I'm not that well-versed with anime genre to know exactly what the hell I was watching while DTB is on my TV screen one night. The first time I tried watching it, I wasn't in the mood. After I'm halfway through D-Gray Man, I finally decided to stop for a while (not because DGM was bad; it was quite good too) because I was feeling whimsical and I remember I have DTB and haven't watched it for almost two weeks after I bought it. I wasn't able to finish the first episode because I wasn't really paying attention. I was fanpopping and shit. So last week, during the weekends, I finally decided to give it a try because I was already in the right mood. It was during the exam week, and I don't usually study.
The plot was fluid so far in the first five episodes. I'm not really sure of the consistency itself, but the storyline proved to be fascinating and worth looking forward to each time an episode ends. The opening song was captivating! "Howling" by Abingdon boys school was stuck to my head (Sun will rise, close your eyes, down falling, fallen, falling. Hold inside---just howling in the shadows!~). I didn't really have a problem with the story itself until I got to the climax and conclusion, two of the series' weakest points, actually.
* One of the most important things to me in watching any series (either anime or Western) is the right kind of sequence. It has to be perfect in a way that it eludes the viewer without giving away everything. DTB has done an excellent job on it so far. I was hooked instantly because there's a balance in what this anime gives away and what it withholds from the audience. I've also noticed that the approach is quite Westernized. DTB uses the two-part episode format, giving more volume to the story. Suffice to say, I think I've only continued watching it because the sequence was great; it didn't leave me mystified and disgruntled.
* The most common critic about this anime (and is also what I agree with) is the weak backstory. The summary is this:
"Ten years ago, an inscrutable and abnormal territory known as Hell's Gate appeared in Tokyo, altering the sky and wreaking havoc on the landscape. The heavenly bodies disappeared, replaced by false stars. During this time, people possessing various special abilities emerged, each capable of different supernatural feats - these are known as Contractors. Each fake star has a corresponding Contractor, which reacts to their activities. As such, Contractors are usually identified by their star's Messier catalogue number. Kept secret from the masses, these individuals are known to murder in cold blood, smothering unnecessary emotions with logic and rationale. Their incredible abilities, however, are gained at the cost of their humanity - Contractors are thus named because of an involuntary compulsion to "pay the price" each time their power is used, which can range from eating particular foods and completing meaningless tasks, to self-harm and having their bodies change in peculiar ways. Various nations and organizations around the world train and utilize Contractors as spies and assassins, resulting in violent battles for valuable objects and information." [Haha, Wikipedia whore]
The story has sci-fi/supernatural elements to it. The ingredients are rich as the universe the story revolves around in is immersive. However, the suspension of belief DTB tries to maintain has a tendency to seem shallow at certain points. In a distance, if you don't think about it much, the whole concept of two gates appearing in the opposite directions of the globe, people receiving special powers because of these gates, contractors who are killing machines for the syndicates or governments agents, passive mediums known as dolls were people who were just dehumanized---is all delectable and clever. But after a few more episodes, particularly in the middle part, the viewer would feel like his/her questions will never get to be answered. And I still don't understand where the hell did those two gates come from, how do the gates select which of the people will be contractors or dolls, etc. Since the anime's format is westernized, and this is supposed to be season 1 composed of 25 episodes, I was actually hoping for a resolution that would at least remove some obstacles that complicate the story, but it never got to that point by the last episode.
* DTB has a setting that has immersed in the most ordinary layers. I get the idea that it's futuristic, not because of the technology, or the clothes or the mode of transportation. It still looks like our modern world, really---but it's not just the appearance of the two Gates that made it futuristic; it's the way the people are in Tokyo and how they respond to the phenomena happening around them. They were hopeful with their bittersweet nostalgia of seeing the real stars again (one episode focuses on the ordinary folk looking up at the sky, as if really searching for something to make their lives go back to how it used be). Their murky dispositions are there but the viewer never gets to notice it unless something alters the events in their lives and you'll be introduced to the pain and grief underneath. The atmosphere of the places is always damped and rarely sunny; provided by great animation styles of dim lights and subtle falling leaves during night time and dry, almost crispy effect during daytime. I like how the colors blend just right when an emotional scene comes up; or when a very unemotional scene is there, the colors still find a way to liven it up. The humor is not really dark in DTB despite that one could be misled there. The people are cheerful unless when the moment doesn't call for it. The action scenes have the touch of gore that doesn't have to seem like it's only there for shock value for its viewers, making the violence and threat of mayhem incorporated in the story to be believable and dimensional. The symbolism of the stars, both the fake ones and the real ones that had disappeared, has a resounding and even heartbreaking poetry to it if you go deeper.
* Ah, yes. Bones has definitely adapted the Cowboy Bebop feel when it comes to the characters. The four main characters are dynamic and well-written. There's Hei, the lead guy, who adapts his cover as the kind-hearted foreign exchange student, Li Shun Sheng, as if it truly is a second skin he can just peel off whenever he's in his Contractor mode. He is known as the "Black Reaper" (or BK-201, if you use his catalogue number). He also has a Batman angle to him sometimes; the dreaded masked fighter whose motivations are inscrutable and not always for noble reasons. Hei appears cold-blooded at first when he is dealing with the assignments given to him by the Syndicate; but that apathetic face begins to take a new form as we slowly get to know him. The viewers can see that he's actually sad about something (perhaps because of the disappearance of his sister?) or maybe he contemplates the simple lack of humanity in his gruesome, yet necessary, acts.
I've never gotten into Yin, the passive medium doll, at all. I just found her cute and appropriate for the group. She was a useful character indeed, but the backstory provided about her didn't appeal to me as greatly as Huang's, the ex-cop. Yin was shown to have retained some of her memories, as well as the emotions that came with them. In the scene where she cries after a lapse in her conscious self, I have to admit it was unexpected, but it was actually Huang that shines at that moment (he was about to kill Yin, all he had to do is pull the trigger. But he didn't. Seeing as he was an asshole for many episodes, it was a rare gesture and did seem out-of-character until we get to his backstory). There's also the contractor Mao whose body has been destroyed ten years ago so he is now inside a cat's body. He can travel from one animal to another, usually a bird when he does surveillance for the group.
Now the disadvantage: These characters are already well-rounded, hopefully with more reinforcements and developments as the story evolves, but there comes a time during the anime when said characters become devices for the exposition itself. Instead of Hei, Yin, Huang and Mao to evolve more, their growth halts just for the sake of the story's plot and their contributions to moving it. That's the only frustrating part. But it is salvaged by the outstanding ensemble of characters that come and go throughout the episodes, like the two villains in episodes 13 and 14. They were chiseled into well-rounded characters in just a span of two episodes which is a very impressive feat and, although their roles didn't last, their appearance in those episodes was unforgettable. There were also more prominent secondary characters like the Section Chief for Foreign Affairs Misaki Kirihara who is a strong, female character not because she's a police officer who carries a gun, but rather because of her intuition and honest dedication to her work and the people she serves. There's also the laconic detective and his bubbly assistant, and the British intelligence agents who are contractors themselves; they provide volumes to the story, and complement the main four at best.
There really wasn't a villain. One of the reasons DTB sells to me is because every character would be considered the hero or the villain which removes the moralizing tone, and therefore makes the story convincing. Amber, who started off as the enigmatic contractor who might be responsible for Heaven's Gate destruction and possibly the death of Hei's sister, was only there because she's suppose to tie the ends for resolution's sake, but doesn't entirely accomplish the job. She was a beautiful sight, filled with potentials to be a dimensional character if only she stayed longer.
I never really cared much about the characters in general, either. I did like Hei, Kirihara and Huang (Mao and Yin, I'm not sure yet) but I didn't completely emerge myself into them. Still, I would want to see where the story brings them forth, especially Hei (I think I actually care about him, in a sense).
My complaints really are the backstory, the resolution and the character development that could have been better. Other than that, this anime is exemplary. It almost rivaled Death Note to me. There's a second season and I hope the story has a lot more power to it. I'm looking forward to watching Darker Than Black: Gemini of the Meteor.