Darker than BLACK
Ten years ago the Hell's Gate opened. At this time, Contractors, people with paranormal powers at a cost to them, emerged.
Enter protagonist Hei, a very powerful Contractor who, unlike most, doesn't have to pay a price for his abilities. Living in Japan, in a world where the stars of the past are replaced with fakes, he uses his tactics and skills to take on other, more problematic Contractors from rival syndicates running amok in Tokyo. He is joined by an emotionless, nearly blind Doll named Yin, a gruff old man named Huang, and a talking cat named Mao. As Hei confronts other Contractors, he also slowly unlocks the mysteries of his past, including Hell's Gate.
He's not the only one going around the city of Tokyo, though. There's also a cop named Misaki Kirihara, a policewoman who investigates matters involving Contractors herself, serving as the Section-Chief of the Foreign Affairs Section 4.
Darker than BLACK is an interesting series brought to us by animation studio BONES. It's also an oddity in anime where the battles are more interesting than the actual show. Read further for my explanation.
Unlike most anime, most of Darker than BLACK's episodes are almost entirely two-parters. The plot is usually the following: Hei (in his "college transfer student" Li persona) interacts with people (talking to his apartment neighbors, go shopping, etc.), then talks to Mao, gets a mission from Huang, does it, meets someone, some plot occurs, Yin may/may not show up, and the contractor of the arc dies or gets away. On its own it doesn't sound like much, and you'd be right. Hei is a cool, versatile character, but he's also a bit dull in his Black Reaper. The other leads - stoic doll Yin, grumpy human Huang, and talking cat Mao - fill up the quartet. My personal favorite was Mao, who occasionally lighten the mood with some humorous insight/reactions. Huang's interesting in that he is the only one of the four who is 100% human, but he's often pushed aside amongst the other cast members. Yin's character design stands out quite a bit, and her later character development actually explains quite a bit of her past, more so than I thought the show would.
One of Darker than BLACK's biggest strengths/weaknesses is the commitment you're required of the show. If you want to learn more about Hei, Yin, and Huang, you're going to have watch the entire series from beginning to end, since a good chunk of their backstories (save Yin's) aren't revealed until nearly the end. This isn't a bad thing, because it gives you a reason to continue watching the series. At the same time, the show can be a pain in times to sit through; no matter how much I tried, I couldn't get into the main plot of the series. Not only does the focus of Hei and his past jump around to several different views (his sister, Hell's Gate, other Contractors) more than I thought was needed, but it's also not very gripping. I found myself more interested in the simpler stories, such as the one about the Yakuza falling for a robot doll, Huang's past relationships, and even the humorous detective Gai and Kiko (we'll get back to them later). I know Hei is the main character, but his past just eats up so much of the time in the series, the other main characters barely get an episode or two about themselves. Mao is brushed off almost completely! This isn't helped by policewoman Misaki's storylines, which are often entangled into (or shown in-between) Hei's missions, which only brings about even more names/terms to remember.
This is also not a show you can shut off your brain and watch, either. And since I make it my goal to watch anime I review only in Japanese unless I absolutely cannot, I often found myself rewinding back to re-pick up lines of dialogue. It made 24-minute episodes take almost 30-35 minutes at times. Yes, series like Darker than BLACK make for a good argument on why English dubs for anime should be made. And I don't even care for most dubs.
It might be confusing at times, but fortunately Darker than BLACK's battles are pretty good, especially the Contractors Hei fights against. Not just their powers (electricity, gravity, voices, explosive blood, teleportation), but the fact that each Contractor's abilities come at a price. Some are of them are quite costly, while others are light-hearted and even humorous. (One Contractor has to kiss people upon using her abilities. Yes, I'm not joking.) Sure, most of these powers have been seen in American comic books - X-Men especially - but the Contractors' prices for the use of their powers adds quite a bit of flavor to the series.
While Darker than BLACK is many things, one thing it's not is pleasant. Deaths happen periodically, and few of the Contractors introduced in an arc live past it, much less are ever seen again. Even the more light-hearted episodes (such as the clumsy but good-natured Kenji finding a Doll and falling in love with her, or "Li" and Misaki watching the stars together) have their dark turns in them. Except for Mao and some of the daily scenes with Hei dealing with his rowdy apartment neighbors, Darker than BLACK's only other consistent source of humor comes from self-proclaimed "best detective in Japan" Gai Kurasawa and his assistant, the bubbly, pink-haired, anime/manga fantatic Kiko Kayanuma. They clash more than a bit with the typically serious tone of the show, but they also at the same time provide a nice break from the series' drama.
As earlier mentioned, the art is pretty solid in Darker than BLACK, courtesy of BONES. The characters are all pretty easy to tell apart with few exceptions, and some designs (like Yin and Amber's) are colorful and quite memorable. The animation isn't stellar, but it never gets embarrassing or awful. The music score by Yoko Kanno perfectly fits the series' mood and never feels out of place, even in the more lighthearted scenes. The Japanese voice acting is pretty standard, with the exception of the late Tomoko Kawakami as Amber. Amber was one of Kawakami's final anime roles before her unfortunate 2011 death, and it's good to know that one of her final anime roles was a very solid one.
So overall I liked the characters and battles in Darker than BLACK, but found myself not caring as much for the main story. I walked off a bit disappointed for a series that I hears such high accolades from so many others. It's definitely not a bad series, and I intend to review its sequel series in the future, but overall Darker than BLACK isn't nearly as gripping or exciting as its promotional material makes it out to be.
Since fellow reviewer Bradley has also seen this series, I'm going to let him add in his own two cents on the series;
Darker than BLACK looks like the kind of thing I would have tried when I was getting into anime. It takes elements familiar to Western geeks - superheroes, spies and syndicates - and colors these concepts with interesting twists and details, adds cool animation and music, and drops it in a weird urban post-apocalypse. It feels like a safe choice for any casual fan (a demographic anime needs material for), and so it's disappointing to say that the nicest thing I can write about it is, "it's only okay." Tim astutely hit the broad points of why the series doesn't work, and I'll add that many of the stand-alone episodes tested my patience as I slowly worked towards the final episodes. I like to try to sum up why an anime does and doesn't work in neat, pointed criticisms, but listing why Darker than BLACK does and doesn't work would end with a scatter-shot list that would occasionally contradict itself. The back story and setting is interesting but not interesting enough, it explains too much and yet too little, it drowns itself in minutia to the point that several episodes end in narrative gobbledygook, and sometimes it brushes over important ideas too quickly. Perhaps this is simply the product of too many cooks spoiling the broth. In the end, what works works well enough for me to like it, and what doesn't makes me wish I had watched a shorter, more direct series at the same time.
A solid series with some flaws in its plot development. Rent before buying. — Tim Jones
Recommended Audience: Older teens and up, due to the very frequent violence in this series. There's some female nudity in the last few episodes with one of the Contractors, though the violence is much more prominent. Viewer discrection advised.
Version(s) Viewed: R1 DVD, Japanese with English subs only
Review Status: Full (25/25)
Darker than BLACK © 2007 BONES • Tensai Okamura / DTB Committee • MBS
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