Darker than Black is pitched as "covert agents with super powers" - the last show I saw with that sort of pitch was Kurau: Phantom Memory, which turned out to be something of a disappointment, especially given the hype that went along with it. If Darker than Black has been similarly hyped, it's managed to pass me by – which is a shame, as this is a much better show…
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.
1-2 - The Fallen Star Of A Contract
3-4 - A New Star Shines In The Dawn Sky
5-6 - Red Giant Over Eastern Europe
7-8 - The Scent Of Gardenias In The Summer Rain
9-10 - The White Dress, Stained With The Girl's Dreams And Blood
Audio is provided in Japanese 2.0 stereo and English 5.1 surround – I listened to the Japanese track for this review. The show is heavy on dialogue, saving the action for short, sharp scenes – during dialogue-heavy periods there's not much opportunity to get creative with the soundtrack, but the action scenes make full use of the channels available. Occasional spot-checks of the English surround mix show it to be equally as good. There were no apparent problems.
Video is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, and with this perhaps being a case of style over substance, it looks very polished, even though there seems to be a preference for darker night-time scenes. With fluid animation and some nice background detail, it definitely looks the part. There were no obvious problems.
No packaging was provided with our review copy.
Menus on both discs of the set are static affairs, with the main screen on Disc One showing a nighttime cityscape with Hei, face covered by his mask, overlaid on top. Disc two features the same background, overlaid this time with an image of Kirihara. Options are provided for Play All, Episodes, Setup and Extras, while an ominous piece of background music plays. There are no transition animations, so it's all quick and easy to use.
There's a good selection of extras spread over both discs. Disc One provides a commentary track for episode 2 with Colleen Clinkenbeard (Chiaki) and Jason Liebrecht (Hei); Cast audition recordings featuring Colleen Clinkenbeard, Luci Christian (Havoc), Jason Liebrecht, John Swasey (Huang), Kate Oxley (Kirihara), Cherami Leigh (Mai), Kent Williams (Mao), Julie Mayfield (Misuzu), Troy Baker (November 11), Mark Stoddard (Tahara), and Brina Palencia (Yin); Character Bios for most of the main characters; a Settings Gallery featuring production sketches of a number of locations used in the series, along with text notes; and textless versions of the opening and closing sequences. Disc two provides a commentary for episode 9 by Kate Oxley (Kirihara) and Christopher Sabbat (Saito), more character bios and settings sketches, and repeats of the creditless opening and closing songs. Plenty to be getting on with.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review will contain spoilers)
Ten years ago, a large area of Tokyo was lost to the Hell's Gate, an area which was soon enclosed inside a huge wall to keep people away from the devastating effects that the Gate produced. At the same time, people with strange powers began to appear, and were given the name 'contractors' as a result of their compulsion to 'repay' the use of their abilities in some rather unpleasant ways. The world's governments, while doing their best to keep the existence of contractors a secret from the general populace, also have ways of keeping track of their activities – when the Hell's Gate appeared, the stars in the sky disappeared, to be replaced by "fakes" that appeared to be associated with the contractors: when a contractor uses their abilities, their associated star reacts, and so the contractors came to be known after their star.
All of which brings us to BK201, the Black Reaper, a notorious contractor who operates as an assassin for the shadowy Syndicate. Known to his colleagues as Hei, and usually operating under the alias of Li, like most contractors he's a ruthless killer – but while he works for the Syndicate, he also has an agenda of his own: to find his sister, lost years before when Heaven's Gate, a phenomenon very similar to Hell's Gate, disappeared…
Hei's a strange one. Every other contractor shown in the show is presented as completely amoral, clearly evil in nature – but Hei is usually seen as a clueless bumbler, and while that's as much part of his cover as anything else it's also clear that he still has some of the emotions that other contractors seems to lack. In his work for the Syndicate, he's part of a team with three others: Yin, a "Doll", the emotionless balance to the contractors and, as a spirit medium, posessed with the ability to track others; Mao, a contractor with the ability to possess animal bodies – but who is now trapped in the body of a cat after something went wrong previously; and their controller, Huang, a normal human possessed with nothing more extraordinary than a certain contempt for contractors and their ilk. You don't get to see as much of the rest of the team as I would have liked, but in some ways that's the point – Hei seems to be using his work for the Syndicate as a way of getting to the truth about what happened to his sister, and isn't all that concerned about teamwork, even though Yin and Mao do come to his rescue on occasion.
On the 'good' side of the equation is police officer Misaki Kirihara and her sidekicks Saito and Kono. Misaki is a no-nonsense character who has a strong sense of justice, having joined the police on a mission to help those who weren't strong enough to help themselves, and cases involving contractors are her speciality. Coincidence tends to bring her and Hei into contact quite often – quite ironic, considering BK201 is the one contractor she'd most like to get her hands on, but with Hei's public persona being far from what you would expect a contractor to be, Misaki never draws the connection between the two.
But enough of the personalities – while they're an intriguing bunch that form a good basis to build the show around, that's not much use if the stories they're put into aren't up to scratch. This two-disc set contains ten episodes, with each story forming a two-part arc – so there are five stories here. They're essentially standalone in nature, with very little to connect them other than the lead characters, with each one featuring a new contractor that both Hei and Misaki have taken an interest in. The tone of most of the stories is very much that of an investigation – while the nature of contractors and the strangeness provided by the Hell's Gate provides a hook and an atmosphere to the series, you could almost have written them as real-world stories without that much tweaking, but in many ways it's the setting that really makes them interesting. There are a few plot threads that take a look inside Hell's Gate and provide little hints as to the power that the place contains, too, that really do grab the attention, and it's that side of the story that I hope we get a better look at in subsequent releases. As it is, the stories here provide glimpses into the worlds of the lead characters without ever getting too much into the details of what makes them tick.
Darker than Black is atmospheric, intriguing, and entertaining – all good things – but misses out on being really good by not making much effort (yet) to tie the stories together to create something bigger. There's plenty of time left in the series for that to happen, though, and it would be a shame to miss out on the good that's here on that reason alone. Definitely worth checking out.
Japanese language 2.0, English language 5.1, English subtitles, audio commentaries for Episodes 2 and 9, cast auditions, character biographies, settings gallery, textless opening & closing.
Toshiba 37X3030DB 37" widescreen HDTV; Sony PS3 Blu-ray player (via HDMI, upscaled to 1080p); Acoustic Solutions DS-222 5.1 speaker system.