Hellsing nails the rule of cool factor and possesses an intriguing and memorable main cast, though its incoherent story direction, lackluster presentation and poor character development prevent it from being anything more than a guilt pleasure.
Plot Description: Seras Victoria is turned into a vampire by Alucard, works for Integra and does absolutely nothing, leaving it up to Alucard to save the day.
Hellsing starts out on a promising note; in the first episode, the character of Seras Victoria is introduced and displayed as a brave, yet inexperienced young soldier who must now serve the vampire hunting organisation known as Hellsing under the militaristic and calculating Integra and her Hellsing Organization. Its most powerful member, the seemingly omnipotent Alucard, is a forbidding figure whom was responsible for resurrecting Seras after he killed her in the cross fire with another ghoul. After this, she and the other soldiers of Hellsing begin investigating the mysterious synthetically designed zombies which have begun terrorizing England and threatening to reveal the world of the dead to the populace. Multiple parties come into play here, including the Hellsing Organization, British Government, the catholic Iscariot Organization and their super solider Anderson, various renegades and third parties, reporters and finally Incognito, the primary antagonist who appears in the second half.
It would be a tall order for any 12 episode series to handle this many faculties, display Seras Victoria struggling with her human soul against her new vampiric nature, and wrapping it up satisfyingly, but in the first third Hellsing might fool some viewers into thinking that it has all of its bases covered. The chips that turn people to zombies seem interesting, the gothic atmosphere and side characters are engaging and Alucard seems brimming with potential. However, after the first third of the series, Hellsing falls flat on its face and drops nearly everything one of its promising plot lines, either lazily addressing them with easy solution or forgetting them altogether. The series is nearly episodic at the beginning, with little sense of concrete progress when the big picture is looked at, but at least it pretended to care about its overarching narrative. Following the Valentine brothers’ assault on the Hellsing manor and subsequent murder of nearly all of its residents, it becomes obvious that the writers haven’t the foggiest clue what they want to do. The chips are pushed aside in favour of one of the blandest villains imaginable, who comes out of nowhere and with no foreshadowing, Seras character development is completely tossed out the window, Walter and Alucard show up at random times with no explanation and Integra is given increasing focus even as her usefulness in the story becomes smaller.
By the final third, the Iscariot Organization have been lazily written out, Seras Victoria is exactly the same as she was at the beginning, Integra’s past has been revealed and has absolutely no implications to the narrative and the villain’s nonsensical plan has come to fruition. Instead, the story peaks midway with a surprisingly emotional climax as the manor is attacked, but the follow-up is so pitiful that this is nearly completely swallowed up in woeful writing. Some of this may have been excusable had this new villain been foreshadowed, or if he mirrored the cast of Hellsing in any way, but instead he is completely throw-away and interchangeable; it would have been so easy for Anderson to have been the villain! He was established to have been a rival from the beginning, he is backed by an organization that would have benefited greatly from the downfall of the Hellsing family, and he has a great personal hatred for Alucard. Incognito is a non-presence in comparison, and had his battle and Anderson’s been chronologically flipped, the ending may have worked (to an extent) and the ending wouldn’t have left dozens of dangling plot lines.
The characters in Hellsing are much like the story; from a distance, upon first viewing, they seem brimming with personality and individuality, though only one such character manages to successfully remain this way throughout the series. Seras Victoria shows so much potential at the beginning, and the coming of age story for her could have been great (seeing her go from this to this), and she had enough screen time and character interaction that, had that been the plan, she could have evolved to a formidable warrior. Sadly, the series seems content to leave her as emotional a light combatant and common damsel-in-distress, usually to be saved by Alucard. By the mid-point she shows some signs of development, and even some intriguing unconscious violent tendencies, but that is then forgotten about as she spents the duration of the battle against Incognito and Anderson screaming for or at Alucard. Alucard himself is quite interesting, as he’s an overpowered character who really speaks and acts like one, never really using a fraction of his true power at all. However, it never feels like he’s anything more than a cinematic presence, with his motives and behaviour being as anomalous at the beginning as they are at the end. His relationships with the other members of the Hellsing family do nothing to flesh him out, as he chides Seras Victoria and seems to never address why he saved her life, treats Integra like she’s a spoilt princess (which she most certainly is not!) and doesn’t seem to consider Walter anything more than a means to an end.
Walter is better, in large part due to a charming performance from his English voice actor, as he seems to be the only one who treats Seras as anything more than an object or imbecile, making him very likeable and endearing. His power set is also great, and comes in handy on several occasions. The best character of the cast, however, is by far and away Sir Integra Hellsing. She shows a level of personal strength that Seras Victoria can’t hold a candle to, as she carries out plans that put her in grave danger, possesses an eloquence and verbal control that seems to have the very elements bending to her will, and serves as the foundation for the Hellsing family. Her backstory, though it does nothing for Alucard, displays just how brave and resourceful she is, so much so that even though she does next to nothing in the finale, she leaves enough of an impression to be considered one of the few things the Hellsing got right.
The atmosphere of Hellsing is sadly as dry as its characters. It contains a multitude of foul language and some of the most unpleasant tongue action I’ve ever seen in anime. The disrespectful attitude that the show expresses in several ways, like the horrifically tastelessly named “Iscariot Organization” and blatant sexualisation of Seras Victoria, and the endless stream of atrocious sexual innuendo exuded by the Valentine brothers, which may be forgivable if there was anything to back it up. Had Seras made her looks seem like less of something that made her a target, had Integra actually done anything beyond assert her strength and had the supporting characters possessed any pretense of depth, this may have been excusable or even beneficial a la Black Lagoon and even Berserk, to an extent.
One aspect of Hellsing that’s mostly in its favour is the distinct character designs and art direction with the three leads. Many characters have a rough stitch pattern around their eyes that works well to give them a more inhuman, vampiric look in contrast to the human characters. Alucard’s tall build, blood red jacket and glasses makes him a suitably intimidating presence, bolstered greatly by how (with the exception of Alexander Anderson and Incognito) he dwarfs everyone around him in size. The effects work with him, particularly in the final episode, is glorious, and beyond what many other series from 2001 were capable of. Integra’s character design is even better, with her long, dark blonde hair contrasting her calculating blue eyes and solid, yet anatomically believable build to give her a sense of sexiness, intelligence and strength. The cross below her chin, her blue tie and dapper brown coat add to this, providing her with an air of royalty, professionalism and religious devoutness befitting of the best character in all of Hellsing. Seras is juxtaposed well by these two, with her comparatively more mellow expression reflecting her naivety and vulnerability. Her messy hair in comparison to Integra’s, he shortness in comparison to Alucard’s mountainous size and her more child-like expression against the age-old killers she is pitted against really does a great job at visually representing her as the underdog. The Opening for Hellsing uses very thoughtful visual metaphors, like Seras Victoria licking the blade to the sound of harshly ambient music and a mass of worm-like creatures morphing, displaying a level of concision that the series never approached.
However, that is where the praise for the visuals of this series ends, because the action, general animation quality, colouring and aesthetics for the backgrounds and side characters are all deplorable. Action sequences are generally unsatisfying, relying almost exclusively on speed lines and stills up until the very end, which is surprisingly quite a spectacle. However, that cannot redeem how stiff and lifeless the intended tense fights between Alucard and Anderson are, nor how the series never pretends that Alucard is in any great danger (as is evidenced by what may be one of the biggest cop out endings in anime history). There are a few saving graces; the dust clouds looks as murky and fluid as any that can be seen in anime these days, and the weapons and length of the fights partially redeems the poor production values. However, the aesthetics on the supporting characters are much weaker than the main cast; the female reporter whom features heavily and soldiers of the Hellsing Organisation lack any degree of warmth or life in their skin to differentiate them from the dead, which is a huge missed opportunity for the series to show just how fierce and frightening vampires can be to the human population.
Adding insult to injury, the 15 second previews at the end of each episode are cringe-worthy to sit through (though were apparently liked by someone, as is evidenced by their appearance in the Hellsing Ultimate OVAs).Framing and directing are done awfully as well, which when combined with the bland and minimal backgrounds makes it impossible to get a sense of location in any given scene. It would have been great if the series capitalised on its gothic aesthetics and story line to create a vast array of different character designs that all stood out, but instead they opted to have every secondary character with the same facial template, the same height, the same skin tone and no distinguishing mannerisms. The design for Incognito in particular is pathetic, as he seems more like a first base villain than the end game, with his red eye and symbols making him look like a poor match-up for the lavish, cinematic presence of Alucard.
The soundtrack from Hellsing, composed by the underrated Yasushi Ishii (whose only non-Hellsing anime work was in Darker Than Black), is stylish and fitting, lending Hellsing a very specific atmosphere that it’s visuals were ultimately incapable of providing. There are a wide variety of insert songs in both English and Japanese, some experimentally cheery instrumentation here and there and often an overbearing, forbidding sense of gravity surrounding the dramatic moments, particularly in the second half of the series. A good example of this would be the series stellar opening song, “A World Without Logos” by Yasushi Ishii, which contains jazzy, easy to understand English that meshes with the instrumentation quite well, ranging from catchy and enticing piano keys to the almost psychologically harsh ambient sounds. The ending is a very vocally strong song that showcases Gonzo’s CGI, though it’s rendered and shaded much better here than on several of their other series. Sadly, the lyrics don’t even pretend to bear any sense of relevance to Hellsing, with the romantic nature of the song clashing with one of the least romantic series of its year.
It’s a shame that such a strong OST had to be given to such an uninspired staff, because the application of the soundtrack is very hit and miss. It often blares like a radio alarm at 5 in the morning, serving as more of a (albeit stylish and creative) distraction than anything that compliments the conflict at hand. The sound mixing doesn’t help, alternating between whispers to explosions in such a way that, depending on the volume, can cause permanent ear damage or the inability to hear anything at all. The sound of Alucard’s gun piercing flesh doesn’t feel anything like the piercing shriek of even a lighter firearm, and as a result the action scene’s not only lack in the visual category, but in terms of audio as well. Thankfully, the OST is broad enough genre wise that each scene feels musically different, but the mixing of this music left much to be desired.
Both the Japanese and English casts of Hellsing have their high points and low points. On the high end for both casts is Alucard, brought to life in full force by Jouji Nakata’s deep, ancient voice calling from the depths of hell and Crispin Freeman’s less aged, but more violent and insatiable vocals that will either woe woman everywhere or make them fear for their lives. Walter is also great in both languages, with the english performance by Ralph Lister exhibiting a level of charm and discipline that is rare among voice actors. Victoria Harwood’s outstanding portrayal of Integra, however, is my favourite of the entire cast, as she manages to create a character who can be transition very easily between being aggressive, calculating, melancholic, strong and vulnerable while being consistently disciplined and true to herself. The Japanese performance by Yoshiko Sakakibara, though coming from someone with more experience voicing anime characters, has too much of a shrill and serpentine manner to be convincing as the head of the Hellsing Family. The random side characters sound more natural in Japanese, though the English accents in the dub largely make up for these differences in quality. However, where the Japanese trumps the original is in the main character, Seras Victoria. Katharine Gray brings the English charm to Seras, as well as the more caring and human side, but she never truly comes into her own anything more than a fish out of water little girl (she completely redeemed herself in Hellsing Ultimate, thankfully). Much more natural is Fumiko Orikasa, whose performance adds a bit more depth to the character by expressing a stronger desire to grow and help the Hellsing family. Neither voice actors made Incognito any more interesting than cardboard, and performances were consistent throughout.
Overall (English & Japanese): D