Hei and a whole heap of other Contractors return, along with a few new faces, for another season of Darker than Black, which seems to have gone all magical girl on me. As much as I love magical girls, though, I’m not so sure that that’s a good change…
What They Say:
Two years have passed since Hei and Yin escaped the Syndicate after the events of the first season. Making their way to Russia, Hei encounters a young girl named Suou Pavlichenko, whose family is gradually pulled into the war between contractors and various intelligence factions. Meanwhile, Misaki Kirihara has quit her position in Foreign Affairs to begin her own investigations into Hei, the Contractors and the Syndicate.
Audio is provided in English 5.1 surround and Japanese 2.0 stereo versions – I listened to the Japanese track for this release. The show is heavy on dialogue, saving the action for short, sharp scenes – during dialogue-heavy periods there’s not much opportunity to get creative with the soundtrack, but the action scenes make full use of the channels available. Occasional spot-checks of the English surround mix show it to be equally as good. There were no apparent problems.
Video is presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect, enhanced for anamorphic playback. There are a lot more daytime scenes in this release than there were with the first season, which give the series a bit more of a chance to show of visually, the some nice use of colour and detailed scenes. There were no apparent encoding issues.
No packaging was provided with our review copy.
As usual for most Manga releases these days, the menus are a largely static affair, with a screen featuring the main characters (Suo cradling her gun on gisc one; Hei and Suo on disc two; and Yin of disc three), with options provided for Play All, Episode Selection, Languages and Extras on each disc. There are no transition animations, so it’s all quick and easy to use.
There’s a reasonable set of extras here, spread across the three discs. Discs 1 and 3 have episode commentaries for episodes 4 and OVA1, featuring the English dub cast, while 2 has creditelss versions of the opening and closing sequences for the TV series.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
A little clarification before we get into talking about plotlines. This set actually contains two series: Darker than Black: Gemini of the Meteor, a 12-episode TV series that was broadcast in Japan in late 2009; and Darker than Black: Gaiden, a 4-episode OVA series that was released in early 2010. The thing to bear in mind, though, is that in story terms, Gaiden comes before Gemini of the Meteor – and the TV series will make a lot more sense if you watch Gaiden first, as it explains some fairly key issues in Gemini. So that’s the way I’m going to look at them, too. I scoff “order of release”.
After going on the run from the Syndicate with Yin, Hei soon finds that the changes in her behaviour are unmistakable – no longer the pliant, obedient person that a Doll should be, she’s becoming assertive, showing self-will and determination – and gaining abilities with her Observer Spirit that she simply shouldn’t have. The emergence of her new powers hasn’t gone un-noticed by others, either – they fit worryingly well with a prophecy that foretells doom should she be allowed to fully awaken to her new self, while the Syndicate itself quickly tears itself apart as its members become desperate to gain access to those powers for themselves.
Meanwhile, in Russia, twins Shion and Suo were watching a meteor shower with their father in Siberia, when one of the meteors impacted very close to them. The incident led to Shion becoming a Contractor, while his price for the contract left him confined to a wheelchair. Shion was locked away in the family home after that, with Suo forbidden to see him while their father researched just what had happened to him. But their father has also been involved in work on the fragments of the meteor that has brought him to the attention of several shady groups – and eventually sees Suo end up in Hei’s care. In the course of trying to escape from her other pursuers, though, Suo’s own Contractor abilities awaken…
The OVA first, then. Yin had already begun to show unusual attitude for a Doll back in the original TV series, leading to her forming a rather unusual relationship with Hei – not quite love, perhaps, but as near to it as a Contractor and Doll were ever likely to get. That was what prompted them to go on the run, but their elopement proves short-lived thanks to Yin’s awakening powers. At only four episodes, there’s not a hell of a lot of ground covered by the OVA, but it’s important stuff all the same, as Yin’s awakening quite possibly affects the fate of the world. For those of us who don’t mind a little sentimentalism in their storylines, it’s also presented in a very engaging, doomed-lovers kind of way that made it very enjoyable to watch.
Gemini of the Meteor, perhaps a little less so. After the events of the OVA, Hei has become a depressed, ill-shaven drunkard. He’s still taking on work as a Contractor, but he’s not what he once was, and its in this weakened state that he ends up taking 13-year-old Suo under his care. Suo is not what you’d expect from a lead character in a series like Darker than Black – young, naive, impetuous, a ray of light almost in all the grittiness that the other characters have about them, the first thing that struck me was the thought that, Uh-oh, they’re trying to appeal to the moe audience here. Add a tendency in the first few episodes to try and get her out of her clothes (or at least down to her underwear) once per episode, a recurring sequence when she calls on her Contractor abilities that just screams “magical girl!” at you, and the transformation of Mao from a cold, aloof cat to a cute ‘n’ cuddly flying squirrel, and warning bells were ringing. Loudly.
Fortunately, they were a bit of a false alarm. Those are all visual elements, things you can see, but in terms of the things that people do and the fell that the series has, this is still firmly Darker than Black – Suo’s arrival does mix things up a bit, but in the way that she gives Hei someone else to care for, and in the way that she manages to haul him out of the gloomy depths he’s been in since he “lost” Yin, she turns out to be a useful, sympathetic character, and not one who’s just wheeled out on occasions when her Contractor ability (which allows her to summon up an anti-tank Big F**king Gun in exchange for the price of making paper cranes – seems a fair deal to me) would be useful. Yes, she looks cute doing it, but she’s rather more three-dimensional than that. Thankfully.
The story includes some neat twists and turns, too, and makes good use of Misaki – now working for the shadowy Section 3 and making a real difference to events, rather than just trying to find out more about Hei at every turn. Although that urge hasn’t entirely left her either. Add in the traditional appearances of comic detective duo Gai and Kiko, and most of what made the first season of Darker than Black so damned good are still here.
But there’s something that’s not quite right. While the ending of the first season felt just about perfect (a big factor in getting it a high rating from me), the ending this time around most definitely doesn’t. Part of that may be down to it ending on a decided downer, while there’s also a hint of reset-button about it (a real pet hate of mine); the story to get there seems a little contrived, too, with prophecy and dreams playing a large part – things that didn’t have much place in the first season. In some ways, Gemini of the Meteor is a rather different beast than the first season, and doesn’t come out so well as a result.
Which is still some way short of it being rubbish, of course, and it’s most definitely not. Whatever the failings with some aspects of the story, we’ve got characters here who have shown growth over the two seasons, maturing into different people and helping others to do so along the way, and I like how that’s been handled. Add in the show’s traditional action, which is still of the same high standard, and there’s still a lot here to like. Definitely worth a look.
Japanese Language 2.0, English Language 5.1, English Subtitles, Creditless Opening and Closings, Episode 4 Commentary, OVA1 Commentary.
Content Grade: B+
Audio Grade: B+
Video Grade: B+
Packaging Grade: N/A
Menu Grade: B+
Extras Grade: A-
Released By: Manga Entertainment UK
Release Date: December 26th, 2011
Running Time: 400 minutes
Video Encoding: 480i/p MPEG2
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Toshiba 37X3030DB 37″ widescreen HDTV; Sony PS3 Blu-ray player (via HDMI, upscaled to 1080p); Acoustic Solutions DS-222 5.1 speaker system.