Anime-Breakdown: Darker Than Black: Ryuusei no Gemini (2009) Series Review

If “Darker Than Black” was a band than their follow up album would be considered selling out. “Ryuusei no Gemini” is nothing like the first season coming across as an entirely different anime. It panders to the audience, the action is over the top, the soundtrack is less memorable, and the direction of the entire anime is different. Not all the pieces connect properly, but it is a decent follow up to the first season of “Darker Than Black”. It never reaches the same heights of season one, but it does have its own strength that makes it worth watching including an ending that is best described as unsatisfactory.

Oh, there will be minor spoilers. While not intentional and kept vague as possible, it takes place a whole year after the first season of Darker Than Black and Darker Than Black: Gaiden four part OVA. It’s recommended you avoid this review for that purpose alone. I suggest seeing the previous season and OVA’s before reading or entirely ignoring this review.

Good: Different direction and different strengths

“Ryuusei no Gemini” from the first episode tells an overarching story. Focusing on two leading characters, Hei and Suou Pavlichenko, each with their own unique storylines. Hei story arc deals with finding Yin while Suou storyline deals more with finding answers about her family and her past. These two characters have different goals allowing the core of the main story to progress smoothly. Providing a different viewpoint from their adventure. How Hei goes about achieving his goal is vastly different to how Suou goes about reaching her goals. Suou goal is more personal vocalizing her thoughts in any situation without hesitation. Understanding how she feels throughout the entire season is plain as day. Hei is more tormented and defeated with his storyline in vein of a redemption story. Attempting to finish what he originally couldn’t because of his emotions.

The first season of “Darker Than Black” went for capturing noir and “Ryuusei no Gemini” goes for capturing the action genre. Accomplishing this by having a major revelation or action scene occur in every episode attempting to imitate the effect of a cliffhanger to encourage the viewer to see the next episode immediately. There is rarely ever a moment of safety for the heroes wherever they go. Someone is always behind them chasing them down. Another added inclusion from the change in direction is the material is allowed to show more emotion. Characters in general across more lively in the series without the usual restrictions emotionless contractors are written in.

One noticeable difference from “Ryuusei no Gemini” from the rest of the series is the comedy plays a bigger role. Jokes are thrown into every episodes instead of spread out through out the series on special occasions. Its favorite kind of jokes involves everyone confusing Suou for her twin brother. There’s a recurring gag involving Genma Shizume making flirtatious remark at Suou unknowing to him she’s actually a girl. It’s a funny recurring joke since it doesn’t reuse it frequently and offers other forms of humor to keep it varied. Mostly from Mao who despite a change of appearance hasn’t lost his ability for spouting sarcastic remarks.

The supporting cast is larger in “Ryuusei no Gemini” getting the short end in characterization. This is very noticeable from the first episode when it decides to bring in characters from the first season only sideline them. Within the first episode, a specific character that had a big role in season one gets killed off quickly. The supporting characters that do influence the story generally don’t have much of a screen presence. Little characterization is mostly to blame resulting in a support cast to be only known for a single a trait. Mina Hazuki is a badass when she’s in combat, but the most memorable aspect about her personality is she’s a lesbian. Genma Shizume is a comedic pervert whose terrible at his job. There is not a single scene when he’s shown doing his competently on the field. Another character is Norio who first appears in episode four with a storyline hinting he would play some important role in the story. Norio is forgotten about past episode six and his time in the series is superfluous in the main story. Some other characters fade into the background because they operate behind the scenes, but never is their influence felt.

The ending is a major drawback this season because Suou whole motivation is to find answers. Her arc takes as much time to tell as Hei’s does. This gives “Ryuusei no Gemini” a whole different direction of solving mysteries so leaving unanswered questions is a negative. By the time episode twelve finishes despite every bit of information being told to the viewer what happened it won’t turn out satisfactory. Hei is the only character who could serve as the backbone for the entire anime series from beginning to end. Details of what occurred to Hei is left in the open interpretation department which is more than a disappointment given at this point Hei is a strong three dimensional character. Leaving an open ending for Hei journey unlike the rest of the cast members makes it that much more unsatisfying.

Mixed: Good Leads, Unwhelming Supporting Cast

Hei in “Ryuusei no Gemini” is at his lowest point in the franchise. Gone is the carefree side of his personality coping with his inner depression with alcohol. He’s frequently serious in nearly every scene which is a change of character for Hei. In general though, Hei doesn’t get much added to him in terms of characterization. However, he does face new conflicts to overcome this season. Hei might not be the same person he was at the start of the franchise, but is still a well written character. He’s smart in situations that require him to think on the spot to survive. Despite how he turned out he does is sympathetic towards other characters, but expresses it differently from before.

Mao goes from a wise cat to a flying squirrel who asides from giving some sarcastic remarks and comedic relief has his importance to the story minimize. No longer does Mao gather intel for Hei or his group and instead helps out the heroes directly in small ways. He’s more active on screen sometime blocking people views or being some sort of distraction. Such moments don’t appear often enough to change the fact his importance to the story is not what it use to be. In return, Mao does receive characterization when fans finally get to see how he looked in his human form. It might only last a single episode seeing his past human self for the first time is a treat for fans.

Suou Pavlichenko is a red hair, 13 year old Russian girl photographer who becomes a sniper. She plays a major role in the story seeing everything in the world of contractors for the first time, but for any viewer following this anime series in order will already know everything Suou does not. Her character will be more relatable for anyone who has not seen the world of “Darker Than Black” at this point, but adds to seeing first hand the evolution of a human turning into a contractor. She’s a decent character…Studio Bones thought otherwise in how she’s used. In 11 out 12 episodes Suou appears naked at some point or appear in some scene that provides fanservice. Yeah, one entire episode out of twelve doesn’t use Suou in some way to pander to its audience. To name a few instances in the first episode there is a (are they ever not) pointless shower scene, episode three she’s in a cabin drying wet clothes only being cover by a blanket follow by interpreted bad position, in episode four there is Suou dancing which would be fine if it weren’t how that moment was framed, in episode eight swimsuits, and can’t forget the anti-tank rifle summoning sequence (in which Suou appears naked) is always shown in its entirety every time it gets summoned. These are a couple of examples of how the anime treats her which is honestly far worse than anything Hei ever does to Suou in the anime.

Like mentioned earlier the supporting cast is larger and some get sidelined. Misaki Kirihara from season gets sideline whose involvement in the story is unneeded. Her role in this season is minimize uncovering a conspiracy behind the scene that doesn’t do add much for the story. What ultimately ends up happening to her in the aftermath of the finale is far more relevant than anything she does before it ends. Due to the length of the anime the characters don’t receive the needed attention to have their own arcs or be fleshed out beyond introduction. Which why the likes of Yoko Sawasaki, Genma Shizume, Mina Hazuki, and Michiru are kept very simplistic from start to finish. The only exceptions to this are Dr. Mikhail Pavlichenko and Shion Pavlichenko because they are connected to Suou storyline. Throughout the series, there are flashbacks that reveal important pieces of information fleshing them out from when the season begins. Once it’s over, Dr. Mikhail and Shion have more to define them unlike the rest of the cast that remains the same.

Good: Bones Studio Aces Their Animation

The animation is done by Bones Studio like the rest of the anime series. Animation in “Ryuusei no Gemini” allows Studio Bones to show off what they can do. Having a more diverse cast in age range compare to the rest of the series. There’s a fair mix of children and adults where previous entries mostly had adult characters. As usual, all characters have unique designs that can be told apart easily even if all the characters hair color were the same. In movement it moves smoothly with no hiccups regardless what’s on screen. Backgrounds once again are detailed, though this time mostly contained in industrialized cities. There’s no environment that is unique to “Ryuusei no Gemini” specifically. However, it does claim the honor of having the best action sequences in the entire series.

The action scenes have flashy effect with over the top powers use in battles. There’s no usage of 3D in these action scenes as Studio Bones spares no expense for them. Battles are flashy sporting particle effects of all kind from sparks when two melee weapons hitting each other, to an explosion with intense flames, to anti-tank rifle that pierces through concrete or metal, and whatever effects to its disposal. Episode three has a sequence where a stationed train is hit by another train causing train carts to start flying through the air. It does not use 3D in any frame of that sequence which looks great when seen. Unfortunately there isn’t another sequence in the rest of the series that tops that spectacle, but the other action scenes aren’t any less impressive because of it. Every action scene has a flashy effect unique to that specific action sequence. In one episode it has a character merging with a vehicle manipulating it for combat. Goofy sounding as that description is in execution it’s actually creative while not being a one sided battle.

Throughout my reviews for the “Darker Than Black” franchise I always suggested seeing the anime with English subtitles and this season is why. In the English dub, Suou dialogue receives the most alteration of any character changing the tone of several scenes becoming grating to listen too. Alison Viktorin who voices Suou delivers a solid performance, but some of her dialogue does her a disservice making her come across as a little brat. Another factor that prevents her performance from being decent is she doesn’t sound like a thirteen year old. That would be easy to overlook, but she has a few scenes where she has to loudly vocalize her complaints. Due to the English script changes it varies from Suou coming across sympathetic or just wanting to see Hei hit her. As much Alison Viktorin is capable in the role playing off her cast member just fine, the English script gets across something else than originally intended.

In the Japanese cast Kana Hanazawa voices Suou who sounds more like a thirteen year old. Her performance is more subtle in vocalizing Suou’s emotion. Unlike Alison Viktorin who voices the same character, Hanazawa comes across as sympathetic with her delivery of the dialogue. She makes Suou sympathetic and likable. The closer the anime gets to the ending the more range Kanazawa is allowed. Her chemistry with her co-stars is spot on especially when together Sawaki Ikuya and Hidenobu Kiuchi coming together naturally.

Hearing Kent Williams deep voice coming out of a small Momonga (fancy name for a Japanese dwarf flying squirrel) is quite odd. Like in season one, Kent Williams is spot on with his sarcastic remarks being the most hilarious in the English dub cast. Hearing such a small animal talk in such a deep sounding voice sticks out. In the Japanese cast, Sawaki Ikuya voice never becomes noticeable when playing the same character. While I prefer Kent Williams playing Mao in the series, Sawaki Ikuya has a voice that better blends into the character. Never does Ikuya voice become a distraction making it easier to become immerse with the character.

As usual (no surprise) regardless of who is heard both Hidenobu Kiuchi and Jason Liebrecht shine in their portrayal of Hei. The direction of the anime is different, but the changes does not affect how they portray their characters. Both of voice actors retain Hei characteristics managing to make the transition between seasons seem seamless. Creating a performance that works with the changes of the series. There’re no hiccups in how they portray Hei. The supporting cast in both the Japanese and English dub cast play their characters in a straightforward manner. With more comedy, it’s more difficult to distinguish any standout in the supporting cast. Doesn’t really offer much range when half the cast has to deliver comedy.

If you had to choose between sub or dub I would recommend English sub for the entire franchise and English subtitles for this season. The Japanese cast performance are consistent throughout the entire anime franchise where the English dub stumbles in important areas as it goes on. There’re also some script changes in the English dub that goes against what was originally intended to get across. The English dub isn’t bad with Kent Williams and Jason Liebrecht reprising their roles they excel in portraying. Making the English worth alone for their performances, but they are the only aspects of the English dub that remain strong in every iteration.

The soundtrack done compose by Yasushi Ishii this season which forgettable. Like in the four-part Gaiden OVA, the soundtrack is a mixture of rock tracks, techno, and lighter sounding tracks for the more personal moments in the series. None of the tracks stand out on their own without the accompany of visuals. Within the series, it works while simultaneously being forgettable. Instead of strengthening a scene, it just fades into the background. The opening theme “Tsukiakari no Michishirube” by Stereopony is a pop/rock track. Optimistic lyrics with Aimi Haraguni lack of conviction don’t go hand in hand, but is a decent opening song that works fine for the intro. In spite how the series actually is, it’s a great fit for the intro. Same goes with the ending track “From Dusk Til Dawn” by Abingdon Boys School. “From Dusk Til Dawn” is pop sounding using acoustic guitars and synthesized strings. It starts off soft going to the sounding more melodramatic when it ends.

Personal Enjoyment: More entertaining, but not as good

I was more entertained seeing “Ryuusei no Gemini” over the original season since it started with an overarching story and maintained it till completion. It also delivered on the action scenes all which never failed to be a feast for the eyes. However, it was entirely different in tone, pacing, and direction from what season one provided. Everything that made season one great was lost or downgraded in “Ryuusei no Gemini”. Season one characters get sideline, there was allot more pandering, contractors powers got over the top, and the ending wasn’t entirely satisfactory. I wasn’t expecting “Ryuusei no Gemini” to be the way it was, but at the same time I am not upset it did something different (ironically playing it safe) than rehashing itself. Instead of delivering something out of my expectations it deliver it exactly what I expected from it in the first place. For better and worse, it was still an enjoyable ride.

Anime Series Overview:

In retrospect “Darker Than Black” is an anime series that has something different to offer in each iteration. Season one contains strong writing and great characters. Taking it sweet time before it develops it main cast, but a great first season all the way through. “Darker than Black: Gaiden” four-part OVA offers the best mixture of both season containing the strong writing of season one and the great action scenes of season two. It’s also the most rushed with only four episodes to its story. “Ryuusei no Gemini” is pure entertainment that noticeably panders in order to reach a greater audience. Losing traits that made season one great and in return going in another route succeeding for different reasons. It’s not the follow up one would expect the first season to receive, but has its own strength. I have to sound like a broken record at this point writing about this series multiple times in a single month. If you read all my reviews of this anime series or just this one thank you very much.

Story: 2/3

Characters: 2/3

Production Values: 2/3

Personal Enjoyment: 1/1

Final Thoughts:

Disappointment would be the defining word for this follow up season to “Darker Than Black”. It’s nothing like the first season and all the characters from season one get sideline for a new cast most of which aren’t developed the same degree of one-shot characters in the first season. It’s not quite the follow up some fans might have wanted, but it’s a decent anime through and through. All the characters story arcs get concluded, the action scenes are fast with great choreography, and ends the series on a positive note. Where Darker Than Black ended up with “Ryuusei no Gemini” will be varied when viewers reach the end, but the journey to get there was one thrilling adventure that’s worth taking.

7/10

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Anime-Breakdown: Darker than Black: Kuro no Keiyakusha Gaiden (2010) OVA Review

The first season of “Darker Than Black” left the exact fate of two of its central cast in an ambiguous state. This four part OVA continues the story past the first season finale while serving as the transition into the new direction second two would take in Ryuusei no Gemini. This OVA combines the strength of both season into a nice package telling a compelling story, interesting leading characters, and great action scenes.

Good: Fills the gap between seasons 1 & 2

This four part OVA can be summarized as a “couple on the run” sort of story. Hei and Yin are trying to survive daily lifewhile escaping from an organization called “The Syndicate” that is hunting them down. There is more to the story than that outline. Primarily showing the growth of Hei and Yin bond and learning why everyone wants Yin. Despite that description the tender moments Hei and Yin share together won’t come across as romantic. How it plays out is more tragic with events appearing to be much bigger than everyone within the series thinks. In just four episodes it takes a relatively small conflict progressively giving it a grander scale in every passing episode. Forcing Hei to challenge himself mentally if the greater good is more important than personal desire. The fact that this isn’t Hei first time making a decision around the same scale practically serves as an essential character moment for understanding his change in personality in season two Ryuusei no Gemini.

While short Gaiden does hint on some things to come in season two. For starter, there are brief instances of over the top powers being shown. One example being a contractor that can cause explosions by blowing bubbles. Such powers aren’t a highlighted issue because they don’t stay on screen for a long time. However, they provide the best moments of animation. In particular, the fourth episode, which is the climax of this whole story and allot things blow up literally and narratively.

Another reason to watch this OVA for fans is it will fill in the gap between season one and season two. If you go straight into Ryuusei no Gemini, there will be plot points that won’t be addressed. In particular, how Yin got in the positioned she did and why Hei personality changed drastically from the last time he was seen. Also it’s a transition from the old noir direction into the more action oriented direction in Ryuusei no Gemini in each episode. Its start like season one with a noir beginning and ending with Ryuusei no Gemini more action oriented direction.

A negative to the “Darker Than Black: Gaiden” OVA are the one-shot characters. A trait that didn’t carry over from the main series was characterization for supporting characters. So the supporting cast feel like tools to move the story forward. This can be forgiven because of the length of Gaiden. It is noticeably rushed in certain scenes. In the first episode, Hei is ambushed at a hotel he’s staying at by two contractors and it just cuts to another scene in the middle of that fight. While it’s not important in the story it is telling, a detail like that can’t be left to the viewer imagination to fill in especially considering what sort of ability that specific contractor has. In the final OVA things end with a hook leading into the second season instead of being self contained. The final scene in Gaiden can be summed up with the word destiny. It’s just a matter of time before it actually occurs because no matter how much the anime wants to stray off from that path it’s written in destiny.

Mixed: Only two characters get developed

The focus of this four part OVA is on Hei and Yin relationship growing more intimate with one another. Building on two already established becoming more individuals. Given their roles a greater sense of importance once episode 3 and 4 come around with a huge revelation. By the end of Gaiden Hei becomes a more dynamic character. Changing drastically by the end of Gaiden with it being shown with a simple visual that gets across how the following events impacted him. Yin might say little in four episodes, but it’s the simplicity of her words that has lots of meaning.

Aside from Hei and Yin the OVA doesn’t focus on any other character. Most of the supporting cast will leave something to be desired especially Mina Hazuki and Youko Sawasaki both of whom are in season two. Showing up with little explanation and no bearing on the story. If it’s not Hei or Yin, then there is nothing more to the character once they get shown.

Good: Receives the same treatment as the main series

Bones Studio is once again behind the anime series and the production values remain high. The backgrounds are diverse jumping from the industrialized cityscape, to a small tropical island, and a couple more location in its short run. Backgrounds are detailed like in the first season with distinguishable character designs for the entire cast. It does have a few notable design choices that are purely for fan service, though are not on screen for a very long time. Episode two contains the most fanservice out of all the episodes with the character Xiao Jie (whose is name not mentioned in the Gaiden’s OVA) stripping clothing as part of her payment for using her powers. Beyond that example, there’s no other fanservice moment in the same degree.

One area the four part OVA improve on from the first season are the action scenes. Like in the first season, the action scenes are restrained in how flashy they are portrayed for three episodes. In the fourth episodes it ditches the restraints it gives itself going for an explosive climax. The major upgrade in the OVA is the choreography for the action sequences are quicker. Utilizing all sorts of framing technique to capture the quick movement. They are animated smoothly displaying Bones Studio at the top of their game in these action sequences. Whenever Hei dodges any sort of projectile attacks his movement never takes any notable shortcut in the animation. The staging of them also improved thank to Hei having to think on the fly more quickly in his combat situations and no dialogue interruption during these action scenes to disrupt the flow.

Voice acting from both the Japanese and English cast remains good. Once again the English dub script remains as faithful as possible to the original Japanese script. The changes that are made are barely noticeable in the story it is telling regardless what version is seen. In both the Japanese cast and English dub voice actors reprise their previous role. Hidenobu Kiuchi and Jason Liebrecht provide the voice for Hei. Just like in season one, both actors deliver great performances of a seemingly emotionless character without coming across wooden. To both actors benefits the material allows them more range interacting with their co-stars in situations places Hei out of his element. Easily these two actors are the standout in this four OVA. Brina Palencia and Misato Fukuen both voice Yin. Both actresses do a fine job, but aren’t given much material to build on their performances that feel like a rehash portrayal.

As for choosing how to see Gaiden it’s a tie for voice work. Gaiden does not offer time to have a recurring character and allow them time to grow. Unless you’re a big fan of Tetsuya Iwanaga for the Japanese cast or Johnny Yong Bosch for the English dub playing Calude the only other character with a big enough role to take notice off. Simply go with personal preferences since nothing is lost in either version.

In the music department, it has a similar soundtrack to Ryuusei no Gemini going more for a thriller vibe. Offering a mixture of rock tracks, techno, and lighter sounding tracks for the more personal moments in the series. The melancholy ending theme “Can You Fly” by Yasushi Ishii is played in every episode. It’s the only noteworthy track in the music department. While in general the soundtrack works “Can You Fly” by Yasushi Ishii is the only memorable track that remains with you after you finish the series.

Personal Enjoyment:

After spending an entire twenty-four episode season with Hei and Yin I’ve very much appreciated how this four part OVA told an arching story and added upon two already developed characters. Unlike the first season, I immediately got hook into this four part OVA and all it took was one stellar opening action sequence. Thankfully it also had the same quality writing and storytelling that made the first season such a great anime.

Story: 2/3

Characters: 2/3

Production Values: 3/3

Personal: 1/1

Final Thoughts:

“Darker Than Black: Gaiden” combines the strong writing of season one with the upgraded action scenes of season two. It’s a must watch for any fan to make clearer sense of Ryuusei no Gemini ending and for anyone who wants to continue watching the rest the “Darker Than Black” series without getting lost in the story. Gaiden combines the best elements of both seasons even if it lasts under two hours.

8/10

Anime-Breakdown: Darker than Black: Kuro no Keiyakusha Special (2008) OVA Review

Darker Than Black first season finale is nothing I would call spectacular, but the way it ended was fitting. Treating its own finale like another storyline instead of a spectacle which would have been out place in the series. This OVA doesn’t add anything more to the mythos or expand on anything in the main series. Hence, the length of this review being relatively short and to the point. This OVA instead decides to leave a good final impression on season one with a comedic episode.

The OVA takes place in a nonspecific timeline in Darker Than Black. It’s basically a comedic side story about Hei and the police looking for a stolen item with a police agent who writes fan fiction unintentionally getting thrown into the mix. It’s a simple story to keep track off. Due to the fate of a certain character a fan of the series can immediately tell it takes place before the finale of season. The comedy is built around three things; love, some sort of association with the season of spring (allergies, mating seasons for cats), and character reactions to a situation. With knowledge buildup on the cast it makes the following events hilarious. However, it’s all rather convenience how all the events are tied together within the special.

Bones Studio gives this OVA the same treatment they give the first season. Looking and sounding like an an episode in the main series. Background are drawn in detail and the animation is smooth. The voice acting from the Japanese cast and English dub cast are on par with the main series. Music remains the same with the second opening and closing songs in place. If you enjoyed the comedic episodes in Darker Than Black than this is a fun diversion.

Like stated in the opening paragraphs it doesn’t add anything or show what occurred after the finale. Let alone offer an explanation on events after the finale. It’s not essential to see this OVA, but if you it do it’ll be a good final reminder that Darker Than Black was also a fun series to see whenever it wasn’t serious.

8/10

Anime-Breakdown: Darker than Black: Kuro no Keiyakusha (2007) Series Review

What format is best for telling a story of an anime series; a narrative format that’s episodic or a format that has a continuing story from beginning to end? It honestly depends on who or what story is trying to be told if any at all. While episodic is easier to get into since the format can be better use for just entertainment. Thus you can eliminate the need of continuity, making it favorable for anyone to just jump into the series at any point. An overarching story on the other hand can build up to a greater or more disappointing outcome depending on the execution since it requires commitment. “Darker Than Black” combines both formats in its narrative will which lead to commitment issues. Thanks to it’s careful execution in combining both types of story formats you have a first half that does a great job of world building and a second half that has an overarching story that remains engrossing to the end.

Good: Strong Writing

Darker Than Black uses a two episode format to tell its stories. Allowing side characters to receive enough development to them feel like characters part of a bigger story instead of coming across as unimportant one shot characters. Thanks to this format it offers a host of well thought out characters and storylines on a variety of themes. Each contributing to either fleshing the setting or further developing a recurring character. No matter the screen time of certain side characters, their contribution feels like they added a piece of lore to the series. The atmosphere excels due to its extensive world building in the first half. Not only does the world fill unique, but by the end of the series it’ll feel like a real place even if it belongs in the realm of fiction.

For an anime that is mostly serious it knows when to have fun. The few comedic episodes in the anime don’t affect the overall plot, but are nice a diversion to lighten the mood. These episodes inclusions make the series a bit enjoyable preventing from being a downer all the time. Generally though it has the well written dialogue to keep it afloat all throughout and engaging conversation among the characters as well.

A downside to the two episode format is it will take half way before the main cast gets developed. In turn, this makes sticking with the anime a risk versus reward deal. Making it more dangerous is the fact that it doesn’t have an overarching story until it reaches the second half either. So the first half focuses on Hei taking on jobs for a shady organization called “The Syndicate”. Being more in line of an episodic anime generally not connecting story arcs. This will make it difficult to want to commit to the anime since the main cast is the only guaranteed returning characters while every supporting character is not guaranteed to return. The main cast will remain underdeveloped before reaching the halfway mark. There’s no way around this issue other than having complete faith in the anime. If you’re unable to attach yourself to anything in the anime before the main cast are developed in the second half, then staying committed to the series is a task on itself.

Once it starts developing an overarching story in the second half everything falls further into place. The stakes become bigger, the main cast get developed, and answers on some of the series biggest dangling questions get answered. For example, “The Syndicate” motives and goal are revealed in the second half after being mentioned heavily in the first half. There’s also the start of an overarching story that instead of creating more action goes for giving Hei a greater mental obstacle to overcome. Building it up nicely before reaching the finale and feeling the weight Hei has to shoulder.

The reaction towards the finale of “Darker Than Black” will draw mix reaction. It doesn’t end with a bang making it fit more with the rest of the series. However, not everything will be answered. It’s appropriate for some questions to remain unanswered since the characters themselves don’t know all of them either. It’s more in line of capturing a noir mystery so some dangling questions will be forgivable. One thing is certain about the finale is it does close the story up and ties up all loose ends. Completely understanding everything after it ends that’s a whole other matter.

Good: A Cool Cast

Hei is the protagonist of the series and for more than half of the anime his past is kept secretive. Unfortunately revealing anything about him should be a consider a spoiler. Learning about Hei and seeing his backstory developed is a major part of the story. His personality can throw viewers off since the series does take its time giving background towards contractor and explain why they are emotionless. Hei is written in such a way that part of his character is difficult to read because of it. He fills the quota to be an emotionless contractor, but shows emotion in everyday life with sarcastic remarks when he interacts with other in the cast. He’s an intriguing mystery within the story and as a character becomes fully realize.

The rest of the main from talking cat Mao who gathers information, to the unable to get drunk when drinking handler Huang, and emotionless medium doll Yin are handled in the same way in their characterization. Like Hei, these main characters don’t get developed until later on in the series. When they are develop the two episode format allows room for in depth characterization. Setting up the character conflict in that episode and then following up by revealing bits of their themselves once the main cast reach closer towards a solution. Seeing them interact with one another never goes smoothly. Since they have varied personalities the chemistry between the characters can be both hilarious and captivating at the same time.

Half of the supporting cast tend to be done with after a single story arc. Once the story or job is finished that supporting characters will likely not be seen again. One of the few recurring supporting character is private eye detective Gai Kurusawa and his young manga obsessed assistant Kiko Kayanuma. The majority of the comedy revolve around these two characters. Gai Kurusawa is the closest the anime has to an exaggerated character. Reacting to his situation in over the top ways for a comedic effect. His interaction with Kiko usually revolve being desperate to accept any job for cash to arguing about the methods in getting cases solved. Episodes revolving around Gai Kurusawa and Kiko Kayanuma are easily entertaining with humor that hit due to their personalities and chemistry.

Though the setting of the story is in Japan the cast is composed of characters from other parts of the world. It’s not racial diversity just for the sake of it, but rather more of story tool to get across how big of a crisis it could escalate too. The CIA are involved, MI6 Agents are involved, underground organization “The Syndicate”, and the organization Evening Primrose that attempt to obtain peaceful coexistence between contractors and humans are involved. That’s quite the batch of organizations to keep track off and the same applies to the characters that work in them. Fortunately each organization is given a different objective for their goals and how they operate varied from one another. What this does is create different viewpoints within the setting on how the matter of contractors should be resolved. Giving several viewpoints on the matter as it grows into a bigger issue for everyone.

Good: Capturing the Intended Mood Perfectly

The animation is handled by studio Bones. While not impressive in the least on the visual side or in movement the style is a good fit for the anime. Character designs don’t have any exaggerated features and the environments are kept down to Earth as much as possible. Backgrounds are detailed with careful lighting that helps create the noir feel the series goes for. Everything is portrayed with some level of realism, including the contractors powers. Whenever a contractor uses their power the animation withholds from creating an excessive visual effect. Action scenes don’t feature any flashy particle effect that draws attention to a contractor power. So everything meshes together for a unify look even when the more exaggerated element of the story are on screen.

This also holds true for the action scenes which aren’t a drawing factor for the anime. Usually the action scenes are slow with the already mentioned restrained on flashy effects when a power is in used. In general, most of the action scenes have simple choreography that gets interrupted by conversations or is just slow in execution. Not counting the second opening. There are a few action scenes that combines contractors full abilities with the restraint display of powers, but unless Hei opponent Wei the action is underwhelming. CGI is used rarely, but questionable since it’s primarily used on cars which aren’t used for any elaborate scene. Cars simply go from one point to the next. Thankfully it does not stick out enough to become an issue since it’s only use from far shots. If anything can get annoying is seeing product placement for Pizza Hut in the background.

Voice acting from both the Japanese and English dub cast are terrific. In both versions the low key and restrained performances give off that noir feel the anime goes for. Unfortunately in both versions, some cast members aren’t allowed much ranged because part of the cast play the emotionless contractors. However, they are not stiff performances. The voice actors walk a thin line of coming across sounding wooden that they never cross. Most notably the most balance and perfected portrayal fall under Hidenobu Kiuchi in Japanese and Jason Liebrecht for the English dub both of whom voice Hei. Regardless what language you hear Hei speak both voice actor performances are tailored for this character. Neither are a dead giveaway in their delivery always surrounding Hei in this mysterious aura. His character is very difficult read, thanks to the voice talent, even delivery their jokes in a careful manner. Both actors are able to be funny while staying in character despite how little emotion they display in general.

Ikuya Sawaki in the Japanese cast and Kent William in the English both voice Mao. These two actors’ voices give off vastly different vibes in their portrayal of Mao. Sawaki sounds more natural like a friendly person with many connections, while William deeper sounding voice makes him sound wiser. William older sounding voice shines when he delivers sarcastic remarks. In the English dubbed Kent William is an easy standout and my favorite actor in this season.

One area where the English dub surpasses the Japanese cast are the accents for foreign characters. The Japanese cast in general don’t even come close in copying accents for foreign characters. In the English dub Troy Baker voices November 11, a clearly British character terrifically. Adding to an already accurate portrayal he fits the sophisticated character just fine.

The only major differences between both version is the comedy. Depending on what version you see the humor will be written for that specific culture in mind. Aside from that the English script remains as faithful as possible. While there’s the obvious dialogue changes there are episodes where the story changes are less subtle. There’s some episodes where certain plot points are beaten over the head. It’s not damaging to the point that it’s a complete turn off as it, though the material won’t always match the quality of the original in the English script.

If you had to choose how to see the anime I would say watch the series subbed since the Japanese cast is consistent throughout the whole series. While the English dub in season one is the clear victor due to the voice actors more accurate portrayal of foreign characters. However, in season two some casting choices end up backfiring as the script changes are notably different making some of the English voice cast come across as annoying. The English dubbed has a better cast for the first season, but the Japanese cast is consistently good all the way. If it’s short term English dub, but in the long run go with the English subbed.

The soundtrack is filled with good music. It’s diverse in genre from rock ballads, to cool jazz, and to slower more calming sounding tracks. The two opening tracks can come across as misleading when representing the mood and pace of the series. “Howling” by Abingdon Boys School for the first 14 episodes and “Kakusei Heroism” by An Cafe is used in episode 15 and onwards (minus episode 24) for the remainder of the series. Both opening theme makes “Darker Than Black” come across as a quick pace action series. While not accurate in presenting the series the two opening songs are fine for the anime. “Tsukiakari” by Rie Fu is a slow and melancholic track. It’s the ending theme for the first 14 episodes with a more emotional feel to it unlike the opening themes. Rie Fu soothing vocals are in harmony with the soft piano ballad. The second ending theme is “Dreams” by the band High And Mighty Color. “Dreams” is more upbeat than the first ending theme in it’s serenity.

Personal Enjoyment: More than thrilled I stuck with it

It took me fourteen episodes before I was actually able to enjoy watching Darker Than Black. Everything is kept deliberately secretive so I found it difficult to care about my main cast in the first half of the series when they weren’t developed. Eventually in the second half I started to care about them on episode 13 & 14 both of which focused on Yin. It was with these two episodes that my skepticism were gone since it made me feel that much closer to the main cast. I was convinced with these two episodes that this anime has something else to keep me coming back beside the first closing theme “Tsuki Akari” by Rie Fu. Thank goodness too for those two episodes because episode 15 the ending theme changed. Episode 15 and onward the whole development of the main cast made the strong writing that much better in subsequent episodes. It just took a while to get into it.

Calculating Points:

Story: 3/3

Characters: 3/3

Technical (Animation, Soundtrack, Voice acting, etc.): 2/3

Personal Enjoyment: 1/1

Final Thoughts:

Darker Than Black is not a series that will immediately hook you from the get go. The pacing is slow with it two episode structure taking half-way before developing a main story, but over time the strong writing, and great characters become far more memorable for it. Thanks to it two episode format for storytelling even side characters get fleshed out. Creating a fully realize world with diverse and complicated characters. It’s a difficult anime to fully get into, but the payoff it worth it if you trust it and stick with it through the end.

Anime-Breakdown: Cat Soup (Nekojiru-so) (2003) Review

Cat Soup or Nekojiru-sou in its Japanese title is a lot stranger than its own name makes it out to be. It can be best described if you gave a loony philosopher, who just happened to love cats, some drugs this short film would probably be the result of what they see in their high. A series of abstract ideas presented in such a bizarre manner while seemingly nonsensical is alluring in its strange nature. It is very difficult to make any sense of it or confirm it means anything, but that’s part of what makes this short film have such a strong impression in such a small amount of time.

The story is basically about two cat siblings with Nyako, the brother, searching for some way to resurrect, Nyatta, his dead sister. The opening minutes of the short film are about as direct it’ll get. Beyond that point, it becomes a journey into the abstract. Filled with a visit to the circus involving seeing a magic act of a woman getting completely chopped into pieces, discovering an elephant made out of water in a desert, and the ocean becoming completely frozen to name few odd things you’ll see. As odd some of these descriptions are, they do get across simple ideas. For example, when the cat siblings visit the circus Nyako firmly believes he can fully resurrect his dead sister after seeing a circus act performing a seemingly impossible act. It is a simple moment that is straight to the point.

Virtually non-existent dialogue, the story is told in a way that the few lines of dialogue aren’t needed to understand the story. It’s a risky decision, but pays off to give off the vibe of being in a strange dream. Nothing is given a direct explanation when going from one event to the next. Instead of stopping in one area to explain the significance of a scene, it goes straight to the next odd scene. Its story is quite simple to get behind, but whether or not it has any meaning is never confirmed within the work itself.

It’s a single OVA meaning the protagonist motivation is kept at a basic level. Being more than enough to follow Nyako on his journey. His simplicity makes him appealing and immediately thoughtful. Simply seeing his parents’ negligence towards him and his sister in the household says allot about the bond he has with his family. With that said the story is essentially what you see is all you get. Allowing the viewer to form their own interpretation on everything that unfolded.

The supporting cast is filled mostly with anthropomorphic animals with some humans. Whenever a human character is on screen, it usually leads to trouble. They’re only given one purpose which is entirely fine since it’s going for more showing than actually telling. The only true negative to the characters is there is not much to analyze or sink into. All the characters are straightforward without ever diverting from their set path.

On the animation side J.C. Staff succeeds in creating a dreamlike feeling. Anathanpromorbic animals are given simple design that makes them look cute to greatly contrast against the cruel action. Humans are drawn like humans, though they don’t appear much in the OVA and often use a blank expression. It has a muted color palette that seems off visually making it seem as if life has been taken out of it. Emphasizing the whole surreal nature of the world where all the oddities belong can belong together. By design, it at times looks hand drawn and at one point even begins to look like a kid’s coloring book. Whatever J.C. Staff used to color their images in this OVA it looks as natural as coloring by hands instead of a computer.

There’s virtually no voice acting in the OVA. When there is dialogue it’s presented through a speech bubble that adds more to the dreamlike feeling than adding to the story. In the sound department stuff like footsteps, water flowing, ticking clocks, squeaky toys, and a dozen other effects make up the sound department. The music is split between sounding light hearted and welcoming which soon become interrupted by eerie static like noises. It fits the OVA perfectly giving an eerie, unsettling atmosphere in the darker scenes. It can also be sweet when in use during scenes where nothing out of the ordinary happens to simply show the cat siblings taking care of one another. The closing credits uses the most editing with a music box to close the OVA. Combining both childlike wonder and an eerie presence by looping the music box in at random moment.

On the DVD there’s an audio commentary track that is not exactly helpful to say the least. Director Tatsuo Sato explains that many of the scenes do not have an underlying meaning or if there was one, he forgot what it was. Admitting he had no intention in mind when putting the film together. So pretty much you make of what you see.

It was an oddity about half an hour long so even if I did dislike it the short length would be a saving grace. I like seeing strange stuff no matter how weird it gets. I’m just in shocked J.C. Staff actually made something I would call smart. In general, J.C. Staff doesn’t come across as a studio to take risks or stray off from their comfort zone with anime that are heavy on the slice of life elements or attempting to duplicate their previous success with a Shakugan no Shana clone. This short film doesn’t change my views on the studio as anything other than being average, but it has earned them more of my respect by creating something out of their comfort zone.

Cat Soup/Nekojiru-sou is like a collection of episodic shorts splice together into a 32 minute OVA with any true meaning to it left with no answer from what the material provides. It’s a short film with virtually non-existing dialogue that’s reliant on visuals alone by combining cute, simple designed characters in bizarrely dark situations to tell its story. This OVA is very much a visual experience that’s intriguing for the creativity it display in a short length. Watch it for the visuals and creativity, leave with your own meaning.

That concludes the review portion of this review. The remainder is simply a paragraph on my interpretation of the OVA. After that, it’s five paragraphs of what I learned about Chiyomi Hashiguchi, the mangaka of Nekojiru-sou. MAL has their own biography on the mangaka, but it was rather short so I wrote what I gather. With that written, continue if you like.

Bonus Passage: My Interpretation on the film (SPOILERS, SPOILERS HERE)

Based on my opinion and what I gathered. Nyako is sister is dead. Living alone with his drunkard father and mother who did not care. Nyatta was the only one who he had and he chased a miracle to rescue her. Catching god of death himself, Nyako took half of her soul, returning it back. However, she was not whole. He tried to find the other part half, and there is where the deeper part starts. The main idea of this anime is nobody can decide the lives of the others which can be seen in every person they have met. Old hag who made people from spare parts, being patched up herself. Guy who killed others, getting his again. Merciless, selfish circus which destroyed the whole world in the end and in the end Nyako never saw that his desires were actually selfish and that he opposed the God, who showed him how easily he can manipulate time and that only something like God can bring life back. When Nyako in the end saved his sister, because he was mortal it brought a total disorder to the Universe, literally canceling everything, making it vanish. This anime also brings up a topics like natural order, and that we all are part of the circle which is life and death. And that it’s nobody’s fault, that’s just how it is. In the end, God is just laid back dude who eats watermelons and sometimes turns back the time when he drops it down. Or in plain English, it’s likely represent the mangaka husband trying everything he can to save his wife by projecting his feelings onto the characters he and his wife created.

Condense Information I gather about the mangaka:

Chiyomi Hashiguchi, or Nekojiru by her pseudonymous pen name, was the author of a manga called “Nekojiru Udon” published in Garo magazine. “Nekojiru Udon” were based around her own bizarre dream experiences. In Hashiguchi diary (going by reproduced scrawls) reveals a very a fascination with communication breakdown and bodily malfunction, objectively noting every unpleasantry from vomiting dogs to accident victims.

With only the book, “Jusatsu Sarecgatta Boku” (some direct passages from the book), by Yoshiaki Yoshinaga to go on for information my knowledge on Chiyomi Hashiguchi is dense. According to those who knew Chiyomi Hashiguchi personally found her to be somewhat plain and misunderstood, but also unpredictable, mysterious and seemingly fragile if not for shadowy side of her internal personality which she expressed so vividly in her manga. According to the book Chiyomi was diagnosed with manic depressions as well in several occasions being heard saying “I’m not afraid of death”.

At the peak of her popularity in 1997-98, her once relaxed working atmosphere was no more as she had to produce large quantities of work which was out of character. Further reading reveals Chiyomi and her husband, Hajime Yamano (the artist of the manga) didn’t turn down a single offer for work meeting deadline after deadline. At this point in the book, it says many of the scenes depicted in “Nekojiru” were a blend of Chiyomi dreams and what she saw in real life. It’s rather unclear on the details of how to separate what were part of her dream and what she actually saw since she couldn’t separate it herself.

Overworked, she began to drink heavily from being overworked. It stopped being fun for Chiyomi to do her work and now was only a matter of making the deadline. Eventually Chiyomi had run out of ideas, but she had deadlines to meet, and did the best she could manage. She had a strong sense of responsibility, and always found a way of come through in the end. More than once, she found herself cornered by several deadlines and had to push herself to the brink of collapse to finish everything. Having was trying to commit suicide in the past, Nekojiru had written wills on a number of occasions. Her last extant will dated from several years prior. She committed suicide on May 10, in 1998 with the cause of her suicide unknown. The accounts of how it affected her friends were also in the book.

After some research on Chiyomi Hashiguchi doing a simple review wasn’t satisfactory for me. As depressing as it might have been reading the book knowing her tragic end I couldn’t find bring it in me to leave out what I learned about her. The book goes into detail about how she was as a person from accounts from those who her whereas I simply condensed the information I read. In turn, after learning all of this it has made me look at the short OVA in a different way. It’s depressing reading about Chiyomi Hashiguchi and what happened to her, but this OVA is proof she has not been forgotten which in a way makes me happy about its creation no matter what feeling the viewer will have after watching it.

8/10