Darker Than Black Season 1 Series Review

This is a re-post. All reviews from the 2nd of July until the 7th of July will be reruns. New episode and series reviews will resume on the 8th of July.

Overview:

Approximately 10 years ago a mysterious gate appeared in South America (Heaven’s Gate) and then another appeared in Tokyo (Hell’s Gate). At the same time the real stars disappeared from view and fake stars started appearing, as did people with special abilities known as contractors. After a war for control of Heaven’s Gate ended disastrously, the agency’s of the world now manoeuvre around each other for control of Hell’s Gate (so of course we are set in Tokyo).

Review:

If I was forced to ever write a list of my favourite anime of all time, Darker Than Black would be right up there. It wouldn’t be number 1, and probably would get bumped out of the top 5 all together because it is a flawed series (and that’s just season 1, eventually I will review season 2 and it will go about as well as my review for season 2 of Black Butler did). That said, this is an anime that I have watched at least once every year since I bought the DVD’s and if I’m honest it’s usually more than once in a given year that I pull it out to watch through again.

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So what is the appeal of this series and what are some of the flaws? Let’s tackle them one at a time and then I’d love to turn it over to you guys for your thoughts.

Darker Than Black is episodic in nature with each mini-story being mostly stand-alone within a greater narrative. Each of the stories lasts for two episodes and follows much the same pattern (at least for the majority of the season – toward the end we get a more continuous run of events). During these stories we see the various representatives of the various organisations interacting and maneuvering within Tokyo and we slowly get to know them as individuals. But each of these stories also contain clues about the overall narrative and a lot of these will be missed first time round so mostly just seem like random bits of information being thrown around. Second time through it all kind of clicks together but that makes it difficult to embrace the first time.

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Our first group of characters, and the one those of us who love Darker Than Black come to love, include Hei (a contractor who seems to control electricity and has way too many names), Mao (a contractor trapped in the body of a talking cat), Yin (a doll who can send her spectre through water to spy on others, and Huang (the human and supposed leader of this group). They work for a group known only as the Syndicate and they are clearly up to no good. While Huang passes along the orders and Yin and Mao act mostly as support, Hei tackles a range of missions including infiltration, recovery, assassination, and so on. The only problem is that Hei isn’t exactly a standard contractor.

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This is where Darker Than Black loses a lot of its audience. It clearly establishes that contractors are completely emotionless and rational. They will always make the logical decision. Then we have multiple contractors who don’t do that (or at least not consistently). While the ending explains this, and these inconsistencies are actually a major part of the plot and are intentional, early on it just feels like sloppy world building as a fairly concrete rule is ignored time and again. With Hei being the main contractor that we get to know early on it makes it hard for the rules to really ground themselves. That said, if you watch it through, it actually does make perfect sense and I’m going to leave that discussion there because it is impossible to say why Hei is the way he is without throwing in a major plot spoiler for the end of the series. While I’m not normally all that concerned, in this case, it is kind of the big reveal that you are waiting for so just watch it and find out.

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Another group we see a lot of are the police. Mostly this is through the eyes of Misaki Kirihara who also narrates the first and last episodes. She’s the audience’s way into this world (not high enough up to have all the government secrets, not a contractor, just a human doing her job) which allows her to give us the explanations we need and ask the questions we need asked in order to begin making sense of any of what is going on. Even then, she doesn’t get her answers until very near the end (and a lot of what she is told early on is misleading) and she doesn’t get everything wrapped up in a neat little package so don’t expect all the answers or you might just end up disappointed. That said, Kirihara is more than just a framing device. She’s a savvy and intelligent career driven woman who cares very much about the quality of her work. The loose ends bother her so even when advised to let things go she continues to dig. She also helps to humanize Hei who doesn’t have many real interactions with people (he usually has a mask on – sometimes literally but usually metaphorically). All and all, this group help push the plot along.

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Mid-way through the season we are introduced to Evening Primrose, a terrorist group that is claiming they want human rights for Contractors. It’s clear from the beginning that this group are up to something else but again, we won’t know what that is until right at the end. That said, the fact that Hei has personal history with the group’s leader makes for some interesting encounters as Evening Primrose and the Syndicate face off numerous times over intelligence and various pieces of technology.

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We also have the British Secret Service snooping around, usually with November 11 at the lead though after he encounters Amber and Evening Primrose he decides his best interests lie elsewhere (with fairly predictable results). November 11 is hilarious. He is so dry and laid back and often comes out with the most unexpected insights (usually following it up by telling the listener that he was joking). His memorised litany of facts about the dangers of second hand smoke is also kind of amusing considering his contract price (this show is big on irony) and you can’t help but wonder if the writers were paid by an anti-smoking campaign given the number of negative statements about cigarettes that come up during the run time.

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There are also the Americans running around, though other than getting in the way a few times they aren’t overly significant. There’s other teams representing the same groups, there’s scientists, other dolls, gangsters for some reason in one of the stories, and all sorts of independent contractors all with their own set of values and agendas. There’s a lot going on in this world and you only ever feel like you are seeing the surface and that there is a greater story going on but because the characters we spend the most time with are in the dark so are we.

And that’s probably the greatest strength and flaw of the series. The story itself isn’t that deep. It’s a little weird and the gate phenomena is explained simply as being inexplicable, but Kirihara’s quest for answers around what the government are doing about the gate and with contractors and Hei’s quest for answers about what happened in South America and to his sister, both come to a reasonable and pretty obvious conclusion if you remove all the odd visual metaphors. And this could have been a really solid story by itself but there are a lot of other characters and plot threads that are just kind of hanging around and aren’t resolved and while at times those side stories support the main narrative, a lot of the time they are simply filling in time while we wait for the next bit of crucial information.

That said, I couldn’t really imagine this story any other way. It really wouldn’t be Darker Than Black anymore and while it suffers from trying to appear more clever than it is, that doesn’t actually stop it being enjoyable.

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Before I begin wrapping up though, I watched this anime the first time with a friend of mine who was a massive Evangelion fan. His conclusion about the end was that it was a failed attempt at ripping off the confused mess that was the end of Evangelion (I actually like the end of Evangelion so confused mess isn’t actually all that negative). In honesty, visually, Darker Than Black becomes quite similar for a part of the final episode and does focus on an individual character’s choice about their future, and thinking on it from that point of view you would have to wonder what they were actually trying to accomplish. But it is distinct enough that it doesn’t feel like a rip-off (at least I didn’t think so).

Okay, last point to address before we get to the end. The Contractors themselves. These are some of the coolest powers and the fact that they come with such heavy price tags (so definitely a think before you use scenario) just makes them more interesting. The interesting match between the price and some fundamental characteristic of the contractor is intriguing and it just makes you wonder about those characters where their price isn’t given an explanation. I also love the link to the stars and that the death of a contractor means ‘their’ star will fall. It’s all really well thought out and well presented (and as I said at the start, the inconsistencies in the system are there for a reason).

Β I love this anime. I get that it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but it has some great music, great action, interesting characters, and it develops a reasonable story that is resolved, even as the surrounding questions about the nature of the world are left mostly unresolved. It’s also got a lot of rewatch potential as those individual stories early on all hold clues and hints about where the overall story is going and most of these aren’t obvious the first time through. The more I rewatch this series, the more I love the characters and the details in this world.Β  Yeah, it’s definitely violent at times (there’s plenty worse) and there are some themes dealt with that might not be to everyone’s taste (the episode that dealt with a ‘doll’ being sold was definitely touching on a few sensitive issues), but overall it is a reasonably solid piece of entertainment.

If you haven’t given Darker Than Black a go, you really should try it. If you have given it a go, what were your thoughts?


Thanks for reading.

Karandi James

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17 thoughts on “Darker Than Black Season 1 Series Review

  1. How many years has it been since I’ve last watched this series? πŸ˜€
    I think I’m coming up on 6 years…

    I definitely enjoyed season 1 more than season 2 but the one thing, that annoyed me the most is the relationship between Kirihara and Hei. I’m not one for happy endings all the time but it felt like the characters had to be miserable because… they need to be miserable.

    I don’t have clear memories about the series but I remember enjoying it a lot, until a certain point. I recall my thought that it often felt like the writers just “threw something in” and that made it hard to follow the plot in certain episodes, however I wouldn’t call it bad writing… not yet anyway.^^

    As far as I know, this is an original series so there’s nothing like a source-manga to compare it to.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Season 2 definitely went downhill fast and I really hated what they did to Hei as a character in season 2. Probably the reason I don’t own the second season or rewatch it despite an absolute love of season 1.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. When I first saw took me half of the series before I finally got into it. Like you mentioned, it mostly because how the characters were written, and it wasn’t until the middle portion I started getting invested in Hei, and his group. I did enjoy the episodic stories that didn’t add much to the overarching story, but it made it difficult to get into it. I stuck with it, and eventually enjoyed it a great deal. Haven’t seen it since the first time I saw it, but I do agree on the soundtrack being awesome. Probably my favorite part of the series besides the contractors themselves.

    While season 1 is the best in the franchise, I did find the 4 episode OVA continuation the most entertaining of the series. For me, it had what made season 1 great while having cool action sequences. As for season 2, if you repost that review, I’ll leave a comment on that one after reading your thoughts on it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I still haven’t written the review of season 2 because that would require me to watch it again and I really like to pretend it doesn’t exist. The OVA though is very cool and I should definitely get around to reviewing that at some point.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. That’s it…I have been back for just a few days, and I already have been adding way too much stuff to my already overcrowded to watch list. I really should stop reading your reviews…but we both know that will never happen anyway. Seriously though, you got my interest with this one..sounds like a terrific anime to watch, despite the flaws 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’d get a lot out of this one. It is a really great story provided the violence and some of the themes didn’t throw you off, but they aren’t that excessive (at least I didn’t think so). Definitely worth trying to find this one online because it is great fun to watch.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. First off: Yay you are back!! πŸ˜€πŸ˜€ Secondly: Yay you are back πŸ˜€πŸ˜€ !! (Sorry I always become a bit enthusiastic! πŸ˜€πŸ˜€). But really am glad you are back. How are you? Did you have a good week of rest?
        As for this show: totally! Really looking forward to seeing this as it’s as show that sounds like something I usually highly enjoy watching 😊

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yay I’m back.
          I had an excellent week off. Right now feeling very rested and on the drive home I was more than ready to plug in to my modem again and get back into things.
          I’m just going to catch up with messages and things this afternoon and maybe finish off a few shows from last season that aired during the week this evening and then hopefully tomorrow I can get into the new season of shows.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. That is so good to hear. I am very glad as I was (quite honestly) a bit worried about you. So it’s good that you have had such a great week and feel very rested 😊😊
            Haha…yeah your blog has probably exploded with all kind of comments. Take all the time you need to catch up.
            I haven’t decided which ones to watch yet. Though Island seems to be a show that has had some positive buzz the past week. Looking forward to seeing what you are going to choose!
            Very glad that you are backπŸ˜€πŸ˜€

            Liked by 1 person

          2. I looked at the updated shows on Crunchyroll and I kind of wondered how I’m ever going to catch up. I’m thinking I’m just going to work my way through the list from where I left off and see what I end up enjoying. There’s also a couple of shows over on HiDive I’m interested in.

            Liked by 1 person

          3. Haha…My Crunchyroll line up of shows I have marked to watch almost looks like a disaster zone…so many to choose from. Ugh…to have more spare time…that would be so nice 😊😊
            Good luck in choosing what you will watch πŸ˜€

            Liked by 1 person

  4. Hm. Flawed, but you still watch it at least once every year?? And even getting bumped out of your top 5,with all the anime you’ve probably watched top 5 would be a VERY prestigious place, I’m sure! To even be top 20 out of hundreds (or even just 100 Anime) is still pretty good!! πŸ’–πŸ»

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Realistically though, I think this is one you’d need to watch at least twice to really grab everything together. It isn’t that complicated but it isn’t wrapped up for the viewer either and there’s a few things you’ll miss the first time through.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m a little obsessed with this title. I know it isn’t perfect or even truly great when I compare it objectively to other titles, but I just know when I put it on I’m going to have a great viewing experience and for me that’s sometimes absolutely enough.

      Liked by 1 person

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