I find more to enjoy in an anime series when it utilizes real life historical situations and themes, giving audiences a different take on a known subject, like an alternate reality. 'Fullmetal Alchemist' had the entire Nazi/occult connection, which paralleled the entire plot of the first 'Hellboy' movie, while one of my personal anime faves, 'Neon Genesis Evangelion,' had a deep rooted look at Christianity, from Angels to Adam, the cross, rebirth, and the truth behind what makes a soul. Creating a world around something already familiar, even with a heavy twist, is a surefire way to get instant viewer comprehension.
'D. Gray-man' is one such series, with a light take on religion inhabiting the background, in the tale that mixes equal parts collecting (much like Tsubasa: RESERVoir CHRoNiCLE, with various powerful trinkets spread across the world) and a tale of vengeance. Based on the manga drawn and written by Katsura Hoshino, published by Shonen Jump, the anime iteration didn't follow the somewhat traditional twenty two to twenty six episode run, with a total of 103 episodes being split across two seasons (created in just under two years time!). The first thirteen are compiled in this release, under the label 'Season One Part One.'
The plot follows a peculiar young lad named Allen Walker, a novice exorcist with a dark past, as he fights to free the souls of the dead from the evil akuma, who are powered by the sorrow of those they possess. Blessed with the ability to see akuma when they hide among the living, cursed with a pentacle across his face and already whitened hair (hiding his true youthful spirit), and gifted with an anti-akuma weapon forged into his left hand that mutates into varying forms to fit his combat needs, Walker seeks to destroy the Millennium Earl, an evil ancient being who tricks the grieving into creating the akuma for his bidding. After Allen Walker enlists in the Black Order, a group of fellow exorcists, he is sent out into the world with some diverse companions as they search for "Innocence," the power that fuels anti-akuma weaponry when utilized by its "facilitator," which can also instill great power in the evil akuma, evolving them into more dangerous (less pathetic) forms.
'D. Gray-man' gets off to a fast start, with the entire first episode filling the audience in on the strange world with the akuma, and even threw me off, as the very next episode was the one to introduce the supporting cast, rather than those we had just met. The cast is diverse, though pretty damn generic, with the arrogant and brash warrior, the powerful female exorcist and her scientist brother, and a multitude of redshirts ready and waiting to be slaughtered. The villains are out of a 'Final Fantasy' game, with their mindless minions falling en masse, leading up to cataclysmic battles, in addition to their diverse personalities that all seem to be linked to some greater scheme.
The main villain of the program is known instantly, though his powers are yet to be divulged in this first series of episodes, beyond his treachery and ability to create an army of cursed souls. Having such a driving point helped gain some interest for me in the program, as I knew what to build towards, rather than pondering where events and situations would be headed. The akuma are less than enthralling, as they seem to be as dangerous as a rabid cat, and only half as delicious. Even in numbers, they don't amount to squat, faking tension due to the obvious outcome of each encounter. In short, they're about as deadly as each of the weekly monsters in 'Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers,' while the main villain stands by and watches his creations get mowed down from a safe distance.
The thirteen included episodes get a lot done in a short amount of time, with a few introductory episodes making way for two multi-episode arcs that create great conflicts, rather than stale episodic dribble. The first multi-part arc was interesting, though a hair confusing, but I couldn't help but be enthralled when the latter arc focused on an occurrence not too unfamiliar to me, stealing the premise of the underrated 'Groundhog Day.' That story arc was unbelievably fun (for me, at least), with a different explanation of the scenario that fit into the story line (though it was awfully predictable), and had more tense action than any episode before it, as well as a strong message through it all.
This first batch of episodes of 'D. Gray-man' doesn't do much more than introduce viewers to the characters, and the diverse world, so full of strange powers due to the scattered "Innocence," but it is fairly addictive, as I'm already looking forward to April's release of 'Season One Part Two.' Fans of fantasy anime, as well as those interested in mythology, will find something enjoyable with this series. That said, the pace needs to be brought up, as I found far too many lingering shots filling space, as well as far too many characters dropping out of thin air to comprehend and become attached to. With ninety episodes to go, I'm certain all that will change.
The Disc: Vital Stats
'D. Gray-man Season One Part One' comes to Blu-ray by way of FUNimation, with a two disc set in a single case, housed in a slightly oversized (thickness-wise) slipcover. The first disc, a BD50, houses episodes one through nine, while the second contains episodes ten through thirteen, as well as the non-commentary extras. This set is reportedly Region A locked. Each disc has a trailer preceding the main menu, though the top menu will skip each. Each episode contains the opening and closing credits, as well as a preview for the next episode, but each of these segments are slotted into chapters, so they are easily skippable without missing any of the show.
This first volume of 'D. Gray-man' comes to Blu-ray by way of an AVC MPEG-4 encode (1080p, 1.78:1) that hardly had me impressed. While not as problematic as the 'Samurai Champloo' release, this series has a set of issues that was hard to ignore.
From the first introductory theme song, I knew aliasing was going to be a massive issue (while color banding was lightly present). My suspicions were confirmed immediately. This has to be one of the most awkwardly aliased programs I've watched on Blu-ray! Solid lines stairstep often, especially the ones surrounding characters, like their hairlines or jaws. The aliasing issues don't stop there, as there any "camera" pan, inward, or side to side, creates a wavering issue, as lines fluctuate in thickness and straightness, somewhat similar to a heat wave effect. There was also an issue with aliasing that made some outlines seem to move around characters, like they were being highlighted.
Ringing is present, though it's fairly light, while color bleeding is also accounted for (though in many moments, it appears to be an aesthetic choice). Reds ran a bit fuzzy, while most colors had a washed out appearance, probably a matter of intent. Whites were very clean, while blacks were often too light. Artifacting was an off and on issue, in that it was much more difficult to spot (or much less obvious, however you want to look at it) in the episodes on the second disc. Color banding was the same way, in that it was quite egregious on disc one, but was minimal on the second disc. Detail is solid, while grain levels in flashbacks are intact. This program isn't the best looking released on Blu-ray to date, but it is far from the worst.
'D. Gray-man Season One Part One' has two audio options: an English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track (which is the default mix for the show), or a Japanese Dolby Digital Stereo track (which is mislabeled on the packaging as being a Dolby TrueHD Stereo mix). For the sake of testing the capabilities of the lossless track, and for gauging the difference between the two languages, this review will cover both mixes, with the final score being an average of both.
English Audio: 4.5/5 - Quite possibly the best sounding anime series I've sat down to, this first volume of D. Gray-man has an absolute knockout English track. Dialogue is always clear, never buried under effects or score, with nice, appropriate localization to boot. The rear speakers are constantly active, with light atmosphere in off moments, and wanton action, wind, explosions, and anything else you can think of when a fight breaks out. The track sports fantastic dynamic range, with a beautiful, unbridled high end, and a decent amount of bass that can truly put you in the scene, creating solid tension and occasionally accenting an environment. The score spreads through the room perfectly, and is truly engaging and fun to listen to, as it is both whimsical and destructive. My favorite moment had to be when silence was used rather than noise, as it had such power, and great dramatic effect. This dub receives a superb mix thanks to the hard work of the FUNimation team.
Japanese Audio: 2.5/5 - I understand that the show was created in stereo, but the discrepancy between the package and the menu is too vast to not harp on. The promise of lossless audio, with a chintzy lossy switcheroo? Killer, just killer. There is a significant difference between tracks, with the native language receiving stunted dynamics, which are particularly noticeable in the score, as well as restricted bass levels, and a lack of the fully immersive environment that made the English track a real winner. That said, this is still a decent track for what it is...it just pales in comparison to the competition.
If future releases of 'D. Gray-man' have loaded supplement packages, they will make this release look pathetic in comparison. If they all are as skimpy as this one, that would be, in a word...pitiful.
'D. Gray-man seems to be an interesting anime series, though this sampling of episodes, which is barely over 10 percent of the series, makes it hard to judge the show in its entirety. There seems to be great promise and some intriguing ideas, but whether or not the show makes something truly amazing, or slightly underwhelming, remains to be seen with future volumes. This Blu-ray has some problematic video, amazing audio (if you're listening the the English dub), and a wimpy set of extras if ever there were one. This one is worth a look, to see if the show hooks you.