Vampires in the military set in historical Japan? I am so there. That was about the full amount of thought I put into Mars Red before agreeing to review the anime with Irina during the spring 2021 anime season. Not that further reading of the premise and the like would have done me any good (much like the one trailer I watched didn’t really help) in terms of figuring out what to expect from Mars Red.
Largely, that is because both the premise and the promotional video, plus the action tag this one has on MAL set Mars Red up to be a very different anime to the one that is ultimately presented. And while I actually quite enjoyed most of what was on offer, I feel that the low scores this anime has received may very well be in part because the wrong audience thought this anime was for them.
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Mars Red is a slow burn.
Rather than a thrilling action piece of vampire against vampire, what we get in Mars Red is by and large a slow story told in a suitably dramatic fashion where we follow Colonel Maeda and the four vampires in the unit under his command as they investigate and then stop other vampire attacks. That’s at least before various military conspiracies, natural disasters, and a terrible antagonist muddy the waters in the weaker second half.
Episode one largely involves only Colonel Maeda attempting to interview a newly made vampire. It has a narrow focus and is full of dialogue and lines from a play that the vampire had been performing prior to her ‘death’. There’s a focus on emotional nuance and the audience is aware there is more to this relationship than is being let on but it won’t be until mid-way through the anime’s run that we’ll be let in on the details.
Honestly, the whole premise is actually a pretty reasonable consideration of vampires living in any kind of society and how they would fit in, or not, into the modernising world. Compared to so many fantastical stories of vampires living as they pleased or conquering the modern world the frail and brief lives of so many of the vampires in this story has a real credibility and the lore remains fascinating throughout the run time.
While some viewers may have been put off by the slow and deliberate pacing and calculated direction of the earlier episodes, this consistency of them and coherence of the story during the first half were a real draw for me. I loved the atmosphere created and while it wasn’t exciting or action packed, Mars Red was compelling viewing.
Then we passed the half-way point and unfortunately the anime began to suffer from bloat.
It isn’t so much that anything in particular in Mars Red is bad so much as there seem to be a range of ideas and characters that appear and eat up screen time but don’t contribute enough to warrant it. The story was more engaging when it kept its smaller and tighter focus on the four main vampires and Maeda and their interactions. The larger scale conflicts that are crafted later aren’t anywhere near as nuanced or interesting and don’t make very much sense when you actually think them through.
Part of me wonders if Mars Red would have been a better anime if allowed to only be 8 episodes long instead of pushing it to 13? If we cut out Rufus Glen and his ‘plot’, such as it was, and limited Defrott’s appearances to simply being the vampire who lives quietly in the theatre, we’d actually get a far more cohesive story and very little about the final episode would change at all.
If we then trimmed the amount of time spent on Nakajima and his idiotic scheme we’d have a far more enjoyable narrative. Honestly, Nakajima’s scenes were all more or less the same with him complaining about the decisions of the military, demanding money for ‘his’ vampire units, or making dire predictions. We could halve his screen time without losing a single thing and realistically those scenes were the low point of any episode.
That said, we can’t get rid of Nakajima (if we just cut out Glen) because we do need an antagonist to let loose the vampire units in order for Code Zero (the vampire unit under Maeda) to have someone to overcome.
However, I am supposed to be reviewing Mars Red and not rewriting it. I guess the reason I’m trying to is that there are so many good things about Mars Red but the package as a whole is decidedly average when you sit back and really look at it. Even as a fan-girl of vampire fiction who did enjoy watching this, I can’t say the overall anime really nailed it.
The animation itself is actually pretty stagnant. There’s a lot of slow conversations and looking at scenery or characters who have minimal movement. The action sequences are largely visually disappointing though they do work to make these emotional high points at least.
There are one or two fight sequences closer to the conclusion that feel like they had more time put into them but by then anyone watching Mars Red for action would have already checked out. It’s too little, too late and those scenes still don’t hold a candle to the true animation heavy weights in the action field.
Where Mars Red will find itself able to hold its ground is in the main characters.
While Maeda’s character arc ends up being a little disappointing, as the stern leader of the vampire units he’s an intriguing character. His backstory is fleshed out in small pieces throughout the anime but it isn’t until the final episode where all the gaps will finally come together. As a central character he serves his purpose well and his actions shape the characters around him.
Particularly Shuutarou Kurusu. Kurusu is introduced as a young but powerful vampire who is still kind of coming to terms with being a vampire in the beginning of the story. He doesn’t like the smell of blood and hasn’t drunk any and can’t get used to sleeping during the day. We know little about his human life early on, but like Maeda, his backstory will slowly get filled in and Kurusu ends up being a pretty awesome character throughout.
His growing relationship with his comrades is kind of a pillar for Mars Red and by and large the audience is drawn to reflect Kurusu’s emotions within particular scenes.
Likewise, Yamaguchi who at first seems like a painful but necessary character in the unit becomes someone the audience can attach to and his role is essential for the emotional pay-off of the story.
The remaining two members of Code Zero, Takeuchi and Suwa, are older vampires, particularly Suwa, and so their way of viewing the world and situations is more removed. Still, the group of four vampires and Maeda prove to be engaging and more of just seeing the unit at work would have been appreciated.
Still, this is an anime that revels in dialogue and often quotes passages from literary works and theatrical plays. If you go in expecting a fast paced action story similar to Sirius The Jaeger that relies on its action sequences to hold the characters and plot together, you’ll be disappointed. Mars Red is more akin to Shiki in that it is slow and methodical in its set-up and has a conclusion that feels a little disjointed from the rest of the story.
Though, both comparisons are flawed because Mars Red is quite a unique viewing experience and feels very much like its own viewing experience. While it hasn’t quite pulled off everything it seems to have set out to do, I will admit I was pretty happy having watched it weekly during the spring anime season. So if you want a slow burn anime about historical vampires in the military, Mars Red might very well be worth trying.
If you did watch it, I’d love to know your thoughts so share a comment below.
Images from: Mars Red. Dir. S Sadamitsu. Signal.MD. 2021
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