Series Review – Mars Red (2021)

In an anime season full of unique concepts and amazing animation, the first few episodes of Mars Red were able to stand out due to its gothic visual style within an early 20th century Japan. One of the few anime Funimation was able to simuldub for the Spring 2021 season, Mars Red seemed like an incredibly promising anime original series from Signal.MD. The opening gives Mars Red a distinctly feudal Japanese feel that immediately sucked me in. However, the grand ideas of the latter half of the series seemed to drag the main cast in several confusing directions.

Suwa and Takeuchi as they appear in promotional material for Mars Red

Based on the stage play by Bun-O Fujisawa, Mars Red takes place in an alternate Japan in 1923 where the country is infested with vampires. To combat the growing vampiric population, the Japanese government implements an elite squad known as Code Zero that consists of its own vampire units. Led by the human captain, Yoshinobu Maeda, Code Zero tracks down unregistered vampires lurking within Japan’s cities and forces them to either register themselves to the government or die.

The vampires within Code Zero were all either military men that were turned or vampires that were already living in Japan that saw opportunity. Suwa and Takeuchi are the latter, often giving advice to the younger vampires and carrying ulterior motives that the government appears to care less about. Suwa was only 14 or 15 years old when he was turned and his deceptive emotionless attitude reflects the harsh world he has to live in for nearly 300 years. He was a proper murderous vampire before he joined Code Zero and seemingly turned his life around.

The same cannot be said for Takeuchi. A mad scientist who turned himself into a vampire as an experiment, Takeuchi acts as the wild card of the group. He appears to act selfishly, only caring about furthering his own goals and utilizing the resources that come with working for the Japanese government. However, deep down, he does care for his fellow man, even if his narcissistic tendencies often overshadow the small amount of altruism he has buried inside his dark heart.

Shutaro Kurusu and Tokuichi Yamagami in episode 3, “His Dream”

Tokuichi Yamagami and Shutaro Kurusu act as your traditional soldier characters within Code Zero. Yamagami was a soldier close to being discharged before he was turned into a vampire. Because of his newfound immortality, he will likely be burdened with eternal service to the Japanese government despite his desire for peace within his own life. Yamagami appears as the heart of Code Zero, keeping the other members, especially Maeda, in check with their morality (assuming they have any).

Kurusu, on the other hand, acts as the bright-eyed rookie. Despite his new life as a vampire, Kurusu is still hopeful about Japan’s future. His na├»ve attitude gives him a vastly different attitude towards Japan’s vampire population compared to the rest of Code Zero’s members. Kurusu is easily the character that receives the most development in the series as his view of the world is consistently shattered by the corruption and death surrounding him.

Aside from the threat of vampires, the members of Code Zero also deal with the press and the black market, attempting to balance their duties with the public. Aoi Shirase acts as a sort of deuteroganist, slowly peeling away the curtains that the Japanese government has hung up as the government officials seem to have some darker reasons for creating Code Zero. Sonosuke Nakajima seems to be the dirtiest of these officials, and unsurprisingly, Maeda directly reports to him.

Aoi Shirase lecturing Kurusu in episode 7, “The Letter”

Of course, not all vampires can be “good.” The ones who seemingly serve as the primary antagonists of the series are Defrott and Rufus Glenn. Defrott fits the antagonist role rather unwillingly, but whose actions cause a ripple effect that ultimately leads to the core conflict of Mars Red. Rufus arrives to seemingly take advantage of Defrott’s missteps and act as a master manipulator, filling a role that is similar to Father’s from Fullmetal Alchemist. Sadly, Rufus carries little nuance and doesn’t have any interesting dynamics with any of the core cast. If it wasn’t for his scenes with Defrott and the other antagonistic vampires, he would be quite forgettable.

That is not to say that the writing for the series is completely uninteresting. Maeda and Kurusu’s duality as the series’ primary protagonists is one of the highlights. This single piece of the story never once gets bogged down by the overly-simple primary antagonist or the larger-than-life ideas that seem to be drowned out by their own complexities.

Misaki holding on to Maeda during the sunrise in episode 2, “Til Death Do Us Part”

While the writing, for the most part, is nothing spectacular, the visual direction of the series is some of the best I have ever seen. It is hard to believe that the budget was the same as your typical anime series, as the work that the director, Kouhei Atano, the art directors, Hirofumi Sakagami and Hiroshi Kato, and the director of photography, Hidenori Manaka, were able to accomplish is astounding. The shot composition and color pallet give Mars Red this industrialized murky feel to it that pairs well with its unsettling tone. The framing of each scene makes the series feel incredibly cinematic, increasing my investment in the events of the series despite the failings of the story. Much of this framing can also be chalked up to the more muted color palette from color designer Mitsuko Sekimoto. The constant use of greys, both in the soldiers’ uniforms and the city itself, allows the reds present in the uniforms, and the more colorful attire of some of the other characters, to stand out. The entire animation team working on Mars Red made the series feel incredibly unique compared to every other anime from the Spring season.

Maeda viewing art advertising one of Misaki and Defrott’s plays in episode 1, “Dawn”

Seeing as this was one of only a few anime that Funimation was able to simuldub for Spring 2021, the high quality of Mars Red‘s English dub came as no surprise. ADR director Jad Saxton (Toilet Bound Hanako-kun, By the Grace of the Gods) and scriptwriter Jeramey Kraatz (Fruits Basket, SK8 the Infinity) both did an incredible job bringing the English dub to life. Some of the directing choices caught me off guard at first, such as giving Caitlin Glass’s Aoi Shirase a Mid-Atlantic accent, but the accent matched the character’s personality incredibly well. Aaron Dismuke (Suwa), Bryan Massey (Yamagami) and Chris Guerrero (Takeuchi) were all terrific as well, each allowing their characters to shine among the more layered performances present. However, the true scene stealers were Sean Schemmel as Maeda, Zach Aguilar as Kurusu and Ciaran Strange as Defrott. These three were easily the stars of the show and brought so much emotion to their performances. If it was not for their performances, I likely would not have been as invested in Mars Red‘s story as I was. Schemmel and Aguilar’s performances in the finale were especially amazing.

Mars Red is an incredibly directed unique fantasy epic whose writing couldn’t keep up with its visual spectacle. You can watch the entire series subbed and dubbed on Funimation.

Rating: 7.5/10

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