Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Mar 21st 2009
Darker Than Black
Hei has spirited imprisoned ex-contractor Havoc away, leaving not only the police and MI-6's contractors in the lurch, but also his own partners. With all three organizations focusing their considerable energies on tracking him down and putting him under, Hei squeezes Havoc for information on his sister, even as he begins to form a decidedly un-contractor-ish bond with her. Elsewhere in the city, private dick not-so-extraordinaire Gai Kurasawa is feeling the squeeze of the cable company, who are threatening to cut off his cable and thus his hold on his assistant, who only sticks around for the free anime. So, when a delectable widow comes to him asking about her missing cat, he takes the job, despite his rampant feline-phobia. But when he notices Hei lurking suspiciously about and ties the widow (albeit tenuously) to a series of terribly suspicious suicides, Gai begins to suspect that a sinister conspiracy is lurking beneath the innocuous surface of his cat-hunt. Luckily he's just dim enough to miss the real conspiracies nearby, a fact that might just save his wannabe gumshoe life. In the meantime real gumshoe Misaki Kirihara allows herself to be hustled into attending the birthday party of a high-school friend. The catch? There's a blood-simple contractor loose in the building blowing the innards out of mafia bigwigs. A police inspector's work is never done.
Say dark and you think black. Say black and you think noir. Well, if you're a student of French or film you do. Maybe. At any rate, there is definitely something a little noirish about Darker Than Black. Mostly in its style, in its reliance on dark back alleys and decaying urban settings, but also in the murky conspiracies and amorality that surround its protagonists. As such it's a little odd that its first explicit nod to film noir should come in the form of a parody. And odder still that it should be so good.
In fact, Gai Kurasawa's two episode stint as lead character is probably the best—and certainly the most entertaining—the series has been yet. The two-episode short story structure allows the series to switch up the leads every couple of episodes and experiment with different tones, and for Gai's story Tensai Okamura hearkens back to the winking love of Old Hollywood that he displayed in his silly, fun Project Blue Earth. The result is, predictably, silly and fun; packed with hilarious dialogue (best appreciated in the wild back-and-forth of the loosely interpreted English dub) and knowing twists on noir conventions. Gai's cosplaying assistant Kiko's very un-noirish disruptions of his noir posturing are also a kick, and the plot weaves two separate but loosely interconnected schemes—one deadly, the other most emphatically not—into something just confusing enough for Gai, and occasionally the audience, to draw some entirely erroneous conclusions.
Like most parodies (affectionate or not) Gai's story does suffer from a dearth of substance. There's a smidge of actual weight in Gai's desperate, almost pathetic attempt to transform himself from bungler into hard-boiled hero, but this is definitely creampuff territory. Still, creampuff though it is, it's the best the disc has to offer. Which highlights Darker Than Black's most serious problem: for all of its teasing mysteries and contractor action, it just isn't a very compelling watch. It's difficult to get behind Hei, who as a contractor is actually defined as a person without human emotions, and the characters that each stand-alone tale is formed around never really grow on you. Without characters one cares for, the series' demonstrated ruthlessness is neither thrilling nor harrowing, but merely dark and vaguely depressing. The action is equally short on thrills, in part because there's little reason to doubt or care about the outcome, but also because it simply lacks energy. There's plenty of defenestration and blood-letting, but precious little vigor or invention.
Not that the rest of the disc is without its occasional charms, most of them visual. Bones' animation is, as usual, a cut above the norm (they're still the kings of swirling clouds), even if only one cut, and the series' sickly green urban malaise is memorable even when the series itself isn't. And let's not forget the occasional fan-service—the sight of Kirihara in a slinky China dress alone makes episodes nine and ten worth sitting through. But no matter the little pleasures it affords, the fact remains that the majority of this disc leaves so little impression that the modest impression made by a creampuff stands out in comparison.
Even the formidable Yoko Kanno seems to be affected by the humdrum writing, turning out perhaps her most undistinguished score. Tellingly, the music only really comes to life during Gai's episodes (serving up some deliciously hammy noir-music pastiches) and the occasional bout of emotional intensity (e.g. the sawing guitars during Hei's final confrontation with November 11). Without Kanno's usual flair for simultaneous cool and beauty, Okamura's musical intrusions—and they are intrusive—are simply odd, and oddly unappealing (“every scene kinda seems a little bit like a porn” points out Chris Sabat when talking about the music in the audio commentary). Not even the rocking opener and Rie Fu's typically fine closer quite compensate for that. Though they do come darned close.
Funimation's dub crew is also affected, though in a different manner. Rather than coast, they make a valiant attempt to dress up the dialogue. Unfortunately their success is spotty. The rewrite brings Havoc's emotional undertones directly to the surface and then beats us over the head with them, giving her dialogue an awkward confessional feel. But it also puts some priceless faux-noir dialogue in Gai's mouth (“It's a city with no one to trust and no one to love, where cigarette butts are the only ass you get.”), balancing itself such that it is neither superior nor particularly inferior to the original. As is par for Funimation dubs, the acting is fine (Brandon Potter's Kurasawa is an absolute blast) and the casting faithful without being scrupulously so.
The series' suite of extras is quickly becoming standard for Funimation: production art, clean opening and closing, and a commentary track (for episode nine). The commentary track, featuring Chris Sabat (Saito) and Kate Oxley (Kirihara), is a laid-back affair that, while pleasant enough, will be of real interest only to hard-core fans. The spoiler-averse may want to avoid the production art, which includes character profiles and episode comments that give away parts of this and the next volume.
Aside from proving that the series can entertain when it loosens up, this is basically more of what volume one offered: science-fiction intrigue with some surprisingly bloody action and a bit of a mean streak. The contractors, with their idiosyncratic power-prices and gaping gaps in back-story, continue to provide a hook despite their lack of personality, and as before the whole thing looks like a million bucks (okay, what with the waning detail levels and the increasing use of fancy cutting over actual animation, it's more like seven hundred fifty thousand and some change, but it's still darned good). But unfortunately the series is still tweaking formulas when it should be turning them on their heads, twiddling its thumbs in mission-of-the-week land when it should be charging headfirst into the web of mysteries that surrounds it. And no amount of noir-skewing or eye-candy will change that. With any luck, though, future volumes will.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B-
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B-
+ Two episodes of good-natured film noir parody that are particularly hilarious in English.
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