There’s no shortage of anime vampire stories. From classics like 2000’s Blood: The Last Vampire or Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust to more recent fare such as the Kizumonogatari film trilogy and last year’s slapstick comedy Vlad Love, all of these anime to some extent tap into the drama inherent to the conflict between human beings and their predatory supernatural counterparts. That drama, of course, arises from the tension between their incompatible existences and their uneasy, undeniable attraction to one another.
Vampire in the Garden, the Netflix original series produced by Wit Studio of Vinland Saga and The Ancient Magus’ Bride fame, attempts to tap that same vein in service of an apocalyptic melodrama of star-crossed love and friendship — to mixed results.
Directed by Ryōtarō Makihara and Hiroyuki Tanaka and written by Makihara himself, the five-episode series is set in a world several generations after a prolonged and bitter war between humans and a race of immortal vampires has ravaged the planet. Vampire in the Garden tells the story of Momo, a human woman raised as a soldier in one of the last fortified human cities. She meets Fine, the begrudging queen of the vampires, and the two run away together in search of a better way of life apart from the conflict, if not an outright paradise.
Makihara and Tanaka are no strangers to horror, with the former having previously directed 2015’s The Empire of Corpses and the latter having worked as an episode director and storyboard artist on 2006’s Hellsing Ultimate. That familiarity is apparent, albeit unfortunately in the case of the roteness of Vampire in the Garden’s story beats and characters. There’s very little in the way of genuine surprises or twists, with the premise essentially boiling down to a star-crossed romance plot familiar to anyone with a superficial grasp of the genre. The anime’s story bears a surface-level resemblance to Wolf’s Rain from 2004, which follows a pack of shapeshifting wolves who journey across a similarly blighted world in search of their own fabled paradise. But Vampire in the Garden is lacking when compared to that series’ emotional sophistication; nothing about Fine and Momo’s journey is as memorable or surprising as Wolf’s Rain. Instead, the show settles into a complacent groove that neither ascends to any particularly spectacular highs nor descends to any irredeemable lows. In short: It’s okay, but only that.
Where Vampire in the Garden does excel is in its environments and background layouts, pulling influences from Soviet era and Czarist Russia-coded art and architecture in service of crafting landscapes and other settings that are at once beautiful and chilling in their frigid desolation. Music and art play an important role not only as an element of distinction between human and vampire society but as the impetus of Momo and Fine’s fast friendship.
As told in the anime’s first episode, human society banned music and all other forms of artistic expression so as to fend off vampires, whose senses are so keen that any music or art runs the risk of arousing their attention and incurring their wrath. This is apparent in the oppressive design of the human city, with its drab, gunmetal gray surfaces and searchlights beaming sickly green shafts of ultraviolet light. In sacrificing all forms of expression for the sake of survival, the humans have ironically forfeited their own humanity in service of the single-minded drive to eradicate all of vampire-kind.
In contrast, music and art are so essential to vampiric society and culture that Fine and her childhood companion Allegro, two of the highest ranking members of vampire nobility, derive their names from musical commands and movements that symbolize their respective personalities and outlooks on life. Allegro is zealous and vindictive in his desire to exterminate humanity. Fine at the outset of the series is haunted by a past trauma, burying her wish to die underneath dramatic displays of frivolity and morbidness. But while assaulting the human city in the first episode, she happens upon Momo and is so moved by the sound of her singing through tears that she regains a renewed desire to live, and perhaps even love. “This war will never be over,” Fine tells Momo while surrounded by a group of human soldiers. “Eventually all logic will be lost and everyone will become monsters. Do you wish to stay here and live as though you’re already dead?”
And so Momo and Fine find a new call to life through a shared love of music, and ultimately each other. Escaping together, Fine teaches Momo how to sing, nurturing Momo’s self-expression in a way denied to her by her life among human society. Most importantly, Momo is faced with the question that no one, not even her own mother, save for Fine asks her: “What is it that you want out of your life?” Throughout the series we catch all-too-fleeting glimpses of what a life beyond the human-vampire conflict might look like, all while hounded by the threat of not only human and vampire soldiers who hunt them but Fine’s own long-suppressed hunger for blood.
But while these elements themselves are laudable, they’re not enough to carry Vampire in the Garden. The show often comes across rushed during some episodes and underdeveloped in others, even with the stunning environments. The visible distinctions in class between vampire and human society go unexplored, while the anime’s conclusion attempts to have it both ways as to whether its definition of paradise is figurative or literal. Most of the series’ fights and transformation sequences, as well as the design of the vampires in their beastial superpowered forms, feel rushed, unrealized, or inherently unimaginative. Ultimately, it leaves the audience with the sense that there’s nothing to this world beyond Momo and Fine’s love story, despite the potential for something deeper and richer visible at the periphery. Vampire in the Garden is certainly gorgeous to look at, but once you’ve sunk your teeth into it, there’s little to draw from it other than a fairly standard romance story.
Vampire in the Garden is streaming on Netflix now.