I remember a time in the United States when shoujo simply wasn't found. There weren't enough women interested in anime or manga to make a go of it sales-wise. Nowadays, of course, you can find almost an equal male:female ratio of stateside fans, and the selection proves it. I've found in my limited shoujo experience that some of the standards of the genre, such as the preoccupation with "the power of love" and angsty heroes that tend to be thinner than Celine Dion, can get a little old. However, there are plenty of interesting shoujo titles out there, and D.N.Angel looks like one from its opening episodes. Although there are a few problems in the opening DVD, "The Dawn of Dark", from ADV Films, when I slapped it into the player I didn't expect to like it or want to watch more of it when I was done. I stand corrected.
Daisuke Niwa has just turned 14, a scrawny, red-haired runt of a kid. He's kind and sweet, but clumsy and far from a ladies man. He has a secret crush on his good friend Risa, but she just likes him as a friend. She's looking for someone a bit more tall, dark, and handsome...and Niwa has no idea that he's about to become that guy!
It turns out that Niwa's DNA carries a secret personality called Phantom Thief Dark. His mom and grandpa, who like to go around in the basement of their house doing weird incantations, know that the personality of Dark appears in the male lineage at the age of 14, and they put it to immediate use. They send Niwa on assignments to steal various magical art items throughout their European-looking city so that they can release the items' mystical powers before they cause anybody any harm. But how can he pull off the thefts? As Dark, of course! And if he doesn't complete his larcenous tasks, he may stay as Dark permanently. To add insult to injury, the transformation happens when he thinks about the girl he likes...the girl that's rejected him for his alter ego!
The police haven't seen Phantom Thief Dark at work in over 40 years, so they are interested in finding out exactly who this mysterious crook is. Meanwhile, another young man at the school, Hiwatari, has an interest in both Niwa and Dark, and his background is almost as strange as Niwa's. Things get even more difficult when Dark kisses Risa's twin sister, Riku, on her balcony. See, Niwa doesn't have full control when he's Dark, and Dark can only make suggestions when Niwa's himself. So the girls like Dark, but Niwa wants Risa to like him for himself. Hiwatari wants to make sure that if Niwa is in fact Dark, he's put away for good. Can the life of a multiple-personalitied teenager get any more complicated? Oh, probably.
D.N.Angel is quite a new series, running in Japan in 2003, and it looks sharp. Although the animation is still television quality for the most part, the use of computer effects is done seamlessly. It's not that you don't notice them, but they enhance rather than distract from the effect, particularly as we glide around buildings that Dark is ready to hit. The music and other incidentals are fine, but not of particular note. The visuals aren't a top-draw, but they are good.
What makes D.N.Angel interesting is that it keeps its plotlines moving without testing the audience's patience. I recently watched another shoujo anime, Cyber Team In Akihabara, stretch out its opening into three episodes that strained my endurance to its outer limits as the same plot replayed over and over again. With D.N.Angel, we are captivated because the storyline unfolds gradually, but the burgles are themselves interesting and the characters more realized as we progress. It uses slow and steady steps forward to bring the viewer deeper into the plotline. Niwa is a very likable character for a hero, which makes his plight of being indelibly attached to the dashing jerk Dark more compelling. I really enjoyed watching the show because it surprised me with a few minor zigs when I was expecting zags.
This isn't to say it was great, because it had a few important flaws. For one, the use of black magic in the setting bothered me. To many, the use of tarot cards and spell-casting in the real world isn't a big deal, but it made the tone of the show feel a bit off to me. It doesn't flow well with the light and airy atmosphere the rest of the show has. Second, the whole "angel" concept here is a shoujo convention that has no real purpose as I see it. It's a gimmick, not a useful part of the story (at least not yet). Then there's Risa, who is too close to the "power of love" stereotype who mindlessly finds herself attracted to Dark. She's not a good foil; thankfully, the show uses the sister Riku to much better effect, and I can't help but hope that she becomes Niwa's actual love interest in the later parts of the show. These aren't terrible problems, but enough to move the rank down a bit.
Although I wasn't expecting to like D.N.Angel, I found myself enjoying it quite a bit. It doesn't fall in the categories of anime that I personally seek out often, but I would watch more of this one. It still falls into a few too many shoujo pigeonholes, but if you like shoujo in general, this one will be a hit.
D.N.Angel Volume 1: The Dawn of Dark -- mild violence -- B+