The thing with anything claiming to be a vampire action series these days is that there's already a series in that category that sets a very high standard for anyone else to follow: Hellsing Ultimate. Black Blood Brothers is the latest to try, so let's see how it shapes up…
What they say
It's been a decade since the sacred war between humans and vampires. The rise of the Kowloon Bloodline, a new breed of monsters bearing an infectious bite, set the streets ablaze under the reign of their king. Humanity had never witnessed such pure, animalistic brutality.
Today, Jiro travels with his younger brother Kotaro to the Special Zone, a place where vampires live freely in peace alongside humans, the troubles of the past long forgotten. But the brothers find themselves in the midst of a battle between human soldiers, vampiric refugees and the re-emergence of the Kowloon Children. Assisted by Mimiko, a negotiator between their species, Jiro will try to make sense of the chaos which surrounds them before they are caught up in it and destroyed. To protect those that he holds dear, the vampire will once more draw forth the Silver Blade.
Audio comes in both English and Japanese stereo for this release, and is neither anything special nor particularly disappointing – it's just "there". The show doesn't make heavy use of effects or background music, other than in the occasional action scenes – the show's emphasis is often more on dialogue. That comes across clean and clear, but with only limited use made of the soundstage there's not much to write home about. There were no apparent encoding issues.
Video is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, and looks pretty good all things considered. Perhaps surprisingly for a vampire series, most of the show takes place in daylight, and the Special Zone is portrayed as a bright and clean place. There's not a huge amount of detail put into the backgrounds, though. There were no obvious issues with the transfer.
No packaging was provided with our review copy.
Menus on all three discs follow the same simple layout – a static screen with an image of Jiro to one side (Jiro and Cassa on disc three), with options provided for Play All, Episodes, Setup and Extras. There are no transition animations, making the menus quick and easy to use.
The biggest extra here are the episode commentaries – all 12 episodes have their own commentary track, featuring the Japanese cast and crew giving their insights and little stories from the show's production. There's also a selection of TV spots for the show, and creditless versions of the opening and closing sequences.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review will contain spoilers)
10 years ago, Hong Kong fell victim to a horde of vampires, the Kowloon Children, with the city left a ruined wasteland after the attempts by the remaining humans & less bloodthirsty vampires to force them out. One of the fighters on that day was Jiro, a vampire whose life was turned upside down when his love was killed by the Kowloon Children and who thought of nothing but revenge, with the female vampire responsible being the main target of his anger. But the past is the past - now, a cargo ship heading for Yokohama is carrying a cargo that soon attracts the attention of the group in control of the Special Zone, an area set aside for vampires and humans to live with each other in peace. Jiro and his brother Kotaro are part of that cargo – but so are some surviving Kowloon Children. Is the Special Zone about to fall in the same way that Hong Kong did?
Jiro may carry a longsword and have a fearsome reputation – no-one earns the tag "kin-killer" without good reason, after all – but he's no Alucard, and Black Blood Brothers is no Hellsing. Whereas the latter goes for blood, gore and shock value, often at the expense of story, this series takes the opposite approach – it's trying to tell a story, with occasional violence included simply as a tool to do that. The problem is, the storytelling's not exactly great.
The first thing I thought after watching the opening episode was "whuh!?" - I simply had no idea what was going on. Sure, the episode was full of eyecandy and action, it was great fun to watch, but in story terms it was a mess - and that can't be a good thing, right? Then I started thinking about it, and piecing things together, and slowly everything began to fall into place. Now, the fact that I even thought about it should be a hint - you don't normally waste time thinking about terrible shows, other than thinking "why did I waste my time". The show had just completed a neat little trick: planting the seeds of a few ideas in my head, then sitting back and waiting for them to take root. In the hour or two after watching the episode, I went from "whuh!?" to "aah!" - almost - as a little light went on somewhere and things started making sense.
The series does some rather confusing hopping through time – the opening scenes of each episode (or opening half, in the case of episode one) all take place in the past, and set aside from the main story and considered on their own tell a tale in their own right. It's a tale that explains Jiro's origins and why he came to be the vampire he his today. Set alongside that, the main story deal with events in his past catching up with him again, as the battles of Hong Kong look set the happen again as the Kowloon Children infiltrate the Special Zone.
The Order Coffin Company control the special zone, and initially there's a little bit of confusion over what their role is, precisely. Provide a useful coffin ordering service? No. Impose their own form of order on those who may spend their days asleep in a coffin? More likely. If that's the case, though, they seem to have something of an identity crisis: why would the company that uses the Suppression Squad to keep vampires in check also need Compromisers like Mimiko to provide negotiation services, when their negotiations are more normally conducted at gunpoint? It just doesn't make sense, especially when you end up with a situation where employees of the same company are trying to both protect and kill Jiro and Kotaro, depending on their roles. The situation is clarified a little as the series goes on, but it highlights the show's biggest problem: it's never entirely clear what's going on or what the characters' motivations are, and that leaves the experience of watching it a little bit lacking.
The leads are watchable enough, at least. Jiro looks the part of a vampire, with his heavy coat, sunlight protection and elite fighting skills, while his unhappy past gives him a certain moodiness that fits him well. Kotaro is almost the complete opposite – funloving and carefree, he's very much not what you expect of a vampire, and he's great fun to watch. Completeing the lead trio is Mimiko, a Compromiser (negotiator, more accurately) for the Company who takes Jiro and Kotaro under her wing. She's another character who's fun to watch, but it's never really clear why she takes to the brothers as well as she does – she certainly goes to lengths for them that don't match what they've done for her.
On the dark side, the main person of interest is Cassa, who has had plenty of contact with Jiro in the past – both good and bad – and who really does fill the villain role well. She doesn't have much in the way of motivation to be the way she is – like the rest of the Kowloon Children, she's evil because that's her nature, nothing more – but sometimes the best villains are those who do evil just because they can, and Cassa certainly falls into that category.
There are other characters on both sides who make regular appearances – and a few shades of grey in between – but they don't play so much of a role. When the series does action, it's actually quite good. It doesn't have the visual flair or visceral nature of some other vampire shows, but it's perfectly competent as far as it goes and does entertain. The problem is with the way the plot is handled, which at times just leaves you confused, and at other times unfolds a little too slowly. It's also left with the hooks clearly in place for a second season that has yet to happen, so don't expect all your questions to be answered.
What it comes down to, then, is whether the characters can balance out the show's failings in the plot department. The answer: almost, but not quite. Black Blood Brothers does have its good points and there's plenty of it that's enjoyable enough to sit through, but there's also enough about it that's not quite right that you're left feeling a little underwhelmed at the end of it. One to try before you buy.
Japanese Language 2.0, English Language 2.0, English Subtitles, Commentary tracks for all 12 episodes, Original TV Spots, Textless Songs
Toshiba 37X3030DB 37" widescreen HDTV; Sony PS3 Blu-ray player (via HDMI, upscaled to 1080p); Acoustic Solutions DS-222 5.1 speaker system.