Darker Than Black: Volumes 3 & 4
There's nothing so infuriating as a delay. I exaggerate of course, as there are plenty of things more infuriating, injustice, losing a bet, noisy neighbours. But when it's Darker Than Black's second instalment, pushed back from September all the way to November, then perhaps a little hyperbole is justified. Volumes 1 & 2 almost, but didn't quite click with me, and I was hoping for a hasty fix of the next two volumes for another crack at it. In fact, I've had the review discs for quite a while now, but there's no point reviewing them months before release. It will just make the wait for the final instalment even more infuriating. In the meantime, Japan has started broadcasting the next series Darker Than Black: Gemini of the Meteor, and the wish that the world spin a lot faster on its axis becomes a fervent one.
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 next eight episodes of Darker Than Black across two discs, along with some extra features to appreciate.
11. When One Takes Back What Was Lost Within The Wall (Part 1)
12. When One Takes Back What Was Lost Within The Wall (Part 2)
The Syndicate has a new mission for Hei. He is to go inside Hell's Gate, and recover a meteor fragment. It's like walking into the lion's den for a Contractor, but the Syndicate supply a means of masking his abilities, and assure him that there are assets inside that he can make use of. On the way in, he meets an excitable young girl named Corrina, but following the security checks and indoctrination, he's surprised to see her personality change completely. That's the thing about Hell's Gate, reality just isn't stable inside, and truth depends on a person's own perspective. The legend is that a person can regain that which he has lost, as long as he is willing to pay an equal price. Hei finds help from an Indian researcher named Meena Kandaswamy, but is troubled by Meena's eagerness to play spy, especially when Corrina winds up murdered. More troubling is that the killer is a Contractor with the exact same abilities as Hei. But then Hei meets a kindred spirit, a researcher named Mike, who has a passion for astronomy. He offers to show Hei the stars, the real stars that were in the sky before the false stars took their place. It's when the research team send another drone into the Gate to search for the meteor fragment, that Hei's world is really shaken up. He's called as an observer, to offer another subjective reality for the researchers to factor into their data. For while the machines detect a meteor fragment, he sees his sister, Pai.
13. A Heart Unswaying On The Water's Surface (Part 1)
14. A Heart Unswaying On The Water's Surface (Part 2)
Hei's group has problems. There's a rival group in town that is after them, whether for information or to take them out is unclear, but one member of the syndicate has already died, so they have to be on their guard. They have big problems though, as one member of the rival group has the ability to find and capture observer spirits, and can also sift through dolls' minds for information, and early on his attention falls on Yin. When her observer spirit is taken, she begins behaving oddly, and loses touch with Hei and the others. At the same time, a man named Eelis Kastinen arrives in Japan, looking for a girl named Kirsi. He needs a private detective to help him look, and he turns to Gai Kurosawa. Years before, Kirsi was a precocious young girl who lived with her parents, and possessed a talent for the piano. Eelis was her piano teacher, and now that he's tracked her as far as Japan, he wants to take her home. Things are getting precarious for Hei, as with Yin missing, and a Contractor who can read Doll spirits on the loose, Huang bluntly states that Yin is now a liability. He orders Hei to find Yin and to kill her. Meanwhile, Yin is beginning to remember her past life. You've guessed it, Yin is Kirsi.
15. Memories of Betrayal in an Amber Smile (Part 1)
16. Memories of Betrayal in an Amber Smile (Part 2)
The MI6 operatives in Japan are taking it easy, relaxing after a hard day's work. April is out on the town, drinking a gaggle of hosts under the table at a Host Club, then moving on, unimpressed with their weak constitutions. Stepping outside however, she sees a familiar face, one she isn't expecting. She calls November 11, and hops into a taxi with a 'Follow that car' cliché on her lips. Except the taxi explodes. February, a.k.a. Amber, a double agent who worked for MI6 and the Syndicate is in town and that doesn't bode well. Soon all sorts of Contractor groups and spy rings are being attacked, it looks as if someone is trying to engineer a war between the CIA and MI6, and under cover of the mayhem, the Meteor Fragment is stolen. Hei is ordered to retrieve it, and as it happened while April was being detonated, the Syndicate suspects that MI6 stole it. MI6 have ordered November 11 to find and punish Amber, and seeing as she last worked for the Syndicate, he goes after Hei. It's one hell of a collision course. The fact is that Amber is now working for herself, has a new collection of Contractors at her side, and she has ominous plans for the city. It's portentous timing, as the sun is entering a Great Blackout Cycle, when a mass eruption of sunspots occurs. It's only been visible since the stars disappeared, and the last time it happened, Heaven's Gate, and a significant chunk of South America disappeared. It was also the last time that the Stargazer spoke; only now at the observatory, she's speaking again, with the same prophecy as last time.
17. A Love Song Sung From a Trash Heap (Part 1)
18. A Love Song Sung From a Trash Heap (Part 2)
Amber's group left the city, and they left an ominous message for Misaki Kirihara as well, and once again Misaki's focus lands on BK201, who always seems to be in the same area as Li Shengshun when weird stuff starts happening. Li a.k.a. Hei is on another mission though, keeping an eye on one of the Syndicate's smuggling pipelines through a restaurant owned by the Nakazawa Yakuza group. Hei's got a job there as a waiter, and when he clumsily dodges the attack of an obnoxious diner, he impresses small time gangster Kenji Sakurai. Kenji wants to learn some of Hei's kung fu, and he befriends him. However, Hei's more interested in Kenji's boss, Hitotsubashi, and Huang warns him not to get distracted. Distraction is inevitable, as Hitotsubashi has plans for his organisation, which includes assassinating his boss, and appropriating a certain piece of merchandise. He needs a gullible idiot to look after that merchandise without asking any questions, and he calls on Kenji to step up. That merchandise just happens to be a Doll. The unexpected happens, Kenji falls in love with the Doll, and he takes her and goes on the run. The only place he has to hide though is Hei's apartment.
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. From episode 15, there are new credits sequences for the show.
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.
There is an audio commentary to compliment episode 13, hosted by ADR director Zach Bolton, and with Brina Palencia (Yin), and John Swasey (Huang). I missed most of this being quite sleepy at the time, but from what I recall, it was a pretty standard Funimation commentary.
There are 13 character bios to read through, 10 pages in the settings gallery, showing off some line art, and the textless credits to round things off.
There is an audio commentary accompanying episode 16, with Laura Bailey (Amber) and Troy Baker (November 11). This time I stayed awake, and was entertained by a lively and enjoyable natter.
This disc gets 7 character bios to read through, 5 pages in the settings gallery, and the new textless credits (although labelled with the old titles) to conclude.
I was wary and a little hesitant when the first two discs of Darker Than Black turned up. I felt that there was something missing from the show, despite its excellent blend of story and action, its futuristic cyberpunk mystery, and the sense that this was what Heroes should have been. I couldn't quite commit to fully loving the show, as there was something about the episodic (actually bi-episodic) format that left me cold, a perceived lack of continuity or an absence of strong character development the most likely causes. Well, you can put those concerns to rest, as I have. Volumes 3 & 4 of Darker Than Black are stunning. They're brilliant. In the space of eight episodes this show has leapt to my Premier League of anime shows. Yet the fact of the matter is that the show hasn't significantly altered its modus operandi. It still delivers story in two episode chunks, and the continuity between the chunks is not all that extensive.
What has changed though is the nature of the stories being told, and the manner in which they are told. First, the show has started making use of the characters that have been introduced in earlier episodes. We have the return of the MI6 Contractor group that made such an impression in the first batch; we see more of Hei's neighbours in his apartment building, and the flamboyant detective Gai Kurosawa and his pop idol sidekick also return. The second thing is that the stories get more serious and portentous. Whereas the earlier stories were more about introducing these characters, painting the world that they live in, and giving as a look at this fantastic future, the stories in this set build on those foundations, and really give us more on the nature of Contractors and Dolls, tell us more about how this future world came to pass, and tell us more about what it means to the people who live in it. Third, and most important of all, we really get into the main characters of this show, begin to understand more about Hei and Yin, and we begin to notice changes in the characters as what they see and do affects them.
The first two-parter offers the most background we've had so far into this altered future world, as we are taken into Hell's Gate. Hei has to recover a Meteor Fragment from within, and winds up embroiled in a murder mystery. There's no explanation as to why things have changed, but there are hints as to how, and it all gets a bit quantum mechanical and bizarre. Just being inside the Gate has an odd effect on people, and reality seems more fluid, dependent on the observer. The eager young space cadet Meena, who despite her trepidation soon becomes enthralled with the spy business, first challenges Hei's cold aloof nature. It's when he meets Mike that things begin to change for him, as Mike is something of a kindred spirit, with a love of the stars, the stars as they were before Hell's Gate that is, and he also has a tragic past. It turns out that the two have more in common than either thought though. And the fluid nature of reality in Hell's Gate does more than anything to shake Hei's cool demeanour.
The next thing is to take a closer look at Dolls, as we learn about Yin's past. Of course there's no easy description of how Yin became practically autistic, but learning of her tragic past certainly indicates that she had a reason to escape. Whether the change in the world forced her to escape, or whether it is something she chose is left to interpretation, but this story makes clear that all evidence to the contrary, Dolls do retain something of their humanity, as Yin's memories are stirred when their Contractor group is targeted by the FSB. This episode also sows the seeds of discord between the members of Hei's group. Hei has never been an eager advocate of the Syndicate, and he's been more of a reluctant employee, while Huang's opinions of Contractors and Dolls has been vituperative to say the least. Now the Syndicate orders that Yin as a security risk be eliminated, and we get the sense that Hei isn't all too eager to follow orders. The same isn't true of Huang though, and he's the one who has to face up to some character growth in this story.
Relationships within the group deteriorate further when Amber comes to town. Five years previously Amber and Hei worked together in South America, when Heaven's Gate vanished. Oddly she is younger than she appears in Hei's memories, a teenager as opposed to a grown woman, but the explanation becomes clear in the chilling price that she must pay for her abilities. I opined in the previous volume that the price paid was more psychological than physical, but here for the first time is evidence that the price is certainly beyond the contractor's control, and certainly beyond rational explanation. Amber and Hei didn't part on good terms, their entire team was wiped out, and Hei's sister vanished. But while Amber doesn't have any malice towards Hei, the reverse is certainly not true, and he pursues her with an irrational obsession. If the previous story widened the rift between Huang and Hei, this almost shatters their working relationship, as Huang can't be sure of what Hei feels for Amber, and he's ordered to stop them from meeting. Of course the main thrust of the story is what Amber's Evening Primrose group has planned for Tokyo, and the mayhem she seeds by trying to set the CIA, MI6 and the Syndicate at each other's throats. This is a story full of omens and narrative weight, as well as character development, and it's fair to say that we will be seeing Amber again.
Not in this instalment though, as the final story seems to hark back to the more trivial stories of the first set, with its tale of Yakuza woe. Still, after three episodes relatively heavy on the drama, it's always good to have some comic relief, and with clownish Kenji Sakurai trying to be the next Marlon Brando, this story isn't short on chuckles. It is however a useful episode in marking just where we are on the character arcs. If you had considered Yin to be a special case, as her memories resurfaced in the second story, then this proves otherwise, as we meet another Doll, one who grabs Kenji's heart. This one is even more catatonic than Yin, only responding to orders, and unable to think or act for herself. Yet slowly something does develop between her and Kenji. Also, with Kenji insistent on befriending Hei, Hei is forced to socialise with his neighbours, and even Yin comments on the change in his personality. For all protestations of Contractors and Dolls not being human, the episodes in this collection slowly shift the emphasis to these characters' humanity, whether they are the bad guys or the heroes.
There are eight brilliant episodes in this set, four enthralling stories, and with this second instalment, Darker Than Black becomes everything that I was hoping it would be. I'm still not sold on the animation style, although the quality is excellent, and of course the music is absolutely peerless. But when it comes to story and characters, Darker Than Black is truly unmissable and compelling stuff. I had an absolute blast watching these two discs, and I'm begging Manga please, don't make me wait as long for the final two-disc set.