A Review of Darker Than Black, Season One

Do you ever try to find out why you love a show and then are dissatisfied with the reasons you come up with? Not because the reasons themselves aren’t sufficient, but because it doesn’t feel like those reasons are what typically justify praise when it comes to narrative mediums.

One popular school of thought places the narrative and writing at the forefront of what makes a story good. For me though, it is only the most common reason that people universally agree upon the quality of a story. Visual mediums are the most meaningful to me when the end result is a culmination of effective writing, visuals and especially music.

So what happens when I’m confronted with a show that flaunts a strong visual presence and great music but falls short in consistent writing and narrative. More importantly, why do I love 2007’s Darker Than Black, despite it falling into that category?

Darker Than Black is set years after a strange paranormal event occurred which spawned two uninhabitable zones that had to be closed off by society. Heaven’s Gate, in South America and Hell’s Gate, in Tokyo, Japan. At the same time these gates appeared, the sky mysteriously disappeared and was replaced by a fake sky, full of fake stars. Each star represents an individual on Earth who has been given super powers. These people are called contractors.

Don’t let the prospects of super powers fool you, they are anything but super heroes. Contractors are given powers at the cost of their human emotions. They work solely based on rational thought. Each time they use their powers, they must pay a price for their powers by performing a “payment” obsessive compulsively. At the same time, equally emotionless beings known as Dolls emerged. They are mediums who send specters through electricity, water or glass to search for information and people.

Given the nature of contractors and dolls, it was only natural that criminal and even government organizations would employ them for clandestine work. All the while, the government keeps the existence of contractors and dolls a secret and wipes the memories of those who come in contact with them.

We follow a contractor by the name of Hei, a young and mysterious Chinese man working for the equally mysterious organization, the Syndicate. Hei moves into Tokyo under the alias Li Shengshun and begins carrying out assignments for the Syndicate, all the while coming in contact with other contractors, shady government organizations and the innocent people living their lives normally in a world that is far from normal.

Darker Than Black is not a show that makes it clear where it is going. It is an episodic series not unlike Samurai Champloo or Cowboy Bebop. Like those shows- especially Bebop- Darker Than Black presents its premises and then spends its time exploring the world through week by week stories, revealing a little more about the world and how it works.

However, Cowboy Bebop’s premises were much fewer in number and easier to establish within the first few episodes. Not to mention that there are some parts of Cowboy Bebop we simply don’t question because the audience can infer the answer or because it isn’t essential to a plot that- despite being set in a sci-fi world- is mostly centered on human conflict most of the time. Darker Than Black has a lot more complexity and all of that complexity in some way is incorporated into the plot.

This means that some may want answers to certain questions and will not get those answers until much later in the series. Your ability to enjoy this show’s story all hinges on your ability to trust the show to answer your questions and take the story as it is dispensed. I would never ask a viewer to “turn their brain off” and just enjoy the show for what it is because statements like that demean the worth of any show and I believe Darker Than Black is most meaningful in what it does each episode with what the viewer knows at the time and how it does it.

Every episode of Darker Than Black is two parts. This is rather unusual for TV anime. Typically even episodic series like Bebop conclude their stories in one 24 minute episode. DTB takes the time to develop these supporting characters more considering that people tend to die a lot in this show or simply don’t show up again. Having two full episodes to focus on these stories makes them more memorable.

As for the quality of these stories, I feel that the show is at its best when it is developing the main cast, especially Hei, Yin, Huang and Mao. The show also hits its stride during the final several episodes, during which time all the questions are beginning to be answered and there is more of a through-line plot rather than an episodic one.

The main cast: Huan (far left), Yin (middle-left), Hei (front) and Mao (right)

The exceptions to that are entertaining though, such as one focused on Police Officer Misaki Kirihara. Although, this episode mainly stands out due its villain and some awesome fights rather than the plot involving Kirihara and her friend, which didn’t necessarily engage me on an emotional level. This brings us to a problem with the supporting cast in the series.

There are a LOT of characters in this show and the supporting cast, while pretty interesting, doesn’t always leave a lasting impression. I think I’m most disappointed with the Chief Kirihara’s department. Public Security Section 4 barely gets any development throughout the series, which is a shame because they are all very well acted, especially by the English dub Cast. There are some characters who probably could have been cut out entirely so we could have more time to develop the members of the police force more. Especially a certain private detective and his annoying sidekick…

Gai Kurusawa and his annoying, freeloading fujoshi partner whose name I didn’t commit to memory are definitely the weakest characters in the series and the arc they are introduced in is the weakest of the series. Let’s try and focus the brighter parts of the cast, namely the main characters.

Hei is an absolute badass. That much cannot be denied, but before I rewatched the series for this review, even I was wary of how good of a character he was, at least from a writing standpoint. He is a very dark character when he is on assignment. The dark cloak, the simple but imposing mask, the threatening daggers and even his power, which at first appears to simply be manipulation of electricity makes him a fighting machine. However, during the day, he is a completely different person.

Hei (AKA BK201)

During the day, Hei is known as Li Shengshun, a college student from China. He is kind, generous and known to have a ridiculous appetite for food. He is a completely different person, but he is so likable that it is almost disappointing to think that it might all be an act and that the cold and methodical Hei is the real deal. This used to be my complaint with him as a character is that he doesn’t really have one, but upon rewatching the series, this may not be so accurate.

Hei in his civilian persona, Li Shengshun

It is addressed early on in the series that Hei is unique because despite being a contractor, he still displays emotions and his hilarious appetite isn’t even his payment for using his power as viewers might assume when the show begins. As the show develops, Hei becomes more likable because we become aware of his more human side. The parts of Li I like so much start showing glimpses of themselves in Hei and he stops hiding behind the mask of a contractor while still remaining the badass I love so much.

In a lot of ways, Hei’s transformation or more accurately, his “unmasking”, is mirrored in the whole main cast. Yin, an emotionless doll, has her tragic past told in one of the series best arcs and slowly begins to prove herself much more than just a doll. Huang, the human who gives orders to Hei’s crew is almost like an antagonist considering how mean he is. Despite this, he ended up becoming one of my favorite characters after only two episodes.

Yin, a doll working with Hei.

Additionally, It would be a crime not to mention November 11, a British agent (voiced by Troy Baker) who’s actions in avenging his partner goes against everything we are told about how contractors work. My one complaint is that we don’t get a lot of backstory about Mao, the talking cat who was previously a contractor who could possess the bodies of animals. His backstory would make for such an interesting episode, but we are only told of his past during an encounter with a contractor with a very similar ability.

Darker Than Black Wallpaper 4

Mao, Hei’s partner in crime

In reviewing this show, I may have stumbled on why I actually love Darker Than Black’s narrative. At first, we are in no greater a position than the inhabitants of Tokyo, whose minds are erased to prevent them knowing about contractors and dolls. We know almost nothing about what is going on or why it is happening. Even what we do know tells us that contractors and dolls are less than human. It’s hard to even deny it really. But if I stop and think about it, the show completely throws the rule book out the window, intentionally.

Darker Than Black is a show about searching for truth, searching for one’s self, and even the literal and figurative cost of power. There is a great video on this theme in particular by a YouTuber known as DCM.WORKS. I recommend watching it. For me, I mainly picked up on the first two themes from my viewing, so I’ll let him explain the third.

With each story, not only are the questions I had answered, but the show completely contradicts the rules it set in place during the very first episodes. Even without the conceit that Hei is an exception to rule about contractors, the contractors we meet as the series goes on feel like more than just one-dimensional killing machines. They almost appear just as human as anyone else.

They may not always express their emotions, but they clearly act off of some instinct other than their rational thought. It is far from uncommon to hear characters say things like “contractors aren’t supposed to make decisions like that.” You could call this lazy writing but I feel like it makes more sense to say that the characters of Darker Than Black are just as unsure of the truth about the world as we are when we watch it.

I grew up on superhero cartoons like Batman and other great DC animated works. While this is a very different story than those cartoons, I was drawn to this show’s portrayal of a protagonist living a double life while being pursued by the police and fighting people with superpowers. The fake night sky combined with the silhouettes of buildings in the distance and the green hue along the Tokyo cityscape brought back memories of season four of Batman The Animated Series.

Additionally, the sci-fi elements, the younger, more edgy protagonist and the soundtrack’s more rock centric tracks reminded me of Batman Beyond. Of course, after I started watching the series, I began to appreciate it even more for all the ways it wasn’t like those shows, but that small sense of nostalgia still permeates the experience. It makes watching this show very nostalgic for the episodic shows from my youth.

Darker Than Black is a show about searching for truth, searching for one’s self, and even the literal and figurative cost of power. There is a great video on this theme in particular by a YouTuber known as DCM.WORKS. I recommend watching it. For me, I mainly picked up on the first two themes from my viewing, so I’ll let him explain the third.

Additionally, the sci-fi elements, the younger, more edgy protagonist and the soundtrack’s more rock centric tracks reminded me of Batman Beyond. Of course, after I started watching the series, I began to appreciate it even more for all the ways it wasn’t like those shows, but that small sense of nostalgia still permeates the experience. It makes watching this show very nostalgic for the episodic shows from my youth.

The soundtrack was composed by Yoko Kanno of Cowboy Bebop fame. In typical fashion, her soundtrack straddles the line between many genres, but the most prominent are rock, jazz and some softer piano or violin tracks. It is altogether a great soundtrack and the first opening and ending are awesome. The second opening and ending, on the other hand, are less memorable and don’t fit the show as much.

In retrospect, Darker Than Black isn’t really a spectacular show. It’s cast is half cool and half forgettable and the story doesn’t really ask you to get invested until the halfway point, but despite that, I’m recommending it. Mainly because this show is just so fun. It is an above average action show that succeeds in atmosphere and characters where it fails in writing or narrative, all elevated by a great soundtrack and some kick ass action. It’s not one I’d recommend buying (mostly for reasons I’ll explain below), but I think everyone should try this show. Hell, you might just fall in love with this gem from the late 2000’s.

As for the sequels… well, we will get to those another time.

A Review of Darker Than Black: Gemini of the Meteor


I had a lot of fun reviewing this show, especially because I’m trying to review shows that are a bit more flawed while still seeing the worth in them. Before I conclude, I should say that while I do recommend watching this show, I don’t recommend buying it.

Funimation lost the distribution rights a while back. It’s impossible to find a DVD copy that isn’t over $100 or $200 and the premium Blu-ray edition from 2015 which Funimation only made 5,000 copies of is even rarer and runs at about $500. Plus, that is the only version of the first season on Blu-ray. Since Aniplex takes pride in acquiring the rights to niche Anime and then never distributing them again, the only way to legally stream this show is through Anime Strike, Amazon’s attempt at an Anime streaming service, which I don’t recommend on the principle that blocking an Amazon service behind another paywall even if I have Amazon Prime is stupid.

I hope you all enjoyed the review and I encourage you to check this series out. I plan to review the second season and the OVA soon as well, so keep an eye out for that. Thanks for reading and as always, I’ll see you next time.

 

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