Darker Than Black Vol. 1
Darker Than Black introduces itself with five strong episodes.
In this sci-fi reality, a mysterious field appeared on the Japanese horizon ten years prior called ‘Hell’s Gate’. No one has any real idea on what it is, what it is for or why it appeared making information about it a hot commodity. All the Japanese could do was build a giant wall to shield the populace from looking at it. Also around this time new forms of psychics began to appear called Contractors along with passive mediums called Dolls. These psychics have special powers that can range from gravity manipulation to solid matter teleportation and beyond but in order to use these powers they must each individually pay a price that includes the loss of their conscience. This makes them into complete killers who are not afraid to kill anyone for any reason or no reason at all.
The story of Darker Than Black follows a number of different teams that all want to get more information about ‘Hell’s Gate’ for their own various reasons. The first group that the audience meets is the public safety division of the Japanese police force which handles matters concerning contractors and ‘Hell’s Gate’ led by a woman named Chief Kirihara. Next up is a mysterious group of contractors led by a man named Hei who lives undercover as Lei, a student from China.
Telling the story in short story arcs, the first volume of this series completes the first two arcs before closing out to the beginning of the third. In the first story arc, all of the characters are introduced as Hei moves into his new apartment under the guise of Lei the student. While there he meets his neighbor who works as a hostess and helps her get away from attackers one night. That night Hei starts to learn the story of her past and why people are now after her. Continuing his quest for answers, the second story arc focuses on Hei getting close to the daughter of a researcher. The researcher was the sole survivor from the initial team that was sent into ‘Hell’s Gate’ and now his daughter is showing signs of being a contractor herself but her powers are much worse.
In the start of the third story, MI6 agents capture a contractor named Havoc who has killed hundreds if not thousands. The intention is to study her along with the Japanese in order to use her to get more ‘Hell’s Gate’ data. Before this can even happen though leaks in the system allow her to be kidnapped once again.
Good and the Bad
Looking over all of the notes that I took while watching this volume, I know two things almost right away. This series takes a very long time to get its characters and story introduced. The first two episode story arc is one of the roughest that audiences will have to sit through but for once its almost not the series fault. The issue that this first story arc ran into is that there is so much information that the staff feels has to be introduced right away. The problem here is that there is also a very large amount of covert activity going on in this first story that it becomes a very confusing mess almost right away since it takes forever to really figure out who everyone is and who they work for.
By the end of episode two however, Darker Than Black finds its groove and never looks back. Animated by BONES and originally premiering in the spring of 2007, the animation in this series is crisp and clean throughout all five episodes. From the character designs to the battle scenes, the series always maintained a clear and sharp balance between its light and dark elements. Be wary though, this may be a very well animated series but it’s a blood fest to be sure. There will be explosions, bodies being cut apart, people will be burned alive, stabbed, shot, hearts ripped out, frozen alive and many more hideous deaths that I’m not even remembering.
The presentation of the contractors is a very interesting concept for the series and one that I haven’t seen presented in quite this way before. The idea that these are psychics who can have these absolutely phenomenal powers and yet only if they do some kind of ritual afterwards is unique. What I found the most interesting thing about it though is that the series never gives the audience a real clear way to tell who is and who isn’t a contractor. You can keep trying to guess all you want but eventually you’re just going to start assuming to everyone you see is a contractor in one way or another until you’re shown otherwise.
Beyond the complicated setup that the staff seems to muddle through, the story starts to move in a fairly slow but obviously forward manner. The short two episode story arcs are a really great way for this series to tell its story. The problem with that though is that Darker Than Black never sets up any kind of central theme for the series to focus around beyond ‘Hell’s Gate’ which while I admit has me curious, is just a little vague. This creates kind of a drag in terms of the storytelling which might bother some people who want their series to pick up into high gear much faster.
There wasn’t a lot about this series that I was deeply familiar with before I saw this first volume but the music was one of the things that I had known about for months. One of the most exciting things about this series is the names attached to the musical department. Starting with background music done by the legendary Yoko Kanno, the music in this series stands out constantly. Moving back and forth between beautiful orchestral pieces and strongly driving jazz beats for the battles, Kanno creates another musical score that would play well in any context.
Episode three has possibly the best example of this as the episode begins with almost no dialogue for over a minute. Despite all the times that this series likes to wallow in its own silence, this episode would’ve had the slowest introduction ever had it not been for the simple theme that played along with it.
The second name attached to the musical department was Rie Fu doing the first closing theme for the series. Titled ‘Tsukiakari’, the first theme is an even tempo pop song accompanied with the piano melodies Rie Fu is famous for. While the pop melody isn’t the perfect choice for the close of some of these episodes, the song itself is something that fans of her music will enjoy regardless.
Dub vs. Sub
Carrying the lead roles for the English cast were Jason Liebrecht as Hei and Kate Oxley as Kirihara. Kate puts in a very strong performance as the driven Kirihara and really commands the role well. Jason in the role of Hei managed to get through the first story arc sounding a little too smooth. Getting into the second story arc however, Jason really finds his groove and starts to settle into the dark role very well.
Perhaps the biggest surprise for me as a viewer was a cameo role done by Monica Rial in episode four. As always, hearing the veteran step in with a small role is always a pick me up for a series and the back and forth exchanges between Kate and Monica really come across well and lighten Kirihara up just enough to keep taking her seriously as a character. Very well placed for the series but just well done by the actors.
Beyond the clean animations and art gallery, there are a couple of extras on this first volume for fans to check out. The first is a commentary track on episode two. On the commentary track, dub actors Colleen Clinkenbeard (Chiaki) and Jason Liebrecht (Hei) step into the booth to give their thoughts and opinions on the episode and series. It seems like it is becoming rarer and rarer for dub actors to step into the booth and do a commentary and so this extra comes as a welcome addition. If you’ve ever wanted to hear what Jason sounds like when he is distracted by large anime breasts, you’ll want to check out this commentary.
The second extra to check out is the cast audition tapes. In total there are eleven auditions to view and include all the lead roles plus smaller roles such as Cherami Leigh (Mai), Colleen Clinkenbeard, Luci Christian (Havoc) and many others. The auditions are voice only and feature the actors giving about a minute of various pieces of dialogue. The auditions are interesting to check out if you are fans of any of the cast members but it would’ve been better if these were video clips instead of only audio.
Despite its very slow start, Darker Than Black finds its footing quickly and takes the audience on a very intense thrill for the first five episodes. Audience members who are willing to sit through a lot of dialogue and set up in order to get their explosions and fight scenes are going to find a great drama here. The psychological mind games that the characters play with each other is creating a suspenseful series that I’m curious to see more of. Recommended.