I like this anime for a small handful of reasons. Otherwise it’s just confusing and therefore impossible to like or really even dislike overall.

I’m pretty partial to Japanese attempts to dive into vampire lore, mostly because of the great one herself from Monogatari, a magnificent addition to a long train of (mostly European) nosferatu legends. This wasn’t a terrible attempt to explore this realm. But most things about this show were not very interesting. The story is confusing. The characters are all over the place. The artwork is nice, and somewhat unique, but there’s nothing very remarkable about it. If it wasn’t for the things I really like about this show, I would’ve rated it as a dismal failure in most respects.

But because of those few positives, I feel very pleased that I chose to watch this show during the Spring 2021 season. I don’t see it having a second season unless they get a mostly new cast of characters, but I think it’s best that way anyway. It stands alone fine as it is.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Characters

Rating: 6

Defrott.

If that’s all I wrote in this section, you might get the idea. Miyuki Sawashiro (Monogatari, Kakegurui, SAO) hasn’t been totally absent from the seiyuu world the last several years, but she hasn’t done a lot of series either. She returns like a vampire from the dead to triumph over our audio senses here in Mars Red! Playing the rather androgynous and powerful vampire Defrott, her voice and dialogue are astounding. A lot of Defrott’s dialogue is dialogue from plays (he’s a stage actor), but it fits nicely into his scenes, even if the meaning behind it is mysterious and forever unexplained. Even when his lines aren’t from plays, they have a lot of power. Coming through Sawashiro’s voice makes it even greater. Defrott goes from mysterious and possibly roleless to front and center. Watch her take over Ep12 from S1 in just the limited amount of time Defrott is in a scene. It made my spine tingle. Between her voice acting and his role in this story, the mysterious being behind everything who’s stronger than anyone else but simply doesn’t act until absolutely necessary, I really like this character.

As remarkable as Defrott is as a character, everyone else is very unremarkable. So much so that I had to make a very remarkable effort to identify everyone by name all the way up to Ep13. Suwa is kind of an interesting character, but he’s also very similar to Defrott. He’s very old, he tires of his vampiric immortality, he’s very strong and very wise, and he has very white hair. The similarity doesn’t help him; comparing anything to Defrott is a losing cause. Shutaro Kurusu is one of the characters that took me the entirety of S1 to keep up with by name. He’s a strong vampire, but his role in the story is very confusing. He adds more confusion than interest.

Maeda has potential, but he never gets developed. Or, I should say, if he does, it’s lost on me. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what significance the heavily damaged building that he sat within had for him. If someone knows what role this plays in the story, let me know, because I never could figure it out, much less how it related to Colonel Maeda. I’m also not completely sure whether he’s a vampire the whole time or just right at the end of S1. I feel like that answer should be obvious, but it still isn’t. Like most other characters, his role seems undefined. I’m not sure if he’s the main character or not!

Okiru, ningen.

Actually, that’s the case in general here. I don’t know if Maeda is the main character or if it’s Kurusu or Defrott or Aoi Shirase (Kurusu’s girlfriend) or Misaki, or maybe none of them. Perhaps it wasn’t appropriate to look for a main character here. That’s fine if that’s the case, but it certainly made for additional confusion in this show.

Misaki and Aoi Shirase were interesting for the simple reason that they look very similar. At the outset of this anime, the first episode really got my attention with the immediate mystery surrounding the rather strange behavior from Misaki since she had become a vampire. But then of course she dies during her escape and only reappears in flashbacks or in the memories (or imagination) of Maeda. Then this overly energetic Aoi Shirase person appears, ends up connected with Kurusu (and Defrott to a lesser extent), but she looks almost exactly like Misaki. I have no idea why this was the case. I’m pretty sure it was intentional from the authors, but I don’t know why they did it. This was one of the big negatives about this show for me. This similarity was set up and then played no role. Apart from the moment at the end where Maeda momentarily mistakes her for Misaki (and perhaps it’s the reason Defrott tolerates her presence at the theatre), I don’t see the significance of their similarity in appearance.

Is Lt. Gen. Nakajima an antagonist? Before Rufus Glenn appears, we don’t have an obvious antagonist despite the fact that so many contrary things were occurring for our friends in the Code Zero squad. I mention Nakajima only to segway into this antagonist confusion. He himself is unremarkable, and adds little to the story.

Rufus Glenn is definitely an antagonist. And he plays that role just fine. He’s probably universally disliked by everyone that saw this show. I can’t complain about an antagonist that so antagonizes an audience! But for one thing, he showed up very late in the series. He loses importance as a character for that reason. Also, similar to Defrott, I never can determine the significance of the stage play lines he quotes. But unlike Defrott, these lines don’t serve to enhance his character to me in any way. In both cases I’m only somewhat familiar with the plays they reference, but Defrott’s lines have impact, whereas Glenn’s just confuse me. It was like having two people in front of you talking and you don’t have a clue what either of them is talking about, but you kinda get the one guy, but the other one you wish would just shut up. Fortunately, Defrott did shut Rufus up.

So if it wasn’t for Defrott, this group of characters would be totally vanilla to me. Decent voice acting from the various seiyuus would be all that separated this crew from a very below average rating. But Sawashiro elevates the entire cast—nay, the entire series—with her performance, to the point that I actually enjoyed this show and this group of characters as a result. She is a nearly unrivaled force in the world of anime. I very much look forward to her reemergence.

Artwork

Rating: 7

I would say the artwork is unremarkable except for a few very important items that really save it for me. Visually, the drawings don’t elicit much response from me. When I first started watching, I wasn’t impressed by what I saw. I saw lots of ordinary colors and scenery. I saw slightly strange but unremarkable faces. I saw uniforms and settings that are historically consistent with 1920s Japan. Nothing about it is very pretty or interesting.

But then the creative details started to appear. While the military uniforms look appropriate to the period, I liked how the artists snuck some stereotypical vampire clothing in at times. The large capes are a really nice touch. In Ep13 Maeda has a really tall collar at one point, like the kind we associate with vampires. It showed me the artists were very aware of little details like this, even if it was a somewhat wasted effort given the directionless and confusing story. Still, I was pleased when I began to notice these “vampire” touches.

Another detail I liked was the red eyes. This is also a stereotypical vampire feature, and I liked how it would come and go on the vampire characters. Some of them always had red eyes though, which was very inconsistent with how most of the vampire characters could switch between their natural eye color and the red. It was most notable on Defrott, who’s eyes definitely changed at important moments, and it was always pretty startling (especially while listening to Sawashiro’s powerful voice!). But like the other vampire visual traits mentioned above, this never plays a role in the story. So it’s a nice touch, but doesn’t do anything but add visual intrigue.

I kind of liked the matchboxing. I’m guessing this was an attempt to make the show feel “older” or simply “historical,” and it does give that feeling. But whatever the reason, I liked it here. I wouldn’t like it if Kadokawa suddenly decided to do this on KonoSuba, but here it works. You get the idea.

My favorite visual treat in this show was the way the vampires would vanish in a burst of speed! That was amazing! Speed isn’t a superpower we associate with vampires typically, so it’s inclusion here was questionable. But hence it was also unexpected, making it more remarkable. I loved it. It was impressive, highlighting the difference between the power level of these vampires and everyone else around them. They’d say goodbye and they’d vanish from one frame to the next! I was very impressed. While of course there’s nothing spectacular about this in a drawing sense, someone decided to make this a visual part of the vampires, and I applaud that decision. The effect was impressive both visually and for the characters themselves. I love it!

Those handful of things saved what would’ve been ordinary and unimpressive artwork otherwise. So much so that they represent the artwork in this show to me, and not the ordinariness. It ends up seeming like a little negative amidst positive is rather than a little positive amidst negative. As a result, my overall impression of the artwork is positive.

Story

Rating: 4

I was hooked immediately. Episode 1 told us right away in no uncertain terms: this was a vampire story. One of the vampires, these kyuuketsuki, was Misaki, obviously the lover of Maeda-san. She was being held in an offshore prison designed for vampires. In her case, she’d gone insane as well. Or, it appeared so. She only talked by repeating the same set of lines she’d learned for her role as Salome in the play by the same name. Her imprisonment obviously bothers the impassive Maeda, but he pursues her according to his duty when she escapes. He meets her as the sun rises before the grand theatre, and she dies in a wisp of blue flame as the sun lights on her person, leaving nothing but a strange ringed marking on the ground and an incurable wound in Maeda’s cold heart.

I was seriously impressed. We had a ton of Western materials and references being crowded into early 20th century Japan. All kinds of bells and whistles went off in my head. Plus it was just insanely sad. It had immense and immediate artistic and entertainment appeal. How good was this going to be?

Then it became a complete wreck. Whatever story threads were established at the beginning, most of them disappeared amidst poor handling of the plot and characters in the middle of the show. Even though some of these interesting elements reappeared as the show reached its conclusion, it wasn’t enough to save this winding and unintelligible story. I never knew week to week what was happening, and I couldn’t keep up with who was who despite the limited number of characters. It was very hard to watch for a while.

Some backstory: the stage play Salome was written by Oscar Wilde (most of you have heard the name) in the late 1800s. It centers around the famous femme fatale known as Salome, of Biblical fame for asking Herod for the head of John the Baptist. Basically the play centers around her and those events in ancient Jerusalem (I believe). Long story short, she’s a psycho who says some interesting things (crazy in context) and ultimately is killed for her madness. The play is written in French. In this story, while the characters recite it in Japanese, we hear a few specific lines from her character where she mentions the Tetrarch (Phillip the Tetrarch—learn your ancient history) and Jokanaan, the French name for John the Baptist. 

So we have this weird thing going on with themes of seduction, madness, bloodlust, and femme fatale. And it’s being drawn from Western literature that would’ve been popular in the period portrayed in this show. You’ve got all these interesting connections to vampires and their highly sexual literary traditions. All this was going on, and then we were introduced to Defrott (and Sawashiro’s instantly recognizable voice) almost immediately, and I was ready. This show had my blood pumping instantly.

Defrott shows forth his power.

Then nothing came of it. Granted, the underlying meaning behind Misaki’s recited lines is interwoven into the fabric of this story. Its presence is undeniable. But it doesn’t add to the story. It’s just there, as if for interest and nothing more. As this show dragged on through the middle episodes, and I lost complete sight of the fascinating start, I was really disappointed. If it wasn’t for a little late recovery with the return of Defrott, I would’ve been irate. How could a writer take that much interesting material, make that much effort to put it all together in a way that’s so powerfully artistically interesting, and simply do nothing with it? It evaporated, hung in the air as a mist, and blew away as if it were nothing.

Big miss. I would blame the anime production company for poorly adapting the manga or light novel, but this was an anime original. Technically I think the manga was issued first, but I have on good authority that it’s the adaptation from the anime. I guess the anime production was delayed by the 2020 madness, but that aside. So they don’t have an excuse. They took the parts for a Ferrari and built a three-wheeled go-cart. I was very disappointed.

The mediocrity doesn’t end there. Ultimately this is a story about vampires. Japan adds to vampire mythology once again! And while it was okay in some senses, the vampires were not well handled in the story. Primarily, there was a lot of inconsistencies among the vampires. Misaki probably was insane, despite the ambiguity implied in the first episode. I was intrigued by this trait, that vampires in this story had lost their sanity. it presented interesting possibilities. But then we find out there’s a bunch of other vampires working for the Japanese military, and doing so quite rationally. Their behavior was completely normal! Then we see more insane vampires later on, almost zombie-like in their behavior. Why are some normal and some berserk? If there was a reason, it wasn’t explained. 

Also about vampires: at the end of the show, Kurusu asks to drink Aoi’s blood to “become a vampire,” as the subtitles say. Something’s very wrong here. Kurusu is unquestionably a vampire already. He’s the only A-rank vampire on Code Zero anti-vampire force. He does the blinding flash of motion thing, even demonstrating it for Aoi at one point. I cannot explain what’s happening here. It seems like a mistake.

However, there’s a couple of possible things that could serve to explain this. One, it’s well known in vampire legends that drinking someone’s blood establishes a special connection to that person. Hence a lot of the sexual elements of vampire legends. So perhaps he’s finally committing himself to her, albeit in the odd way of becoming “less human.” Second, even though he’s already a vampire, there is some wiggle room in vampire lore for this. There are “living” vampires in some legends who are simply “illegitimate children of two other illegitimate children,” or some such myth. “Dead” vampires are those spawned the typical way, being bitten by another vampire. So leaving aside the methods behind their emergence, perhaps the authors are graduating Kurusu from one type of vampire to another type, despite nothing in vampire lore saying such a thing could happen. But at least there’s two kinds, thus allowing some leeway for the authors. Still, it felt really wrong at the end, even if Kurusu was being metaphorical (which I don’t think he was). Another layer of confusion.

“What is that monster doing here?” Suwa muses at one point.

Another interesting theme in this show was the fact that two of the vampires exhibit weariness of life. This seems like an obvious character trait for a vampire. Such beings are immortal, according to legend, as long as they aren’t killed (violently). So a rational vampire might end up like this in time. But apart from this, I was intrigued because this was a prominent theme in Western literature following the end of WWI, making it appropriate to the period in this anime. I saw another important part of the history of Western literature make an appearance in this show. But once again, nothing came of it. Suwa and Defrott both mourned their state to sympathetic listeners, and the dialogue around it was interesting enough, but I don’t think this part of their mentalities played a big role in the story. Again, if it did, it wasn’t handled so as to make it obvious to the viewer. 

I can’t tell you how many frames in this show featured clocks, usually as a focal point. This started getting my attention around the fourth or fifth episode. I kept noticing it until the very end. But once again, I saw no point to it. I figure it ties into the other themes mentioned above in some way, particularly the weariness of life theme. But I can’t see it. An interesting feature once again fell apart into nothingness.

I think the writers were trying to say something about theatre and visual art mediums (which includes anime of course) with all the intricate references to plays and likening it to life and all that. I felt like that was probably cleverly done, but like most everything else, I couldn’t decipher what it was doing in the show. It was rather overt (I think one of the characters, probably Defrott, said something about life being a play, or some such thing), but still I couldn’t make the connection to other parts of the story. Maybe if I sat down and really dug through it, I might be able to discern something artistically interesting within all this. But part of the power of such intricate artistic attempts is that while they shouldn’t be outright overt—subtlety is the rule—they should be unavoidably apparent to the viewer. When they’re not, they lose artistic quality.

By the way, what was the plot? I should’ve mentioned this earlier, but this is the biggest problem I have with this story. Vampires exist in Japan and they’re trying to weaponize them and the government isn’t happy with the pace and methods currently employed so they involve external powers to help them? Is this show railing against the Westernization movement in Japanese politics during this period? It doesn’t seem like much of a story either way. And even if that’s the basics of the story, it’s nearly impossible to recognize while watching the show. I honestly didn’t know what was happening week to week. 

So while I liked a lot of the pieces that went into this story, the final product was undecipherable. I appreciate the effort by the authors in making the attempt. It takes a good deal of literary knowledge to even be able to draw on these themes. So they tried. Whether they’re fully to blame for the poor final product is debatable. Obviously you have normal production constraints, the involvement of other people who add input to a story, the craziness of 2020, all of that. Nevertheless, the authors lost control of this story. They took great ingredients and made an ordinary dish, at best. I can’t be happy with them for that.

Overall: 6

Mars? Red? Why?

Yet another unanswered question. I don’t sit down to an anime and try to figure out the meaning or significance behind its title. Usually it’s just there, either descriptive (sometimes too descriptive these days) or simply interesting, pertaining somehow to the story within. In this case, I can’t imagine what these words have to do with this show. Mars, as in the planet, right? Red, as in blood, I guess? Mars is red. Blood is red. Mars and blood aren’t related by anything but color. There’s nothing “spacey” about this show. There’s a little science-fiction in here, but not enough to refer to a planet. The world wasn’t discovering the planets for the first time during this period of history, but there was some popular interest in the astronomical during this time. But I still don’t see how that’s connected with this story.

Perhaps the writers were unintentionally apt with this name. It’s confusing, doesn’t do anything for the story, doesn’t relate to the story, doesn’t play a role in the story. It’s totally disconnected from everything of importance in the show. Much like everything in this show is. So maybe they just, by chance, picked an appropriately unintelligible and inapplicable title.

Now, I got out the hammer there for the last several sections. And deservedly so: there’s a lot to be frustrated about in this show. But I have to tell you, I liked this series. And while I could point to lots of little positives that definitely played a role in saving this show for me, it’s Miyuki Sawashiro and Defrott that create this overall positive impression. I cannot understate how powerful Sawashiro is in this anime. When Defrott appeared, this show improved, every time. I was subconsciously aware of that fact initially, but I became very consciously aware of it as the series progressed. I would go from confused and disinterested to laser focused on the picture before my eyes and the sound in my ears. I would be close to that damning question “Why am I watching this?”, and then Defrott would appear, Sawashiro would speak, and my head would clear and my heart would race. It’s rare when I’ll stop during a show and just think “Wow.” When Defrott suddenly shape-shifted before Rufus Glenn in Ep12 and Sawashiro’s voice took over for the voice of the previous form, my heart thrilled. It doesn’t happen often. To give you context, the only times in memory that I’ve experienced this are when the monster emerges from Kanaki at the end of Tokyo Ghoul and when Eren finally reveals himself to Reiner and launches his attack in the final season of Attack on Titan. There have been other such moments, but those are the two I really remember, and the reason I remember them is because of how powerful those moments were. This scene in Mars Red gave me that save sensation. While I doubt that moment will remain in my memory the way those other two moments do (epic moments in anime history), it still goes in that category. I’m not easy to impress, and I was seriously impressed by this scene.

I should mention the music too. It hearkens to the historical period, but mostly it’s very background. The exception is the ending. But as you might have realized as you’re reading this, the visuals during the ending revolve entirely around Defrott. The song was good already, but this multiplied the chills for me. It’s a fun one and a half minutes!

So I like it. I know why I like it, but also I don’t know why I like it. I shouldn’t like it. It should have been so much better, and I should hold that against it more than I do. But between my personal liking for Miyuki Sawashiro’s voice acting and the artistic quality I perceive in it here, I can’t make myself dislike this show as it deserves. So I can say this without doubts: if you’re a fan of Miyuki Sawashiro, you’ll like this show. If you don’t know who that is, then first I’d recommend watching the Monogatari series, then come back and tell me if you’re in love yet. But seriously, if she’s not your cup of tea, you won’t enjoy this series. Other than her, there’s not much to attach yourself to and like. It’s too confusing and too confounding and too frustrating. See, I’m even confused in recommending it!

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