Vampire Wars and the Joy of Terribad
The most common reaction to one of my favorite pursuits . . .
I watched the OVA Vampire Wars yesterday, and I was struck by how much I truly enjoyed it. It’s not “good” in the sense that most people consider the word, but it’s thoroughly entertaining, and in a way that to me goes beyond irony. And it got me to think about how I enjoy so-called “terribad” anime: That, much like how I watch anime normally, I can deal with some disappointments and less than stellar shows in pursuit of something that really speaks to me and moves me — though with terribad, that often involves being moved to laughter. But enjoyment is enjoyment, right?
But that one question almost always pops up: Why? Why intentionally watch something that in all likelihood is going to be bad? One common answer is that it keeps the mind calibrated — that one can better judge what is “good” by knowing for sure what is “bad”. Probably a sensible answer for many people, but if I were to say this, it would be bullshit. Even though I review anime for The Nihon Review and occasionally on here, I don’t consider myself an arbiter of taste to the point where I watch bad shows with such a serious goal in mind.
So then, why? Well, honestly, it’s because I often find something worth watching (though not all the time). It’s because, at its best, the joy I get from terribad works is just as great as it is from a “good” show like, say, Dennou Coil or Infinite Ryvius. It’s not the same, of course, but for me, it’s just as legitimate. You know the joy you get when everything falls into place for a show, and everything feels like magic? That’s the feeling I get from the very best of terribad. There are no shortage of bad series, but the most special are truly rare, for they are the ones where the creators embrace their destiny and make something as memorable as the very best anime has to offer.
I think I may be able to better explain this if I outline what I see as the three levels of terribad anime:
Not gonna lie: These are the ones that are only fun to watch with a group of people, and even then, it’s not really fun. They are the most scarring anime imaginable, those series that make a group feel like they’ve just survived an intense battle, one whose scars will linger for life. Making fun of these shows is less an expression of joy than it is a defense mechanism, something to keep the horrors from invading one’s mind and laying waste to core functions. The terrible nature of these shows are not benign — they actively seek to destroy one’s soul with their awfulness. These are the series that pop to mind immediately when one thinks of “terribad”, and for good reason: They would probably drive most normal people away from anime forever. Think stuff like Project ICE, MD Geist and the eldritch abomination pictured here, Eiken.
These are the second tier of shows that come to mind when people consider terribad — the stuff you enjoy “ironically”, where you fully realize its badness, but there’s something in the way that badness manifests that makes them enjoyable rather than scarring. Usually it’s in the inept nature of their creation: Most often this comes in the form of a hilariously bad English dub, which is almost a prerequisite for ironically enjoyable terribad. Garzey’s Wing, for example, has the Citizen Kane of bad English dubs — a dub so bad and so enjoyable that is the standard by which all other bad dubs must be compared. Many of Manga UK’s dubs for these types of bad series fall into this category, as well, due to the comical piling on of “edgy” swearing.
Other times the enjoyment comes from the ineptitude of the production itself. Now, shows in the first category can also be put together with a degree of ineptness, but what separates the shows in this second category is that one can sense the passion put into the work. The creators are not actively attempting to defile their audience with sheer awful. They have something they want to say, a story they want to tell badly, but they unfortunately just do not have the talent to make that possible. It’s like the moe of terribad: You just want to hug the creators and say, “It’s OK, people who made Mars of Destruction. I kind of get what you were going for here. Maybe one day you’ll get a budget that enables you to make gushing blood streams that don’t look like gas spewing from a pipe.” Or, “There, there, guys who animated Legend of Duo. One day you’ll have the opportunity to draw characters who actually display movement.”
And now we get to what is by far my favorite category of terribad — the one where shows come out of nowhere and surprise me by being totally fucking awesome. Now, this requires a bit of assumption on my part, but the feeling I get from these works is that the creators took one look at the ideas they had for their feature, and they realized something: Nothing “serious” could come from this. So they went the opposite direction — they opted to make their work as insane as possible. I am convinced that this is the origin behind Rio: Rainbow Gate! for example. I don’t know how fleshed out (lol) Tecmo makes Rio’s story in their games (can pachinko games even have a story?), but when Xebec was approached to make the series, I think the folks there said to themselves, “Welp, fellas, we’re making an anime based on a pachinko game heroine. I know, I know, but the money was too good to pass up. But that doesn’t mean we have to mail it in. They say you can’t make an entertaining series about a pachinko game character. Let’s prove them wrong.”
And that’s where chicken wing bats and space sharks with lasers were born.
It’s all quite silly and childish, but that’s what makes it so fun! Maybe the technical aspects of the shows are off (the writing is spotty, the visuals aren’t great, the acting is hammy and hilarious, etc.), but they have a heart to them. You can feel the creators boldly declaring, “This is the work we want to make, and god damn it, it’s going to be awesome!”
Vampire Wars falls squarely into this grand tradition. A movie about space vampires invading France has no choice but to be stupid, but instead of denying that inevitability, Toei Animation embraced it, with the help of good ol’ Manga Entertainment. The OVA is already bizarre, but Manga’s dub sends it into a completely different world — the saturation of swearing almost makes it seem as if the characters are speaking an entirely different language. It’s been a while since I’ve heard such a variety of swears used as adjectives. There isn’t one line that is as hilarious as, “If this is justice, then I’m a banana” or even “FUCK . . . AND . . . PISS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” from Angel Cop, but as a whole, the swearing is so consistent that it builds in absurdity and hilarity until the very end.
Manga had a vision: Swearing makes anime adult and cool and definitely not kid’s stuff. They went for it.
It’s all ridiculous, but at the same time, the creators are so committed to that ridiculousness that it reaches out and grabs me. I watch these works and I give not a thought to how it’s constructed, or how it looks, or whatever; instead, I’m impressed by the insanity of what must have been going through everyone’s minds. Whatever flaws this creation may have, it succeeds in sucking me in and giving me a taste of some batfuck crazy world. That to me is just as valuable as if it had been done by a “good” series.
And that’s why I watch terribad — every so often, a work reaches out, slaps me and bitches me out for thinking it would be just another story.
(Some other favorites in that third category: Kenya Boy, California Crisis, Mad Bull 34.)