The Case Study of Vanitas

4 out of 5

Directed by: Tomoyuki Itamura

covers season 1

While I’m not sure that the English title of this series is an exact translation of ヴァニタスの手記 – which may be “Vanitas’ Note” – kudos to whomever first deemed it, because it is a perfect fit.

Case Study is an oddity amongst anime: the giant umbrella that covers all the various subgenres of the scene includes lots of examples of shows that are, by typical US animation / sci-fi / fantasy standards… weird. But I’ve found that part of learning to watch anime (after growing up on US stuff) is just going with the flow of that weirdness, and there will be relative normality within that; ways to classify the weirdness. It’s not necessarily that Case Study is especially weird or random, more that it’s comfortable drifting in and out of tropes and between styles and modes, in a casual, confident fashion with which we rarely see. It’s full-on chibi comedy; it’s a deep-set character study, without obvious flashbacks to explain away quirks; it’s lore-filled fantasy; it’s intensely erotic at points, and uses its vampirism = sexy times link to be pleasingly fluid about sexuality. That last point, though not a main focus, is indicative of the way Vanitas’ story is constructed: characters occasionally want, deeply, to suck some blood, and that has a very sexy subtext to it, but beyond showing that, the series does not stoop to “explaining” it, or making jokes about whether those sucky sucks are between girls and boys. It happens, and as appropriate to the scene, it’s used for comedy or drama, and the story continues. That is: this is very much a character-first series, made all the better by having an incredibly intriguing backstory, with both parts feeling equally rich for exploration, and worthy of our viewing time.

Our main POV is Noe (Kaito Ishikawa), a vampire who’s been tasked by his teacher – a notable character in the vampire world, but of whom we’re only allowed a mysterious impression – to discover what he can about “The Book of Vanitas,” a tome which is said to hold power over vampires.

We’re given some preface to the 19th Century Steampunk setting: vampires and humans coexist, a tenable relationship maintained by checks and balances which cover, rather than cure, animosity between the two species. The vamps have their own otherworldly locale into which humans are not allowed; and in our reality, there exist some Church-run agencies which hunt “cursed” vampires – those who have got the blood-lust bug.

Noe is in Paris, searching for the book, when he meets a character named Vanitas (Natsuki Hanae) who’s actually in possession of the tome, and using it to cure these cursed vampires. While Noe and Vanitas seem to take up the reins of particular protag stereotypes – the naive innocent; the rogue – their relationship that forms is a fascinating one that goes way beyond those archetypes, while we learn bits and pieces of their pasts. The same is true for the other principles that the duo meet, such as warrior vamp Jeanne (Inori Minase) and human vamp-hunter Roland (Kengo Kawanishi) – both start from stereotypes and then nearly immediately become more than that. But the show is able to successfully have it both ways, leaning into the stereotypes for humor or plot beats as necessary, continually elevated by that plump character / setting background.

Bones’ animation is gorgeously fluid, and, very importantly, gives the initial cour’s settings – Paris; the vamp world – a true sense of place. I hadn’t realized how overlooked that often is in anime until I had this example where it wasn’t overlooked – the locales feel integral to the story, not incidental, and are part of the overall look and feel of scenes, and the show. While the chibi stuff is very well timed and often dang funny, I do think it’s overused to a degree, with some whole sequences and exchanges happening in the format, just a beat or so beyond the tolerances of immersion. (Having not (yet) read the manga, I’m not sure how much its frequency is ported over.)

The other slight knock is to the overall direction of the story, moreso in the first cour. In part, the very open pacing is wise, as it gives us time to explore the things I’ve praised – characters, setting. At the same time, the villain who’s behind a string of cursings – “Charlatan” – floats in and out of relevance. Discovering Charlatan’s motivations is the main drive for Vanitas and Noe to team up, and I don’t have a problem with the way the show drifts between tones, as mentioned above, but it does establish a weird disconnect, where it’s unclear how much in-universe time is actually passing. The episodes are so effective that, in the moment, it hardly matters, but when Charlatan is mentioned or shown, it’s like – oh, right, that’s what we were doing.

But it’s such an alluring show, intelligently and confidently scripted and directed, that that’s an imbalance I’m happy to deal with.