Review for Darker Than Black: Gemini of the Meteor
It's been my observation that lightning rarely strikes twice in the entertainment industry. You may manage to bottle magic once, mostly through sheer good luck, coincidence and random factors, but if you try and replicate the feat through design, you either fail, or you over-egg the pudding. Sometimes the result is only a minor disappointment compared to the original, sometimes it's utterly deflating. You see it happen again and again, in movies like The Matrix and its sequels, Star Wars and its prequels, and the Terminator movies. On TV there was the Muppet Show and then Muppets Tonight, the continuing attempts to resurrect Charlie's Angels, and so on and so forth. It's no less true for anime, and another observation is that the bigger the hit the first time around, the greater the decline with its sequel. On top of that, the bigger the hit, the more people want a sequel, despite knowing how most sequels turn out. Manga Entertainment's release of Darker Than Black a few years ago introduced the UK fanbase to one of the smartest, action packed anime shows in recent memory, the show that Heroes could have been. It was a world of superheroes called Contractors, where powers always came with a price, and where nation states employ these Contractors to act clandestinely against each other. It was the best thing since sliced bread.
Of course everyone wanted another loaf. It's now here, after a delay or two. We in the UK can now see what happens next, in Darker Than Black: Gemini of the Meteor, as the 12 episode series comes to UK DVD. There was supposed to be a concurrent Blu-ray release, but that has been indefinitely delayed, dependent on the performance of the DVDs. That's disappointment one. Disappointment two is that Yoko Kanno doesn't return to compose the music for the sequel. Even still, knowing what I do about hits and their subsequent sequels, I'm still here, grasping these discs with a combination of eagerness and dread, praying that this time at least, lightning will strike twice. I guess that makes me a sucker for punishment. Incidentally, I know that most of you have been eagerly awaiting Gemini of the Meteor as much as I have, but the first thing you need to do when you get this collection is to put the two series discs to one side, and go for disc 3 instead. That contains the Darker Than Black OVAs, 4 episodes that bridge Seasons 1 and 2, and explain a whole lot about the characters in Gemini of the Meteor that would otherwise have you scratching your head.
When Hei's Contractor team got caught in the middle, as the EPR and the Syndicate battled for the fate of the world in Hell's Gate in Tokyo, twin brother and sister Suo and Shion Pavlichenko were relaxing with their research scientist father, camping in Siberia. It was when the false stars began to fall that their world changed, as one of the stars fell right where they were camping. Two years later, for Suo Pavlichenko the world is destined to change again. She is a normal school girl, albeit one with an unconventional family. The day the stars fell was the day that Shion became a Contractor, but their father has kept him hidden away since then, confined to a wheelchair as he continues to pay his price, the price that all contractors must pay for their abilities. And even as the world has learned of the existence of Contractors, the need to control them still exists, and Suo's father's research involves the ME techniques that erase memories.
It's when one of Suo's school friends suddenly exhibits Contractor abilities that her world falls apart again. The authorities need to control the situation, and that leads them to investigate Suo's family, realising her brother's existence, and it turns out that a whole lot of people, the Russians, the CIA, MI6, and what remains of the Syndicate are interested in Shion and a 'meteor's shard'. She gets back home just in time for a raid by the various factions. Her brother has vanished, although his voice lingers long enough to help her escape. Her father is killed, and she witnesses The Black Reaper who she assumes is responsible. That's nothing compared to the changes in her life when that dark figure captures her, mistaking her for her brother. Hei has changed, and changed for the worse in the two years since Hell's Gate, and he's single-minded about his missions. He wants Shion and he'll use his sister to get to him. This means getting to Tokyo. It means finding and destroying a package called Izanami, and it means a very personal mission of vengeance, as Hei has someone that he just has to kill. It also means training Suo as a Contractor, as the change has come upon her as well.
Manga Entertainment present twelve episodes of Darker Than Black: Gemini of the Meteor across two discs. The third disc contains the 4-episode prequel series.
1. Black Cats Do Not Dream Of Stars
2. Fallen Meteor
3. Vanishing in a Sea of Ice
4. The Ark Adrift on the Lake
5. Gunsmoke Blows, Life Flows
6. An Aroma Sweet, A Heart Bitter
7. The Doll Sings in the Winter Wind
8. Twinkling Sun on a Summer Day
9. They Met One Day, Unexpectedly
10. Your Smile on a False Street Corner
11. The Sea Floor Dries Up, And The Moon Grows Full
12. Ark of Stars
For the second series of Darker Than Black, we get that really very pleasant trend of sourcing native PAL transfers for the show via Australia, as opposed to the earlier season's standards converted effort. The absence of ghosting and judder is very welcome, and Studio Bones' animation maintains the high quality set by the first series, with memorable character designs, strong world designs, and a consistency and quality in animation that is barely a notch below theatrical quality. Some of the action sequences in the show, especially in the OVA are jaw-droppingly intense enough to warrant skipping back and watching them over again. As always for modern television anime, the aspect ratio on these discs is 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, and looks pretty nifty scaled up to an HD panel. I didn't notice any significant colour banding or compression artefacts, and detail levels were good throughout. It's hard to tell what a Blu-ray could add to that other than reduced compression, greater depth of colour, and the correct frame rate.
Just as before, Darker than Black: Gemini of the Meteor gets audio options in DD 5.1 English and DD 2.0 Japanese flavour, with optional subtitles and a signs only track. I was more than happy with the original language track, despite the stereo, the actors were suited to their parts, and the action was represented well. I only sampled the English dub, and I may have chosen the wrong bit to sample, as I thought that the dub didn't quite match what had come before, didn't quite seem to capture the dramatic intensity of the story. Surprisingly the absence of Yoko Kanno wasn't felt, as the sequel series gets some appropriate theme songs, while the incidental music really drives the pace of the show well, as well as having enough individual identity to it to make it stand out as a show's score. It's good stuff. The subtitles are legible, free of error, and correctly timed throughout.
The discs get static menus and jacket pictures.
Disc 1 gets an audio commentary to accompany episode 4. ADR director Zach Bolton joins the voice actors for Suo (Alison Viktorin), and Misaki (Kate Oxley) to chat about the show. It's pretty much par for the course for such tracks, a bit about the ADR process, and the differences between season 1 and season 2.
Disc 2 gets the textless credit sequences.
Disc 3 is wholly given over to extra features, if you can call the 4 OVA episodes that run to 93 minutes extras.
Following the events of Hell's Gate in Tokyo, Hei and Yin are on the run, trying to evade what remains of the Syndicate for which they once worked. It's an almost constant race to stay one step ahead of the assassins that want them both dead, but there is occasionally enough time to find some sort of peace, and for Hei to reconnect with his humanity. His feelings for Yin as he resolves to protect her become more complex, but he's not the only one who's changing. Yin was originally just a soulless doll, a mere vessel for an Observer Spirit, but slowly and surely her humanity is beginning to emerge, she's beginning to act of her own volition, and her emotions are beginning to resurface. She's far more than just an ordinary doll, she's beginning to evolve, and that is attracting the attention of more than just the Syndicate. It's becoming something of a new Contractor arms race as various factions pursue Hei and Yin, spurred on by a curious prophesy made 50 years ago indicating that what Yin is becoming may just change the world. It's something most would kill to prevent, but there are some out there who want to accelerate Yin's evolution.
You also get a commentary with the OVA Episode 1, with Brina Palencia (Yin), and Jason Liebrecht (Hei), joining ADR director Zach Bolton to have an informal chat about the show and a bit of a giggle, as they discuss the difficulty of saying 'Hei' without it sounding like 'Hey'. Beware of some bleeped profanity.
It turns out that lightning can, and does indeed strike twice, although in the case of Darker Than Black, the aim is slightly shifted, and it's not exactly the same kind of lightning. It took a little while for me to get used to the new way of doing things, but in the end, I really enjoyed Darker Than Black: Gemini of the Meteor, and in some ways, I enjoyed it even more than the first series. I did have to make something of a mental shift to appreciate it though. Fans coming to the second series after watching the first merely expecting more of the same will be in for quite a shock, although watching the four episode OVA series first does go some way to easing the transition.
The OVA series also does spoil a couple of major plot developments in Gemini of the Meteor, although nowhere near all of them. If you can approach the second series with an open mind, and realise that this is nothing like the original Darker Than Black, it may be worth watching it prior to the OVA episodes, just to get the full impact. But you will be adrift without a paddle for at least half the episodes, just trying to figure out what is going on, and why the characters are the way they are.
The first thing to understand is that Gemini of the Meteor is one single serial story, told over twelve episodes, as opposed to the season one format of two-episode arcs. The second thing to understand is that this is set two years after the end of the previous series, and the characters are in a completely different place than before. Hei in particular is in a very dark place in his personal life, having lost touch with all that kept him grounded, and no longer part of the Syndicate. He now works freelance, and is pursuing a mission of vengeance of his own. Enigmatic and untrusting as he once was, now he's a shell of a man. As a Contractor his price for his powers was lots and lots of food, but now he's solely fuelled by alcohol, and treats those he encounters with brutality and an utter lack of mercy. I was going to use the phrase Darker than Darker than Black, but since it's mentioned in the audio commentary, I'll avoid the temptation.
The most important thing to realise is that this isn't primarily Hei's story, or indeed a direct continuation of what happened in Darker Than Black, although these things are covered in due course. Gemini of the Meteor is primarily Suo Pavlichenko's story, an unsuspecting young girl from Russia of mixed parentage, who gets thrown into a completely unexpected adventure, and the story is told from her point of view. The only thing she initially knows about the world of Contractors and Dolls, is that her father researches ME, the memory suppression technology that was used in the first series to keep the existence of Contractors secret. The story begins at the same time as the first series ends, with a falling star impact turning her world upside down, and her twin brother into a Contractor.
The consequences of that event only make themselves felt two years later, when events prophesied fifty years earlier begin to pass, and Suo's family turns out to be at the heart of the ominous portent. Various factions, including the Russian authorities, the CIA, MI6, and what replaced the Syndicate in Japan converge on her father's lab, all hunting for her brother Shion. In the chaotic raid, her father is killed, her brother vanishes, and she winds up as a captive of the man who killed her father, Hei. Except things get even more complicated when she manifests contractor powers herself.
The one notable trait of Contractors is their emotionless pragmatism. Suo has a clue to Shion's destination in Tokyo, and she realises that with the various factions hunting her, mistaking her for her brother, she'll need help getting there. Hei realises that as long as they think Suo is her brother, he holds a trump card, and that she's instrumental in him fulfilling his own personal mission. So the drunk, brutal, grizzled and jaded Contractor becomes mentor to the young, newly emerged Suo. He begins training her as an assassin as they try and make their way to Japan. It's a wonderful relationship to watch develop, as in his company, Suo begins to grow in maturity, strength and independence, while she helps Hei reconnect with his usually tenuous grip on humanity.
All this time, the various factions are pursuing them, and among them is investigator Misaki Kirihara, still obsessed with BK201, even though her employers have long since given up the case and transferred her to a more pragmatic police division. She winds up making a deal with the devil to pursue her obsession, although as usual, the cost of such a deal only becomes clear far too late. While there are plenty of new characters this time around, there are some familiar characters from before, including at least one that I had no expectation of seeing again, as well as some delightful cameos. There is certainly a lot here to tantalise the tastebuds of any fan of the first series, despite the focus on Suo, and the radically different storytelling format.
Best of all is the elusive nature of the story, it twists and turns and offers revelation upon surprise upon shock, never letting up with the drama. Fortunately it also remains true to its own rules and framework, so nothing really comes out of left field. It's an edge of the seat thrill ride from beginning to end. Also, despite its significantly darker tone this time around, there is also enough of Darker Than Black's trademark dry humour to contrast the bleakness.
There are one or two flaws, or rather annoyances to pick at. One of the plot threads seems lifted from Ghostbusters… a.k.a. not letting the Keymaster and Gatekeeper get together. I'm still on the fence about the ending of the show, it's big, it's fantastic, and it's out there. I think it's a little too out there even for me, but in terms of Suo's story it does work. Personally I was a little disappointed at the lack of resolution for Misaki. All that investigating doesn't seem to yield that much satisfaction, especially for this viewer. But by far and large my biggest bugbear was Suo's Contractor power. Up to this point, the world of Contractor powers has been really elemental, fundamental abilities, whether they are telepathic, or something more tangible. Hei's abilities with electricity, Amber's manipulation of time, Mao's body swapping, it's all about basic forces and connections, never anything elaborate or specifically defined. And then comes Suo and her ability is to materialise a very specific anti-tank rifle from her body and shoot that. It looks great animated, but stands out of context with every other power that we have seen in Darker Than Black.
You know that a series has to be good when I'm reduced to picking nits as small as that one to find something to criticise. Darker Than Black: Gemini of the Meteor is very good, and with the OVA episodes that tell of Hei and Yin's escape from the Syndicate following Season 1, it turns into quite the perfect package. Best of all, it leaves you wanting more, hoping that Studio Bones will see fit to create a third series of Darker Than Black. Manga Entertainment exits 2012 on quite the high note with the release of this series. It's perfect to spend that Christmas gift money on come Boxing Day.