Reviewby Theron Martin, Jan 12th 2007
DVD 1 - The Cat Out of the Bag
Train Heartnet, aka Black Cat, is one of the elite “erasers” for the mysterious Chronos Corporation. His duties consist of killing anyone, anywhere, and he is very good at it, but he is also disturbed by memories of his troubled past. His ways start to change when he meets Saya, a lively, carefree yukata-clad “sweeper” (basically a bounty hunter) and he gets nudged further down a better path when he is called upon to kill a girl name Eve, who just happens to be a state-of-the-art nanotech-based bioweapon. Meanwhile Sven, another sweeper who's down on his luck but still prides himself on being a gentleman, finds himself working against Black Cat on more than one occasion. He teams up with the thief Rinslet to capture Eve, but soon comes to realize that Eve is more than just a weapon.
Hands up: how many other people old enough to remember the end of the '80s have the Janet Jackson song running through their heads when they hear the title of this one?
Seriously, though, it's usually a bad sign when the title character is also the least interesting one in the show. Yeah, Train Heartnet (what kind of name is that???) has some wicked moves, the thing going with the cat, and an allegedly “cool” look, but through the first four episodes he's also lacking in personality. Even the most hard-core action heroes have to have at least something going for them in this category to be involving, but all Mr. Black Cat has is the sullen and morose loner thing, which isn't enough.
It also doesn't help matters that the concept for this Shonen Jump series is as fresh as bread past its expiration date. How many times before has the “youth trained as an expert killer and working for a secret organization” concept been done? Beyond the silly catch phrase, that aspect of the show has, so far, shown nothing new. Fortunately he doesn't have as much screen time in some episodes as the supporting cast members do, nor has that aspect been the focus thus far.
Despite their underlying problems, the first four episodes manage surprisingly well. The series' quirky sense of humor, which can often catch a viewer off guard, is certainly a contributing factor, but the supporting characters are what really make the show watchable. The sweeper Sven, with his precognitive eye, trick briefcase, and gentlemanly attitude is a truly fun and likeable character, as are the thief Rinslet (who falls in with Sven) and the confident, light-hearted yukata-clad sweeper Saya (who has various encounters with Black Cat). The way Eve, the child bioweapon, is handled is hardly new, but her interactions with Sven work well.
Gonzo proved with Gankutsuou and Desert Punk that is can still turn out great artistic efforts when it puts in its “A” game, but as the studio has proven with Speed Grapher it can stretch itself too thin to always be on its “A” game. Black Cat tends more towards the latter than the former, especially in comic moments, although it can manage some sharps scenes in close-ups. Background art is nothing to speak of, while character designs vary between sharp and distinctive (Saya) and more rough-edged (Sven, most cats). The Black Cat himself looks older than shonen heroes normally do but otherwise has a very generic shonen-leading-man appearance, and the picture of him smiling on the cover and title screen is not typical of his demeanor in the show so far. Animation quality is also erratic; capable in calmer scenes but distractingly inadequate in action scenes, where little of the movements are usually shown and motion intended to imply swiftness instead come off looking jerky. Fan service is very limited, while equipment designs don't reflect the attention to fine detail seen in many other Gonzo productions.
The musical score samples from themes one would more expect from a classic Western, especially in its lightly comic moments, but is otherwise not especially remarkable. A nice pop-rock opener features better flow of movement than is seen on most of the action scenes actually in the episodes while the closer, with its cat-art themes, is a bit lighter in tone. By far the best song in the first four episodes, though, is the lovely tune sung on the rooftops by Saya at the end of episode 1 and beginning of episode 2. It sounds equally good in Japanese or English, with the English singer mimicking the style, intonation, and singing ability of the original exactly despite entirely different lyrics.
And that's where the greatest strength of the first volume lays: in its excellent English voice work. Over the past year FUNimation has more consistently turned out quality English dubs than any other North American company, and Black Cat is just another example. Newcomer Brandon Potter, with his gravelly voice, is a real find and perfectly-cast as Sven, but he is just one of many good fits. On the whole the performances and voices in English fit the Western twang in the soundtrack a little better than the Japanese voices do, although the Japanese performances aren't by any means weak. As is also typical for a FUNi dub, the rewording is generous in the English script but never a problem. One notable discrepancy: in a few places references are made to a game of “demon-chaser” in the English dub while the subtitles translate it as a game of “tag,” but the original Japanese is clearly using the word “oni” so in this case the English script is more accurate (although “tag” was probably used because it's conceptually more familiar to Americans).
FUNimation is not normally known for shorting releases on Extras, but its first volume of this title offers only clean opener and closer to go with company trailers.
The entire first volume of Black Cat feels like it's just a set-up for the real story, but it looks like it's going down the tired “reject and escape from the organization that made you a killer” track. Still, with interesting supporting characters, solid writing, and quality voice work supporting it, the series may not fare so bad.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : C+
Art : B
Music : B
+ Quality English dub, interesting supporting characters.
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