Mars Red’s Vampires Are Tools of Nationalism and Industrialization

Mars Red is a new historical anime series set in Japan 1923, where the Navy has set up Code Zero, a special force of "useful" vampires whose sole mission is to capture and either recruit or destroy other vampires to serve their country. The story is set at the tail end of the Taisho era, an incredible decade of openness, internationalization, expansion of Japan's democratic government, and industrialization.

However, it was also marked by Japan's push to advance its interests in China and Korea. The Great Kanto Earthquake of September 1923 destroyed Tokyo, killing over 100,000 people and leading to the Kanto Massacre, where the Japanese military and police murdered over 6,000 Koreans and socialists living in the Kanto area. It's an ominous event for any historical series, and one that Japanese media has avoided for a long time.

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In Mars Red, vampires have proliferated in part thanks to a new, industrial source of blood, but their bite is still lethal. Most of the time, the infection kills their victim, or even worse, makes them lose their mind and lust for blood. Of those who survive and keep their wits, only some are deemed worthy enough to become foot soldiers whose mission is to hunt their own kind within their own country.

The military settings of Mars Red are dark, metallic, shadowy and oppressive. The protagonist, Maeda Yoshinobu, is a loyal soldier who cut off his arm to stave off the infection of a vampire bite. Maeda is still technically human, but now has near-supernatural strength and a powerful prosthetic arm, just like Anakin Skywalker. He chain-smokes, avoids sunlight as much as possible and is simultaneously exhausted and coiled like a spring under pressure. Maeda wants to impress his superior, a Westernized general who doesn't consider vampires human, or humans as real people. They're all just tools for his ever-growing army.

The first vampire viewers encounter is an actress at the Imperial Theater. She was acting Oscar Wilde's Salomé when she was bitten, her mind looping around her lines. She's almost too far gone for conversation but is pliant in her underwater prison -- for a while. When she feels it's time to get out, she simply bursts the tunnel doors open and escapes like a force of nature, leaving a trail of untrained soldiers behind. Before stepping into the sun she tries to remind Maeda of his humanity, his connection to the natural world and the people around him. Empathy is the most powerful antidote against mindless obedience.

Mars Red is whip-smart, using the traditionally monstrous vampires to explore the darker aspects of a country on the brink of destructive nationalism. The blind loyalty, the nostalgia for a glorious past and even a taste for human experimentation, all via Code Zero's immortal scientist. It presents the viewer with an interesting dissonance -- we are watching charismatic characters do horrible things, but as they are "monsters" those acts should be considered normal for them.

However, these monsters are not there voluntarily. It's more akin to Psycho-Pass Enforcers, so isn't the system the real monster? Although hunting their own kind isn't that bad, after all, vampires kill -- or do they? Because the actress-turned-bloodsucker renders her would-be murderers unconscious without killing anyone. Clearly vampires have minds and morals, and are no more monsters than humans are when the system is intent on using them as tools or treating them as vermin.

Mars Red creator Fujisawa Bun-O chose Taisho era Japan for his vampire story because he wanted to highlight the vampire's main weakness -- the passage of time, which renders them obsolete as they are viewed more as parasites than terrifying monsters in the eyes of humans. This new, industrialized Japan doesn't have a place for magical predators unless they accept working for the military. In the pilot, a character mentions off-handedly that this is just what "Western nations do."

Episode 1 of Mars Red is currently streaming on Funimation with Episode 2 set to debut on the same day Japan will release the first episode, April 6.

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