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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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. 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?