Thoughts on Castlevania

After a month of preparing to move and another month of actually moving, we’re finally (sort of) settled in our new place in Portland, and that means that I can get back to blogging!  The extended mental break has been really nice, as the predominant attitude about my blog has shifted from “ugh, I need to write something…” to “man, I really want to write something.”  It’s been a pleasant change, and with the sudden need for a new computer (my old one, which is approaching a decade of active use, decided somewhere in California that it doesn’t like most of the internet anymore) I’ve been really itching to get back to writing.  Fortunately, my replacement laptop (a lovely little Chromebook which has significantly stripped down functionality but an impressive battery life and low weight to make up for it) arrived in the mail today, and I’m raring to go (there’s also the teensy matter of a bunch of electronic chores I need to do that I was putting off until I got my computer, but that’s none of your concern).

So, the first thing that Rachael and I did after we got internet set up in our apartment was boot up Netflix and watch some television to pass the time while we await word on what’s going on with everything we own in the world (it’s a long story that deserves its own post).  We started off catching up on My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic because we apparently never finished watching Season Five a while back (the likely explanation is that Rachael was still in graduate school when we started it, and we stopped because she didn’t have time to enjoy it with me).  Following that, I decided I wanted to explore some of Netflix’s newer offerings while Rachael did some of her own work.  I had heard that there was an animated Castlevania series that had been developed for Netflix, and I admit I was curious.  I’m a longtime fan of the side-scrolling iterations of the series (ever since Symphony of the Night) and I have a passing familiarity with the lore, so I thought the animated series would be a fun indulgence.

Castlevania netflix titlecard.png

Castlevania title card. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

I didn’t realize the series was so short (it has only four twenty-three minute episodes in its first season), but given the quality of the animation (this was obviously a pretty expensive series to make) I don’t mind.  General impressions are that it’s a very “dudely” story (this is the word Rachael uses to describe stories that revolve almost exclusively around men and their feelings); it only contains two female characters, and one of them doesn’t survive the first half of the first episode.  If you are off put by stories that revel in manfeels, then this will not be a series to your liking.  Because the animation is so high quality, there level of gore is remarkably intense; people regularly get dismembered and maimed during action sequences, and there are no discretionary cutaways.  If you’re easily squicked, this is probably not the series for you.

Now, caveats aside, I really enjoyed Castlevania.  I was prepared to settle in for a thirteen episode saga of Trevor Belmont reluctantly setting out to defend Wallachia from Dracula’s monstrous hordes, and then was pleasantly surprised to see the story arc wrapped up neatly at the point where Trevor has assembled his allies, successfully defended a single city, and is ready to renew his family’s mission.  There’s plenty of ground left to cover in the course of this story, and I’m curious to see where it goes.

The single most intriguing thing about this version of Castlevania is its exploration of the intersection between faith, superstition, and scientific thought.  The games have always toyed with these motifs, but the side-scrolling platformer is not really a genre that lends itself well to especially deep storytelling.  I’m not too familiar with the plots of the early games, but I think the animated Castlevania is meant to be a retelling of Castlevania III, which is chronologically the first story in Castlevania lore.  The inciting incident here is the execution of Dracula’s wife, Lisa, a physician whom the Church accuses of witchcraft.  Lisa is the only human who isn’t afraid of Dracula’s supernatural powers, and her willingness to come to him for insight into how to be a better doctor marks her as the only good product of humanity he has ever encountered.  Her murder throws him into a rage, and in retaliation he assembles an army of demons from hell to wipe out humanity in Wallachia.  It’s the conflation that the Church priests (and the Bishop most specifically) make between science and supernatural knowledge that’s most fascinating here.  This world clearly has supernatural and magical elements; Dracula truly is immortal and possesses vast powers, but he and his son are also clearly skilled engineers; Dracula’s castle is filled with mechanical and electrical marvels that exist far outside the realm of human knowledge in the late fifteenth century.  Even Trevor, whose family specializes in fighting the supernatural, seems familiar with some of the same scientific concepts.

The equivocation that the Church priesthood makes between the supernatural and the scientific perhaps isn’t the most original of plot points, but I think it’s novel to the Castlevania series that it’s been so explicitly established here; tensions between the superstitious aspects of religious practice and carefully skeptical rationality of scientific thought have previously just been window dressing for a horror-inflected adventure story.  Serious grappling with the Christian Church’s history of trying to crush other avenues of knowledge as heretical or demonically influenced is a new one for the series.

I’ll be looking forward to seeing if another season gets made and where it intends to go with these ideas next.

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