What even are vampires really? Like with most fictitious supernatural creatures, the mythos is so fluid that any interpretation could make or break whatever rules it wishes. Just so long as the aesthetic or a few small details are kept in check, anything goes.
Vampires can’t go out in the day… until they can. They can’t see their reflection… but what if they do? The rules don’t matter so much as the idea of being a vampire; an idea so alluring on behalf of aesthetic and metaphor.
Studio Bones’ new show, The Case Study of Vanitas, is an alt-history tale of human and vampire society set in Paris that certainly doesn’t abide by all the classic rules either. It follows in the footsteps of more sexualized depictions popularized in the last decade. However, its intricate world and energetic cast eliminate any doubts that it doesn’t match the vampire aesthetic.
The Case Study of Vanitas is set in 19th century Paris, in a world where vampires’ existence is well known. There was even a war between them and humans. Now there’s a steady truce. Vampires keep to themselves and the violent ones consumed by bloodlust are killed by the Church. A reasonable agreement for both parties.
But tales tell of a vampire named Vanitas who long ago was cast out by his kind for being born under a blue moon. In retaliation, he created a tome that could corrupt and curse any vampire’s name and swore retribution would come.
We follow Noe Archiviste, a vampire who wants to find the “Book of Vanitas” for personal reasons. When he encounters a “Curse Bearer,” a vampire who loses their mind and drinks human blood, he tries to help her, when suddenly a dashing man arrives.
He calls himself Vanitas, but he’s no vampire. He’s a human bearing the name of the same vampire. And what do you know, he has the Book of Vanitas as well. Except he isn’t there to curse anyone. He’s made it his mission to use the Book to save Vampires. Quite a turn.
So two men with pressing reasons to pursue this tome find themselves thrown together, either because their goals align or because everyone else assumes they’re allies. They end up working together to investigate cases involving Curse Bearers and a vampire presumably creating them named Charlatan.
What surprised me and perhaps impressed me most about this show was how different the characters were from what I predicted. My first exposure to this show was through the opening online. In it, much of the two leads’ daily routine is shown. Well, at the very least what they must do on their days off.
I assumed Noe to be a slightly aloof, jovial himbo and for Vanitas to be a focused if not easily agitated straight man. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Sure, Noe’s excitement at Paris and the wonders around every corner makes him seem a bit daft, but when it comes to serious matters, he’s quite direct and doesn’t take kindly to silly business.
On the other hand, Vanitas can be quite serious and impatient with Noe, but only when his silliness distracts from his own. Vanitas is a diva who loves to hear himself talk. He’s a human with power that makes him dangerous to vampires. He holds nothing back from them. He doesn’t care about their rules or their hierarchy.
They are both seriously committed to their goals, which causes them to butt heads, but they are a lot alike. The way they aren’t complete opposites of one another helps them feel a lot more believable and makes their chemistry more compelling.
Furthermore, under a particular lens, they can be coded as bisexual. Certain episodes between them present little doubt that Noe doesn’t feel some feelings for Vanitas. There is a healthy degree of sexuality injected into the character relationships. Some might dismiss it as trashy but it reminded me how vampiric feeding always had an air of promiscuity to it.
Vampires at large can be interpreted as a metaphor for a sexually deviant underground beneath the surface of society. Feeding, and especially one letting another feed, can be seen as consent towards that hunger so easily comparable to sex.
This is nothing new, but it bears mentioning that this show presents this very bluntly as an act of sensual connection. Given that it plays a big role in the character relationships, notably between Vanitas and Jeanne, I see no reason not to mention it. I think sexuality strengthens the show.
The larger narrative revolves around Vanitas and Noe trying to prove their usefulness to the higher-ups of Paris’ vampire hierarchy, all while searching for Charlatan. At times, the story could heap lore upon the viewer in such a way that I became lost. It’s a big world that they create, and though not all of it caught my interest, I appreciate the complexity.
It’s part one of what I assume will be several seasons. The progress made doesn’t feel major, but the character growth and the memories made will stick out despite that. There are investigations of the church, a visit to a mirror world dominated by the vampires, and plenty of lengthy flashbacks into the protagonists’ past (mostly Noe’s).
Director Tomoyuki Itamura is not a name I’ve heard much before, but I am very familiar with their work. Most people who hear the name Monogatari think of Akiyuki Shinbo but that franchise has so many talented directors. Itamura is one such director.
He’s worked on Nekomonogatari: Kuro, Monogatari Second Season, Hanamonogatari, Tsukimonogatari, Koyomimonogatari, and both seasons of Owarimonogatari. Having worked on many Shaft productions, it bears mentioning that his style of directing can be slower and that might turn off people to whom Monogatari is a tad hard to get into. If that piques your interest though, don’t hesitate to give this a try.
This show feels like a clash of all kinds of things I love. It being a Bones show with such beautiful background art reminds me of Bungo Stray Dogs. It shares a character designer with many of the studio’s greatest works (Yoshiyuki Itou). The music, on the other hand, is composed by Yuki Kajiura, giving it her unique feel that I almost always associate with Fate and Garden of Sinners.
Finally, the action by animation, directed by Itou as well, offered some pleasing action. In shows where sakuga clearly isn’t the prime objective, seeing gorgeous animation is a treat, even at rare intervals. Bones is a studio that frequently offers those kinds of surprises for me.
Vanitas was fun and though I can’t quite say I loved it, I won’t pretend that I won’t return to it when the second season arrives next year. Not since Owari no Seraph has a vampire story of such extensive worldbuilding and queer energy dominated my mind. And since we’re probably never getting another season of Owari, I have to take what I can get.
Not a ringing endorsement? Trust me, Case Study of Vanitas has plenty to offer for fans of the studio, the genre, or just those in need of something more sultry to sink their teeth into.
The Case Study of Vanitas is available for legal streaming through Funimation and Hulu.