I chose the mystery/action/supernatural anime Darker Than Black (2007) to review this week (and next week as there are two seasons). The first series is 25 episodes long with one OVA.
What’s it about?
This anime is set in the future where two mysterious areas, “Heaven’s Gate” in South America and “Hell’s Gate” in Tokyo, have appeared, replacing the real stars with fake ones, and leading to the emergence of ‘Contractors’ and ‘Dolls’. Contractors are characterised by wielding unique powers, but at the cost of a particular behaviour they must perform after using their power; their remuneration. Contractors tend to express little to no emotion, and see the world in a purely rational light. Dolls are blank, seemingly-programmable humans, who are able to gather information by sending out ‘observer spirits’ through various mediums such as glass or water, and are primarily used to gather information. All things about the mysterious Gates, including the Contractors and Dolls, are kept secret from the public, with only those working in domestic and international police/intelligence agencies, as well as the underworld knowing of them.
The story focuses on the exploits of Hei (known as Li Shenshun in civilian life), and his work for the ‘Syndicate’; an underworld organisation that targets information relating to Hell’s Gate. Hei works as part of a group, which includes the female doll Yin, the contractor Mao (in a cat’s body), and the ordinary human and ‘handler’ of the group, Huang.
Starting with the visuals and sound. The art is very good, with fight scenes very fluid and well executed. The characters all look really nice with good styling. Hei is always well presented with his trademark mask and black cloak, and Yin caught my eye right from the start, although I don’t like Amber’s outfit. Sound is great; I loved the first opening and ending themes (abingdon boys school’s “Howling” and Rie fu’s “Tsukiakari” respectively), and, although I was less keen on the second opening and ending themes, they still fit the feel of the anime. The soundtrack throughout the series adds to the dark, film noir atmosphere of the anime. It’s edgy and cool, and is appropriate in all of the scenes (including the somewhat goofy ones involving private eye Gai Kurasawa and his assistant Kiko Kayanuma).
(L-R) Huang, Yin, Hei and Mao. I really liked Yin’s styling throughout the series.
Another thing I really liked about this anime was the ideas in it. The Contractors are awesome; it was interesting to see exactly what their powers were, as well as what their remuneration involved. Some Contractors had better deals than others; one girl could set fire to any object at will, and had to hum for her remuneration, whilst one woman who could sing at any frequency and cause other objects to resonate had to eat something and vomit it back up. Because there is a lot of variety in powers, the fight scenes can get really epic, and, as already mentioned, the animation does it justice.
Finally, I found the majority of the characters to be likeable. Although Hei and Yin are at first very blank, you learn more about them as the series continue. Mao does a good job of lightening the mood every now and then, and I really liked Huang, particularly towards the end. However, Darker Than Black has a whole host of other characters, from the regularly occurring Misaki Kirihara and other members of the Public Security Bureau Foreign Affairs Section 4, to once-off Contractors, with all adding their own dynamic to the episodes they’re in. I also liked the involvement of different domestic and international organisations, and their different interests and motives.
The first thing that I noticed about this anime was the pacing. Generally each story arc, almost always focusing on the mission that Hei is involved in, is made up of two episodes. But each pair of episodes are barely connected to each other, which results in some weird pacing, and makes most of the anime feel disjointed.
Secondly, a lot of the characters don’t stick around for long. Most of the more interesting Contractors are only in their two-episode arc before they are killed or disappear with no explanation. I found this really annoying, especially since you feel so involved with the characters when they are focused on.
Mai Kashiwagi was one character I was expecting to see a lot more of.
However, the biggest let-down of Darker Than Black is its plot. There is an overall plot, but you aren’t aware of it until the last few episodes, making this one of the slowest anime I have watched. When you do get to the good bit of the plot, it’s over in the space of a few episodes. Furthermore, the ending is messy and quite confusing, but at least you are assured knowing that there is a second series to (maybe?) make everything clear. The plot is also irritating in that there are virtually no explanations of the appearance of the Gates, what leads people to becoming Contractors or Dolls (or even whether Dolls are ‘programmable’ humans or just humans who have been through some sort of trauma and are now a shell of themselves), how the Gates led to the replacement of the night sky with a false one, or really anything that could explain what the hell is going on.
Anything else I should consider?
If goriness isn’t your thing, best give this anime a miss. There are some brutal fighting scenes, including a character who slices his arms open constantly, as well as a number of other slightly disturbing scenes; a lot of dead, bloody bodies; a couple of people getting burnt to death; a woman getting her fingers broken during an interrogation, etc.
Art: 8/10: Good character styling, with quality art throughout, particularly the fight scenes.
Story: 6/10: Terrible, terrible, pacing, with a lot of unanswered questions remaining at the end. The only thing that really redeems it is the interesting ideas.
Characters: 7/10: The characters are nothing spectacular, but are likeable enough.
Darker Than Black could have been a lot more than what it is if there was more attention paid to pacing and explanation. The fighting scenes are good, the ideas are interesting, and the characters are likeable. However, I found myself watching it more for the dark atmosphere and the different powers of the Contractors than the story, but I did enjoy it for that. I mostly liked the final few episodes where there was actual plot, and it gave me hope that the second season would address the issues of the first. Overall, I give it a 7/10.