Darker Than Black – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Darker than Black: Kuro no Keiyakusha

 

Related: Darker than Black: Gemini of the Meteor (sequel – included in review)

Similar: Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom

Psycho-Pass

RahXephon

Gungrave

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Science Fiction Action Mystery

Length: 25 episodes (season 1), 5 OVA, 12 episodes (season 2)

 

Positives:

  • Complex lore.
  • Creative powers and restrictions.
  • The comedic tangents are hilarious.
  • Character designs.

Negatives:

  • Lacks finality and answers.
  • Season 2 becomes oversimplified.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Darker than Black is an anime of malicious compliance. When I told it that it coveys lore in a vague manner, it responded with, “You don’t like my lore?” “That’s not wh—” “Fine, then I won’t give you any. If all you like is action, then that’s what I’ll give. Happy, are you!?” “…”

Before that moment in history, let’s go back to the start of Darker than Black. Ever since two gates appeared in Tokyo and Brazil, a fake sky replaced the real one and select people gained paranormal abilities at the cost of their humanity. These supernaturals known as Contractors became weapons for various governments and a group called the Syndicate. Officer Misaki has her investigatory skills put to the test when the Syndicate’s best agent, Hei the Black Reaper, is spotted in Tokyo. Hei and his associates have designs to uncover a mystery surrounding Hell’s Gate that threatens Contractors. Other Contractor division won’t let the Syndicate go unanswered either. Tokyo is a dangerous place to be.

First, I love the powers. Think of them as X-Men, but with a payment required after each use. The payment differs per character and ranges from smoking a cigarette to revealing a secret of yours to the next person you see. The cost tends to be something the Contractor hates. One Contractor, a magician, has to give away the technique to a magic trick every time he uses his illusion power. Bummer. Hei’s power is the ability to generate electricity, a favourite of mine. The writer could have merely copied the X-Men and been fine, but I appreciate the thought put into differentiating these powers by adding the payments.

Darker than Black also has artificial beings called Dolls that pass for human, but are dead inside and have scouting powers to aid their Contractor unit. Hei has one such doll with him as well as a Contractor whose power is to possess animals. Unfortunately for him, someone destroyed his human body during possession so he’s stuck as an animal for life. This makes him a tad grumpy.

Then we come to the larger world, where I find plenty interesting. I love that the police use an old woman known as the Stargazer, who can track when Contractors use powers by observing the fake stars above. Each Contractor is represented in a star – another great lore detail. Misaki has a telescope locked on Hei’s star, BK-201, which is how she knows he’s in town.

Most of the lore I have shared with you so far is presented in a decent manner. However, when it comes to the Gates, the lore behind Contractors, and even world history, Darker than Black takes serious issue with giving us this information. When it does present these aspects, it seems hesitant, as if the anime is worried about you finding out. “Does it or does it not work this way?” was a recurring question I had. This compounded with the fact that there is a lot of lore can make Darker than Black a headache for those who aren’t big fans of lore. It doesn’t help that much remains unanswered by the end, no thanks to season 2.

Here we arrive at the malicious compliance. If season 1 suffered from too much vague lore, season 2 suffers from having none whatsoever (the backstory threads are good, though). I said illuminate the lore, not eradicate it! In season 2, we follow two young siblings, one of which is a Contractor, and their escape from capture in Russia. It amounts to twelve episodes of action – good action, sure, but it no longer stands out like Darker than Black. I am particularly annoyed that Misaki is barely in season 2.

This does not lessen my recommendation for sci-fi/supernatural fans to watch the first season – likely twice to catch everything. If you worry about it being too heavy, the story occasionally diverts for some levity. The private eyes who narrates to himself noir-style and his cosplay girl assistant are the perfect change of pace. Even with several questions left unanswered, the lore we do get and the characters make Darker than Black an engaging experience.

Art – High

Darker than Black manages to have a large cast of characters, each distinct from the last, and yet doesn’t resort to lazy design techniques such as hair colour being the only distinguishing feature. The dark palette suits the story. Season 2 sees a noticeable dip in character and animation quality.

Sound – High

You can’t go wrong with either Japanese or English voices. Nice soundtrack – the main singer is bilingual and mixes English with Japanese better than most. The script could do with tighter exposition.

Story – High

Super powered humans called Contractors work jobs for the nefarious Syndicate while uncovering the mystery that threatens Contractors worldwide. Darker than Black’s super powers and interesting characters deliver a great anime, but its complexities can alienate.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: A must for science fiction fans. Darker than Black has everything a sci-fi fan could want – lore, depth, sociology, philosophy. Non-fans (maybe even fans) will find the lack of concreteness tedious, especially since it leaves much unanswered. Season 2 is optional viewing.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Strong Lead CharactersStrong Support Characters

Negative: None

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3 thoughts on “Darker Than Black – Anime Review”

  1. I really love season 1 of Darker Than Black. Season 2 on the other hand drove me crazy because of how Hei’s character had changed. The lack of resolution in season 1 also wasn’t a problem for me. I’d felt that the story had explore the world and its ideas sufficiently and even though the end was open to interpretation I was pretty satisfied with where it finished.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with you that season 1 is very satisfying in what it contains. The blame truly lies on season 2 for not carrying on and resolving those threads from season 1. Thankfully, we don’t have a case of ending on a cliffhanger, like original Berserk, so the unanswered questions aren’t crippling to the overall experience.

      The biggest problem with Hei’s personality change for season 2 is that it isn’t plausible, as we get what amounts to a single-line explanation for it. That change needed more development over time. I simply didn’t believe him going from personality A to personality B.

      Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

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