Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Apr 3rd 2009
Darker than BLACK
Something called the Meteor Fragment is on the cusp of being smuggled out of the Pandora research facility at Hell's Gate, so naturally the syndicate sends Hei to steal it. Armed with an influential position as lavatory technician and a contact in the research division who's never done undercover work in her life, Hei sets about conning the cons. He'll have to be quick, though. The Gate has been known to send contractors over the edge, and those hallucinations of his missing sister he keeps seeing can't be a good sign. Later Yin, the team's observer doll, falls into trouble when a couple of Russian contractors target her for some involuntary “information extraction.” When her observer spirit is stolen, Huang decides she's a liability and sends Hei to kill her. On the run with only a face from her past and the Kurasawa Detective Agency for protection (which really is worse than no protection at all), Yin remembers the events leading to her life as an emotionless mercenary puppet and begins to...feel?
One nice side-effect of the series dropping its episode count to four per disc is that the volumes now neatly encompass two of the series' two-episode stories. As the details of each story tend to slip through the holes in one's memory like greased noodles, the series is much easier to enjoy when each volume is self-contained. Like this one. No loose episodes dangling at the fore or aft of this volume like the squirming ends of halved snakes. Now all that remains is for the stories themselves to improve.
It's not that Tensai Okamura and his crew are idiots or that the fruits of their labor are rotten. Okamura knows the value of playing his cards close to his chest, seeding each of his tales with fragments of back story that raise as many questions as they answer. And he has a decent grasp of the mix of intrigue, action and humor usually purveyed by episodic adventures of this type. But that's precisely what's wrong: everything is “decent” and “of this type.” When the director of Wolf's Rain, the animation studio behind RahXephon and the composer from Cowboy Bebop join forces, it's reasonable to expect something more than “decent,” something that transcends genre limitations and transports audiences. That the result is only ephemerally entertaining can't help but come as a deflating disappointment. The glimpses of Hei's past in episodes 11 and 12 are revealing and undeniably interesting, but couldn't Okamura have found a more fitting chalice to hold them than a whodunit where everyone knows whodunit? And why are his action set-pieces so de-adrenalizing? Perhaps Wolf's Rain wasn't the deepest of anime, but there were images in it that seared themselves into the brain and sequences that exhilarated. As of yet, Darker than Black has neither.
Ephemeral entertainment is still entertainment however, and these episodes do have their charms. Though, given the predictable mysteries and obvious maguffin of the first two episodes, they're rather conspicuously weighted towards the final set of episodes. Okamura, non-idiot that he is, seems aware of the fact that the little windows into his protagonists' inner workings far outstrip his world-building tidbits for entertainment value. Which would explain why he devotes two entire episodes to Yin, delving into what it means to be stripped of one's emotions, with surprisingly affecting results. Yin's silent battle to reconnect with the memories of emotions that she can no longer feel has an emotive depth that shames the all of the previous tale's nonsense about Super Special Rocks and Super Special Powers. The peril that Yin is in, coming as it does from Hei himself, feels very real, and Okamura does a commendable job of making the outcome matter...particularly when you consider that Yin is basically an automaton. And of course it doesn't hurt that Gai Kurasawa occasionally injects some much-needed humor by poking his big flatfoot nose where it don't belong.
It isn't an exaggeration to say that the series is at its best when at its most personal. Buildings collapse, powers go berserk and back-door dealings twist themselves into triple-crossing knots, but none of it makes the impression that even the quietest of Yin's introspective interludes does. For all the money pumped into Hei's fights, it's obvious that Okamura's heart is in the drama rather than the action. Yin's futile struggle to summon a smile is cutely convincing, while Hei's showdown with opera-blasting contractor Bertha, though expertly animated, is practically perfunctory. It is only during Yin's climactic flashback that Okamura, his crew and composer Yoko Kanno achieve a sort of synergy, pouring their considerable skills into a sequence of silent beauty and power. It's the volume's only truly memorable moment, and a nicely understated reminder of both Okamura's directorial prowess and his willingness to let his visuals do the talking. Unfortunately it's also a reminder of how underwhelming everything else is.
These four episodes represent a much smoother stretch for Funimation's dub than the last five. That means fewer face-plants, but also fewer flashes of brilliance. The rewrite takes its greatest liberties when dealing with Kurasawa and Kiko's dialogue, leveling some dual-language issues and obscuring some culturally specific humor. As a result their rapport loses the headlong energy (and self-referential humor) it had before. Luckily Brandon Potter continues to tear into Kurasawa's character with hammed-up gusto, so the more subdued script is less an issue than it might have been. Ditto for Brittney Karbowski's Kiko. Jason Liebrecht's Hei is a schizophrenic variation on his Syaoran from Tsubasa, while Brina Palencia makes the most of the Yin episodes, turning in an appropriately sensitive performance as young Yin. The non-Kurosawa rewrites thankfully preserve the series' essential reserve this time around.
Some production art (with episode-specific comments) and a commentary by Palencia, John Swasey (Huang) and voice director Zach Bolton are all that the extras-whores can look forward to this volume. The commentary is unusually focused, yielding much information about the impressions, experiences and duties of the dub team. There are also an unusual number of insights into the series itself. When Bolton mentions that the series only ever reveals sixty percent of what it knows, trusting you to figure the remaining forty percent on your own, you can't help but curse the man for so easily summing up that one elusive factor that keeps the series interesting despite its perpetual underachievement. Months of agonizing over what it is that keeps bringing viewers back, and bang! he sums it up in one blithe sentence. There are better series on the market, many of them with plagiaristically similar premises, but that quality—a willingness to let viewers form their own conclusions without beating them into a stupor with two-by-fours of explanatory dialogue—is rare enough that Darker than Black ends up standing out. Just a little. It's just a shame that Tensai Okamura and his raft of talented collaborators couldn't swing something better than “just a little.”
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B-
+ Back-story for Yin that reveals much about the dolls while unexpectedly making you feel for its emotionless protagonist.
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