Horror anime is rare and rarely affecting. Series often have difficulty conveying or maintaining unsettling atmospheres and slow burns, and turn instead to gore and body horror—subgenres that can be quite effective but can easily take a turn for the silly.
It’s why series that can act with at least a certain amount of restraint have stuck in the anime fandom’s collective memory: the tragic Nina from Fullmetal Alchemist, Higurashi’s carefully spaced explosions of violence, and Tetsuo’s slow loss of bodily autonomy in AKIRA. Older anime fans in particular might add one more name to that set: Vampire Princess Miyu, a rare horror series both targeted toward and starring women.
The Miyu series actually spans a franchise of considerable size, including a ten volume manga series (partially translated and out of print), several spin-off manga (untranslated), and a 26 episode anime TV series (meh). But the best known version of the story in the West is probably the OVA, a four episode concentration of the elements that make the story intriguing.
The narrative is just as light as it needs to be, combining largely episodic A-plots—Miyu is tasked with banishing “Shinma” from the human world back to where they came from, and cannot rest until she gets all of them—with the ongoing conflict between its two female leads: Himiko is a spiritualist whose jobs keep crossing paths with the mysterious, ambiguously malevolent Miyu, and Himiko is driven by some trauma in her past to put an end to this “last vampire.” Their interactions are easily the best part of the series, threading the antagonism from Himiko and the blatant trolling from Miyu with hints of an underlying magnetism neither of them can quite put into words.
It’s not overtly yuri, which is both a shame since the only overarching plot is about Himiko’s obsession with Miyu and gradual deepening understanding (basically the plot to every vampire romance ever), and a little bit of a relief given that the Extremely Ancient Miyu’s body is frozen to look 14. Because this is anime, and we can’t have nice things. It already has the weird feeling covered with Miyu’s bodyguard and love object Larva, a demon man who’s been bound to serve her since she was actually 14.
The issue of Miyu’s age seems like an odd sticking point given anime’s general handling of the subject (primer: it’s bad at it), but this now 30-year-old OVA stands in stark contrast to how it would’ve been handled were it released today—that handling, in turn, is wrapped around why OVA excels as a horror series.
Miyu’s body is not a source of appeal for others but centralized as a source of anguish for her. Because she’s still 14 and will be 14 as long as she’s tasked with banishing Shinma, her life is completely derailed. She’ll never have an adult body or be able to achieve adult milestones, and her power to give others immortality is a stand-in for actually being able to build relationships with them. The coquettish elements of her character are half-measures that don’t make her happy. They are stand-ins for growing up, and they come across as such (I believe this blog has been quite vocal about its love for the horror of child vampires).
Part of this is down to the manga and its spinoffs being marketed as shoujo. These stories were created for an audience of young women, with Miyu as someone for them to identify with rather than someone for a male audience to lust after. Through that lens, the OVA begins to fall into place.
Himiko is both a cool professional for an adolescent audience to aspire toward and someone who needs to be taught by the visual avatar of the reader’s age. Miyu’s angst is about being caught in a period of life that seems as if it will go on forever, pressured by her parents and experiencing horrible and unexplained changes to her body.
The monsters of the week, the Shinma, are all creatures dealing with some element of body horror or inflicting it on villains. The victims are children worrying about their futures, whether dreading them or imagining ones they were denied. They’re smart, subtly unsettling stories about the twilight state of growing up, when the future is as terrifying as it is promising, and everything is happening both too quickly and with painful slowness.
The monster designs range from functional to skin-crawling, but it’s the conceptual and atmospheric horror where the OVA truly shines. Even with the additional budget generally afforded to an OVA, it knows when to use stillness and simplicity to sell a sense of dread rather than throwing out as much flashiness as the budget can stand.
Parts of it have aged poorly: an otherwise masterful episode about puppets is wrapped around a Women Be Competin plot, and the only Shinma to be killed rather than simply banished is the queercoded one who claimed to be Larva’s former lover. They’re musty elements that jar an otherwise engrossing experience, but also short-lived enough that it doesn’t drag the other positive qualities down.
The OVA isn’t streaming anywhere at present—more’s the pity—but the 2001 DVD release of the OVA will run you less than $15 on RightStuf at time of writing. It’s a part of anime history, a worthwhile venture for horror fans, and has an undercurrent of feminist potential that I wasn’t expecting when I set out on the project. It’s a gem, and has definitely made me yearn for more horror aimed at and starring women.