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Archive for the ‘Mystery’ Category

Darker Than Black

Darker Than Black came across my plate quite early in my anime experience. I had a hard time finishing it at first because, while each arc I watched felt awesome, I didn’t really grasp what connected one arc to the next. This was fine, though, because it left me the luxury of watching it alongside other anime. I could watch a pair of Darker Than Black episodes and be satisfied, move on to another anime, and know that Darker Than Black would still be there with another one-hour adventure when I was ready.

In retrospect, this probably isn’t a great thing in an anime. Shows really want to grab the audience and not release them until the very last scene, otherwise they can’t guarantee viewers throughout the season. But, at the same time, I found Darker Than Black to be more accessible because of its episodic nature. When a show grabs me, I have a very hard time compartmentalizing the experience until it’s done, which can lead to long, unproductive anime binges. These binges definitely have their place, and I doubt I’ll ever stop enjoying those longer, engrossing anime. But during the work week, when I really can’t afford to burn my few free hours on a single activity (anime or otherwise), shows like Darker Than Black really shine.

Synopsis

In an alternate universe, present-day society was torn asunder by a calamity ten years ago. At that time, two vast chasms consumed parts of the earth: Heaven’s Gate and Hell’s Gate. Many civilians found themselves suddenly transformed: some became powerful contractors, possessing a single super-power and an associated “obsience,” or repentance activity. Others became dolls, passive mediums with seemingly no will or personality.

In this corrupted world, every country is vying for more information about the powers within the Gates. The Syndicate, one powerful organization fighting for an unknown benefactor, has assembled a new team to gather information and resources from Hell’s Gate. The interactions, successes, and failures of this “Black Reaper” team are the crux of Darker Than Black.

Genre

A dark, noir-styled action anime with mystery and intrigue aplenty.

Age Rating

This one’s definitely in the R category. There’s plenty of violence and murder, and while generally not horror-style grotesque, it can be fairly graphic.

Review

Plot Quality: 6

The plot of Darker Than Black is more than likely the most important element in its overall presentation. This is the reason to watch this show, or to pass it up: the story. Or, more accurately, the stories.

Darker Than Black: Hei

The show is primarily broken up into a series of two-episode arcs. Each arc focuses on a different job that Hei and his associates need to take on. The assignments vary widely, from protection to theft, from investigation to assassination. The back-story that connects each arc is very minimal at first, but unlike a series like Ghost Hunt, there is a definite momentum that builds by the second half of the show.

The arcs, on their own, range from good to superb. The pacing of the arcs is good, but quickly becomes predictable – the arc lengths are all uniform, after all, so the stories have to open and wrap up in a similar style every time. That said, there is such variation in the subject matter that the audience is always seeing something new. While not every story is spectacular, this only helps to elevate those arcs that really capture the ambiance of the world, the struggles of the characters, and the energetic, desperate combat best.

One of the story’s greatest strengths, and also one of its greatest weaknesses, is its complexity. Understanding just what contractors are, what dolls are, and why they are the way they are takes a lot of work. The power struggles that are driving Hei’s superiors to give him his missions, and why other countries fight against them are rarely spelled out explicitly – the audience is left to fill in the gaps. The mysteries surrounding Hei, Yin, and Mao are also stuck in the audience’s mind at the opening of the show, while their answers come much later (if they come at all). Indeed, the audience has to do a lot of work to really grasp what is going on behind the scenes to drive the characters if they want to fully enjoy the experience.

The asset here is that, once understood, the story is that much richer. This is particularly evident on a second viewing: knowing why characters behave the way they do is satisfying. Actions that might be taken for granted on a first pass inherit new meaning when, later on, the audience realizes just what sacrifices were made for those actions. I’m sure this sounds vague and, for someone watching the show for the first time, not exactly compelling. Nevertheless, I always like a good puzzle – I like having to think some when I’m watching a show. The puzzle is most definitely there in Darker Than Black, and – contrary to most anime – knowing the puzzles actually doesn’t diminish another viewing.

Character Quality: 5

The primary characters, being contractors and dolls, don’t actually present as very appealing characters at first. They’re emotionless, calculating, logical beings that almost seem robotic. Their smiles and frowns are all feigned, acted veneers to get them to their goals. And, of course, no one is a better actor than our protagonist.

Hei is more or less the Japanese equivalent of Batman. Hei leads a double life: beyond being a syndicate contractor, he keeps up the appearances of Li Sheng Shun: college transfer student from China, now studying in Tokyo. Hei fights skillfully, employing a few tools to amplify his contractor power, but never gives the impression of being an invincible Superman. Hei tries to do what he thinks is best, though he’s constrained by higher powers to act in a certain way. Hei’s human persona can laugh and cry with the very best of the real human population, masking his real emotions from his adversaries and even his friends when necessary. All of these elements build up into a protagonist that really fits the imperfect superhero role, with all the darkness and emotional trauma present in Batman. As a bonus, Hei is able to actually able to change over the course of the show as events change him, rather than remaining impervious as traditional superheroes must.

Hei’s associates are fun, and occasionally get some real camera time to impress, but are generally relegated to the background. Mao acquires the comic relief job more often than not, which is a bit of a shame – his power could have really amplified a lot of the stories, if only he had been allowed to help. Yin always elicits a warm, fuzzy feeling, but objectively she really doesn’t bring that much to the show: she can find people, but otherwise is quite like a real doll. Much as I adored them, these characters have a fair deal more potential than they ever get to present in the story; it’s a shame they aren’t given more opportunities to shine (while they do great with the arcs dedicated to them).

On the other side of the fence, Misaki Kirihara is the police investigator assigned to bring down Hei’s team. She, too, could use more development – she is largely one-dimensional in her drive to bring evil-doers to justice. She never has the power to be a threat to a contractor, either, so she feels more like an unfortunate audience member stumbling into the show than a powerful obstacle to Hei’s objectives. This in and of itself isn’t a problem, per se, but it really leaves the audience wondering where her determination and confidence come from – she can’t go toe-to-toe with these guys, so why is she so fearless? Her underlings are as fun as Hei’s, but they are developed even less – they’re just like the oh-so-easily duped police in most modern superhero tales.

Darker Than Black: Mai Tahara

Last on our character list: the extras. For each arc, there’s a few new characters that are introduced: targets for assassination, or protection, or simply opposition in a recovery mission. So unlike most of the staples in the cast, these side characters actually get a surprising amount of development time. This shouldn’t be a big surprise, as the characters only have two episodes to convince us that they’re worth our attention. It’s in some of those top-tier arcs that the characters really succeed: the school girl whose abandonment by her father leaves her scarred and confused; the researcher whose ambitions lie in fulfilling the childhood dreams he shared with his sister; and the girl that Hei’s boss once knew, eliciting powerful emotions from the otherwise cold and caustic agent of the syndicate. The real shame here is that many of the side characters fade away at the end of every arc. Those that reappear are a treat, but many more never come back.

Visual Quality: 4

The art style of Darker Than Black is uniformly crisp – clean lines, strong definition of features, and strong expressions. However, this is probably the only major consistency amongst the animation department. Some sequences are as strongly drawn as they are fluid: every action the characters take is deliberate and visible. Other sequences seem to be using only every fourth or fifth frame. I thought that we had grown beyond using four frames to animate a character’s entire stride, yet it shows up – sometimes glaringly – time and again in this show, without real motivation. This also isn’t during action sequences (where, while the animation may also be choppy, the frenetic pace of the action demands the superhuman-appearing motion), but more mundane moments of running down the street, or eating food in a restaurant.

Then there are the slow scenes, focused on facial expressions and character interaction. These scenes highlight the other strength of the series: conveying emotions, however subtly, through the subdued characters. Frame rate isn’t relevant here, but rather accurately capturing just what a tortured expression should be for someone who doesn’t remember what torture is supposed to feel like. It’s definitely debatable, but I found the characters to be quite convincing throughout the show: what they felt, and how well they could show or mask that feeling, was always communicated well through the art.

And thus, I’m confused. The action scenes are usually excellent, showcasing chaotic and frantic combat that feels convincing every time. The character-focused scenes are likewise compelling. But then, everything in between seems to be left to the B team: if it’s not integral to the plot or needing to look awesome, the art team dramatically lowered the bar or acceptability. It’s frustrating to reconcile why these elements are left behind while other scenes get such attention – a mixed bag to be sure.

Audio Quality: 5

Darker Than Black: Mao and Yin

The music in this show is quite fun. The opener sequences are excellent, up-beat warm-ups to the action to come, while the ending sequences are beautiful send-off ballads. I remember a few of the insert songs quite well, but nothing here was really ground-breaking either. It was simply very fitting music, bringing the scenes to life in a way that the (sometimes less than stellar) art failed to do. Good stuff, all in all.

The voice acting here isn’t too impressive. Hei’s seiyuu is probably the only one really earning any points beyond the norm, as he transitions between the genial exchange student and the heartless contractor with a great, believable style. The rest of the primary cast rarely has much to say, though, and the secondary characters are in so few episodes that no one else really stands out. Of course, this doesn’t make any of it bad – it’s all consistent, and quite enjoyable – but rather hard to comment on in specific.

More good news, perhaps, is that the dubbed version feels very similar in all the right ways. Hei still has a good vocal range to capture the changes in personality, and the other cast members are mirrored quite well. If you really can’t stand (or have trouble following) subtitles, this is one anime where I can safely say you won’t lose out on the true experience by resorting to the dubbed version.

Bottom Line: 5.5

Darker than Black is definitely one of the darker anime on the market that I still feel has an appeal to everyone. It is in turns violent, intriguing, and surprising, but it is always entertaining. The characters aren’t the most memorable on the market, and the artwork could definitely use some consistency polish, but those are small potatoes as far as intrigue anime are concerned. Strong, engaging protagonists and gripping story arcs are what carry these shows; Darker Than Black delivers on both counts.

If darker superhero comics appeal to you, such as (the darker parts of) Batman or Spawn, you will definitely find a lot in common here. If you like puzzles alongside your action, and reasons for conflict rather than mindless power-up on top of power-up battle, you will find a lot to like here. And, if nothing else, the sheer variety of this show – from the arc styles to the contractors and their various repentances – will always elicit welcome surprises along the way. The growing rumbles beneath the surface are hard to understand or interpret at first, but that’s right at home with Hei: all that matters for him, after all, is the next mission. Repercussions are for someone else to handle.

Lastly, this is one anime where the Japanese voices do not significantly overpower the English voices. So, for those of you newer to anime or who hate having to read while trying to watch a show, this is one experience that will retain all of its power in English.

Coming Soon

Look for reviews of sola, Kanon (2006), and Str.A.In. coming to the site soon! I’m still contemplating movie ideas – I’m not certain the same rating metrics will do movies justice.

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Review: Ghost Hunt

Ghost Hunt: Full Cast

This was one of the first anime I watched seriously after starting college. I talk about Digimon, Escaflowne, and Outlaw Star when I talk about my “gateway drugs” into anime, but in a sense Ghost Hunt was actually the anime to really get me involved. Ghost Hunt showed me an entirely different genre of anime from anything I had experienced: something dark, but not gory; something mysterious, without being overbearing or remaining unexplained forever. There’s a lot to like in Ghost Hunt, and it still holds up as one of the best series I’ve had the opportunity to watch.

Synopsis

Mai Taniyama is a high school student with a penchant for ghost stories. She and her friends spend afternoons trying to scare each other with their twisted stories. When Kazuya Shibuya stumbles in upon one such gathering, Mai’s friends admire him almost instantly. It turns out that Kazuya is a ghost hunter, tackling the very kind of stories Mai tells. Mai accidentally damages some of Kazuya’s equipment the next day, and she suddenly finds herself forced into indentured servitude – she has to help Kazuya solve his investigations!

Genre

While not strictly horror, there are definitely terrifying stories and startling scenes scattered throughout this mystery-and-thriller combo.

Age Rating

Conservatively, PG 13. There’s some violence, and plenty of creepy moments, but nothing graphic or disturbing enough for me to shun away the teenage audience.

Review

Plot Quality: 6

The primary plot of Ghost Hunt is divided into eight arcs, each of which spans a handful of episodes. Each arc is quite distinct in design and feel, ranging from light and almost heartwarming to dark, heavy, and downright scary. Connections between the arcs are consistent, yet minimal – each arc could almost be viewed in a vacuum without losing anything. This means we don’t get a whole lot of back-story on the characters, nor do they change too dramatically over the course of the anime – outside of Mai, that is. Her growth over the course of the anime is marked, and perhaps the lone counter to viewing arcs out-of-order. Either way, perhaps it’s comforting to know that the primary events of a given arc aren’t going to linger and mess with the plot down the road.

While not uniformly amazing, each arc has its own charm. Many of the arcs grip the audience strongly, and many contain surprising twists and turns. These arcs really work an amatuer sleuth’s brain for the duration of the mystery, and only occasionally would I predict the solution to a problem before the characters grasped it. A small part of this likely comes about because the problems are paranormal in nature, so the range of possibilities is quite vast (and hard for someone not versed in the lingo to predict). Nevertheless, the characters do a great job of interpreting their experiences so that the audience can follow along without a degree in parapsychology.

As for the fear factor, I think that my more hardcore friends would probably find this to be lukewarm in intensity. The stories are never terribly graphic, it’s true, but I still feel that the presentation style still carries a good sense of thriller timing. More than once I found myself gasping for breath, especially in the later arcs. While there’s nothing here that would make me declare, “Brown Trousers Time,” I felt the suspense and danger were expertly presented. As such, I still have a hard time recommending this anime to my sister despite knowing how well she could relate to Mai.

Character Quality: 6

Ghost Hunt: Mai Taniyama

For mystery and horror genres to really work, the characters need to feel both familiar and vulnerable. Distant characters won’t earn the audience’s empathy, so whatever horrors they experience won’t touch us. Overly durable characters never leave us worrying too much: “they’ll get out of it,” we say with a roll of our eyes, because we know they’re strong. Ghost Hunt knows both of these traits are paramount to good character design in its genre, and Mai has them in spades.

Mai makes a wonderful protagonist for Ghost Hunt, and this is in large part because of her emotions. Mai brings the much-needed empathetic lynchpin to each of the arcs. As we don’t have time enough to really meet and sympathize with the victims Kazuya sets out to help, we learn to feel for them through Mai. She weeps for the lost souls they encounter, and despairs for those left alive and how they have to suffer on without their loved ones. She adamantly defends the rights of everyone, her sense of justice steadfastly refusing some of the harsher truths that seem inevitable. All of these emotions make the world around her feel like a world worth caring about. Just as she can’t abandon her friends or those in trouble, the audience quickly finds that they can’t abandon Mai – she’s pure, dedicated, and endlessly caring. Thanks to her, the audience genuinely cares about Kazuya’s cases as more than cold, aloof searches for the truth.

Beyond her empathy, Mai also brings familiarity and vulnerability to the table. She really is a teenager, and this fact serves as both asset and hindrance as she works with Kazuya. But at the same time, she’s not the traditional screaming girl from a Hollywood slasher flick; Mai has some serious grit, making her more than helpless while still less than perfect. It’s hard to find fault with such an honest character, especially when her growing maturity over the course of the show demonstrates how she’s getting stronger because of her experiences. In all, Mai brings an unwavering heart to the entire series, from her childish fighting to her heart-felt sorrow to her growing strength and self-confidence. She is presented excellently.

Kazuya, the apparently stoic and brilliant counterpart to Mai, is also strongly performed. He’s no spectacle, but he delivers exactly the kind of personality you expect: he’s cold, he’s efficient, he puts solving the case above just about everything else, and he always seems to get the job done in the end. He doesn’t do much to win the audience’s sympathy, but he is nonetheless well portrayed. I wish he had been a little less reticent, as he seems to have a lot of character that we never get to see. But, as he would say, the case is all that matters – his background is inconsequential. He also consistently demonstrates that he does, in fact, have what it takes to be the leader of his research team. Despite what the other adults say, Kazuya does a great job with his work, and his determination and decisiveness really shine through when he’s at the helm.

The supporting cast is something of a mixed bag, though the performances are generally strong. The weakest performance, I feel, is from Ayako the shrine maiden. As the theoretically strongest of the female characters, Ayako does little to impress with her training (and is ridiculed for it). Comic relief aside, I was disappointed that Ayako wasn’t built to be more empowering. Masako the seer is likewise underwhelming: aside from providing a rival for Mai in certain situations, Masako usually plays the role of guide to the rest of the staff. Thank goodness for Mai’s strength as a character – these girls would not be able to carry their gender in Ghost Hunt without her.

The supporting boys, meanwhile, are uniformly strong. Houshou the monk comes out of the gate with a smirk, offering a strong counterpoint to Naru’s clinical approach, as well as a certain father-type figure for Mai while she’s at work. John the priest, while initially teased for his age and inexperience, is probably the strongest of Naru’s assistants when it comes to combating the forces of the paranormal – his role is often cut out, coincidentally, to remove that powerful “security blanket” from the cases. And Lin, Naru’s only full-time assistant before Mai enters the picture, often occupies the background. He comes across as even more emotionless than Naru, and while we do get a few encouraging glimpses into his personality, he spends most of his time quietly assisting Naru, making sure everything in the investigation goes ahead smoothly.

Visual Quality: 5

The art style here is fairly uniform throughout the anime, and while sometimes very detailed and beautiful, it is best described as “matte.” There’s not a lot of gloss, and the muted colors bring a certain eeriness to the scenery that other, prettier anime would lose. Mai’s cute style is one of the few exceptions, but even she has a certain roughness around her edges that makes her appear as though she genuinely belongs: her heavier clothes and heavy sneakers accentuate her inner tomboy. The rest of the cast is likewise resolute in design, everyone looking like they’re ready to solve a mystery professionally, rather than showcase themselves as eye candy for the audience.

Ghost Hunt: Ghouls

The concept of drawing fear-inspiring images is a tricky one, and I find that Ghost Hunt actually does pretty admirably with this. From creepy ghouls and spirits to the rooms themselves that are possessed, everything is accurately yet tastefully presented. The characters’ suffering in these terrifying sequences is also believable, without resorting to either over-the-top screaming or eye-rolling lack of commitment to the emotion. Being paralyzed by fear is a very real experience, and it’s comforting to see these subtleties brought to life in the characters.

This anime also contains a fair bit of chibi-styled filler. It’s not exactly at home alongside the ghouls, or even the other dramatic revelations at the end of each arc, but it does exactly what it’s intended to do: break up the seriousness of the mood and instead inject a bit of light, entertaining conversation or fighting.

Audio Quality: 6 (5 in English)

The opening and ending themes are almost instantly skippable. They’re both instrumental performances, and neither showcases any animation from the actual show – no character models, locations, or even spirits. That isn’t to say that the music isn’t good; on the contrary, it fits the eerie, suspenseful mood of Ghost Hunt perfectly. But then, I had a hard time convincing myself that I needed to set the mood when I was in the middle of an arc; they just felt like they were slowing down the experience.

The insert music is likewise well-selected. It won’t catch in your head or anything, but it’s expertly timed and adds another layer to the experience on-screen, be it cute, suspenseful, or horrifying.

The original voice acting, by and large, is great too. Mai’s seiyuu is excellent – the softness of her voice really allows for her to match Mai’s drawn emotions to a T. She can be vehemently angry when it’s called for, but the sorrow and compassion that is so much more common to her experience is something I feel only her voice can accurately capture. Kazuya’s sharp, hard-line seiyuu likewise keeps the character uniformly crisp and robotic throughout the series. The supporting cast is also voiced very well, despite the weaknesses inherent in some of them. Fast-paced bickering matches feel particularly tight, far more real than some dragging conversations I’ve seen in other anime.

The English voice actors, meanwhile, lose a lot of what I find makes these characters so powerful. Mai’s voice actor focuses far more on the tomboy aspects of Mai, bringing an edginess and power to her voice that just sounds a bit out of place. Conversely, Kazuya’s English voice is actually soft; it sounds like he’s really struggling to argue back against anyone. Given the proclivity that Mai and Kazuya have for arguing with one another, this shift in vocal power disconnects from the direction of both the script and the art style. While the supporting cast is respectable in English, the confusion of the dynamic between Mai and Kazuya in English is a little frustrating.

Bottom Line: 6.2

Ghost Hunt was and, after a second viewing, continues to be one of my favorite anime regardless of genre. It doesn’t take any truly dangerous risks (Because, as I said before, every arc is fairly isolated, so the main characters won’t be dead at the end of an arc, nor will anyone be dramatically changed by certain events), but I was never bothered by this. Ghost Hunt is a mystery first, with horror as a secondary concern. The mysteries are solved in their entirety, which demonstrates a true grasp of screenwriting – there’s no plot holes or gaps left behind that leave the conclusions feeling hollow, faked, or rushed for the sake of time.

The horror in Ghost Hunt doesn’t claim lives permanently, but saying “Don’t worry, no one’s gonna die” has been used as a false comfort against fear for as long as I can remember. I was definitely scared by lots of events in the various arcs of Ghost Hunt. After all, only the main cast has any guarantee of surviving through to the end – the terrors befalling the supporting cast are very real, sometimes lethal, terrors.

And what would those secondary characters’ plights be without a reason to care for them? Mai performs brilliantly throughout this anime, connecting the audience to the many victims she and Kazuya endeavor to save. Thanks to her consistent, heart-felt performance, the triumphs of her team feel real and valuable, while the moments when they are too late feel genuinely sad and terrifying.

Strong mysteries. Some scary scenes, getting steadily more intense as the series progresses. A brilliant, familiar and vulnerable leading lady, with a supporting cast that is mostly strong. And a few asides that range from comedic to romantic. Ghost Hunt isn’t exactly anime nirvana, but I find that it’s pretty close. From beginning to end, I was entranced – sometimes terrified, sometimes sighing with relief, and sometimes laughing at my own silliness – but always entranced.

 

Coming Soon

Look for reviews of Ef – a Tale of Memories, Darker Than Black, sola, and maybe even Kanon (2006) in the near future!

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