Darker than Black: 8.8/10
TV Series; 25 Episodes
Jul 10/2006 – Dec 18/2006
Genre: Action, Mystery, Drama, Sci-Fi
Director and Original Creator: Tensai Okamura
Production Studio: BONES, Aniplex, FUNimation Entertainment
Shadows on a Black Road
At the horizon of a bleak world stands an ominous wall, ‘Hell’s Gate’, it’s steel and cement arms spreading across the Tokyo skyline. The city itself is filled with curious characters borne with the Gate, Contractors and Dolls. Contractors are those that have gained supernatural abilities for a price, a penance they must pay for using their skills. Some have to overturn the shoes of their victims, smoke cigarettes or even drink the blood of young children. Dolls on the other hand are soulless mediums, who use various surfaces to track the ongoing of the city. Presented is a dark world painted in shadows and ambiguity, a backdrop against which Darker than Black[DtB] succeeds, a few shades short of greatness.
The premise is vague: ten years ago, Hell’s Gate emerged along with Contractors and Dolls, humans granted paranormal abilities. The smoke doesn’t really clear up much as series progresses, failing to provide answers to how or why the Gate was created in the first place. Instead, Darker than Black drags you through a tale rife with political head butting and philosophical dilemmas while attempting to pluck a few heartstrings along the way. Sometimes it feels the plot is trying to do too much, pushing character development while layering bureaucratic maneuverings atop of a monologue about the nature of the human soul. The tale is ambitious, but some of these elements just fall short. There’s also the little issue of leaps of faith across little plot holes. You won’t enjoy Darker Than Black very much if you don’t buy into the logic. Some shows abuse this, such as Code Geass R2, but DtB never exploits its own narrative to that extent.
The climax serves as a stage focusing on the main character’s personal journey instead of the large conflict that had nurtured in the final few installments. The effect was underwhelming, both could have been featured and the latter did not have to be shoved to the final few minutes to be resolved. The ending didn’t tie together all the loose ends but I expect the sequel to fulfill the unrequited promises of the first.
The characters were exceptional in Darker than Black. Hei, a polarized hero, wears an icy mask on his missions, while off duty he’s reserved, clumsy and for a lack of a better word, ‘cute’. He’s supported by the silent and morose Yin, and the level-headed Huang. The cast is given some vibrancy by Mao, the cautious if somewhat paranoid talking cat. The leads are likable but their development is allocated to specific arcs, their growth stunted outside these small windows. Hei can be seen as an exception, his past penciled in throughout. From a beer chugging secret agent, a cop with a stoic sense of justice to a sock-sniffing sociopath, the supporting cast is spectacular, filled with interesting figures. Kurosawa Gai brings relief to the tense, often brooding, atmosphere, with his perky pink-haired partner Kiko. Close to the middle of the series we see an erosion of Hei’s stony visage, seeing it completely shatter in the last few moments. The revelations make Hei endearing but somewhat forgettable. We’ve seen this type of hero, a cut and paste history pulled from many popular stories.
The art in Darker than Black is exceptional, the Bones name branded onto every frame. A dark palette is favored to fill in the vacant allies, while vibrancy bubbles in Shinjuku’s flashing lights. The style is outlined in dark strokes, as the action unfolds before your eyes. The scuffles between the Contractors highlight the fluidity of the animation, powers vibrating with force, sizzling with electricity or rippling with strength. Hei invokes the spirit of Spider-man as he zips around and about buildings with his grappling hooks for an impressive effect. A slight amount of CGI is used to animate cars, Bones opting for a more cell-shaded look to let them drive about seamlessly in the world.
Character designs work well, each unique enough to give a distinct personality. Hei’s pupils are not drawn in, creating an eerie effect, making him seem almost soulless. Facial animations are spot on, most impressively seen in Yin, her eyes betraying small fragments of feeling that she had supposedly forgotten.
The sound is decent, not up to par of the visuals. The supporting cast surprisingly delivers excellent performances, their short roles reprised excellently. It’s the main cast I felt was a bit weaker, feeling a bit forced. Huang is best when asked to treat his comrades like shit, his compassion coming off as fake. The soundtrack is varied; composed of more traditional tracks featuring bellowing pianos and whining violins, to more electro-pop influenced tracks like the opening. They interweaved the two styles well enough, rendering a pleasant soundscape fitting of Tokyo’s dreary future.
Watchability and Enjoyment
At moments I had ‘WTF’ feelings shock my system. I didn’t know exactly what was going on why certain plot points were unfolding the way they were. The story led me one way, then the plot would stretch itself thin to move in another direction. It’s a bit disorienting, but the complex forces at work in the show eventually boil down to a simple ‘us versus them’ scenario with Hei at the center of it all. The intricacy might be a turn off to some viewers, but I appreciated that the show saw the viewer as an intellect and did not spoon-feed the entire story to me.
Darker than Black is a welcome in a sea of mediocrity. It attempts to touch the horizon, to realize its own epic ambitions. There are a lot of loose strings, holes in the story that have to be reconciled in the second season for this program to reach hallowed annals of Anime prominence. The twenty-five installments created are excellent, the potential is there, but Darker than Black is an incomplete work.