Ten years ago, an impenetrable field known as “Hell’s Gate” appeared in Tokyo, and in its wake people across the world began to manifest powerful psychic abilities. Called “Contractors,” each has his or her own unique power, but must pay a cost for its use which varies from self-mutilation to excessive eating to obsessive-compulsive behavior. Their existence kept secret from the general public, control of contractors is highly-prized by various intelligence organizations and other private interests, though the contractors themselves are sometimes treated as less than human. Hei, an especially powerful contractor known to authorities only by the code designation BK201, accomplishes varied missions for a mysterious syndicate, which include getting information from escaped and retired researchers and rescuing a captured notorious contractor who seems to have lost her powers. Assisting him is the blind “doll” Yin and Mao, a talking cat.
For as long as stories about super-powered individuals have existed in human lore, they have always had some sort of contrivance to explain the existence of powers beyond the normal physical realm, whether it be science, technology, magic, spiritual, genetics, aliens, or some combination of those factors. The biggest problem with the first volume of Darker than BLACK is that its take on the origin of its super-human abilities is more nonsensical than most. It seems like the creators had some cool ideas for super-powered individuals and the kind of situations they could get into but could not come up with an adequate justification for how these individuals had powers, so they just forced things together to create some nearly incomprehensible mumbo-jumbo about a wall mysteriously appearing and a fake sky replacing the real one, a sky whose fake stars apparently flare when the contractor (yes, the designation is left uncapitalized in the subtitles, though it is capitalized in the Extras) synchronized to that star uses his powers. Granted, this could possibly make more sense as the series goes on, but through the first five episodes at least it’s best to just go with the flow and let the stories run their courses.
The structuring of the powers also leaves a lot to be desired. Having some kind of cost or penalty associated with power use has its roots in ancient mysticism from across the world, but the peculiarities of the “costs” in this case are, in some cases, downright dumb. Having to lay stones out in a square grid whenever you use your powers, smoke cigarettes, or dog-ear all of the pages in a book? Please! At least the guy who had to break one of his own fingers every time he used his powers had a real (and credible!) cost. Let’s not even get started on the lameness of terms like “contractor,” “moratorium,” and “forfeiter” for individuals at various stages of power use/development.
Set aside that nonsense, though, and the first volume actually assembles a pair of sharp two-episode story arcs and an intriguing beginning to the third arc. Both the initial arc about the researcher on the lam and the second arc about the emerging contractor offer surprisingly poignant and human stories as a foundation for the super-powered mayhem, while the last episode opens up a whole posse of new questions and revelations, including why a woman once regarded as the most dangerous and feared of all contractors looks so positively morose. Linking the stories together into a vaguely overarching plot is Misaki Kirihara’s quest for the mysterious BK201. And it’s hard to ignore any series which figures out a way to include a talking cat in the cast.
Amongst the rest of its cast, Hei is a hard one to figure out as a central character, as how much of how he behaves is subterfuge for his current assignment, and how much is real, is unclear so far. He does seem to have a heart, yet under cover of his mask he also does some heartless things, too. Yin, the blue-haired girl who seems to be his partner, only ever serves as a tool, getting so little character development that these episodes do not even make it clear that she’s supposedly blind. Huang, who seems to be Hei’s boss/job provider, gives off a typical mobster vibe, and most other recurring cast members are also fairly typical for their roles. The featured guest stars in each arc make more of an impression, especially Chiaki (the female researcher) and Yuka (the teenager).
The impression given off by the look of this original BONES production suggests that this is what Speed Grapher might have looked like had it been given a more refined look and more talented staff. It excels in its detailed background art and in computerized vehicle animation that looks more natural and integrated than other recent attempts, while its character designs and animation sometimes have a roughness to them not typical of most other BONES productions, as well as some character designs that borrow heavily from other BONES series, especially Kurau: Phantom Memory. Quality control, which has often been an issue for BONES, remains consistent through this span, however.
Yoko Kanno stands behind the musical score for this one, and turns in another sterling effort. The scenes hop with life when they need to thanks to her score, which predominately uses rock-infused themes but proves well capable of handling softer moments with gentle piano numbers. It may not be one of her most distinctive efforts, but the series is certainly better for it. The heavy opener “Howling” by abingdon boys school starkly contrasts with the much more melodic, adult contemporary-styled closer “Tsukiakari” by Rie Fu, providing a symbolic representation of both the heavier and softer sides of the content.
The Japanese cast does an unusually good job of matching voices to lip flaps and turns in more subtle, understated performances than is typical for Japanese voice acting. The English dub stays stride for stride, similarly keeping its actors restrained without losing any of the feeling of the original performances. As per the norm, Funimation’s script meddles quite a bit with the original script, but not as much so as is often seen in Funimation productions.
Amongst the Extras included on this volume are textless opener and closer and a “production artwork” file which is actually split between character bios and background production art. Also included is a commentary track for episode 2 done by Colleen “Chiaki” Clinkenbeard and Jason “Hei” Liebrecht. (The most interesting revelation? Rose Anderson from Solty Rei is the character she’s voiced that Ms. Clinkenbeard most identifies with.)
Though built on a shaky foundation and with suspect structure, the first volume of Darker than BLACK still finds enough substance in its initial story arcs, and enough support from its musical score and voice acting, to weather its first storms.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : A-
+ Solid storytelling in individual story arcs, effective musical score.
− Nonsensical explanation/structure for super-powers, weak character development in some cases.