Published July 9, 2017 | Copyright 2017 Kevin Fishburne
So last Friday Netflix dropped the much-anticipated, four-episode animated series based on “Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse” for the NES released in 1989. Even though I have Netflix, being a creature of habit I hit up TPB to find the best quality “rip” available (1080p x264 3.3 GiB total) and downloaded it to my file server for proper viewing on my HTPC.
While I was excited and had seen a few clips which appeared to be quality, I’m a child of the 80’s and went in knowing both modern games (specifically any Castlevania game after Symphony of the Night) and modern anime are a shitshow, and that historically video game to film adaptations were equally complete shit. Additionally Netflix’s Castlevania wasn’t even proper anime, but rather an American and Canadian production by a largely unknown studio.
Before my conclusion I’ll break things down by category, so let’s get to it:
ART AND ANIMATION
Nearly all modern animation is now done with a computer, whether obvious 3D or emulating 2D cel painting using splines and interpolated keyframes. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell, and with Castlevania it’s almost impossible. The list of credits which include categories like “Paint”, “BG Painters”, “Animatics”, and “In-Betweeners” indicate Castlevania truly went old school using modern tech to create hand-painted cellulose acetate sheets which were then composited and photographed with a physical camera.
The character designs, or the style with which the characters, clothing and weaponry are drawn, seem to be inspired by if not outright lifted from classics like Rondo of Blood and Symphony of the Night. No Dragon Ball, super-deformed or kawaii bullshit here, but semi-realistic classically-styled serious representations any real Castlevania fan would respect and demand. If you’ve seen “Ninja Scroll” then you’ll have a precise idea of what the producers were shooting for, and they nailed it. The love of classic anime is reflected in incredible detail, such as how characters’ jaws when speaking animate only in profile but not when facing the camera, and how facial hair is represented by a series of crude parallel lines.
Probably due to the use of modern tech, the lines and colors are clean and clearly drawn with high definition displays in mind, and wholly absent are the occasional pieces of dust, hairs, inconsistent colors and graininess occasionally found in 80’s cel animation. Castlevania implements glare and volumetric lighting both stunningly and subtly, going so far as to add a slight glow around the whites of characters’ eyes and filling church windows and doorways with the orange haze of the setting sun to great effect.
Background paintings perfectly ride the line between artistic abstraction and photorealism while seamlessly supporting the animation composited upon them, with many being strikingly beautiful. In particular the backgrounds inside the “living quarters” and labs in Dracula’s castle are heavily inspired by Symphony of the Night and as a fan were extremely satisfying to behold.
While the actors voicing the characters are good, they seem to suffer occasionally from the dialogue itself to an extent just distracting enough to break suspension of disbelief and present an awkward moment should anyone be in the room who wasn’t a die hard anime fan. I’m not sure if this is intentional, as it reminds me of what watching old dubbed anime was like.
As I mentioned, the dialogue has its moments of awkwardness and cheese, but is generally good enough to keep things moving. There are however moments of brilliance, such as when a greater demon is discussing its “love” for the Bishop in contrast with God abandoning him, then offering its “kiss” in episode four. It was a true “fuck yeah” moment when the hairs on your arms stand up in bliss and you realize it’s impossible to stop watching.
The plot so far is incredibly accurate to that of the game which inspired it, though that may not be saying much considering it was a NES Castlevania game and not a story-heavy JRPG. The nods to other aspects of the “story” which define a classic Castlevania game, such as Trevor’s subweapons, use of the Vampire Killer (the whip), and environmental interactions are well executed without entering the realm of the obvious or unbelievable.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the plot is that Dracula was actually provoked by humans first to give them a chance, and last to kill them to the man. The story provides Dracula a clear and sympathetic motive for his genocidal campaign against humanity. The stage is set for the audience to cheer for both the hero and the villain, which is refreshingly uncommon.
Castlevania is violent. I can’t remember the last time I saw a dead human infant clutched limp in the maws of a four-legged, winged beast with red eyes, or images of a broken window and crib splashed with blood and a mother screaming uncontrollably in horror. The violent imagery is depicted both in near still-frame and in extensive animated detail as fingers, eyes, intestines and spines are laid bare. The combat spans hand-to-hand, blade, whip, claw, tooth, fire, and magic, and mixes both realistic technique with over-the-top impossible feats of athleticism and physics found in traditional anime and films like The Matrix.
Surprisingly the score of Castlevania, which in the games is one of its most-notable features, is so subtle that it’s often not noticed at all. A mix of fat, bassy, 80’s synths slightly reminiscent of Stranger Things permeates scenes occasionally and Catholic choirs appear as appetizers to the wholesale slaughter of the “faithful”, but you will find no proper Castlevania-esque hard-hitting combat backbeats to drive the action here. Or a harpsichord in a library, even. Perhaps one or more of season two’s eight episodes will correct that oversight.
As an old-school Castlevania fan and lover of pre-2000 anime, Netflix’s “Castlevania” is far from perfect, but all things considered it could have been (and by all rights should have been) much, much worse. In that context I give it an 8 out of 10 and am eagerly anticipating season two’s planned eight episodes. If you like anime, video games, and don’t mind explicit violent imagery, this show may be for you. If you enjoyed Symphony of the Night, Castlevania should please you immensely, as despite being based on the third entry in the series the PlayStation classic is in full aesthetic effect for both character designs and background paintings.
If you know nothing about Castlevania but like anime, I hope you can at least appreciate the fact that a non-Japanese studio can not only effectively use traditional animation techniques but also come so close to actual anime that it’s impossible to know it was created by non Japanese. And on its own, it’s pretty damn amazing compared to the shit that’s 99% of current anime.
If you like Castlevania but don’t care for anime, then I don’t know what to tell you. Quit being an asshole, watch some 80’s anime, then watch Castlevania.
If you don’t like Castlevania or anime, then clearly you’ve skipped to the last line of the review because it was TLDR and I have a special message for you: “Die, monster! You don’t belong in this world!” [THROWS GLASS OF WINE ON FLOOR AND STANDS ABRUPTLY]