Darker than Black Vol. #1 (also w/box) - Mania.com

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  • Audio Rating: A-
  • Video Rating: A-
  • Packaging Rating: B+
  • Menus Rating: A-
  • Extras Rating: B+
  • Age Rating: TV-MA
  • Region: 1 - North America
  • Released By: FUNimation
  • MSRP: 29.98/39.98
  • Running time: 125
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
  • Disc Resolution: 480i/p (Mixed/Unknown)
  • Disc Encoding: MPEG-2

Darker than Black Vol. #1 (also w/box)

By Chris Beveridge     November 14, 2008
Release Date: November 25, 2008

Darker than Black Vol. #1
© FUNimation Entertainment, Ltd.

A glossy high value production, Darker than Black takes a look at the world through an interesting prism with a lot of hints as to what’s to come.

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. They thrive in the underworld, between rumor and reality, their loyalties always in question.

One among these operatives is more mysterious than the rest: the masked killer BK201, the Black Reaper. His true identity and intentions remain unknown, but as his path weaves through the shadows and alleys of Tokyo, blood is spilled on both sides of the law. It's a new age of confusion, and the rules of engagement have changed.

Contains episodes 1-5.

What We Say:

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.
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.
The cover design for the first 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 on here of Hei in his black overcoat with a serious look to his face is admittedly somewhat plain, but it has a certain appeal to it as well. 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.
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 Hei with his mask on, just a close-up of his face, which looks positively creepy here. Behind him and visible through him is a still of the city itself at night, 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.
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 second episode. Dub fans also make out really well by a series of extensive – if brief – cast audition pieces. These all run just under a minute or so and feature only the audio clip played over a static screen of the character artwork. I’d really like to see them expand this in the future to include a video portion as well, much like we see with certain Hollywood titles with screen tests. 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)
An original work by Tensai Okamura with BONES, Darker Than Black is a a twenty-six episode series that really fits in well with a lot of what BONES has done over the last several years. The series has a very polished feel to it, one that’s made all the more engaging by the way it’s working through a series of smaller stories while building the larger narrative. Like a lot of series from BONES, including one that Okamura worked on called Wolf’s Rain, Darker Than Black points out early on that we’re not going to get anywhere near the full story right away.
The world of Darker Than Black is one that takes place some ten years after a world altering event occurred. That event, the arrival of some strange new “territory” of sorts in Tokyo, changed things there forever. With a huge wall built around what’s now called Heaven’s Gate, everything changed as the stars in the sky are no longer what they were. They’re now replaced with false stars, stars that have very special significance.  Each of the stars, which occupies the space of the previous one in the sky, represents a person who has gained new abilities that are now called contractors. When these people use the special abilities that they have, their respective star pulses. It’s through this that the various world governments try to track and identify those who have these powers.
Though so much has happened, mankind is still up to its old tricks and trying to keep the general population unaware of what’s going on. One of the things that they’ve picked up from the arrival of Hell’s Gate is the technology to erase people’s memories. When people encounter the contractors, they’re able to go in afterwards and provide some clean-up while also trying to bring those contractors under their control. With various governments at work and numerous organizations, the world is a dangerous place both with the contractors and the “dolls” that are out there as well which haven’t been covered all that much yet. While the series focuses on the individual characters, this larger narrative is a regular presence as numerous agencies are talked about throughout.
While there is a fairly mysterious and slowly drawn out storyline about how the world is like it is, another one is also there when it comes to the lead character of the series. The young and rather unassuming Hei, going by the name Li Shengshun as a transfer student from China, is a contractor who hasn’t been identified yet and goes by his Messier identification of BK201 by the government agency in Japan that’s trying to figure out who he is. Part of some group that’s not really clear, he’s a highly skilled contractor that’s able to get close to his targets and figure out what’s going on in a way that’s almost disarming. Similar to a spy, you’re never really clear of his motives until the plans start to really become spelled out and you realize what’s really going on.
The storylines introduced in these first five episodes, which cover two and a half small arcs, are intriguing to be sure, but mostly because they’re showcasing the overall layout of the series and the various sides that are playing within it. The stories aren’t exactly deep, but they play out in that spy mentality where you’re never quite sure what each side is after, other than maybe the Japanese agency side, led by the cool and collected Misaki Kirihara. With the contractors generally operating along the same kind of presence, they’re quick to do their jobs, they do it without fuss and without a lot of dialogue, and they’re precise in their actions and in their killings. Watching it unfold is a fascinating thing to see as the various threads start to get laid out.
What certainly helps to elevate the series is the visual set design for it. Darker Than Black has a lot of very beautiful backgrounds to it, from the numerous lush exteriors to the business like interiors and households. The night time sequences in the city are amazing and the characters really feel like that they inhabit it when they move throughout it. The depth of it and the fluidity of the active animation is really top notch and is another reason why most BONES productions merit a second glance at the least. Everything about this production has a high quality feel and the people working on the backgrounds really deserved every penny they were paid and more.
If there’s a downside to this release, it’s the incredible tease that FUNimation provided about it on another release. On their Vexille Blu-ray release, they provided a high definition version of the trailer that they’ve been using to promote the show. The visual quality of it really makes a difference when you see the actual show and realize that the things you see here are pretty much eliminated in that trailer. It was such a clean and engaging piece that really captured your attention, that going back to the DVD for the full show was a mild shock to say the least. Hopefully, when FUNimation gets around to being able to put this on Blu-ray, we’ll get a full lossless set of tracks for both languages so Kanno’s music can be enjoyed even more alongside the lush visuals.
In Summary:
Darker Than Black presents a lot of really interesting ideas and hints at what it can be about, but it’s only barely scratching the surface at this point. BONES has done this up with a really great sense of style but also gives it a solid kind of pacing and atmosphere with it. Setting up the initial stories to cover two episodes keeps you coming back for more and wondering what the focus will be. There are smaller narratives being told along the way, which feels natural and not forced, that helps to expand things. At the end of the first episode, you want to know a whole lot more, never mind at the end of the first volume. This is a series that looks to be really strong overall if it can keep up with what’s done here while laying out more of what makes it tick.
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.


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