Monday, December 24, 2012

Darker Than Black Season One Anime Review

Darker Than Black Season One
(Darker Than Black: The Black Contractor)
Complete Collection - 4 discs
625 mins. - 26 episodes (25 + 1 OVA)
$49.98 (2011)
$69.98 (2010)
$29.98 (2008-2009) Vol. 1-6/ea.
$39.98 (2008) Vol. 1 Starter Set
ISBN 704400074592
Japanese/English Audio - English Subtitles
Director - Tensai Okamura
Studio - Bones/Aniplex

Synopsis:  Ten years ago a section of Tokyo transformed into a horrifyingly unstable terrain where the laws of physics cannot be trusted and mysterious apparitions haunt the streets.  The site was dubbed Hell's Gate and a similar site manifested in South America was called Heaven's Gate.  When the Gates appeared the stars and moon were blocked out and replaced by a set of artificial stars.  These stars are linked to beings with strange powers called Contractors.  Each star represents one specific Contractor and glows brighter when their power is used.  In this way the activities of a Contractor can be monitored.  When the Contractor loses their life then the star falls from the sky.  A new star appears whenever another person gains powers.
Strange phenomena occur within the Gates
Contractors were once humans, but now follow a different set of rules.  They have incredible psychic powers including flight, power over the elements, body-switching, explosions and many more.  The power comes with a price as each 'contract' requires a 'payment' - something the Contractor is compelled to do after using their power.  The 'payments' are just as diverse as the powers of the Contractors.  They can include eating/drinking specific things, smoking, placing objects in a specific manner, self-inflicting pain on themselves/others, and many more.  A Contractor's 'payment' can be a curse or only a minor inconvenience, but the price must be paid or the Contractor will be adversely affected.
The mysterious Contractor assigned Messier Code BK-201
and codenamed 'The Black Reaper'
The governments of the world have kept the existence of Contractors a secret from the general public.  The Japanese government has surrounded Hell's Gate with a massive wall and a multi-national coalition called PANDORA (Physical Alteration Natural Deconstruction Organized Research Agency) studies the abnormal phenomena inside.  Contractors are completely rational beings and no longer capable of feeling regular human emotions.  They do not know loyalty or morals, but only a strong sense of self-preservation.  Many governments use Contractors as tools to perform espionage or assassinations.  Other groups calling themselves Syndicates also use Contractors, but operate secretly and often counter to government espionage agencies.
Unassuming foreign exchange student Li Shenshun arrives in Tokyo
around the same time BK-201 and the Black Reaper become active
In Tokyo the Public Security Bureau's Section 4 is charged with investigating crimes related to Contractors.  A mysterious, new Contractor nicknamed the Black Reaper has recently been sighted in Tokyo and seemingly involved in many covert ops.  Misaki Kirihara, the head of Section 4, has made it her personal mission to find the Reaper and bring him to justice.  An unassuming Chinese exchange student named Li rents a flat in Tokyo and works odd jobs to pay for school.  He is really the Contractor named Hei, 'The Black Reaper'.
Section-Chief Misaki Kirihara and Detective Yuusuke Saito
Hei works for a Syndicate in a small group with three other individuals:
  • Huang - a gruff older man who receives orders (i.e. missions) from the Syndicate and organizes the team's work.  He dislikes Contractors and considers them to be less than human
  • Mao - a black cat who can talk and is really a body-switching Contractor only able to possess animals.  His original, human body has been lost
  • Yin - an emotionless girl who is another Gate-related entity called a Doll.  She is a medium and can use water to send a spirit form for observational purposes.  Dolls are even less human than Contractors (although no 'payment' is required), essentially having no independent will and only acting on specific instructions
Huang, Yin, Hei, and Mao
Five years ago Heaven's Gate was the site of a massive conflict between Contractors and various governments before completely disappearing.  Hei's sister Pai disappeared in the conflict and he has made it his mission to find her.  He believes investigating Hell's Gate will give him clues to finding her, but dark secrets from his past and the Heaven's Gate conflict are slowly bubbling to the surface.  Why does he keep exhibiting remotely human emotions like compassion and sorrow when they should be beyond his caring?  Various espionage agencies like MI6, the CIA, and Public Security's Section 4 are increasingly present around the Gate.  What is the secret of the meteor fragments?  How does the infamous detective Gai Kurosawa fit into the picture?  Will Hei find his lost sister or will Misaki finally catch the deadly Black Reaper? 
Mao gets hassled by Li's landlady who hates cats
Pros: Great animation quality, nice action scenes, solid characters - especially Hei and Mao, the Contractors' powers and 'payments' are neat, awesome music put together by Yoko Kanno - the first opening theme (Howling by Abingdon Boys School) is now one of my all-time favorites  from an anime, story is perfect blend of suspense/action/comedy, very good dub, I liked how each mission/storyline lasted two episodes, high death count, some romance, this DVD set includes the OVA episode Beneath the Fully Bloomed Cherry Blossoms as the 26th episode (for you obsessive completists out there!)
Hei triggers his power during a fight
Cons: Plot was a bit confusing, certain characters are never fully explained, episodic nature can slow down overall story progression, no primary antagonist or foil, they switched the opening theme song from Howling to a different song halfway through the series
Yin tries on a smile
Mike Tells It Straight:  I kept thinking to myself as I watched Darker Than Black (aka DTB) - 'Why can't X-Men be this cool?  Mutants have superpowers, but it feels like the same stories are recycled over and over again.  Someone needs to break the status quo and bring something unexpected.'  DTB was a breath of fresh air among a cacophony of stale pop culture works.  It has a perfect mix of action, intrigue, comedy, and gravity like many other great, memorable shows.  I found myself looking forward to each new episode, but mostly it was the awesome opening theme song - Howling.  Seriously epic tune and put me in the ideal mood to enjoy DTB every time!
While being held by the Evening Primrose group, Mao worries
they've noticed he's not just a regular cat
The soundtrack was excellent thanks to Yoko Kanno - prolific anime soundtrack composer who worked on Macross Plus, Escaflowne, Cowboy Bebop, Wolf's Rain, and many more.  Visuals were top notch with two well-known studios working together - Bones (Wolf's Rain, Fullmetal Alchemist) and Aniplex (Fullmetal Alchemist, Blood+, Durarara!!).  Character designs were good and characterization definitely shined.  Hei was a cool customer, but he actually had a heart (contrary to how normal Contractors are supposed to behave).  I liked seeing the characters grow as the series progressed.
Hei takes a walk to get some ramen
I found the two-episode story arcs to be a nice change from other full-length series (i.e. 26-episodes) which tend to become episodic in the middle until the buildup to the series finale.  In DTB the first episode set up the story and players with resolution in the second episode.  Rinse and repeat for most of the series.  The only drawback - if you didn't like an arc then you were stuck with two episodes to trudge through.  Overall DTB was a great show and I recommend it highly.  It was serious, but had lots of humorous and touching moments to make you feel for the characters.  I'm looking forward to checking out the sequel.
"Just howling in the shadows!"

TO BUY and Recommendations: