Vampire in the Garden – Review

Vampire in the Garden is a fascinating production that almost feels like an anime from another time, even as it simultaneously exists as a project that could only exist in the age of streaming. It’s an original property that is being produced by the famous Studio Wit and helmed by director Ryōtarō Makihara, who is probably best known for his work on Empire of Corpses and Hal (though he has artistic credits running the gamut from Attack on Titan to Doraemon and Paranoia Agent). What’s more, it’s a limited ONA that only runs for five episodes, four of which clock in at a standard 25 minutes. Back in the day, Vampire in the Garden either would have been released piecemeal across a period of months as an OVA, or just edited together as a proper feature film. In 2022, though, it exists as another example of the “anime mini-series” model that Netflix has been pushing, where it is not quite a movie, and not quite a full season of television.

Though its distribution model may feel very modern, everything else about Vampire in the Garden exudes a vibe that knocked me right back into the mid-2000s era of anime culture. There is just something about how the vampire ultra-violence is contrasted against the somewhat muted and mournful visual palette of the setting, combined with the pared-down character designs, that makes me feel like the series would be right at home on a shelf in-between Wolf’s Rain and Kino’s Journey. This is not a bad thing, by any means, though it is an aesthetic that may feel less familiar and inviting for viewers who didn’t have the chance to grow up during the pre-streaming anime boom of the early aughts.

If anything, Vampire in the Garden works best when it is in full “mood piece” mode. Throughout its brief five episodes, Studio Wit’s delicate visuals and Yoshinori Ike’s gorgeous soundtrack work overtime to deliver a story that you can palpably feel, even when the script itself isn’t always living up to those standards. Don’t get me wrong, I actually found myself really enjoying the tragedy-tinged romance at the heart of the story. I watched the dubbed version of the film, too, and I was impressed with how well Xanthe Huynh and Larissa Gallagher did as Momo and Fine, respectively. The amount of chemistry and affection that the pair can give off over the course of such a short runtime is more than we get in a lot of would-be weepies.

Sadly, the same can’t be said of basically every other character in the show, from Momo’s overbearing mother and increasingly unhinged Uncle Kubo to Fine’s dangerously persistent brother Allegro. They are all perfectly functional pieces of the story, but the supporting cast is ultimately hindered by the fact that Vampire in the Garden only has five episodes to tell its story, and the vast majority of that time is dedicated to Fine and Momo. Everyone else has to literally and figuratively trail behind them, with some critical pieces of backstory existing as little more than single-scene montages that arrive at the very last minute.

That issue of depth is really the closest thing that Vampire in the Garden has to a fatal flaw. It’s a sweet, sad, and generally compelling little adventure, but I can easily imagine a version of the anime that had more room to breathe and really live in its world. The series’ take on a broken-down, apocalyptic Eastern European setting deserves more exploration, more unique locations for the pair of runaways to visit, and more stories to give it shape and texture. If the production took a slightly more episodic route, in the same way that shows like Wolf’s Rain and Kino’s Journey had before it, I think it would have a much better chance of leaving a lasting impression on its audience.

As it stands, while Vampire in the Garden may not have the kind of blockbuster ambition that will earn it a place in the top tiers of the genre pantheons, it remains a modest but enjoyable addition to the venerable canon of Sad Vampire Anime. Its throwback horror-fantasy trappings are nothing if not pleasing to the eye, and anyone that has been hunting for a slightly edgy (and quite gay) take on supernatural romance will probably enjoy the time they spend with Momo and Fine, as limited as it may be.