Modernity, Militarism and Monsters in ‘Mars Red’

Joshua Adams
Otaku Tribune



Set in 1923 in the Taishō era Japan, Mars Red follows Yoshinobu Maeda, a colonel who heads secret unit (Code Zero) of vampires for the Japanese army.

In the anime series (which is based on based on a play by Bun-O Fujisawa), Maeda and his clandestine crew as they go on missions to apprehend vampires. The vampire soldiers under Maeda’s command are Tokuichi Yamagami, a gruff but secretly kind former classmate; Suwa, a stoic masked teenage assassin who is the oldest vampire in their group; Takeuchi, a quirky scientist; and Shutaro Kurusu, a rookie soldier who (un)luckily became the most powerful vampire in the Japanese Imperial Army.

Though all were lucky (or cursed, depending on your point of view) to not die — as only one in ten people survive the transformation — each was turned in a different way: both Yamagami and Kurusu were bitten in Siberia. Takeuchi became a vampire on accident when a vial of vampire blood was exposed to light and exploded into his eye. Suwa was tortured by a gang of vampires all biting him at the same time.

Each character’s backstory affects their opinion towards vampires and the mission they are tasked with: track down unregistered vampires, get them to co-operate or terminate them. Takeuchi is excited have an eternity to conduct scientific experiments and learn about vampires. Yamagami, the weakest in his team, feels out of his league but is bound by his duty to his fellow men. Kurusu struggles to reconcile the contradiction in trying to retain his humanity and accepting his tremendous abilities and new reality as a high-ranking vampire. Suwa is more than ready to kill any vampire that doesn’t comply. Maeda conveys a cold and militaristic demeanor to drown own his internal turmoil and ignore the ways in which his mission is not just political, but deeply personal.

The anime starts with Maeda’s commanding officer Ltg. Nakajima ordering Maeda to assess whether or not they can recruit a high-ranking vampire (the most powerful at this point) into Code Zero. The vampire is Misaki, an actress stuck in memory loop where she mostly speaks through lines from a play called Salomé. Later in Episode 1, we get inklings of lucidity — she comments on Maeda’s “cute” handwriting or when she breaks script and says “I’m leaving.” However, Misaki uses her superior abilities to break out of the highly secure military bunker to find Maeda, and evaporates in his arms upon sunrise. We later learn that Misaki is Nakajima’s daughter and Maeda’s fiancée.

The rest of the series is a combination of procedural drama and evolving conspiracy of military intrigue. The team is sent out to apprehend an increasing number of vampires, which they find out are being turned by a manufactured chemical concoction. They also keep tabs on Defrotts, a British child play actor living in Japan who turns out to be one of, if not the, most powerful vampires in the world and can conceal his presence from most other vampires. It is eventually revealed that Lt. Nakajima teamed up with Rufus Glenn to create a vampire army brandished with mechanical armor. Code Zero goes into hiding, as Japanese government officials seek to erase evidence of the secret unit.

Fast-forwarding through the plot, Maeda is dying from blood loss due to injuries from earthquake rubble and Defrotts saves his life by offering Maeda some of his blood. Maeda turns into a powerful vampire, but can’t remember much of his identity other than that he must kill vampires. The climax of the series is a fight between Kurusu and Maeda where Kurusu does the necessary but hard thing of killing his former commanding officer.

Aside from an intriguing plot, Mars Red was a layered work that touch on topics such as modernity and militarism. The Taishō era is a key backdrop in Mars Red and provides the epochal context for some of the anime’s themes, metaphors, and tropes.

With the imports of Western technology and culture, some in Japan saw an increasing foreign influence as invading the identity of Japan. This era was “characterized in foreign affairs by policies congenial to Western powers, especially to Great Britain and the United States.” According to BBC, the late 1920s marked a rise in extreme nationalism. The world economic depression sparked an emphasis “on a preservation of traditional Japanese values, and a rejection of ‘Western’ influence.”

Here we see the metaphorical work that vampires are doing — the monstrous Other infiltrating and taking hold of the country. Japanese bourgeoisie wear Western style clothing and go to plays by Shakespeare. Aoi Shirase, a journalist following the story of “human combustion” (which we learn is just vampires evaporating in the sun) writes for a newspaper geared towards “trend-chasing modern girls.” Defrotts could destroy the whole country if he felt like it. This metaphor is even literally embodied through Glenn who wants to use the vampire army to make Japan his personal feeding grounds.

Mars Red also is an allegory for the tendency of militarism leading to arms races. Through the series, we are shown implicitly or explicitly that the Japanese Imperial Army is doing all of this in order to have a stronger army than England and others in the West. Military officials are willing to turn a blind eye on human experimentation. Maeda and Nakajima out their feelings towards their fiancée and daughter, respectively, for what they feel is for the good of the country. But in may ways, both became the monsters they were fighting against — one literally, the other morally.

The series asks some complex questions about Japan in the Taishō and relate eras. How had the industrial revolution, modern technology, and Western influences changed Japan? Were these changes always good, or were they deleterious? Since 90 percent of people bitten by vampires die, were the benefits of these changes only experiences by a small minority, while (like the victims that vampires ate for sustenance) the drawbacks experienced by the majority? What are you willing to give up in order to protect your country? Is there a moral obligation to become a monster in order to fight a monster? At what point does an empire’s greatest strength become its greatest weakness?

“MARS RED depicts vampires not as conventionally powerful monsters, but as vulnerable people in society,” said Fujisawa in an interview with Anime News Network. “There’s a theme that humans and vampires alike possess both strengths and weaknesses, so I think that essence is very important to the anime.”

Though it is still an enjoyable watch, Mars Red tackled some very deep, macro issues without being preachy or pedantic. Even when addressing bigger issues, the characters in Mars Red maintain their humanity and three-dimensionality.



Joshua Adams
Otaku Tribune

Joshua Adams is a writer from Chicago. UVA & USC. Assistant Professor at Columbia College Chicago. Twitter: @ProfJoshuaA