D.Gray-Man Vol. #1 (Mania.com)

By:Bryan Morton
Review Date: Thursday, January 28, 2010
Release Date: Monday, February 22, 2010

Time for a look at the dark and atmospheric D.Gray-man.  In an alternate version of 19-century England, young Exorcist Allen Walker takes on the might of the Akuma - demons created from the souls of the dead.  The victim of a curse, Allen has some unusual abilities beyond exorcism, but will that be enough to keep him on the winning side..? 

What They Say
Meet Allen Walker, a 15-year-old boy and a born Exorcist who roams the Earth in search of Innocence, a mysterious substance used to create weapons and tools capable of obliterating demons known as Akuma. It is believed that in ancient times, 109 fragments of Innocence were washed to unknown parts of the world by The Great Flood.

Allen's primary anti-Akuma weapon is a cross that is embossed on his red, disfigured left hand, which contains Innocence. But not only does Allen have the ability to destroy Akuma, he also sees them hiding inside a person's soul. Together with a group of fellow exorcists fighting under the command of the Black Order, he joins the battle against the Millennium Earl, an ancient being who intends to 'cleanse' the world by destroying all life on it.

Allen's first perilous mission takes him to southern Italy, where an Innocence has been located. Along with fellow exorcist, Kanda, and Tom, a member of a support group for exorcists called 'finders', Allen must vanquish the Akuma that covets the Innocence.

The Review!
Audio for this release comes in Japanese stereo and English 5.1 surround varieties - I listened to the Japanese track for this review. It manages to give a decent amount of oomph to action sequences, while placement of sounds and dialogue is handled well. The audio is generally clean and clear, with no obvious problems.

Video is provided in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. The series is heavy on blacks and dark colours for most of these episodes, which limits the opportunity for it to go to town as far as detail and visual flair is concerned. What there is, though, comes across well - there's very little in the way of visible problems, barring some banding on gradients. Not a bad-looking show, all things considered.

No packaging was provided with our review copy.

As seems to be usual for Manga releases these days, the main menu on both discs is a static affair, featuring one of the characters striking a pose against a patterened dark background (Allen on disc one, Kanda on disc two), with options provided for Play All, Episodes, Audio and Extras. There are no transition animations between the screens, making it all quick and easy to use.

Not too much here, unfortunately. Disc one includes an audio commentary for episode 5, featuring Todd Haberkorn (Dub ADR director & voice of Allen) and Luci Christan (voice of Lenalee and dub scriptwriter), while disc two has the obligatory creditless opening and closing sequences.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review will contain spoilers)
Exorcists: the ones chosen by God to protect the world from Akuma. Young Allen Walker travels to London to continue his studies in exorcism with the Black Order, but his journey comes at a time when Akuma are becoming increasingly active. On his arrival in the city, Allen is immediately caught in the middle of an Akuma appearance where a police officer is killed - and where the blame for the death is quickly placed on him. With the police unconvinced by his claim to be an Exorcist, it takes some investigative work of his own to prove his innocence before he's able to complete his journey to the Headquarters of the Order, a rather ominous and imposing tower with a sentient gate who doesn't like the look of him. Allen's unfortunate enough to wear a pentagram on his face - the mark of an Akuma, and something certain to cause just a little suspicion, but thanks to a letter of introduction from another Exorcist - the highly-regarded General Cross - Allen finally gains entry, where he begins to learn the history of the Exorcists' powers, and just what sort of eternal battle he's let himself in for...

The opening episode is basically setup - Allen's introduction and a short adventure that lets you get a feel for who he is and what he's capable of. It also introduces the series' villain, the Millennium Earl (who really needs some help with his dress sense). The first time I watched this series - when I wasn't worrying about having to review it - I almost gave up at that point - it was too much of a simple "find out what's wrong and fix it" story, along the lines of King of Bandit Jing or Hell Girl, and not what I was in the mood for watching at the time. Turns out the opening episode isn't entirely representative of the series as a whole, though.

Before we move on to the meat of the series, though, let's take a quick look at Allen's new nemesis, the Millennium Earl. He may look daft, more like a giant clown than a creature of death, but he does represent a real threat - maybe not so much from his own physical presence, but certainly from the Akuma he's able to create, and you do quickly get a feel for just how difficult he is to defeat, a feel that's reinforced during the later episodes in the set when the Earl once again emerges from the shadows. His initial appearance is brief, though, as we shift to the exorcists' HQ and some more scene-setting as Allen is welcomed into the organisation and meets the various weirdos who make up its members. With them being generally a bunch of misfits and malcontents, there's a lot of comedy flowing from their antics, although always with a serious undercurrent flowing underneath to reflect their saving-the-world mission. In some ways there's a bit of the Full Metal Alchemist vibe going on there, with similarities to the way that Edward's military colleagues often provided some comic relief. There are certainly worse stories to be compared with.

For the late 19th century (even an alternate one, as is made clear right at the beginning of the series), the Exorcists seem to have access to an awful lot of high-tech gear that's very out-of-time, which also raises the question of where they got it all from. The Akuma themselves are mechanical creatures endowed with a human soul - more high-technology that doesn't quite fit with the time-period, and just the sort of thing that piques my curiosity a little. There's no indication yet as to where all this techonology comes from, though, so I've chalked that up as one mystery that I'm hoping will be resolved as the series goes on.

Beyond the setup, though, there's a mission that the Black Order, its Exorcists and Finder must work on: the search from fragments of Innocence that can be used to save the world. "Innocence?", you say, "Finders?". Both are key to how the Exorcists operate, and both are introduced and explained early in the series. Finders do exactly what they say on the tin - men and women who have tried and failed to become Exorcists themselves, they help the organisation out by acting as a sort of covert ops team, finding Innocence and holding off Akuma until the Exorcists themselves can get there. The fact that they're not good enough to be Exorcists themselves means that they're often looked down upon and treated in less-than-human ways by some of the Exorcists - including Kanda, the first Exorcist who Allen is paired up with, and who is a royal pain in the arse - but that doesn't seem to put them off doing their jobs.

Innocence, meanwhile, is what gives an Exorcist their power - merge an Exorcist with an Innocence and you have a potent anti-Akuma weapon, and Kanda shows his off to good effect during the series' opening mission. Allen has a potent anti-Akuma weapon of his own, but his powers come from another - potentially even more powerful - source. There's a lot of time devoted to the friction between Kanda and Allen - Kanda simply isn't a likeable character, so I find myself on occasions hoping he would be taken down, but he's powerful enough that Allen needs his skills on several occasions to save his skin. There's probably meant to be a lesson to learnt there about the value of teamwork, but with Kanda purely centred on looking after #1 his attitude quickly becomes tedious.

Fortunately, the second of Allen's mission features the far-more-likeable Lenalee, the token female of the Black Order - she's down-to-earth, friendly and fun-loving, and yet able to kick arse - quite literally (her Innocence specifically powers her boots, which are clearly made for far more than walking) - when the need arises. Their pairing takes them in search of the keeper of another Innocence, who they find in the form of bad-luck-charm Miranda. Miranda, unfortunately, is far too much under the curse of gloom to be feeling humorous - with a face that could pass as Salvador Dali's Scream and an attitude to life that just positively invites Bad Stuff™ to happen to her, she's not exactly a feel-good character (although there is some gallows humour to be had from her misfortune). For Allen and Lenalee, that means that retrieving the Innocence from her is as much about trying to make her feel good about herself as it was about finding her in the first place.

The villain of the piece is this arc is Road, who I took for most of the arc to be a he, but is actually a she. I challenge you to be able to tell. She's an interesting piece of work - a human working for the Akuma, and someone with enough of a sense of adventure to follow her own desires that may not necessarily coincide with those of her boss, the Millennium Earl. I wouldn't go so far as to say she's a complex character - there's no such thing in D.Gray-man, at least yet - but there is enough to make her a curiosity and someone I'm quite looking forward to seeing come back to the fray.
What I don't want to see, though, is a constant stream of "find the Innocence" stories - we at least know that there are only a certain number of them in existence, but having a story looking at the recovery of each one would get tedious. Such stories aren't unheard of in the early stages of a story, though, and as such things go Miranda's tale isn't half bad, so I'll let it slip this time.

In summary:
I'm still not entirely certain about D.Gray-man - there's enough promise in it that I want to see made the most of, but there are also aspect of it that just turn me off, and the two aspects are battling it out. At the moment curiosity is winning, but I'm sure that won't last forever. I also feel bound to mention is the length of the series - at 103 episodes, this is no short-haul, and with the US release only just up to episode 52 there's no guarantee that it'll be completed. Manga's recent record with abandoned series only heightens my worries in that department, although to be fair to them their recent incomplete shows were all Viz Media titles, and not from FUNimation. Still, it's something to bear in mind. So far, though, D.Gray-man is an enteraining if not outstanding show that'll be worth a look to action fans.

Japanese Language 2.0, English Language 5.1, English Subtitles, Audio Commentary for Episode 5, Creditless Opening & Closing Songs

Review Equipment
Toshiba 37X3030DB 37" widescreen HDTV; Sony PS3 Blu-ray player (via HDMI, upscaled to 1080p); Acoustic Solutions DS-222 5.1 speaker system.

Mania Grade: B
Audio Rating: B+
Video Rating: B+
Packaging Rating: N/A
Menus Rating: B
Extras Rating: B+
Age Rating: 13 and Up
Region: 2 - Europe/Japan
Released By: Manga UK
MSRP: £22.99
Running time: 325
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Disc Resolution: 480i/p
Disc Encoding: MPEG-2
Series: D.Gray-Man