Darker Than Black Vol. #2 (of 6) (Mania.com)

By:Chris Beveridge
Review Date: Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Release Date: Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The way Contractor’s operate is explored a little more as the foundations become clearer through less than straightforward stories.

What They Say
A new and deadly breed of covert agent walks the streets. Known as Contractors, these assassins and spies wield bizarre supernatural powers to carry out the dirty work of others. One among these operatives is more mysterious than the rest: the masked killer BK201, the Black Reaper.

Kirihara watches with frustration as the violent rogue boldly makes his mark on the turf she's supposed to protect, from the blood-soaked gutter to the artificial stars high above Tokyo. The cop may feel helpless to catch anything but his aftermath, but Kirihara has never been one to give up. And the Black Reaper is much closer than she could possibly know.

Contains episodes 6-10.

The Review!
Audio:
FUNimation has worked through a rather good audio mix for this release as it has an English 5.1 mix at 448kbps as well as the original Japanese stereo mix at 192kbps. Both tracks offer up a good sounding piece overall, though obviously the 5.1 mix comes across stronger with its clearer sound and better placement. The show tends to be rather quiet and subdued for the most part, but when the action hits or the music take on a more prominent role, it’s far more active and appealing. The opening and closing sequences is where the music shines the most but the action sequences along the way rise up pretty well also. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout and we didn’t have any problems with dropouts or distortions during regular playback of either language track.

Video:
Originally airing in 2007, the transfer for this TV series is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and is enhanced for anamorphic playback. The series has a very polished and fluid look to it that really comes across beautifully here, though not without a few minor problems here and there. The transfer does a solid job of capturing the beauty of the source material with its rich color palette, deep blacks and the many shadows that these characters move throughout. There’s nary a hint of cross coloration nor any seriously noticeable blocking and only a bit of minor aliasing during some panning sequences. The area that’s problematic at times is that there’s a good bit of background noise in various scenes because of the colors that are used, such as the deep greens for streets cast in hazy lights at night. It’s certainly not distracting or truly problematic, but it’s noticeable depending on the size of your viewing screen.

Packaging:
The cover design for this volume is rather understated in a way, but also quite catchy because of the use of the silver foil for the background. The single image here is of Misaki with her hair whipping around her as she looks calmly at a situation. The greenish blue used for her coat, which is closely tied to both her hair and her glasses, is really quite striking when contrasted with the silver. With a very simple and small logo in the center done up in white, it’s almost like it’s calling attention to itself by not calling attention to itself. The back cover is a bit more engaging as it uses the silver foil to highlight various accents such as the city landscape. There’s a good deal of black space used to provide the summary of the premise of the series without giving much away. The episode numbers and titles are listed, as well as which part of the story arc they belong to, along with a clean listing of the discs extras. Add in the basic small hard to read production information and the technical grid and you’ve got a decent looking cover here. Strangely, they used a clear keepcase for this but haven’t provided for a reverse side cover, instead leaving it white. No show related inserts were included either.

Menu:
The anamorphic menu for this release is really nicely done with its layout and design. With a dark grey concrete feeling to the borders, which also has a pair of weapons on each side, it lets the central piece work through a couple of specific images moving very slowly. The looming one on top is that of Misaki with a very serious look to her face. Behind her and visible through him is a still of the cold city itself, lights shining but still filled with darkness. The combination of the two visuals with the very atmospheric music really sets the stage perfectly and creates a sense of foreboding. The navigation strip along the bottom is easy to navigate and submenus load quickly. The discs unfortunate didn’t read our players’ language presets and defaulted to English language.

Extras:
The opening volume has some good extras to it and some real effort put forth. The big one for dub fans is the inclusion of a commentary track for the ninth episode. The production artwork section is really nice as it runs through a character bios section with a bit more text than usual, but also a settings section that provides a good amount of text alongside each of the images. Add in the clean opening and closing sequences and you’ve got a nice bit of material to work through.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
After an intriguing first volume, Darker Than Black spends its next five episodes with more of the same. The exploration of how the world works with contractors, the way abilities work and some of the character details come to light. Like any complex series, this is an area where the foundations are being laid down in a way that keeps it engaging. Even more interesting is that they continue with the two episode story arcs that are fairly complete, making it easy to dive into this volume after the first episode finishes out the story from the previous volume.

The downside to the two episode format is apparent in the first episode here since it’s the second half of the storyline that started in the previous volume. With it being some time since seeing that, the story doesn’t click immediately and it sort of just washes over you until it’s over. We do get some good action sequences though as Hei works to defend the young woman who is no longer a contractor, and the visual design overall is almost enough to keep you rather engaged in the show even if the story elements don’t feel quite so connected. The short form stories are enjoyable, more so when seen as a full series, but the individual volume releases do make it a bit difficult at times with the wait between volumes.

Once past that, this volume does to an unusual turn. The story focuses for two episodes on a private detective named Gai Kurasawa. Gai’s a former police detective who has his own agency now and has the usual kind of down on his luck style to him that’s appealing. With a cute high school girl as his secretary, he gets wrangled into taking on a case about a missing cat. The story has him believing that it has larger ties to a series of deaths going on and he sort of has that slight parallel world view about him where reality isn’t exactly his closest of friends. But Gai is certainly one of the good guys and he simply gets caught up in other events that are slightly outside the realm of what he believes the world is like.

The woman who hires him is currently employing Hei to do some clean-up work in her house and that has Hei showing up often around the area which makes Gai suspicious. This comes at a time when Hei is searching out a contractor who has the ability to possess people and change bodies, the same power as Mao except that Mao can only do it with animals. Hei doesn’t play too large of a role in this, more of an observer of sorts who gets involved eventually, so the focus largely falls to Gai. And Gai does manage to carry it pretty well, especially when he runs into the other contractor and accidentally takes his jacket. The jobs of both Hei and Gai come into play because of this and the larger story of the missing cat is actually about something else which is both creepy and amusing at the same time with the way it’s simple and yet complex.

The second set of episodes has a similar feel as it delves into another of the characters, largely keeping Hei to the background as a secondary character. While Misaki Kirihara has been searching for Hei, known only as BK201, she’s got other contractors she’s after as well. The one that’s causing her immediate grief is VI-952, a very dangerous one who has the ability to transpose matter of sorts, causing explosions to occur from a distance. He uses it to kill people rather coldly by covering them in his blood, even a little bit, and then literally exploding it. It’s certainly not something people expect and it allows him to eliminate people with a snap of his fingers. It’s a bit of a price to pay though since it has to be his own blood that’s being used.

Where this story becomes rather engaging is in that it delves into Misaki pretty strongly. During her investigation of this contractor, she ends up meeting a high school friend at the hotel. That friend is actually the daughter of a very powerful criminal businessman and is fully aware that Misaki is a police superintendent. Misaki and Alice have a good friendship that we see from the flashbacks and the two are the kind that would be naturally drawn together. The connection is fun to watch play out in the present day as each has progressed well in their lives, but there’s an undercurrent of anger in Alice’s style as she plays and manipulates everyone around her. Not surprisingly, she has plans of her own regarding what her life will be like and she’s about to put them into action.

Darker Than Black has a very interesting feel to it and these episodes only cement it further. The layout of the world in regards to the Gate is still very much a mystery and the way everything seems normal yet not is fascinating to watch. The two main stories here are curious as well as Hei is given a secondary role for the most part up until everything comes to a conclusion and the need for action. There’s a quiet foreboding about much of this as the stories play out and the main characters for the stories move about. Gai isn’t the norm for a private detective as he takes himself seriously but not comically so. There’s still an edge of humor about him though which makes him personable. Misaki really gets fleshed out well here as we get both her past and a pair of episodes where she gets to shine as the lead. Seeing her in full on police mode as well as a woman helps to make her a lot more engaging. The little moments are what sells it as well as the way she deals with a friend from the past.

In Summary:
In a way, I’m still not sure what to make of this series. With it being in the laying the foundation mode, it’s providing a lot of neat ideas and some fun action sequences with intriguing characters, but it hasn’t gelled together yet. That looks to possibly change with the next story arc as it looks to deal more with Hei and possibly the Gate itself. That big area of mystery is what’s the most confounding about the show because it’s what I want to know more about and how it fits into everything. Yet it’s the main thing that’s being ignored for the most part which is a little frustrating. The show is quite delicious to watch however as it has some great visuals, a solid sense of pacing and some rather sharp writing to keep it flowing well. It’s got me curious to say the least and rather engaged in what the larger story may be about.

Features
Japanese 2.0 Language, English 5.1 Language, English Subtitles, Audio Commentary, Cast Auditions, Production Gallery (Characters/Settings), Clean Opening, Clean Closing

Review Equipment
Sony KDS-R70XBR2 70" LCoS 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.



Mania Grade: A-
Audio Rating: A-
Video Rating: A-
Packaging Rating: B+
Menus Rating: A-
Extras Rating: B+
Age Rating: 16 and Up
Region: 1 - North America
Released By: FUNimation Entertainment, Ltd.
MSRP: 29.98
Running time: 125
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Disc Resolution: 480i/p
Disc Encoding: MPEG-2
Series: Darker Than Black