Going into this episode cold, I spent half the time wondering what the heck was going on and why there was little to know animation, and the other half luxuriating in the atmosphere of its unrelentingly hard-boiled, war-torn art style. And I think, like most who watched this, the whole point was to not quite know what was going on, but to simply let it all wash over you.
I say this because a message at the very end explains what the heck was going on: this entire episode was an homage to the works of rarely-translated avant-garde cult cartoonist Tsuge Yoshiharu. From 1955 to 1987 he was active in the world of gekiga—the precursor to modern graphic novels about mature themes.
His most famous work is Screw Style, which on its face has a simple plot: a boy washes ashore with an artery in his arm severed by a jellyfish, and he wanders war-torn Japan searching for a doctor. The original story is based on a dream Tsuge had during a rooftop nap, which tracks: everything is surreal and dreamlike.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Oshii Mamoru was both inspired and influenced by Tsuge’s work. Oshii was 17 when Screw Story was first published in 1968, serving as an allegory for his disaffected postwar generation (Oshii was also born just six years after the atomic bombings).
In place of the WWII-era machines of war, there are B-2s in the sky and Type 16s on the ground, and later, a Nimitz-class in the sea. For the boy, Oshii inserts a topless Mitsugu, who is desperate not necessarily to save her life, but to save the precious blood which belongs to Mai from flowing out of her arm and going to waste.
The homage—and general strangeness—fits the style of Vlad Love like a glove. Indeed, for those who’d seen the gekiga style without knowing what it was, the series’ backgrounds have always been done in this style, albeit with lighter color palettes. As Oshii cycles through three other Tsuge stories, the rest of Vlad Love’s cast have cameos.
Mitsugu finally meets up with Mai at an inn, who serves her castor oil in water instead of sake (since Mitsugu is underage) and mentions a delinquent (Satoru) who comes by the inn every day to terrorize her.
Mitugu’s odyssey leads her to a gynecologist (Chihiro). It’s heavily implied they sleep together, and Chihiro repairs Mitsugu’s artery with a metal bolt and valve. Mitsugu and Mai sail off with the sun and wind at their backs.
As I said before, I wasn’t clear what was going on for most of this episode, but I still liked it. It’s not only evidence of Oshii’s love of Tsuge’s work, but also a sign of his complete and utter creative control, a rare thing indeed in any form of entertainment. Vlad Love itself would not exist if Oshii wasn’t Oshii, much like The Snyder Cut wouldn’t exist if Snyder wasn’t Snyder.
Speaking of which, The Snyder Cut is a far superior film to the grotesquely cynical vivisection that was the theatrical Whedon cut precisely because of the strength, clarity, and purity and commitment of the artist’s voice. His unmarred vision shines through in every frame, no matter how dark and muddy those frames get.
This singularly bizarre and beautiful episode of Vlad Love taught me about the existence of Tsuge Yoshiharu, Screw Style, and other gekiga works. And it did so while existing as a unique piece of art all its own, integrating its characters and themes with the decades-old classics to which it paid homage. But I’m glad Oshii saved the explanation for the end, so I wouldn’t be influenced by the episode’s context out of the gate.
Tsuge hasn’t published a comic in 33 years. Ours is a world in which all art is borrowed or embellished version of what came before—an ongoing conversation across time. It’s episodes like this that keep that conversation going, brining awareness to younger generations so that they can make their own contributions. No doubt the next episode of Vlad Love will move on to, as John Cleese said best, “something completely different.”