I should warn the prospective reader that there’s definitely SPOILERs here! I consider myself spoiler proof. After all, if it’s ruined just by someone telling you what happens, then it couldn’t have been very good to begin with, right? However, there are plenty of people out there who’d be very angry if they read on only to find a series spoiled for them. So here’s the warning…read at your own risk.
I’ve been wanting to see Darker Than Black since we previewed the first episode in the Spring ’06 semester of the UW Anime Club. I was also a bit nervous about it. Other members were fairly unimpressed with the first few episodes of the series, and weren’t afraid to voice their opinion on the club forum. Featuring music by Yoko Kanno and a band of misfits fighting for, and then against, an evil syndicate, this series was able to capture the feel of camaraderie found in other series like Cowboy Bebop.
Li is an awkward Chinese foreign exchange college student who has just moved to Shinjuku, Japan. The world around him is a troubled place. Mysterious Gates have opened, one in South America called Heaven’s Gate, and one in Shinjuku called Hell’s Gate. These strange areas are physically unstable, filled with
the manifestations of the ghosts of the dead, and strange flora.
They also seem to be connected with beings known as Contractors. These seemingly emotionless humans each have a special ability such as altering gravity, creating massive sound waves, and pyrokenesis. They also go through an obsessive ritual after using their powers, called a “Remuneration.” A Remuneration can be anything from smoking, to drinking, to arranging objects into a pattern, eating hard boiled eggs, or even dog tagging the pages of a book. Often, the Contractors are used as tools of assassination and war, as in the case where the Heaven’s Gate disappeared, taking with it a large chunk of South America. Before then, various nations had been using Contractors to fight for control over it.
Along with the Contractors are beings known as Dolls, who use a specific element like water or electricity to send out “observer apparitions” for reconnaissance. These Dolls usually maintain a blank, frequently bored facial expression.
A third type of super being, known as a Moratorium, is a chaotic figure, unable to control their powers and with little chance of becoming a Contractor. The fourth type is a Regressor, a Contractor who loses their powers.
Li isn’t who he says he is. He is Hei, a Contractor known as BK201, the designation given to his star, which, along with the stars of thousands of other Contractors, lights up the night sky forming faux constellations. The “real” starry night sky has not been seen since the Gates first appeared. Hei is teamed up with Yin a water oriented Doll, Mao a Contractor in a cat’s body with the ability to possess other animals, and Huang a human working for the world wide Syndicate. Together they work to fish out information on other Contractors, the UN research group PANDORA, and the yakuza for the Syndicate. Hei also has the private mission of finding his lost sister, Bai.
His private interests lead him to become involved with the group, Evening Primrose, lead by Amber, a former operative of both the Syndicate and the British inelegance agency, MI6. Amongst those interested in Hei are the MI6 team headed by November 11 and Foreign Affairs investigator Misaki Kirihara. It eventually comes to light that the Syndicate is behind PANDORA, and may have found a way to eliminate Contractors forever.
It isn’t easy to duplicate success, as Bebop’s director, Shinichiro Watanabe, would find out, when he returned along with most of the Bebop crew to direct the rather disappointing Samurai Champloo. For me, Darker Than Black’s success is found in the short, two-parter oriented storytelling, like that found in Black Lagoon, and the story’s ability to mimic the main character’s own personality. Like Hei, himself, sometimes the story is comical and uplifting, and sometimes it’s action oriented and/or depressing.
The main conflict is an internal one centering around Hei’s emotional identity, the battle between his Contractor identity and the humanity blossoming inside him. Who is his real self? The cold hearted Contractor, out for his own interests, or the timid human who is only just now learning to rely on his team, and even enemies like Amber, for emotional support.
In a way, he is much like a popular DC Comics’ hero we’re all familiar with. Is there even a Bruce Wayne, or does only the Batman exist? This is a question asked by Batman fans and philosophers alike. In fact, most people I’ve met who’ve seen Darker Than Black , say it’s pretty much a Japanese anime version of Marvel’s X-Men, sans the tights. There are a lot of similarities, such as several characters possessing similar powers. We see in the series that there are at least three Contractors with gravity altering abilities, two which can manipulate electricity, and two which have the power of possession. The closest any of the contractors comes to being like Professor X is probably Mao, though he’s still a bit amoral in his willingness to betray his partners to save his own skin. Amber the leader of the Contractor resistance force, aka Evening Primrose, is closest to Magneto, although we find she has a bit more of a conscience than he does. Many powers found in X-Men and other Western comics are also found here, such as the ability to mentally control fire, teleportation, freezing ability, and levitation.
One of the few complaints I have is that not enough is explained about the Contractors. We know their Remunerations are involved with their past human lives. For example, one Contractor forces herself to chew cigarettes and spit them out. She says it doesn’t have to be cigarettes and that any object will do as long as she places it in her mouth, then spits it back out. However, she goes on to tell a story about how, while she was human, her infant daughter choked to death on a cigarette. She obviously feels guilty about it, and states that ever since she became a Contractor, her Remuneration has reflected the cause of her daughter’s death. I’m assuming a Contractor has some form of guilt or fear they wish to rid themselves of, and that once the Contract is made with some unseen force, the Remuneration reflects a punishment. I guess the big question is, who is behind the creation of the Gates and the Contractors? Another question I have is what is creating the strange phenomena inside the Gate? I kind of wish they had explored some of the weirdness of the Gates a little more, but then again, learning too much about the Gates would have ruined the mystery behind them.
It should be noted that episode 26 is being planned as an OVA to be released in 2008. It should give a tighter conclusion to the series, and hopefully answer some of these questions. Until then, I suggest you check out this very interesting series.
–Originally posted to the Windows Live blog, then Blogger on 2-7-2008