Ten years ago, Hell’s Gate appeared in Tokyo. No one knows for sure what lies at the heart of the mysterious energy field and only a select few know about the changes that happened when the Gate appeared. The stars disappeared that night, only to be replaced by fakes. Each of these stars represents a Contractor, a human being who’s lost his or her humanity, but gained supernatural powers. It could be the ability to freeze things, stop time, control electricity, or teleport, just to name a few possibilities. And every time a Contractor uses power a price must be paid: smoke a cigarette, smell a scent, sing a song, kiss someone. It’s different for every Contractor and, while they may seem like small fees, the price must always be paid.
Our story wanders between a team of Contractors working for the Syndicate and a small police task force responsible for capturing Contractors and keeping them a secret from the public. Misaki Kirihara is a young and talented policewoman who’s frequently pursuing a Contractor designated as BK-201 or The Black Reaper. His real name is Hei. He has the ability to manipulate electricity, but is also trained as an assassin. His team consists of Mao, a Contractor occupying a cat’s body; Yin, an emotionless girl known as a Doll; and Huang, a man disgusted by Contractors and serving as the team’s Syndicate contact.
Darker than Black is told in two-part episodes, with plots that unfold slowly compared to many other anime. Generally, Hei and his team are given a mission from the Syndicate and through this we are introduced to a variety of Contractors that must either be captured or killed. The pacing can become a bit formulaic as the novelty of revealing new Contractors’ powers/prices wears off. However, the show is driven by an overarching plot involving Hei’s quest to find his sister who disappeared five years ago during a war in South America. The fight scenes are impressive and action-packed; if you feel a story might be dragging a bit, you can usually expect an excellent brawl to pick up the pace.
While I liked this series, I found it difficult to get attached to any of the characters. There’s a constant emphasis on Contractors’ inability to feel emotions, but we’re regularly shown the emotional aftermath of becoming a Contractor. We hear about lost families and abandoned dreams while witnessing their isolation from society. You would normally pity Contractors, except that the majority of them seemed to have become criminals and murderers after gaining their powers. The message of the series is so muddled, and the characters so withdrawn, that it’s difficult to feel any sort of attachment to them.
Darker than Black is also heavy on the details. The concept of Contractors requires a great deal of explanation, as they come with their own rules and constants. Add in a set of rules for Dolls and the ultra-rare Moratoriums and you’re requiring a great deal of attention from your viewer. But Darker than Black breaks its own rules with two team members, Hei, who seemingly has no price, and Yin, without acknowledging it until far into the series. An intriguing concept gets bogged down by minutiae that requires too much exposition.
The art of Darker than Black is well-done and reminded me of Cowboy Bebop’s lanky characters and fluid drawing style. Yoko Kanno’s soundtrack matches well with the stories being told, but is never as strong a presence as it was in Bebop.
If you have older teens looking to get into anime, this would be a fine introductory series. Fans of the X-Men, spy stories, or great fight sequences will most likely enjoy this show. For those sensitive to violence or nudity, steer clear. There’s a good amount of blood and gore, with many brutal deaths throughout, including electrocution, combustion, being frozen solid, and one particularly viscous contractor who splatters victims with his blood which then creates gaping holes in them. While I was initially drawn to this series for its comparisons to Cowboy Bebop, I found that it didn’t have the emotional impact or in-depth story that the earlier series did.
Darker than Black: Season 1
directed by Tensai Okamura
625 minutes, Number of Discs: 4
Company Age Rating: 17+