Darker Than Black: Volumes 1 & 2
Manga's distribution deal with Funimation means that there is some choice anime coming to the UK now, and pursuant to their value for money ethos, we are getting half season sets and two volume collections straight off the bat. It's a far cry from those days when we'd be lucky to get a four-episode volume of anime at full price, and those spaced at intervals of two or more months. I've already been surprised by the excellence that is Claymore this year, catering for the Manga speciality of blood, violence, demons and big swords. But this title, more in line with their cyberpunk heritage, is one that I have been fervently looking forward to, not least for the Yoko Kanno soundtrack that accompanies it. But that lengthy wait is still a sign that the anime industry still has some way to go. We may be getting our anime closer to our American cousins, indeed the year long wait is a thing of the past, and we're starting this Darker Than Black Series while the single volumes are still being released in the US. But Darker Than Black was recommended as the next big thing to me two years ago now, that's two years in which it has been watched and re-watched on fansub and download. It's taken two years for the show to be licensed, dubbed and released, and the likelihood is that those fansub fiends will have long since moved on to the next 'next big thing'. Fortunately, there are still collectors who prefer their anime on shiny discs, with dubs and extra features. Although I have to admit, I did jump the gun a bit last year, when Funimation previewed their latest acquisition, and put the first three episodes online. It did leave me with a pesky cliffhanger though, one that I can finally resolve now.
Ten years previously, the stars vanished from the sky, to be replaced with false stars. A massive wall appeared in Tokyo, enclosing an area soon to be known as Hell's Gate, and suddenly, there were Contractors in the world. Contractors are people with special abilities, superpowers, and they are somehow connected to the false stars. They are called Contractors as there is a price to be paid for their abilities, a contract that must be fulfilled, and it's different for each one. It may be a physical need, it may be a psychological compulsion, it may be benign or it may be debilitating, but it must be paid. At the same time Dolls appeared, soulless beings, linked to ambulatory spirits, through which they observe the world. It was decided that the world didn't need to know about this, despite the false stars and Hell's Gate, so it's useful that Hell's Gate yielded ME technology, which allows the erasure of memories, ensuring that the general populace know nothing about Contractors other than wild rumours. In the background of this world, a new super-powered arms race rages, a cold war fought by countries using Contractors. There are security forces ostensibly to keep an eye on Contractor activity in the city, special police such as Foreign Affairs Department 4 - Public Safety Division, although they usually have a hard time keeping up. A new star appears when a new Contract is made, and whenever a Contractor dies, a star falls from the heavens.
Darker Than Black tells the story of a Contractor team working for a mysterious syndicate. The two Contractors in the team are Hei, a masked figure who wears black, and is known as The Black Reaper. His ability is to use and control electricity. The other is Mao, whose ability is to jump between bodies, but since his original body was destroyed, he has been trapped in the form of a black cat. Yin is the Doll, the observer in the team who uses the medium of water for surveillance. Their human handler is a gruff sardonic man named Huang.
Manga Entertainment release the first ten episodes of Darker Than Black across two discs, along with some extra features to appreciate.
1. The Fallen Star of A Contract (Part 1)
2. The Fallen Star of A Contract (Part 2)
The police pursue a French Contractor named Louis across the rooftops of the city. They think they have him cornered when his eyes glow red, and he levitates away. His escape is short-lived, and painful, as the price of his contract is to break his own fingers. A masked man catches up to him, looking for a certain item. But when that item isn't forthcoming, all that is left for the police to find is Louis' corpse. There is a new Contractor in town, unknown to the police, but designated BK201. It's all tied up with the Chiaki Shimoda disappearance. She used to work as a researcher at Hell's Gate, but she vanished with some sensitive material. Now all sorts of Contractors are looking for her, and Misaki Kirihara of Department 4 would like to get to her first. Elsewhere in the city, a young Chinese exchange student named Li Shengshun is moving into an apartment run by a cantankerous old landlady. He gets introduced to his next-door neighbour, a rather nervous young woman named Haraguchi, but barely has enough time to say hello before she leaves. He makes more of an impression when he next runs into her. She's running from the police, while he's stargazing in the city park. When he helps her hide, he learns that she is actually Chiaki Shimoda, and that she has far bigger problems than just the police. Li offers to help, and soon they are fleeing through the city together. But Li is no ordinary exchange student. He's BK201, the Contractor Hei, and Chiaki has just what he is looking for. But their identities are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the lies surrounding this case.
3. A New Star Shines in the Dawn Sky (Part 1)
4. A New Star Shines in the Dawn Sky (Part 2)
Ten years previously, when Hell's Gate first appeared, a man named Tahara led a team into the area to investigate. The city streets were choked with a miasma, corpses lay piled in the streets, and he was the only one to survive, and in his panic, he chanced upon the sole living thing remaining, a purple iris like flower that appeared to glow from within. Ten years later, he's working for the same company where Hei is working part time, trying to avoid his past. His wife is dead, he's estranged from his daughter Mai, and all he has is in his office are shelves full of botanical texts and that odd iris. It was by a coincidence that Hei was delivering a message when Tahara's phone rang, and courtesy of his driving licence, he accompanied Tahara to Mai's school, where she awaited chastisement. Apparently she was found burning some trash behind a building, although she claimed that she found it aflame and was trying to put the fire out. It's not the sort of thing that will reconcile father and daughter, and she takes the first opportunity to bolt. Something about the girl intrigues Hei however, and he winds up spending time with her, getting to know her. Trouble is afoot though, there are new characters in town that want Tahara to come back and work for them in his original capacity, and when he isn't forthcoming, they decide to pressure his daughter instead. Suddenly she and Hei are running for their lives. They get separated, and Mai is cornered in a building site. Suddenly flames rise, and a new star is born in the sky.
5. Red Giant Over Eastern Europe (Part 1)
6. Red Giant Over Eastern Europe (Part 2)
Havoc is an ominous name for what looks like an unassuming red-haired girl, but people will kill to obtain her whereabouts. Among them are an MI6 Contractor team, trying to make a deal for information in a foggy European city, only to be double-crossed. But they do get the address of where Havoc is staying, and so it is that the three operatives escort Havoc to Japan, where the UN Pandora investigation team is waiting eagerly for her, to take her to Hell's Gate. Havoc is a Forfeiter, a Contractor that has lost her powers, but once she was the most powerful, most ruthless, most evil Contractor of them all, and left a trail of corpses behind her as she ravaged her way through South America. The rumours are that she was a CIA operative, but it's something that the CIA is quick to deny. Now in Japan, she passes into the custody of Department 4, and it's Misaki Kirihara's responsibility to see her safely transferred to the Pandora facility. But the MI6 team aren't exactly forthcoming with details, indeed they are playing a game of misdirection and bluff, expecting the CIA to try and snatch Havoc back. It isn't the CIA that want her though, it's Hei's syndicate who don't want Havoc going anywhere near Hell's Gate. As Hei does battle with the MI6 operatives, Huang snatches Havoc from the convoy of vehicles. But before things settle down, Hei vanishes with Havoc, snatching her from under his own team's noses. He has a past with Havoc, he knows her as Carmine, and he has two questions to ask her, "Where's Pai? Where's my sister?"
7. The Scent of Gardenias Lingers in the Summer Rain (Part 1)
8. The Scent of Gardenias Lingers in the Summer Rain (Part 2)
Gai Kurosawa is a private detective of the old school, with an eighty-a-day habit, a penchant for femmes fatale, and who believes that his life isn't complete without a moody narration. Which would be great if his assistant Kiko wasn't a full-fledged Japanese pop idol. It sort of kills the mood when your stalwart sidekick is wearing cat ears and acting cute. The next job walks in through the door, in classic femme fatale attire, a grieving widow with a prominent cleavage, who is willing to pay handsomely if someone will find her missing cat. The only problem is that Gai loathes cats. Over lunch, Kiki convinces him to give it a try, as the two pointedly ignore the young man who is demolishing a table full of food at the other side of the restaurant. Hei is in there investigating a series of bizarre suicides at a cosmetics company, one that looks as if it has a Contractor involved. Fiore Cosmetics is the firm, and the heir to that firm happens to be the grieving widow. When Gai visits her home for more information, his detective instincts light up when he sees Hei again, working for the widow in a part time job. But the widow points him to her husband's first wife as a suspect in the catnapping, and gives him her address. Meanwhile, Hei runs into the suspect in the suicides, and winds up being rescued by Mao. Apparently the suspect can jump bodies, just like Mao can, but unlike Mao, he can jump between humans, not just human to animal. Gai bumps into the killer as well, but gets away with getting their coats mixed up at a restaurant before he tries breaking into the suspected cat thief's mansion. He strikes it lucky, and finds the cat, but he wasn't expecting to find a corpse into the bargain.
9. The White Dress, Stained With the Girl's Dreams and Blood (Part 1)
10. The White Dress, Stained With the Girl's Dreams and Blood (Part 2)
There's a new Contractor in town, designated Messier Code VI952, who is currently leaving a trail of corpses behind him, all of them high-up officers in the Qing Long Tang Triad, ruled by hotelier Wang Shaotang. Misaki Kirihara is heading up the investigation, and is just about to find out who the mysterious Contractor is, when she becomes an eyewitness to his latest murder. Seeing her informer explode in front of her is one thing, but she manages to stay on the case by accepting a dinner invitation from her father, on the condition that they dine at Wang's hotel. Her father is insistent that she accepts a lucrative promotion being offered to her, and gets a safer, if more politically savvy position behind a desk. But Misaki is like a dog worrying at a bone, and when leaving the hotel she bumps into Alice, an old school friend, who also happens to be Wang's daughter. It's Alice's birthday, which makes it the ideal opportunity to get into Wang's private penthouse to take a look around. One of her officers is already there undercover. Saito is working as a waiter, alongside another waiter named Li Shengshun. But Alice has more serious matters to discuss with Misaki, as she wants to show her old friend the greenhouse atop the hotel, where glowing stone flowers grow, and produce a pollen that has a unique effect on bee stings, and she also has a secret; the identity of VI952. Of course it's not the sort of secret you'd be expected to hear and live to tell. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the hotel, VI952 is putting into motion a very bloody coup.
Once again, Manga Entertainment bring us a pretty attractive anime transfer. The 1.78:1 anamorphic image is clear and colourful throughout, with minimal NTSC-PAL conversion issues. The only real lack of smoothness is in the opening sequence, when the giant neon letters of the title scroll in every which direction, otherwise this is up with Claymore in terms of transfer quality. The animation comes via Studio BONES, the people behind Full Metal Alchemist and Wolf's Rain, so you won't be surprised at the quality here. Darker Than Black looks astoundingly well accomplished, solid, and with impressive characters, a well thought out and realised world design, and fluid, vivid action sequences that are just one step below theatrical quality.
If I do have an issue with the show, it's a minor, and probably personal one. I'm not too fond of the colour palette, which looks at odds with the emotional tone of the show. This is a mostly serious and for want of a better word, dark story, it explores some occasionally morbid themes, and the name is well deserved. However, the colour palette is bright, shiny and clean. There are plenty of primary colours, and the vivid clarity here wouldn't be amiss in a romantic comedy, or something a little more family friendly. With a title like Darker than Black, you'd be forgiven for expecting something, well dark. On the other hand, you don't miss any of the action because it's hard to make out or obscured.
You have a choice between DD 5.1 English and DD 2.0 Japanese, along with optional translated subtitles and a signs only track. The dub is pleasant enough, up to Funimation's usual standards when it comes to drama, and the surround sound is most appreciated for the action scenes. But guess what… It was the Japanese soundtrack for me again, and the stereo was nice enough alongside the original language. The big draw for me with this title is the Yoko Kanno soundtrack. The thing is, I didn't notice it at all. I was fixated on the story and the action, and the music just drifted by. A major reason for this is that in shows like Cowboy Bebop and Ghost In The Shell, Yoko Kanno used a lot of songs, and lots of 'big' music to emphasise action set pieces. In Darker Than Black, there are fewer vocal songs most certainly, but in terms of the music, it's a more traditional piece, with mostly instrumental music that supports or counterpoints what is happening on screen, but never stands above it, or appears overtly to be driving the emotional content. I had to go back and watch an episode again, this time ignoring the content and listening specifically for the music, and it is excellent, varied, imaginative, and sublime, just as you would expect from Yoko Kanno. It is another soundtrack CD to put on the list.
Both discs get static menus with the show's music playing, and there is the usual jacket picture for when the disc isn't spinning.
You'll find the audio commentary with episode 2 first and foremost. Colleen Clinkenbeard (Chiaka) joins Jason Liebrecht (Hei) for a light informal chat about the show, and what they like most about it. They like a lot of things as you'll find out, but heavy information laden commentaries aren't one of them. This is one of those light fluffy ones, which makes it easy to listen to.
You get about 7 minutes of cast auditions, 10 cast members to page through as they show off the skills that got them that particular gig.
There are 11 pages of character bios (including some whopping spoilers so watch the disc first), as well as 11 pages in a settings gallery. There is text here to go with the images to put it all in context.
The disc is completed with the textless credit sequences.
Here you get a commentary on episode 9. Chris Sabat (Saito), and Kate Oxley (Misaki) get together to record a rather dull, boring and irrelevant track, where not a lot of talking is done about the episode, but you do learn that Kate smells like crayons because she drives a Volkswagen.
There are 12 character bios to read through, 15 pages in the settings gallery, showing off some line art, and the textless credits to round things off.
Darker Than Black is entertaining, exciting, varied, well animated, has a stunning soundtrack, great characters, is sharply written and with excellent voice actor performances. So why am I sitting here feeling strangely ambivalent about it all? I can see just how good it is, would be a liar if I didn't say that I loved watching it, but for some reason I just can't build up the enthusiasm to rave about it at all. I find it to be good, but not great. But I can see how it can be viewed as the best thing since sliced bread. Perhaps a little bit of familiarity is breeding contempt. After all Darker Than Black is hardly covering virgin territory. There have been countless shows like this, characters with arcane abilities, secret societies, and cyberpunk mysteries. True, Darker Than Black does it better than any show I have seen before, and the production values are so high, the end result so entertaining, that it has to be considered the best of its genre. But in all that excellence, there is not much hint of originality. You may not have seen it done this well, but watch enough anime, and you'll know that it has been done before.
Mind you, there is a twist that makes this particular superhero tale gripping. I've read on one forum that this is the show that Heroes could have been just for this reason. In Darker Than Black, the use of superpowers demands that the wielder pay a price, and that price is unique to each person. A particularly nerve-jangling price is paid by the first Contractor we meet, a man who can control gravity, but who has to break his own fingers each time he does so. Fortunately the main character Hei simply has to stuff himself with food. But interestingly, it appears to be a psychological price, not an actual one. Hei isn't always eating, indicating that he has some measure of control, while the variety of prices paid is curious. One person is compelled to kill children and drink their blood; another simply has to fold the corner of every page in a book. It can be chilling, it can be funny, it can be trivial, it can be debilitating, but the concept of paying for your ability ensures that this show is more compelling than its genre-mates.
I also appreciate the show's format; that of two episode story arcs. It does put me in mind of the Manga Video boom of the nineties, when most of the anime we got in the UK came on videotape, and there were a fair number of shows that delivered their stories in 45-minute episodes. There's something about the longer format that allows for character development and deeper plots. Those days are gone, and 24 minutes for an episode appears to be the norm, and it certainly cuts the workload down on stressed animators. But this two-episode format is the best of both worlds, and I'm seeing more developed stories and interesting character arcs as a result.
But a curious side effect is that the overall continuity takes a knock. These five stories that play across the two discs seem quite standalone, and there's not a lot that goes from one tale to the next, aside from the central characters. The first story is very much an intro, although Chiaki is such an interesting character, and the rapport that builds up with Hei so interesting, that I did briefly hope that we'd see more of her. The second story did introduce a new Contractor though, and at the end of the episode, it seemed that Hei's syndicate did take her under their wing. It looked as if she would be part of the team from that point forward, but again, that hasn't occurred by the end of this set. Maybe Contractor training takes longer than I realised. Once again, the third story introduces a new set of characters in the MI6 team, and at the end of the story, they even receive orders to stay in Japan, to keep an eye on BK201 and his allies. Except we don't see them again in the following two stories. It looks as if a different writer develops each story, and there isn't a lot of communication occurring between them during the writing process.
There is a bit of continuity in the back-story. We do get hints of how this strange new world came to pass; indeed the earlier stories are dense with exposition. The false stars, Hell's Gate, and as we later learn Heaven's Gate as well, just what these powers are, and the strange technology that has arisen from the Gates, it's all being sketched out in the background, but it really needs one or two more specifically targeted stories, just like the third one in this set, to truly begin to flesh this world out. The preview at the end of the disc hints at just such a story to come in volume 3, so there may be stronger continuity and overall story development to come. Just don't expect it from this 2-disc set.
Character development isn't exactly at a premium then, with a large transient guest cast, and just a few central characters. Hei is the star of the show, and he's almost schizophrenic. As Li Shengshun, he's likable, friendly, a little insipid, all a perfect cover for the dangerous Contractor. But once he dons the long black coat and mask, he becomes lethal and ruthless, driven with a dark past, and never showing any quarter to his foes. His handler Huang is most interesting, working with Contractors despite loathing them for their inhumanity, while Yin is pretty faceless a non-entity, as befitting a soulless Doll. But there is the hint that something may lurk under the surface. Mao of course is an ingenious way to have a mascot character in a show as serious as this. He's a Contractor who possesses animal bodies, but got trapped in a cat when his human body was destroyed. It turns out that he's plugged into a computer server as the cat's brain isn't enough to host a human intellect, and when he sleeps, he has cat dreams. Outside the Syndicate team, the only really remarkable character is Misaki Kirihara, the police officer who works the Contractor cases in the city, and provides a human viewpoint on what occurs.
As for the five stories we get on these discs, the overall tone is bleak, although there are moments of humour in each. The first story is my favourite, not only because it overdoses the viewer with exposition, but also because it does so at a running pace. It's almost a classic tale of a man and a woman, thrown together against adversity, fleeing for their lives in the face of dreadful foes, and forging a bond because of it. It could be a forties film noir. It's cool, it's stylish, it's emotionally involving, and it's over far too quickly. The second story proceeds to paint something of the back-story of this world, filling in some of the blanks, as we take a look inside Hell's Gate, and the effect it had on the populace when it appeared. We learn more about the Contracts, the price that has to be paid, and what happens when a Contract isn't completed. A Moratorium results, an uncontrollable monster, and this is set against the terrible backdrop of a father, desperate to prevent the inevitable, and losing all that he has loved as a result. It gets even bleaker in the third story, as we get some much needed focus on Hei's character, as his past comes back to haunt him. We learn of the horrifyingly extreme prices that some Contractors must pay, when he runs into an old compatriot named Havoc. Havoc has forfeited her powers, but in order to learn the truth that he is desperate for, he forces Havoc to face her past, and risk becoming the monster she was once more. It's bound to end in tears, but it doesn't end the way that you expect.
Then comes the comedy tale, which after six episodes of bleakness you may be thankful for, but in reality just sticks out like a sore thumb in this series. This is the low point of the release, the deluded private detective hunting for a missing cat, while all the while some serious Contractor confrontations are occurring in the background, and the Detective and Hei keep crossing paths to humorous effect. I must admit that I was tickled by the absurd partnership between would be Sam Spade Gai Kurosawa, and his pop idol sidekick Kiki, but the story is not all that strong, and adds very little to the overall picture, other than giving us an insight into Mao's situation. We're back to serious mode for the final story, and it's one that offers much needed character development for Misaki Kirihara. We get to see her school days, and the events that shaped her as a police officer, as well as the start of a doomed friendship. This one has a Contractor with a seriously gruesome power, and the story is engaging and entertaining. But just like the previous one, it's hard to see where the events that happen here fit in with the bigger picture.
At this point, it's a case of wait and see. Wait and see if the overall picture becomes clearer, if greater continuity between stories develops, if we get more of the back story, and a better idea of the characters, the players, and the direction this series is going in. At this point I can't tell, but with the next release taking us past the halfway point, Darker Than Black doesn't have long in which to do it. I can take heart though, in the news that a second season has been commissioned in Japan. Only the really good shows get second seasons (he says ignoring Saiyuki).
I feel I have been harshly critical of Darker Than Black. Don't get me wrong, this is top-notch anime, high quality throughout, and as such, it's going to be one of Manga Entertainment's star elements in their autumn release schedule. It's just that with all the hype and word of mouth, I was expecting more. I was expecting another Claymore like epiphany, a show that gave me something I had never experienced before. Instead, Darker Than Black takes bits of shows that I have seen before, and presents it all better than any other show has so far. If you've seen as much anime as I, it's hard not to get jaded at familiarity. But if anime is something you're dipping your toes in, or just taking a few first tentative steps, then you have to see Darker Than Black. This show will blow you away!