Death Note [Anime]: Woefully underwhelming

I’ve already mentioned how I didn’t enjoy this anime, and now I get to tear it to shreds to my heart’s content! If you’re a fan of the 37-episode psychological thriller Death Note (2006-2007), and don’t agree with my review, please let me know in the comments. Let’s get some discussion happening!

Death Note

What’s it about?

Genius student Yagami Light is bored in school one day when he sees a mysterious object fall from the sky. He investigates it and discovers that it is a “Death Note”; a book that kills anyone whose name is written in it. After confirming the note’s powers, Light meets Ryuk, a Shinigami (Japanese God of Death), who explains that he dropped the Death Note into the human world to see what would happened. Light realises that this object is his chance to change the world for the better by eradicating all evil. Once a perfect world is created, he will be able to rule over it as a god of justice. Targeting criminals and given the name of “Kira” (killer) by the public, Light attracts the attention of the mysterious L, a world-famous detective. Neither of the two expect the other to be worthy of their intelligence, and what follows is a game of cat-and-mouse as they constantly attempt to outwit each other. With L on his heels, and other Death Notes falling to Earth, Light finds himself running a narrow line between destruction and success.

The Positives

One of the first things you will notice about this anime is how it looks. The art work is amazing, especially when you consider that this anime was made in 2006… that’s almost ten years ago! There’s some interesting artistic things going on with the character’s eyes throughout the series (always great to see, considering the prominence of eyes in anime), and the overall work with faces is really well done. This series excels in work with shadows- definitely something to look out for when watching! I also liked the overall gritty, dark atmosphere of the series; something that both the art and the soundtrack (minus the awful opening songs) contributed to, and I liked how the art got darker (metaphorically) as Light continued his killing sprees.

This picture really shows how good the art was in terms of the face, shadows, and eyes. You can also get a sense of the somewhat gritty tone of the series.

This picture really shows how good the art was in terms of the face, shadows, and eyes. You can also get a sense of the somewhat gritty tone of the series.

Another thing I can really appreciate about this anime is the abundance of some really forward-thinking and cool ideas. I liked the way the creators played around with both the characters’ mindsets as well as the viewers’ mindsets, the posing of the moral question over Light’s actions, the way the characters manipulated each other, and the way the main character was the series’ antagonist- although a well-known troupe, it’s not often used as directly or as cleverly as it was in this series. However, as much as I can admire the originality of these foundational ideas, I’m sorry to say that they are severely undermined by their execution, the actual characters, and a number of other aspects of the series.

The Negatives

I’m going to start with what I easily see as the main problem I have with this anime; the characters. Death Note has taught me a very important lesson; if the writers cannot get me to care about any of the characters, they cannot make me give a damn about their series. I honestly did not care about the fate of a single character in this anime. Misa was so freaking annoying, and easily the character I hated the most. I get that Light’s arrogance is meant to be something akin to his hamartia, and his overly-dramatic flair a “quirk” of his personality, but I rolled my eyes and glazed over every time he monologued. Which was a lot. As already mentioned, his role as both the main character and the antagonist was very unique, but if that’s the only thing Light has going for him, then there’s a major problem. As for L, the writers tried oh so hard to make him a quirky oddball, but largely only achieved creepiness. And because the two main characters worked so well, we get glorified carbon copies of them in form of Mello and Near. Although, to be fair, Near accomplished more in the last five or so episodes of the series than L ever did. I actually got excited in these episodes about what was going to happen next(!). Finally, the other characters were generic and bland. I was cheering for Light the whole series, because I believe the death of all of the characters would have been far more enjoyable to watch.

Near... the closest I got to caring about a character.

Near… the closest I got to caring about a character.

I have already mentioned that this series has quite an interesting, dark tone. Most of the time. It is drama-heavy and intense, and with good reason, considering the premise of the show. However, there were many moments where the drama was so intense I had to wonder if we had crossed the bridge into parody. Was I meant to be taking this seriously? There were too many moments that were so incredibly cheesy with multiple takes of the same scene from different angles with intense music. Most series involving parody give some sort of hint that it’s a parody of sorts, but Death Note’s almost-always serious tone made me wonder if the creators weren’t quite sure what constitutes as high drama and what is just hilariously too much. And that final episode… I regularly watch Asian melodramas, but they have nothing on the overly-dramatic last episode of this series.

One of Light's finer expressions.

One of Light’s finer expressions.

Finally, the pacing. As a whole I felt that the pacing for this series was a bit hit and miss. Sure, they found enough time to make up 37 episodes, and yet somehow it doesn’t feel like all that much happens, save for a few moments. You get lots of planning, lots of talking, lots of explaining, and yet not much else. To top it all off, when the series finally manages to get me somewhat interested in it- 23 episodes in- with some thrilling suspense, the series essentially shoots itself in the foot at its highest moment. [SPOILERS/] It achieves this amazing feat through the death of one of the main characters. Now from what I understand, this is a contentious point amongst fans of the series, with many believing that this particular death degrades the series as a whole, whilst others believe that it’s still fine afterwards. I’m from a third camp- the series was awful long before this point. [\SPOILERS].

Conclusion

Art: 9/10: The art is amazing, and the work with shadows a particular strong point.

Story: 5/10: There is a lot of potential with the characters manipulating each other, but the pacing is all over the place. How did they manage to make up 37 episodes with so little happening?

Characters: 3/10: I can appreciate some of the risks the creators took with the characters, but I did not have positive feelings towards a single character.

I should have loved Death Note. On its most basic level it has everything I love, and it is one of the most highly rated and recommended anime. Considering when it aired, the series has amazing art and some innovative ideas going on in it. However, the plot of the series is hit and miss, the characters are dull or extremely unlikeable, and the ultra-serious tone feels like it unintentionally crosses into parody. I can’t help but wonder if everyone’s love of Death Note is born from nostalgia for the series’ heyday, or even worse, the expectation to enjoy the “best anime series”. Overall I give it a 5.5/10, and a warning if you plan to watch it- it may not be amazing as you expect.

-S

I thought I might try something new at the end of my review; even if you don’t want to leave a comment, I’d greatly appreciate it if you responded to the poll below 🙂

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Mini-Reviews: Fruits Basket, Ghost Hunt, Ouran High School Host Club [Anime]

So, I’ve already reviewed Fruits Basket, Ghost Hunt, and Ouran High School Host Club in their manga forms, but I also wanted to give a review of them in their anime forms. Instead of doing a full-length review and essentially repeating myself for the plot and characters, I decided to take a quick look at each one, point out the main differences between the anime and manga and give a very brief review and a rating. Hope you enjoy 🙂

Fruits Basket

Fruits Basket

The anime adaptation (2001) of this manga is only 26 episodes long and covers volumes 1-7. However, to get a more dramatic ending, the revealing of Kyo’s “true from” takes place at the end of the anime, when in the manga it occurs in volume 6. Apart from a few other minor changes, which you expect to see in such a short adaptation, the anime is fairly faithful to the manga. However, only covering the first 7 volumes means that the anime does suffer from missing out on the darker aspects of the story and the more in-depth focus on the characters. There is a stronger focus on the friendship between Tohru, Yuki, and Kyo, which, at times, makes the anime feel a lot sillier than what it should be. Having said, however, the characters are bought to life really well, and the bright colours of the art really suits the story. The soundtrack is quite good, and helps draw out the comedy elements of the story. I particularly loved the fanfare that played whenever Ayame’s intense personality came out. The opening and ending themes are cute, but nothing special, and the overall art style remains typically shoujo.

Conclusions. The anime is a lot of fun, but without the entire story being adapted, it feels a bit silly in places. However, the characters are bought to life really well, the anime is funny, and I like that the writers went to some effort to give the series a tied-up ending. Overall, I give it a 6.5/10.

Ghost Hunt

Ghost Hunt

Every case but the last one is covered in the 25-episode anime adaptation (2006) of Ghost Hunt (volumes 1-9). I’m a bit disappointed that “The Forgotten Children”, which is one of my favourite cases, wasn’t covered, but at least you miss out on the weird twist that is revealed at the end of the manga. Overall, the anime adaptation is very faithful to the manga, the characters are bought to life really well, and the scary scenes have the right creepy atmosphere. The art is very similar to the manga, which is a good thing, and the music really fits the spooky atmosphere. I particularly liked the starting theme.

Conclusions. This is a good little anime to watch, and is a really nice adaptation of the manga. Although the series is not really concluded, partly due to the case-by-case approach of the plot, it doesn’t matter too much. Even if you haven’t read the manga, this is a good anime to watch. Overall I give it a 7/10.

Ouran High School Host Club

Ouran High School Host Club

This shoujo manga was adapted into a 26-episode anime (2006). The adaptation is bit haphazard; volumes 1-5 and 7-8 are adapted, but with changes to the order of events and the combination of other events; volume 9 is adapted to the ending of the anime, with some aspects of volume 6, and the inclusion of a non-cannon character, Éclair Tonnerre, who is quite similar to Princess Michelle of the manga. All things considered, however, the anime is fairly faithful to the manga in the way in depicts the events and the character; it’s obvious the writers were attempting to make events more salient and give the series a better conclusion than what it would otherwise get. What I really liked about the anime is that the characters’ personalities are captured really well. Tamaki’s flamboyancy really comes out in the animation, and contrasts with Haruhi’s straightforward and apathetic nature. The emphasis of the anime adaptation is fun and humour; the sound effects and music during the comedic scenes highlights this well. Although the actual artwork itself is not super amazing, it gets the job done.

Conclusions. Overall, this is a pretty good adaptation of the manga. The focus on the first few volumes means that you don’t get all of the character development that goes on in the manga, but you do get the fun, over-the-top, Host Club atmosphere. A must-watch if you loved the manga. Given it’s such a short adaptation, I still think it deserves a 7/10.

 

-S

Ookami Kakushi- Masque of the Wolf [Anime]: You can make better use of your time

It’s been a while since I last posted, sorry! Here’s something I watched recently; Ookami Kakushi- Masque of the Wolf (2010), a 12 episode (attempt at a) horror/mystery anime. 

Ookami

What’s it about?

Hiroshi Kuzumi, his younger sister Mana, and their occult-writer father Masaaki have recently moved to the small mountain town of Jouga. The town has some unusual ancient customs that are still practised, and is supposedly home to a species of giant wolves. Hiroshi soon settles in, and is surprised by his popularity at his new school, with his classmates overzealous in befriending him. However, something seems to be amiss, with one girl, Nemuru Kushinada, acting cold towards him and seeming to be feared by the other students. It’s later revealed that the town itself is hiding some dark secret when a girl with a scythe murders one of Hiroshi’s classmates.

The Positives

There are only a couple of things I liked in this anime… the first is the ceremonial outfit that is worn by the girl who does the killings. Her scythe is also pretty cool with the bells on it and the crescent moon. The only other thing I particularly liked about this anime is the Jouga Counting Rhyme, which you hear a part of at the end of every episode.

I loved this costume!

I loved this costume!

There were a couple of other positives which I’ll mention briefly; the soundtrack of this anime included some pretty music, but was not particularly memorable, and the overall idea of the anime was pretty interesting, which is what drew me to it in the first place.

The Negatives

Let’s start with the visuals. I really did not like the art in this anime. Whilst some of the still shots and backgrounds were nice, the art for the characters was poor. The faces were disproportional (more so than most anime); the mouth and nose looked squashed with the eyes and forehead taking up the most space. There wasn’t really much attention paid to the movement of the characters either, which really showed in the action scenes.

Art

Ugh… really didn’t like the faces in this anime…

Moving onto characters; I honestly did not care much for the mains. In fact, the only character I felt any sympathy for was Sakaki, the antagonist.

Finally, the plot. It was quite slow, dragging throughout all the episodes, even during the climax. The explanation for the killings in the town was predictable, which made me quickly lose interest. Although I understood the role of the Hunter and the different ‘races’ in the town, the importance of Kaori and her relationship to the Goddess Kannon seemed to come out of nowhere and was not well explained. Overall, it was just too dull.

Conclusion

Art:  5/10: Whilst some of the backgrounds were really nice, I couldn’t get past the poor art of the characters.

Story: 3/10: Although it had potential to be quite interesting, the execution of the plot was dull and slow.

Characters: 2/10: Characters were boring and I did not care for them at all.

Ookami Kakushi was a pretty disappointing anime; poor art, a slow plot, and characters that weren’t particularly appealing. Overall, I give it a 2/10, and a strong recommendation to spend your time elsewhere. If you liked the idea of the series, I’m sure you can find it better executed in a different anime…

-S

Ghost Hunt [Manga]: A fun, quick read

I decided to review the mystery/supernatural manga Ghost Hunt (1998-2010) for this review. Originally published as light novels, written by Fuyumi Ono, the stories were adapted into a manga of 12 volumes by Shiho Inada.

Ghost Hunt

What’s it about?

Mai Taniyama and her friends enjoy telling ghost stories, many of them stemming from the old, abandoned building at their high school. One night they are interrupted by Kazuya Shibuya, a handsome, 17 year old paranormal investigator who has been called in by the school principal to investigate the building. The next day, Mai curiously wanders into the building, accidentally interfering with Kazuya’s investigation, and inadvertently breaking a video camera and injuring Kazuya’s assistant, Lin Koujo. Kazuya demands that Mai work in Lin’s place to pay back the cost of the video camera. In the process, he is nicknamed ‘Naru’ (from ‘narcissist’) by Mai, which ends up sticking. With the school building proving to be more trouble than first thought, Naru calls in help from a number of others, including the Buddhist monk Houshou Takigawa, the Shinto miko (priestess) Ayako Matsuzaki, the Catholic priest John Brown, and the spirit medium Masako Hara. Little does Mai know that this case marks the beginning of her involvement with the Shibuya Psychic Research Centre…

The Positives

The manga is composed of seven cases that the team works on, with at least one volume dedicated to each case. These cases are what drive the plot. They are varied in both the settings, and with what the underlying paranormal phenomena is that is causing problems. I found each case to be well-written and very interesting; my personal favourites were Doll House (volume two), The Bloodstained Labyrinth (volumes six and seven) and Forgotten Children (volumes ten and eleven). There are plenty of laughs in each case, and also a number of quite intense moments, a number of horrifying ideas, and a few little scares along the way (although this is dependent on how scared you get… if, like me, you can’t stand creepy ghost children, than prepare yourself before reading).

One of the more creepier scenes (in the Blood Stained Labrinyth case)

One of the more creepier scenes (in the Blood Stained Labyrinth case)

The majority of the characters are likeable, particularly Bou-san (Houshou), and later character Osamu Yasuhara, who provides most of the laughs. The girls aren’t initially as likeable, but do improve. All of the characters have good chemistry with each other. Mai is a good protagonist, and plays the important role of bringing the ‘humanity’ back to the ghosts that the team are dealing with.

One thing I really liked about this manga is that it involves an interesting mixture of Buddhist, Shinto and Christian beliefs as well as Japanese and Chinese mythology and folklore. There is also some (limited) exploration of the difference between Eastern and Western treatment of paranormal events. However, you don’t have to know anything about ghosts/demons/psychic abilities going into the manga because everything is explained very well (sometimes repetitively). I really liked learning about the phenomena and I found all of the information provided really interesting.

The art starts of very basic and not particularly appealing, but it does improve greatly throughout the manga. The mangaka gets particularly good at drawing the creepy scenes and expressing emotion through the characters’ facial expressions.

The Negatives

Ghost Hunt, as I’ve already mentioned, focuses on the cases that the team is working on for the plot. In the last volume it is revealed that there is an over-all plot, but I thought this was a poor effort because it doesn’t get much attention in the earlier volumes, only being hinted at. Furthermore, I thought the twist in the last volume was unnecessary and, well, not particularly believable or interesting. To be fair, though, if I was reading this at the age of 13-14 (i.e. the target audience), I would have had my mind blown.

Secondly, I can’t help but fundamentally dislike Naru. He’s the typical, arrogant shoujo male that you see in so many manga and anime. There were a few moments where I found his personality to be quite funny, but without him softening up or even loosening up throughout the series, I just found myself disliking him more and more.

Finally, I finished the manga wanting to know more about the characters. Mai points out in one of the later chapters that all of the members of the research team seem to have something strange about them; for example, John is too young to be a Catholic exorcist, Bou-san leaving his temple, even if he had one, is not satisfactorily explained, and so on. However, this isn’t elaborated on, which I found pretty irritating.

Despite their great chemistry in the manga, the characters should have been fleshed out  (R-L

Despite their great chemistry in the manga, the characters should have been fleshed out
(R-L A conversation between Bou-san, Mai and Yasuhara (glasses))

Conclusion

Art:  7/10: It slowly improves over the manga, and by the end is quite good.

Story: 7/10: While each of the individual cases are well-written, the attempt at an over-all plot is poor and the last-volume twist is disappointing.

Characters: 8/10: Although the characters are certainly likeable, I wish we had learnt more about them.

This manga has some well-written cases in it, and there is enough information for someone who is interested in the subject, but doesn’t necessarily know anything about it, to keep up with the action and learn a few things along the way. The characters are likeable, even though they are lacking development. If you’re into the paranormal or are just looking for an interesting manga with a few laughs along the way, I recommend Ghost Hunt. Overall, I give this manga a 7/10.

-S

Oh yeah, look out for Gollum in the 'Forgotten Children' case

Oh yeah, look out for Gollum in the ‘Forgotten Children’ case.

Darker Than Black: Gaiden [Anime]: If only the second series got as much attention as these OVA episodes

Despite my disappointment with the second series of Darker Than Black, I still went on to watch the OVA Darker Than Black: Gaiden (2010). Now, I wouldn’t normally review the OVAs in a series, but I will make an exception here because it plays an important role in filling the gap between the first Darker Than Black series and the second (but was released last). The OVA only consists of four episodes.

Gaiden

What’s it about?

After the Tokyo explosion, Hei and Yin are on the run from the Syndicate, trying to get out of Japan. Working hard to keep one step ahead of their pursuers, things start to go astray when Hei notices that Yin starts acting erratically, seeming to ‘evolve’ from what she has been ‘programmed’ to do. Because of her ‘evolution’, she’s suddenly wanted by several different organisations. These OVA mark the beginning of Izanami’s possession of Yin.

The Positives

The quality of the art and music are still as good as the two series of Darker Than Black. Character styling is better in the OVA than it is in Gemini of the Meteor, and action scenes are still done very well. What’s really nice about these episodes is that they have the atmosphere of the first Darker Than Black series, but still manage to focus on themes of romance. Instead of feeling like a bizarre attempt at a shoujo, the four episodes have a sad, sweet, dark atmosphere.

It’s nice to finally get some explanations about the series, even if it’s only enough to get the second series to make a lot more sense.

However, the biggest strength of these episodes is the characterisation of Hei and Yin. Yin’s transformation is interesting to watch, especially when it becomes apparent that it is not a simple evolution but a possession, meaning that there is something else taking over her body. I really liked the way they portrayed Hei’s reaction to this change in Yin. At first he seems angry and frustrated with her, but it’s clearly obvious that he is concerned, even scared, about the changes, and that he cares for her deeply. There are also a number of cute, sweet moments between the two.

Hei x Yin

The Negatives

The first episode and last episodes are really good, but the middle ones feel like they are dragging in places. However, given that there are only four episodes, it isn’t a major concern.

One of the main negatives of the OVA is that there are still too many questions unanswered. When I first heard about these episodes I was looking forward to having some satisfactory answers… but it didn’t happen.

Anything else I should consider?

I watched these episodes after watching the second series, but I would advise you to consider watching them beforehand. They will fill in a lot of the gaps in the second series, and will allow the series to run a lot more smoothly.

Conclusion

Art:  8/10: The great quality art is maintained in the OVA, with character styling and action scenes particularly well done.

Story: 6.5/10: While not a lot happens, the OVA answers questions about the second series and also explores Yin and Hei’s relationship well.

Characters: 7/10: There are some interesting side-characters, particularly the Contractor Claude, but the main focus is on Hei and Yin.

I think that Darker Than Black: Gaiden achieves what it sets out to do in filling the gap between the two series. It’s handled very well with good art and music, and a lot of attention to Hei and Yin’s relationship. Although there isn’t as much action, the opening scene in the first episode and the closing scenes in the last episodes are memorable. However, you’re still left wanting explanations that you’re not going to get. Overall, I give it a 7/10. Watch it if you really like the Darker Than Black series, but if you’re looking for explanations beyond what happens between the two series, this isn’t going to help you.

-S

I thought that Claude, who only appears in the OVAs, has the best Contractor abilities.

I thought that Claude, who only appears in the OVAs, has the best Contractor abilities.

Darker Than Black: Gemini of the Meteor [Anime]: A let down in many, many ways

Following up last week’s review of Darker Than Black with its sequel, Darker Than Black: Gemini of the Meteor (2009). This series is only 12 episodes long. 

gemini

What’s it about?

Taking place two years after the end of the first series, Contractors have been exposed to the world and war seems to be brewing throughout. We are introduced to Suou Pavlichenko, a girl around thirteen years old living in Russia. Her twin brother, Shion, is a Contractor, and kept hidden in their house. Suou’s life is turned upside down when her house is raided by a number of organisations who are trying to find her father and Shion. Amidst all the fighting, one solo Contractor donning a black jacket and a mask kills Suou’s father. Later, Suou is forced to partner with Hei when he offers to take her to Tokyo where Shion is waiting for her, with Mao and the Doll July from the first series also accompanying them. For Suou, things go from bad to worse when she manages to gain Contractor powers.

The Positives

Firstly, it’s good the see that the art is still maintained at a good quality throughout this anime. As before, the action scenes are well executed and exciting to watch.

In terms of music, I only liked the opening theme, Stereopony’s “Tsukiakari no Michishirube“, and found the ending theme to be bland. However, the soundtrack, although minimal, still works well in the scenes, and particularly helps in keeping fighting scenes intense.

It was nice to see the creators branching out in terms of their story-telling. As Suou is the main character, there is more of a focus on what it is like to turn into a Contractor, so there is a larger focus on emotion and drama, which adds more depth to the series as a whole, and also to Suou’s character. There is also more of a focus on comedy, and I actually laughed out loud during a number of scenes, a big change from the first series.

July

Some attempts at comedy were really good.

Finally, it’s nice to get some, not much, but some explanation of the events that occurred in the first series (but still nowhere near enough to be satisfying).

The Negatives

There are a number of negatives that are apparent from early on in the series. Firstly, with the creators branching into different areas, there are less action scenes. However, something that was more of a let-down for me was the lack of atmosphere compared to the first series. The dark, film noir aspect was only there in a couple of scenes, and as a whole, the series felt like it was lacking life.

Secondly, a number of the male characters give of creepy, borderline-paedophile vibes with the way they interact with Suou. This also extends to Hei to some degree, particularly when he returns as an alcoholic. Furthermore, most of the other characters lack depth and are uninteresting, although I did like Mina Hazuki and her light-sabre katana.

I imagine that “Oh it’s happening within the Gate, there’s no need to explain what’s going on” was the thought process behind this ending…

Finally, the major let-down of the second series; its plot. I think the main problem is that it changes focus too much; first it’s about Suou becoming a contractor, then it’s about Hei finding Yin, then it’s about “Izanami” and “Izanagi” and the destruction of the world, with minimum connections between the different focuses. Furthermore, the pacing is weird, and not ‘weird’ in the sense of the first series, but just all over the place. Earlier I said that you get some explanations concerning the first series, but there is little explanation for the events of the second, with the writers seeming to assume that the audience already knows background information, particularly in regards to Yin. Finally, the ending will leave you googling for an explanation because you will have no idea what the hell happened.

I imagine that “Oh it’s happening within the Gate, there’s no need to explain what’s going on” was the thought process behind this ending…

Conclusion

Art:  8/10: The good quality art is maintained, and character styling remains pretty good throughout.

Story: 4/10: A weirdly paced plot that jumps focuses and leads to a massive “huh?” conclusion.

Characters: 6/10: While I liked the new edition of Suou, and Hei, once he returns to his former glory, a lot of the other characters were uninteresting or downright creepy.

Compared to the first series, Darker Than Black: Gemini of the Meteor, is a massive let down, and not just because it offers little meaningful explanation of the first series. Whilst action scenes are still maintained at a high quality, there are less of them, and the expansion into more comedic and dramatic scenes results in a loss of atmosphere. In some scenes, it starts to feel like the creators decided to turn the gritty, film noir Darker Than Black series into a shoujo. Overall, I give it a 5/10. Watch it if you want to see the continuation of the Darker Than Black story-line, like I did, but don’t expect too much. It might be an idea to watch the OVA Darker Than Black: Gaiden first, to fill in the gap between the two series.

-S

If you don’t like bugs, there will be some scenes you won’t enjoy…

 

Darker Than Black [Anime]: Awesome ideas destroyed by the plot

I chose the mystery/action/supernatural anime Darker Than Black (2007) to review this week (and next week as there are two seasons). The first series is 25 episodes long with one OVA.  

darker than black

What’s it about?

This anime is set in the future where two mysterious areas, “Heaven’s Gate” in South America and “Hell’s Gate” in Tokyo, have appeared, replacing the real stars with fake ones, and leading to the emergence of ‘Contractors’ and ‘Dolls’. Contractors are characterised by wielding unique powers, but at the cost of a particular behaviour they must perform after using their power; their remuneration. Contractors tend to express little to no emotion, and see the world in a purely rational light. Dolls are blank, seemingly-programmable humans, who are able to gather information by sending out ‘observer spirits’ through various mediums such as glass or water, and are primarily used to gather information. All things about the mysterious Gates, including the Contractors and Dolls, are kept secret from the public, with only those working in domestic and international police/intelligence agencies, as well as the underworld knowing of them.

The story focuses on the exploits of Hei (known as Li Shenshun in civilian life), and his work for the ‘Syndicate’; an underworld organisation that targets information relating to Hell’s Gate. Hei works as part of a group, which includes the female doll Yin, the contractor Mao (in a cat’s body), and the ordinary human and ‘handler’ of the group, Huang.

The Positives

Starting with the visuals and sound. The art is very good, with fight scenes very fluid and well executed. The characters all look really nice with good styling. Hei is always well presented with his trademark mask and black cloak, and Yin caught my eye right from the start, although I don’t like Amber’s outfit. Sound is great; I loved the first opening and ending themes (abingdon boys school’s “Howling” and Rie fu’s “Tsukiakari” respectively), and, although I was less keen on the second opening and ending themes, they still fit the feel of the anime. The soundtrack throughout the series adds to the dark, film noir atmosphere of the anime. It’s edgy and cool, and is appropriate in all of the scenes (including the somewhat goofy ones involving private eye Gai Kurasawa and his assistant Kiko Kayanuma).

main

(L-R) Huang, Yin, Hei and Mao. I really liked Yin’s styling throughout the series.

Another thing I really liked about this anime was the ideas in it. The Contractors are awesome; it was interesting to see exactly what their powers were, as well as what their remuneration involved. Some Contractors had better deals than others; one girl could set fire to any object at will, and had to hum for her remuneration, whilst one woman who could sing at any frequency and cause other objects to resonate had to eat something and vomit it back up. Because there is a lot of variety in powers, the fight scenes can get really epic, and, as already mentioned, the animation does it justice.

Finally, I found the majority of the characters to be likeable. Although Hei and Yin are at first very blank, you learn more about them as the series continue. Mao does a good job of lightening the mood every now and then, and I really liked Huang, particularly towards the end. However, Darker Than Black has a whole host of other characters, from the regularly occurring Misaki Kirihara and other members of the Public Security Bureau Foreign Affairs Section 4, to once-off Contractors, with all adding their own dynamic to the episodes they’re in. I also liked the involvement of different domestic and international organisations, and their different interests and motives.

The Negatives

The first thing that I noticed about this anime was the pacing. Generally each story arc, almost always focusing on the mission that Hei is involved in, is made up of two episodes. But each pair of episodes are barely connected to each other, which results in some weird pacing, and makes most of the anime feel disjointed.

Secondly, a lot of the characters don’t stick around for long. Most of the more interesting Contractors are only in their two-episode arc before they are killed or disappear with no explanation. I found this really annoying, especially since you feel so involved with the characters when they are focused on.

Mai Kashiwagi was one character I was expecting to see a lot more of.

Mai Kashiwagi was one character I was expecting to see a lot more of.

However, the biggest let-down of Darker Than Black is its plot. There is an overall plot, but you aren’t aware of it until the last few episodes, making this one of the slowest anime I have watched. When you do get to the good bit of the plot, it’s over in the space of a few episodes. Furthermore, the ending is messy and quite confusing, but at least you are assured knowing that there is a second series to (maybe?) make everything clear. The plot is also irritating in that there are virtually no explanations of the appearance of the Gates, what leads people to becoming Contractors or Dolls (or even whether Dolls are ‘programmable’ humans or just humans who have been through some sort of trauma and are now a shell of themselves), how the Gates led to the replacement of the night sky with a false one, or really anything that could explain what the hell is going on. 

Anything else I should consider?

If goriness isn’t your thing, best give this anime a miss. There are some brutal fighting scenes, including a character who slices his arms open constantly, as well as a number of other slightly disturbing scenes; a lot of dead, bloody bodies; a couple of people getting burnt to death; a woman getting her fingers broken during an interrogation, etc.

Conclusion

Art:  8/10: Good character styling, with quality art throughout, particularly the fight scenes.

Story: 6/10: Terrible, terrible, pacing, with a lot of unanswered questions remaining at the end. The only thing that really redeems it is the interesting ideas.

Characters: 7/10: The characters are nothing spectacular, but are likeable enough.

Darker Than Black could have been a lot more than what it is if there was more attention paid to pacing and explanation. The fighting scenes are good, the ideas are interesting, and the characters are likeable. However, I found myself watching it more for the dark atmosphere and the different powers of the Contractors than the story, but I did enjoy it for that. I mostly liked the final few episodes where there was actual plot, and it gave me hope that the second season would address the issues of the first. Overall, I give it a 7/10.

-S

Hei