When it comes to examples of anime that, unable to maintain pace with their source material, are forced to diverge into original storylines, Hellsing is typically at the top of the list. A little over halfway through its 13-episode run, the series begins to dip wildly into what is often referred to as “filler,” forming its own narrative finale in place of the one the manga would build to. As such, when people recommend Hellsing, they often shoot for Hellsing Ultimate, the series of manga-faithful OVAs that was announced just three years after the first anime concluded.
Hellsing Ultimate is a raucous good time. It’s bloody and bombastic with a colossal score that really drives home how huge and mythic and wildly violent this whole war is. However, I prefer Hellsing, a series that’s quieter, slower and aims for a different atmosphere than Ultimate. Both attempt to bring the spirit of Kouta Hirano’s manga to life, but while Ultimate aims for a kind of gory pomposity, Hellsing’s spirit hits a lower vibe. It’s pure mood, with its characters finding pathos in their subdued gloom.
It all starts with a whopper of an opening theme — Yasushi Ishii served as composer for it and Hellsing as a whole, the OP reminds me a lot of The Sopranos theme “Woke Up This Morning.” Both feel like weird encapsulations of their respective series while also being a little outlandish in comparison to them and I really like that, it signifies an inextricable link where things seem like they fell into place and stuck for good reason rather than the most generic thing being slapped on to them.
The soundtrack’s richness continues into the show itself, a well-paced meditation on vampirism. Hellsing’s world is a deeply lonely one — I love how often scenes are just one or two people alone in their rooms, forced to contemplate the weight of their situations or decisions. In fact, when the Valentine brothers and their army attack the mansion, the fact that there are so many people around to be menaced feels downright odd and special. The main bit of iconic duality that the Hellsing series has always been known for is the vision of Alucard standing across from religious zealot Alexander Anderson, and Hellsing carries the weight of that space throughout it.
That’s not to say that it lacks the thing that many people came for: sweet, sweet vampire fightin’ action. When someone’s inner demons are unleashed, be it Alucard’s menacing Baskerville form or even Walter’s sharp wires showing off why the butler was once called the “Angel of Death,” it feels satisfying. So much of the feeling about being a vampire in this show, especially those without the lineage of the Hellsing organization or the twisted ethos of Alucard, comes from a need for pleasure or escape or belonging or even simple flights of power. To see rushes of violence like this ties into that theme — a world full of freaks just waiting to cut loose, whether they wish to openly admit it or not.
The main character of the show, Seras Victoria, is a former member of the police and is turned into a vampire by Alucard to save her life. An early portion of the series is built around Victoria’s capability for brutality or even willingness to follow the steps necessary for life as a member of the undead. It is a slow, thoughtful approach to a series that hinges so heavily on the inherent cruelty involved, and pairing her with Alucard, who has WAY FEWER qualms about ripping people to shreds, makes for grim buddy-cop drama and comedy. How do you survive in a lifestyle that necessitates bloodlust and function in a series where that inescapable urge is the backbone? What does it mean for Victoria’s humanity — something she tends to grasp for, both in times of distress and as a salve to prove to herself that she’s not gone yet?
The fact that Hellsing ends with only 13 episodes is a bummer — its anime-original content climaxes in what’s basically a boss fight with Incognito, a super vampire who feels and looks a lot like a Resident Evil 4 villain — but its scope allows me to appreciate it more than two decades after its release. With series that aim for direct faithfulness, there’s often a movement to prescribe them as the only way to tell a story or at least frame them as the more “correct” way. While there are definitely series that are better off for following their manga more closely, I’d argue that Hellsing’s strengths come from both adaptation and divergence from the manga and the Ultimate series that came later. So if you’re gonna watch some spooky anime this October, I’d suggest the original Hellsing be one of them.
Daniel Dockery is a Senior Staff Writer for Crunchyroll. Follow him on Twitter! His book, Monster Kids: How Pokemon Taught A Generation To Catch Them All, is available wherever books are sold on October 4.