Dance in the Vampire Bund is a showcase of Shinbo’s maturing as a director. His career has followed a strange and interesting path up until now, and hit a sort of new stride in 2009’s Bakemonogatari before leveling out into Bund.
Back in ye olden days, Shinbo was pretty out-there. His very early works in the late 90s were, well, very ‘late 90s anime’, which is a strange animal in that the late 90s were a bizarre and experimental era of anime before things got a little more normal running into the new millennium. Shinbo’s signature style is seen building up in Tenamonya Voyagers, Starship Girl Yamamoto Yohko, and so forth, and solidifies in 2000’s The SoulTaker, which is no doubt the first Shinbo shown known best for being a Shinbo show. The SoulTaker is nothing but bizarre visuals with little meat to it, which has gotten it critically smashed by many, and it’s only loved dearly by people like me who adore Shinbo’s directorial flourishes.
In 2004, Shinbo directed the 3-episode OVA Le Portrait de Petit Cossette, which, up until now, I’ve considered the magnum opus of his signature style. It’s far more coherent and interesting than The SoulTaker, with what would for a long time be the highest budget Shinbo had worked with in the present millennium, and it’s got every ounce of Shinbo’s style that could possibly be squeezed into an hour in a half.
After that, Shinbo joined Shaft, and has been producing progressively more well-known shows for years now, starting with Tsukuyomi MoonPhase, Pani Poni Dash!, Negima?!, and moving up through Hidamari Sketch, Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, Natsu no Arashi!, Bakemonogatari, and most recently, Arakawa Under the Bridge, all of which have been successful, multi-seasoned shows (Arakawa season 2 coming up this fall.)
It’s worth pointing out that with the exception of Moon Phase, all of the series Shinbo did between 2005 and 2009 were comedies of various styles, none of which had a strong central driving narrative. This seemed to be for the best—after all, Shinbo had never, ever produced a series that was known for the strength of it’s plot, and his work on comedies is genius (he doens’t deserve all the credit for this – Studio SHAFT as a whole are gods of comedy anime.) This is where Bakemonogatari steps in.
One of the best-selling anime of all time (and still, I believe, the record-holder for blu-ray sales), Bakemonogatari was a godly success, especially considering that it’s a niche, arthouse, low-budget, otaku-oriented SHAFT production. What’s more, the show still doesn’t have a necessarily cohesive plot. It’s comprised of the stories from a series of light novels, so the show is clearly broken into arcs, and Bakemonogatari is strange in that it doesn’t really give too much of a damn about it’s own story. In a three-episode arc, 20 minutes total could be dedicated to the ‘plot’, and the rest would be witty dialog and trippy visuals. That said, it was still notably different from Shinbo’s comedy work—there’s drama, and therefor a need for dramatic timing and visuals—there’s a plot, and therefor a need to convey that plot well.
I don’t believe that Shinbo did a perfect job on Bakemonogatari (nor on Dance in the Vampire Bund), but with Bakemonogatari, he showed that he was much, much better at storytelling than he was earlier in the decade. There’s still an imbalance present that has to do with why I feel held at bay by the show—that aforementioned split between plot and not giving a damn is jarring in some places and leads to awkward pacing and difficulty in getting mentally involved in the story. It’s a huge step up from Moonphase which I couldn’t get interested in at all, but it still needs work.
Dance in the Vampire Bund shows that Shinbo is making the necessary progress. Bund is not a better show than Bakemonogatari—it’s a great show, but the plot is kind of all over the place and hard to grasp—but I think that it’s a better-directed show than Bakemonogatari.
Shinbo has shown a level of restraint in certain shows from the past few years, usually because he seemed to be less interested in them (Maria Holic, which sucked), but Bund is Shinbo showing restraint so that the story has room to breathe. All of “The Shinbogasm” is there, to perhaps a greater extent than Bakemonogatari, as Shinbo managed to fit every single trademark I’ve ever known him for into the series at least once. In the character of Akira, he managed to recreate Kyousuke Date from The SoulTaker, combined with Eiri from Le Portrait de Petit Cossette, as a more interesting character. Mina Tepes is like a combination of the personalities from Hazuki of Moonphase and Senjougahara from Bakemonogatari, and she looks like what would happen if Rebecca Miyamoto from Pani Poni Dash had existed in a 90s OVA (like the ones Shinbo used to do.) Meiren, an anime-original character, reminds me of Tsubasa Hanekawa from Bekemonogatari, and I’m sure I could draw more character comparisons wherever.
The difference between Bund and anything else by Shinbo is that it’s never visually difficult to tell what’s going on in any given scene, and the stylish elements serve to enhance the experience rather than define it. And really, I think part of why it could get away with this is just that the show clearly had a higher budget than almost anything SHAFT has done before. There were episodes and moments where it was clear that money was tight, and like in Bakemonogatari, there were some apparently unfinished scenes where a red frame would cover the screen, but for the most part, there was clearly a more consistent animation budget throughout the series (they didn’t blow it all on the first episode like they usually do lol.) It’s often been said of Shinbo and SHAFT that part of the reason they dress their shows in such thick visual style is to cover for the utter lack of budget, so it stands to reason that if they had more money, they wouldn’t need to do as much cover-up.
But I don’t want to believe that budget is all that’s at work here, and I really want to think that this is a mark of Shinbo’s progress. I love what he’s done with this show – I’m a huge fanboy of his style, so I adored Petit Cossette for being nothing but that in every frame, but Bund has all of that style—it just only appears when it needs to, or when it’s most appropriate. There’s a moment where Mina Tepes is bound in chains, a moment where Akira is impaled through the chest with a *massive* cross, there are transforming heroes, incredible bloodsprays, single-color-frames, eye-close-ups, the new technique Shinbo developed in Bakemonogatari of panning up on a character and showing their body in a strange way is used a lot, and none of it seems out-of-place, and in fact, things like the cross incident are woven so clearly into the narrative that one need not even notice how it’s a big part of Shinbo’s recurring style.
I can’t wait to see where Shinbo will go from here (guess I should also watch Arakawa, even if it’s not a story-conscious series). I believe Kizumonogatari should be his next somewhat plot-centric work, and I’d like to see it shine as much as Bund does (I’m sure the budget for this has to be even higher, too, considering Bakemonogatari’s sales status).
(As an aside, I started Bund in January and finished in September. Not counting Bakemonogatari whose OVAs I still haven’t watched, this is the fastest I’ve ever completed a Shinbo show.)