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Darker Than Black, Vol. 1
With the state of the anime industry such as it is, new releases just aren't quite as frequent as they used to be. The American licensors have consolidated and for the most part sales just aren't where they were a few years back. With that in mind, in order for a show to be released nowadays it has to be a success almost right off the bat. For the most part companies are focusing on the A+ titles, rather than experiment with niche shows and genres. When I first heard about Darker than Black, I thought it would fit the bill. The show made decent waves in Japan and garnered a nice amount of attention Stateside but after checking out the first volume I feel kind of torn.
Let's get one thing straight; Darker than Black is a cool show. It has some slick design, awesome action, a tough as nails attitude, and it has some mysterious science fiction elements galore. The problem is that the five episodes in the first installment don't really explain a whole lot and they feel as though they focused more on style rather than substance. With each episode I kept expecting some revelation about what's going on or insight into the characters, but it never came. I get that this is probably one of those shows that builds upon things as it moves forward, though this introductory volume was very tough to get into because of that.
Darker than Black takes place at a point in the future where, ten years prior, something known as Hell's Gate appeared over the world. There's no explanation at this point in the show for such an event, but basically all you need to know is that something blocked out the sky and replaced real stars with fake ones. These false stars are tied to beings known as Contractors, who are basically humans with superpowers and no moral compass to guide them. Contractors are fearsome weapons that are utilized by governments and, if that's not the case, tracked by the police. It's also worth noting that the fake stars twinkle whenever a corresponding Contractor is using their power.
In all honesty, writing that explanation confuses me even after watching five episodes of the show. Hopefully it will be explained further in coming volumes. What we do know is that the Contractors must perform an OCD-like task once they use their powers. One guy has to break his fingers, another has to eat flowers, and someone else has to fold the pages in a book. It's kind of strange and not really explained well enough, though you'll get the gist of what's going on after a while.
In the midst of this chaos is a group of people who seem to be working towards a common goal for whatever reason. There's Hei, who uses the alias of Li and pretends to be a Chinese national who enters Japan under the guise of being a Japanese exchange student. Joining Hei is a talking cat, some girl who watches people through water, and a creepy kind of guy with a big nose. Only Hei gets attention and development this time around, but considering he's a Contractor and they are heartless bastards with no sense of right or wrong, his development is stiff at best and his personality is rather dry. Hei is connected to the Messier Code BK-201 and during this installment we see a tracking police officer make reference to his star being active.
While there are five episodes in this first volume, it's worth noting that there are only two and a half storylines. Rather than present the show with an episodic format, the producers opted for two episodes to tell their stories with, at least that's how it is in the first installment. Maybe it will change in the coming ones, but for now it's nice to note there is a fair bit of room for each plot to breath. Despite that there's essentially no continuity between storylines, so one tale doesn't involved the other.
The first story introduces Hei and puts him on the trail of some woman who possesses something of interest. He works through gathered intelligence to get close to her and gain her trust. There are fascinating battles between Hei and some other Contractors and in between we get a few small breadcrumbs as far as details of the world are concerned. The biggest revelation here is how, even though Contractors are supposed to be heartless, Hei seems to retain some humanity. We don't get enough of a glimpse into his psyche to really understand what's going on and why he's doing what he's doing, but the first story served as a decent introduction to the world.
The second tale follows Hei as he gets close to a survivor of some incident back in the day. He's a recluse and his daughter has been exhibiting strange abilities, such as the power to make things spontaneously combust into flames. It would seem that she's an experiment of sorts and it's unclear what Hei wants with her, but his interest early on in the episode is quite certain. Of course there are some nice Contractor fights here as well, so if you're craving some action after the boring story you'll be quite pleased.
All around Darker than Black is an intriguing show with characters that will pique your interest and a premise that will keep you guessing. Unfortunately with this first installment there's simply too much guess work involved. We're not given a clear picture of what's going on, the characters are rather undeveloped, and the pacing feels somewhat skewed from what it should be. With no background on each of the stories the plots feel kind of awkward and the bits of action are nice, but ultimately feel like fluff. My advice would be to rent this first volume and wait to see how the rest of the series turns out.
Presented with an anamorphic widescreen transfer Darker than Black is a sharp looking slice of anime. The animation is fantastic, the colors are bold and utilized well, and all around the video quality of the production is quite sharp. Some blocking and grain crop up ever-so slightly now and again, but all around this is a solid looking picture with some fine details that will please the eyes. Though there are five episodes packed onto the disc, FUNimation kept the quality much smoother than we've seen from them in the past with like shows.
As you'd expect the included audio here comes in the form of Japanese 2.0 and English 5.1 selections. As far as dubbing quality is concerned I felt that both tracks performed reasonably well, with the original Japanese taking a slight nod in terms of superiority. On the technical side of things, the 5.1 English mix is much more robust and the action gets some nice display as the show promotes a better than average sense of immersion. Otherwise you can expect dialogue and such to come through the front channels with decent quality.
The first volume of Darker than Black offers the usual assortment of trailers, textless songs, and an art gallery for bonus features. Filling out the holes here is a nice selection of cast auditions and a commentary for the second episode. Both features were entertaining, if you appreciated the dub, and the commentary had a decent amount of insight behind the show despite the fact that it was mostly fluff.
The first volume of Darker than Black offers an intriguing, moody anime that unfortunately doesn't quite hit it out of the park. In the five episodes here, the plot just isn't revealed and the extremely brief descriptions of events will only leave you puzzled. The stories themselves were entertaining, the action was fantastic, and the production of this show all around deserves praise. However, until more is revealed about the Contractors, what Hell's Gate is, or what Hei is up to, the show will be an oddity. If you can just accept things for what they are and you don't need any explanation then you'll probably enjoy this more than I did. However, I think this show is more of a rental right now until we see more of it.