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Tuesday, 12 October 2010 00:00

Black Blood Brothers

The thing with anything claiming to be a vampire action series these days is that there's already a series in that category that sets a very high standard for anyone else to follow: Hellsing Ultimate. Black Blood Brothers is keen to give it a try, so let's see how it shapes up...

10 years ago, Hong Kong fell victim to a horde of vampires, the Kowloon Children, with the city left a ruined wasteland after the attempts by the remaining humans & less bloodthirsty vampires to force them out. One of the fighters on that day was Jiro, a vampire whose life was turned upside down when his love was killed by the Kowloon Children and who thought of nothing but revenge, with the female vampire responsible being the main target of his anger. But the past is the past - now, a cargo ship heading for Yokohama is carrying a cargo that soon attracts the attention of the group in control of the Special Zone, an area set aside for vampires and humans to live with each other in peace. Jiro and his brother Kotaro are part of that cargo – but so are some surviving Kowloon Children. Is the Special Zone about to fall in the same way that Hong Kong did?

Jiro may carry a longsword and have a fearsome reputation – no-one earns the tag "kin-killer" without good reason, after all – but he's no Alucard, and Black Blood Brothers is no Hellsing. Whereas the latter goes for blood, gore and shock value, often at the expense of story, this series takes the opposite approach – it's trying to tell a story, with occasional violence included simply as a tool to do that. The problem is, the storytelling's not exactly great.

The first thing I thought after watching the opening episode was "whuh!?" - I simply had no idea what was going on. Sure, the episode was full of eyecandy and action, it was great fun to watch, but in story terms it was a mess - and that can't be a good thing, right? Then I started thinking about it, and piecing things together, and slowly everything began to fall into place. Now, the fact that I even thought about it should be a hint - you don't normally waste time thinking about terrible shows, other than thinking "why did I waste my time". The show had just completed a neat little trick: planting the seeds of a few ideas in my head, then sitting back and waiting for them to take root. In the hour or two after watching the episode, I went from "whuh!?" to "aah!" - almost - as a little light went on somewhere and things started making sense.

The series does some rather confusing hopping through time – the opening scenes of each episode (or opening half, in the case of episode one) all take place in the past, and set aside from the main story and considered on their own tell a tale in their own right. It's a tale that explains Jiro's origins and why he came to be the vampire he his today. Set alongside that, the main story deal with events in his past catching up with him again, as the battles of Hong Kong look set the happen again as the Kowloon Children infiltrate the Special Zone.

The Order Coffin Company control the special zone, and initially there's a little bit of confusion over what their role is, precisely. Provide a useful coffin ordering service? No. Impose their own form of order on those who may spend their days asleep in a coffin? More likely. If that's the case, though, they seem to have something of an identity crisis: why would the company that uses the Suppression Squad to keep vampires in check also need Compromisers like Mimiko to provide negotiation services, when their negotiations are more normally conducted at gunpoint? It just doesn't make sense, especially when you end up with a situation where employees of the same company are trying to both protect and kill Jiro and Kotaro, depending on their roles. The situation is clarified a little as the series goes on, but it highlights the show's biggest problem: it's never entirely clear what's going on or what the characters' motivations are, and that leaves the experience of watching it a little bit lacking.

The leads are watchable enough, at least. Jiro looks the part of a vampire, with his heavy coat, sunlight protection and elite fighting skills, while his unhappy past gives him a certain moodiness that fits him well. Kotaro is almost the complete opposite – funloving and carefree, he's very much not what you expect of a vampire, and he's great fun to watch. Completeing the lead trio is Mimiko, a Compromiser (negotiator, more accurately) for the Company who takes Jiro and Kotaro under her wing. She's another character who's fun to watch, but it's never really clear why she takes to the brothers as well as she does – she certainly goes to lengths for them that don't match what they've done for her.

On the dark side, the main person of interest is Cassa, who has had plenty of contact with Jiro in the past – both good and bad – and who really does fill the villain role well. She doesn't have much in the way of motivation to be the way she is – like the rest of the Kowloon Children, she's evil because that's her nature, nothing more – but sometimes the best villains are those who do evil just because they can, and Cassa certainly falls into that category.

There are other characters on both sides who make regular appearances – and a few shades of grey in between – but they don't play so much of a role. When the series does action, it's actually quite good. It doesn't have the visual flair or visceral nature of some other vampire shows, but it's perfectly competent as far as it goes and does entertain. The problem is with the way the plot is handled, which at times just leaves you confused, and at other times unfolds a little too slowly. It's also left with the hooks clearly in place for a second season that has yet to happen, so don't expect all your questions to be answered.

What it comes down to, then, is whether the characters can balance out the show's failings in the plot department. The answer: almost, but not quite. Black Blood Brothers does have its good points and there's plenty of it that's enjoyable enough to sit through, but there's also enough about it that's not quite right that you're left feeling a little underwhelmed at the end of it. When the DVD release came out in the UK, I rated this as one to try before you buy - now, with FUNimation giving us a free stream of the series, you've got the ideal chance to do that.

For full episode summaries and screenshots, check pages 2-4 of this review.

Rating - ***