiric lore through various fascinating venues. Some stories showcase sympathetic vampires, others monstrous, while others find a pseudo middle ground. Many, such as JoJo and Trinity Blood, set their stories in Europe. The folklore is often steeped in Catholic and Gothic imagery. Often, this iconography is divorced from its original rules and systems of order. The Catholic Church features prominently, but seldom are Catholic beliefs ever analyzed. Nuns in particular are often far more flamboyant than their traditionally modest real-world counterparts.

This makes it all the more interesting when Japan adapts the story of Dracula. In the context of its day, Dracula represented the fear of the outsider. Dracula is a Transylvanian. In one memorable sequence, the iconic vampire brags about his diverse heritage.

Actor Bela Lugosi in costume as Dracula

Bela Lugosi in Dracula (1938)

“We Szekelys have a right to be proud, for in our veins flows the blood of many brave races who fought as the lion fights, for lordship. Here, in the whirlpool of European races, the Ugric tribe bore down from Iceland the fighting spirit which Thor and Wodin gave them, which their Berserkers displayed to such fell intent on the seaboards of Europe, ay, and of Asia and Africa too, till the peoples thought that the were-wolves themselves had come. Here, too, when they came, they found the Huns, whose warlike fury had swept the earth like a living flame, till the dying peoples held that in their veins ran the blood of those old witches, who, expelled from Scythia had mated with the devils in the desert. Fools, fools! What devil or what witch was ever so great as Attila, whose blood is in these veins?” (Dracula, Bram Stoker)

Most modern adaptations of Dracula incorporate this emphasis on Dracula as a foreigner, but other adaptations incorporate other elements of cultural fear to him. Nosferatu associates Count Orlock–often named Dracula in some prints–with rats, vermin, and disease. Orlock’s reign of terror results in people falling ill, as though from plague. When Hammer put Christopher Lee in the role of Dracula, Dracula became allegorical for the sexual appeal and violent tendencies of man, hidden behind the veneer of a gentleman. Later on, Bram Stoker’s Dracula incorporates the fear of existential terror, where Dracula blames God for his tragic lot in life. Only upon seeking some form of self-actualization, penance, and sacrifice can Dracula rest in peace.

When seeing how Vampire Hunter D and Hellsing draw on vampiric lore–specifically, that of Dracula–two immediate things become apparent. In Vampire Hunter D, the world of man has collapsed, with ancient technology becoming fabled mysteries and society fragmenting. Vampires are in charge–much of what the heroes of Dracula feared might happen should Dracula’s plague run wild. The only hope is the dhampir D, a mix of vampiric blood–possibly that of Dracula himself–and mortal flesh. However, in Hellsing, while vampires remain a constant threat, the greatest instrument against vampires is another vampire–Alucard, who is in actuality the very Dracula that the heroes of the book Dracula went out to stop.

This creates a very interesting distinction. Vampire Hunter D capitalizes on the cultural fear of society being replaced. Both stories position vampires as powerful creatures who can deviate from societal norms and upheave the status quo. However, in both cases, humanity’s salvation comes in the form of one such monster, either in the form of D or Alucard. In both cases, they take the fears present in Dracula–of a foreign other here to dismantle societal norms–while also framing Dracula himself–a figure of power, might, and intimidation–as a hero.

A vampire with spiky hair and a man in a wide-brimmed hat stare at one another in a close-up as their swords clash together.

Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (2000)

Vampires as Evil

In both Vampire Hunter D and Hellsing, vampires are framed as inherently dangerous entities who prey on the innocent. However, the specifics differ in terms of how they prey and what their impact on their prey is.

Vampire Hunter D paints human society as fallen, with vampires lording over them. A secret vampire order known as The Nobility determined a way to survive a nuclear war that took place in 1999. They rebuilt society using their technology, creating monsters and means to survive without human blood. However, they cultivated human society regardless as a pseudo-prey. This new society lasts for thousands of years, with vampires as the dominant form of power in society.

All of this results in a society that’s become stagnated. Vampires have not evolved since the gothic eras of the pre-holocaust. Technology has failed to advance, with even humanity struggling to harness the remaining artifacts of the old tech. Even the vampires remain in ruins. It is clear that vampires here represent the ultimate restriction for society. While many vampires vary in moral justification, they represent stagnation.

In the first Vampire Hunter D film, the main antagonist is Count Magnus Lee, a 3,757-year-old vampire whose sole goal is to marry Doris, a young farmer. Lee’s pursuits ultimately lead to the collapse of his entire army of monsters, his henchmen, and even his daughter.

In Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, the main antagonist is Carmilla, with Baron Meier Link serving as a secondary antagonist. Between the two, Link is the more humanized character, with a far more tragic and complex character arc. Link just wants to take his human lover Charlotte into space. He wishes to advance beyond the stagnant earth. But Carmilla, in many respects, ruins this.

Carmilla, much like Lee, is part of the Higher Nobility. She at one point even had a relationship with the Sacred Ancestor, who may or may not be Dracula and who is implied to be D’s father. However, unlike Lee, Carmilla’s body over the course of her 5,000-year life span has been obliterated, and she uses Link’s romance with the human Charlotte to restore herself. She capitalizes on the drive for advancement in order to bring herself back to life.

Unlike Link, Carmilla sees humanity as mere cattle and unworthy of respect. Stagnating them like farm animals is to their best benefit, but humanity’s detriment. To this end, she exploits lesser vampires to pursue her own goals. In this sense, even the Nobility prevents lesser vampires from advancing, creating systemic stagnation that hurts not only humanity but also vampires.

Alucard from Hellsing Ultimate grins maniacally as he aims his pistol at the camera.

Hellsing Ultimate (2006 – 2012)

Hellsing adds the interesting dynamic that vampires can only be forged when a vampire drinks the blood of virgins. Those who have lost their virginity after being fed upon instead become mindless ghouls. This robbing of individuality shows that vampires rob people of more than life, but also of their individuality and sense of self-identity.

To make matters worse, the primary antagonists of Hellsing are a neo-Nazi faction known as Millennium, whose leader, The Major, is not even a real vampire. Vampires in Hellsing seem to take two forms: rebels, feasting on the fringes of society, or revolutionaries, as are the ones who fight alongside Millennium.

Many of the earlier, lesser vampires seen in Hellsing are the former, but the series quickly shifts gears to focus on the latter when Millennium is introduced. Characters like Integra and Alucard seem to indicate that most vampires are just loners or small groups who are not organized, which makes Millennium’s presence so compelling.

Of course, what makes Millennium all the more terrifying is that its vampires are all artificially created by Millennium itself. They were Nazi humans who transformed themselves into vampires after already being Nazis. In effect, the vampires are just people who were already awful given an opportunity to be even eviler.

This implies that, unlike Vampire Hunter D, where the Nobility represents the stagnation of society, the vampires in Hellsing represent societal upheaval. In order to keep society stable in Hellsing, vampire hunters, like the Hellsing Organization or Iscariot, are necessary. In order to give humanity a small sense of dignity in Vampire Hunter D, D arrives to defend those needing defense from systemic powers that oppress them. In Hellsing, vampire hunters like Alucard are simply purging awful people from society who use their vampiric abilities to be even more awful.

Still from Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, which portrays a brunette human woman in the embrace of an ashen-faced vampire.

Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (2000)

Moral Ambiguity of Vampires

While the greater vampire threat proves the driving conflict of both Vampire Hunter D and Hellsing, it’s impossible to argue the series uses vampires entirely as forces of stagnation or societal upheaval when there are so many heroic vampires or half-vampires present in both. As Vampire Hunter D continues, both in the two anime films and the multitude of un-adapted novels written by Hideyuki Kikuchi, more morally gray vampires emerge.

A readily apparent example of this is Baron Meier Link himself, whose sole motivation is that of love and reaching the stars. While his means to achieve this end are destructive–he kidnaps his lover Charlotte, leaving her family worried for her safety–he’s ultimately neither malicious nor benevolent. He just has personal, understandable motives and wishes to pursue them.

Fascinatingly, even the Sacred Ancestor of all vampires, Dracula, is painted as a morally ambiguous figure, one who rejected Carmilla for her cynical approach to humanity and one who helped raise D into the hero that he is.

For that matter, D himself, as a dhampir, is half-vampire, yet he exterminates malignant vampires for the good of society. He possesses the strengths of the vampire without their weaknesses, making him an individual who has an understanding of both the Nobility and the human underneath them. And he chooses to fight the Nobility and the stagnation that they represent.

Still from Hellsing ultimate that shows blonde-haired, red-eyed woman Seras Victoria grins maniacally as she plunges her hand through a human.

Hellsing Ultimate, (2006 – 2012)

However, D doesn’t seem to take as much satisfaction in killing vampires as Alucard or even Seras Victoria does. Alucard is the original vampire Dracula, beaten and later revived by Abraham Van Helsing to be the prime weapon of the Hellsing Organization. Eternally loyal to Abraham’s descendant, Integra van Helsing, Alucard faithfully fights vampires on behalf of the Hellsing Organization, though his motivations are far less noble than D’s.

Alucard primarily wants to find a worthy opponent, be it fellow vampire hunter Alexander Anderson of the Vatican’s Iscariot sector or the numerous vampires who work for Millennium.  He ultimately meets his match when confronting Millennium, facing off against Schrodinger, who essentially destroys Alucard at an existential level…for a time.

Alucard’s abilities are also incredibly fearsome. He retains the souls of all the people he has killed, possessing their power and even a pseudo-life as a result of unlocking them. He never seems to hold any regard for lives other than his own, Integra’s, and Seras Victoria’s. He is a monster through and through, but a monster who directs his rage at those who threaten society rather than at society itself–though it is very important to remember that, yes, Alucard was once Dracula and the events of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, essentially, occurred with some key variations.

Seras, it turns out, is the most D-like vampire in Hellsing, being a policewoman who wrestles with her savage vampire nature in order to do good. She has seen the savage cruelty humanity is capable of, which has only fueled her to pursue justice–though she really never recovered from her own personal trauma in childhood. In many respects, Seras is the most well-rounded of Hellsing’s many characters.

Still from Hellsing Ultimate that features Walter as he smirks at the camera. Glowing threads trail from his curled fingers.

Hellsing Ultimate (2006 – 2012)

The third key vampire who works for the Hellsing Organization is Walter–though, of course, it turns out he is a traitor who secretly works for Millennium, and has been secretly supporting the Nazis since his days fighting alongside Alucard in World War II. He is arguably the architect of many of the events to befall Hellsing over the course of the series, including Seras’s awakening of Alucard. Strangely, few of the characters bare him much ill-will come to the end of the series.

His motivation, strangely enough, is very human. He’s old and hopes to do something significant with the time he has left–something that will reshape the world in some way. To this end, he is given surgery that makes him appear younger and more powerful.

The Direct Influence of Western Vampires

It is telling that Hellsing’s vampires–even its evil ones–are more human than many of the vampires present in Vampire Hunter D, who tend to function more as universal forces or as great, tragic figures. This, strangely enough, draws a direct comparison between the sorts of vampire narratives that inspired the creation of both franchises.

Hideyuki Kikuchi directly credits old school Universal and Hammer monster films with the core inspiration behind his series. In particular, he credits the 1958 film The Horror of Dracula, the first film where Christopher Lee portrayed Dracula. One key tell of this is how Count Magnus Lee from the original book and film is named after Christopher Lee. In the book, he is far more similar physically to Christopher Lee, being described as a tall, sinister gentleman.

Still from Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust that portrays a red-haired vampire woman.

Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (2000)

The vampires in this series were more black-and-white, with vampires being presented as more monstrous and predatory in general. Carmilla is even a direct reference to the classic gothic vampire novel of the same name by Sheridan Le Fanu, which was also adapted by Hammer Studios as 1970’s The Vampire Lovers. These vampires are universally aristocratic, much like the Nobility in Vampire Hunter D, and they treat humans as prey or cattle.

Alternatively, Hellsing is more inspired by modern vampire folklore, with more humanized vampires. Tellingly, the core inspiration behind Alucard is not the classic Universal or Hammer iterations of Dracula, but rather more modern works that humanize the vampires.

In particular, Hellsing creator Kouta Hirano appears to have drawn influence from Frances Ford Coppola’s 1992 adaptation, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Both Alucard and Coppola’s Dracula are shown to be the original Vlad Tepes, who, after fighting for their country, are met with failure. Coppola’s Dracula loses the love of his life to suicide and rejects God afterward, while Alucard is beheaded after failing in his mission–returning to life as a “No Life King.”

Whether intentionally or not, both Hirano and Kikuchi draw from the two core varieties of vampires, as mentioned earlier. Vampires are either great tragic figures of gothic literature or humanized monsters. It is not impossible to see a character like Walter or Seras walking in line with Anne Rice’s Lestat or Armond, and it is equally plausible to imagine even the morally ambiguous Meier Link to be a contemporary of Christopher Lee’s Dracula.

Yet undeniably, Vampire Hunter D and Hellsing, due to the creative divergences crafted by their creators, feel wholly distinct. They are reflections of the western traditions of vampire literature, as filtered through the imaginations of two incredibly creative individuals. They took familiar tropes and placed them in new contexts, showcasing how time-honored tropes can look when given a fresh coat of paint.