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I predict that Darker than Black is going to be one of the "cool" shows this season -- the series clearly has high production values, an illustrious director, a Yoko Kanno soundtrack, pretty attractive characters, light but nice action and not bad OP/EDs either. Apparently, it's going all over the place in Japan. There is no doubt in my mind this will be licensed even before it's over. On a scale of dark though, I'd rate this a Gackt. My first impression of this is that it's got just enough gristle to keep me interested, but is probably a little too cool to be spectacular. I'm calling it my replacement Ghost Hunt.

The title translates into Darker than Black ~The Black Contractor~. Ten years ago, a dimension superimposed itself over at least two places worldwide. One of these places was Tokyo. The entire sky changed to reveal a completely different set of constellations that what was previously known. A new breed of humans appeared, called Contractors -- psychics with different specializations and lowered emotional responses. The "contract" in their name refers to the fact that every time they use their powers, they must make restitution with, we assume at this point, the Universe at large, by doing repetitive, almost autistic, actions -- anything from arranging rocks in a grid to eating flowers. Another similarity between all Contractors is that manifestations of their powers thus far have always been violent and prone to causing a lot of deaths. Stars also rise and fall in the new sky according to the appearance or death of Contractors.

This new breed quickly becomes the workhorse of intelligence agencies worldwide, resulting in a sort of spy vs. spy over information about Hell's Gate. Sometimes, the Contractors don't quite survive the manifestation of their powers intact, turning them into completely empty shells with no conscious, though they retain full use of their powers. These become Dolls, who act as surveillance units for the Contractors. In any case, the majority of the human race are sheltered from the truth about the Hell's Gate and Contractors, and agencies worldwide go to great lengths to keep it that way.

Our story opens with Hei (meaning "black"), a Contractor for the Organization (seriously, and alliances unknown) arriving in Tokyo. The Japanese police give him the codename BK201, corresponding to his star. Hei's power involves manipulating electricty, and his modus operandi involves throwing a cable (often attached to large knives) at enemies before electrocuting them. His team comprises of Yin, a Doll who can read the movements of others by communicating with bodies of water; Mao, a talking cat and Huang, a tough gumshoe-type who disperses the missions. Hei disguises himself as a Chinese exchange student named Li Shunsheng. His Li personality is that of a nice, well-adjusted young man, pretty much the ultimate Onii-chan character if you will. He's not a real looker, in fact, Hei's character seems to have been designed to look deliberately ineffectual, exactly the kind of person you wouldn't look twice at on the street. In fact, when faced with enemies while in the presence of targets, he fights like a normal person without any fighting skills would and nary a weapon in sight. I actually appreciated these aspects of his character a great deal. About time we had spies who weren't James Bond. Speaking of which...

His first mission in Tokyo had Hei tracking a runaway researcher on Hell's Gate with the goal of grabbing the information she intended to leak to the French government. The researcher was hiding out as a hostess, which had this been any other title might've meant a chance for cheap sex, but Hei's the ultimate Onii-chan character, so no go. Detective Kirihara Misaki (who drives a Porsche and is indeed very cute) and her team of investigators specializing in Contractor cases is also on the trail of the researcher, and becomes the first people to notice the appearance of BK201 in Tokyo. Episodes 1-2 covers Hei's escape with the target from French spies and the Japanese police.

Episodes 3-4 sees Hei discovering Kashiwagi Mai, a schoolgirl on the verge of turning into a Contractor, after originally following her father for his research. The Organization wants Mai, but Mai's volitability with regards to her powers is driving her to rampage through Tokyo burning and destroying everyone she meets. Things turn unexpectedly violent in Episode 4, with clear on-screen bisections painting the walls red, albeit for a few seconds. It's not End of Evangelion scale violence, and I insist that we're still being deprived of cheap sex (watch Episode 2 and argue with me if you like), but it was sudden, since all the fight scenes to this point were relatively stylized. Everyone's fear is that Mai is rapidly turning into a Doll, which would make her not nearly as useful. Hei genuinely seems to want to help her, though that means handing her over to the Organization to be trained as another Contractor. There's more running away from the police and a crime syndicate also after Mai's father.

Episode 5 starts off with a public health service environment about the horrible effects of second hand smoke, including the math. We're introduced to November 11, MI6 agent extraordinaire and charming weirdo. He's a Contractor, he has ice-based powers and his form of obeisance is smoking, badly, railing all the while against the dangers of second hand smoke. He's also a looker, he's got a bit of sexual tension going on with Detective Kirihara and that makes him interesting. His partner is April, a rather skankily-clad lady apparently modeled after Storm (the X-Man), complete with rain-pelting powers. She's a good foil for November 11, often going into battle to give him some pathway to freeze towards his enemies. Their Doll is July, a kid who resembles Oliver and reads people's movements by reading signboards along their path. Where November 11 despises smoking, April needs to down one can of Guiness after every use of her powers. Unlike her partner, she doesn't have any hang-ups about her health.

The MI6 are in Tokyo to facilitate the transport of an ex-Contractor into UN hands. Contractors who've lost their powers are apparently very rare, which makes the agent, Havoc, extremely valuable to government research facilities worldwide. Through this, we also discover some backstory -- the powers of Hell's Gate were the subject of at least one world war when they first appeared, and a sister gate in South America referred to as Heaven's Gate eventually collapsed. This caused some Contractors to lose their powers -- hence Havoc -- but in spite of UN-regulated peace processes, countries all over are still fighting for any scrap of research they can gain from the new dimension.

True enough, Hei shows up during the move and abducts Havoc. All's well and good, up until Hei abducts her again from his own HQ before she can be handed over to the Organization. The episode closes with him interrogating Havoc about the whereabouts of his sister, Pai.

The first 4 episodes are nice setups for Hei, his team and the Detective Kirahara's squad, but really not much else. The cases seem to run in two-episode arcs. Typically, Hei has to go undercover to save and wheedle information out of his target, who is always female. With his harmless, well-meaning personality, he often succeeds in this task, while letting out in brief spurts his entire hatred for Contractors and the fact they are lying murderers. After which, he does some lying and murdering himself. There's a hint of an idea that he's kinder than he looks. That's kept just in check enough for things to be amusing. The switch between his ideal Onii-chan personality and the colder Hei one is well done, but not necessarily disturbing. The implications of the lessened emotional responses are briefly demonstrated in Episodes 3-4 as we watch Mai go from a normal schoolgirl to a catatonic killing machine -- I thought that was nice enough, but still very "light". The bottomline is that this series seems to be scratching the surface of the potential of raising these characters as people just doing their jobs, which just happens to be a lot of death, looking good enough for the intended audience (mid to late teens, pretty much) and a little darker than the usual stuff, but this is seriously popcorn material in the long run.

The fifth episode hints at future potential for an interesting story, which is why I intend to stick this out. With the intrigue, the constant questions about Hell's Gate (for which the show has said virtually nothing, in spite of the things revolving around the subject) and again, the intrigue, I do believe this title has a lot of watchability to offer. There's a real spy vs. spy light going on, and the characters are likeable. The art is well worth the look. Someone clearly put money into this show. The animation's fluid and beautiful. Faces and facial expressions, while pretty, have a way of looking the same after a while though. Apart from the handful of main characters, it didn't really look like much effort when into giving each face a particularly distinct personality. I thought this a waste, since again, the art itself is beautiful, all rich lines and colours and lovely eyes.

Yoko Kanno's soundtrack is barely perceptible. It didn't really stand out for me. Lots of scenes sounded like in-game music. They did work to add to the ambience, but so far that I've heard, it's not great. The OP is catchy rock. The first time I heard it, I kept thinking there was something awfully familiar about the vocalist. He was pretty good, but just really familiar. Then I hit the credits and it's Abingdon Boys School and hey, TM Revolution. Brings back a few memories. It's catchy rock, which starts out really nice but fizzles in time for the credits to end. The ED is even catchier and lovelier, and it's by another familiar voice -- Rie Fu, whom some of us might remember from Bleach. As a tangent, I have heard the full version of the end theme, and the bit they cut for the TV version happens to be the best parts of the song. The full version is ponderously long.

And y'know, I am kind of looking forward to Episode 6. Because it looks like Hei's going to get himself a girl again, and there's these longing, murderous looks being exchanged...



( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 8th, 2007 06:29 pm (UTC)
I've seen the first 4 eps and like it so far. I'm waiting to see if they're going to explain what Hell's Gate really is or if it's just a mention background device that's talked about but never really explored.

Musicwise, the background music bits are serviceable (but only that.) I don't care at all for the OP or ED. Oh well. :o/
May. 8th, 2007 06:49 pm (UTC)
I think they will get around to explaining Hell's Gate, but then again, the director's been responsible for such things as Evangelion -- and there's a lot there they never explained. :/

Agreed about the music. Yoko Kanno gets OMG!Bebop! reactions, which would be good press if this gets licensed (and I still think there's a high chance it will be), but I didn't see anything in here that was really noteworthy. I'm still kind of hoping this season has at least one show whose soundtrack I genuinely like, including the OP/ED. But this season has such horrifying things like Romeo & Juliet in outer space and Les Miserables as done in shoujo. Scary stuff.
May. 8th, 2007 08:35 pm (UTC)
Nothing, nothing compares to her excellent work with Escaflowne. THe Cowboy Bebop soundtracks were good, mind you, but...
May. 9th, 2007 05:42 am (UTC)
I need to watch Escaflowne. Yes, yes, I know it's one of those things everybody should've watched by now, but I'd read these synopses and the plot would make my toes wrinkle and...

Two friends have said "Watch Escaflowne!", so, Escaflowne it is! ;)

(Did you get my email?)
May. 9th, 2007 05:49 am (UTC)
Escaflowne is a conflicted but good anime with the most amazing soundtrack ever.

It's worth seeing. The ending's a little disappointing, but I think they were going with not being expected.

I did get your email! I suck for not answering - commutting 1.4 hrs each way to class, and you wouldn't believe the crap that's happening...flat tires..you name it. Eesh. Will relate more tomorrow. Possibly at class.
May. 9th, 2007 07:03 am (UTC)
Hunting for torrents right now! :)

What sort of classes are you taking?
May. 9th, 2007 07:05 am (UTC)
NetApp training - for work. If you haven't heard of them from your CS days, (which is likely) they're basically gigantic file servers filled with disks, tuned for speed and reliability.

With their own set of arcane commands, naturally.
May. 9th, 2007 07:14 am (UTC)
And here I thought you'd picked up the flute or something. :)

At least, taking work-classes sounds like you're getting a little spare time. Relatively speaking.
May. 8th, 2007 07:09 pm (UTC)
*misses Lin*

*digs toe in dirt*

hello you!
May. 9th, 2007 05:43 am (UTC)
Hello you! :)
I got your musical score! I needed to respond! I am an evil person!

This Lin missing is mutual.
May. 9th, 2007 02:49 pm (UTC)
I'm glad the mail safely arrived to you. And you are not an evil person! I thought maybe I wigged you out by writing about cemetaries (maybe it was too goth even for you!). ;)
May. 24th, 2007 04:37 pm (UTC)
I'm not wigged out by cemeteries, especially not since my interest include reading up, whenever I can, about ancient tombs. :)

I'm not goth. I sweeeeear.
May. 29th, 2007 03:19 pm (UTC)
Are you sure? Really, really sure? :D
May. 29th, 2007 03:24 pm (UTC)
Really! People lie about my proclivities!
May. 9th, 2007 08:34 am (UTC)
ooh, looks very good! Love the animation I've seen in the previews. Thanks for letting us know about it. ^^
May. 9th, 2007 10:01 am (UTC)
The animation is as good as it looks in the previews. And you're welcome! :)
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )