Several years ago, Hell’s Gate appeared in Tokyo, stealing away the stars and replacing them with fakes. These new stars represent contractors, humans who have lost their humanity, gaining supernatural powers and a price to pay each time they use them. Most people are unaware that contractors exist. High-school girl Kana has no clue; she’s preoccupied with her father’s death, an event she has difficulty remembering. When friends try to distract her with a shopping trip, she sees a man who looks exactly like her father. This chance meeting spurs Kana into an investigation that will lead her deep into the world of contractors and the mysteries of Hell’s Gate.
This manga is divided into two volumes, the first focusing on Kana. While following notes in her father’s old planner, she witnesses a fight between a man called Klang and Hei, the contractor known as the Black Reaper. Klang is connected to her father and a mysterious project called Wiegenlied. Hei is seeking a contractor known as Musik who is also associated with Wiegenlied. Hei reluctantly agrees to help Kana as she realizes that her father is a contractor and no longer the man she remembers.
The second volume explores Klang and Musik’s relationship, the history behind Wiegenlied, and Hell’s Gate itself. Kana continues to work with Hei after she’s approached by a doll named Canon. This Lolita-style girl lacks any sort of emotion or, supposedly, the ability to act on her own. However, she’s worked with Klang and can lead them to Hei’s target, Musik, a woman capable of absorbing powers from other contractors. As Hei and Kana come closer to finding Klang and Musik, larger forces come into play; organizations that seek to control contractors and their abilities push them into a battle for their lives.
It’s hard to say who this manga is for – people who are unfamiliar with the anime may find the story confusing. There are a variety of different types of contractors, including dolls and moratoriums, all with their own specific requirements and conditions. The manga explains these rules in bits and pieces, but also breaks it’s own rules with contractors who don’t have a price to pay for their powers or dolls without emotional restrictions. While the first volume is relatively simple to follow, the second becomes convoluted and may be difficult to follow for those who haven’t seen the show.
However, if you’re already a fan of Darker Than Black, you’ll notice that some plot lines from the anime have been rehashed here, and what’s included isn’t improved upon. There are appearances from several main characters, including Mao and November 11. Mao, a contractor who can transfer his mind into the bodies of animals and is typically featured as a black cat, has become cute and comedic, displaying an uncharacteristic fondness for Kana. Hei also feels out of character. The anime often contrasts his undercover persona (an easygoing, kind young man with a cavernous appetite) against the cold-blooded contractor with the lightening-fast reflexes. What makes Hei so intriguing is the question of his price, the fact that he seems capable of empathy when so many contractors are not, and his quest to find his sister. The Hei we see in the manga is missing these complexities and comes across as rather flat. He fights, he stumbles onto discoveries with Kana’s help, and shows occasional signs of sympathy.
The art also takes a departure from the anime. Characters are drawn in a shojo style, looking more delicate and angular than fans may be used to. The layouts are well-done and the characters are quite beautiful. There are many action sequences that make creative use of the contractors’ powers. A slight distraction is the large amount of onomatopoeia and English translations. They take up a lot of space on the page and slow the pacing of the story. The artwork is enjoyable and stands well on its own, even though it’s a departure from the show’s style.
The anime is rated as 17+ and Yen Press rates the manga for Older Teens. Violence and strong language are featured throughout, including people being stabbed, electrocuted, and drowned. Contractors kill without remorse and their prices can vary from simple tasks (having to sing, smoke a cigarette, or drink) to difficult punishments (vomiting, cutting themselves, or aging drastically). Many readers may also be concerned with the treatment of Canon. The anime questions just what level of humanity dolls possess – most are treated as highly expendable objects. Canon is no exception. Since she is a young girl, seeing her threatened, ignored, and abused takes on an even more disturbing tone.
Overall, these are interesting stories that don’t quite stand on their own. People new to Darker Than Black may find the story overly-complicated and missing some of the nuances that make the anime so enjoyable. Fans may feel the art and characters are changed too much for their taste, and that they’ve already seen certain plots played out in the anime. This manga will probably appeal to those who just can’t get enough DTB, but may not find a wider audience.
Darker Than Black
by BONES, Tensai Okamura
Art by Nokiya
Yen Press, 2010
Publisher Age Rating: Older Teen