Darker Than Black Review – Part 1: Introduction
During my period without a computer I ended up watching the Darker Than Black season 1 DVDs I had bought but never opened. The last anime I watched being Full Metal Alchemist, a franchise I has been reading/watching for close to 9 years, Darker than Black was sort of unknown territory for me, as I knew next to nothing about it outside of the fact that it involved characters with superpowers, which is always a plus for me; I loved Heroes before it jumped the shark and devolved into idiotic nonsense and absurd character arcs.
The concept of each character having a different ability and how each conflicts are resolved in the context of those powers was always interesting to me, because the abilities are only as useful as the people who wield them – someone with super strength might be able to crush a car with one punch but pit him/her against a speedster who knows the full potential and limitations of his/her powers, and it’s doubtful he’ll even be able to land a single punch.
But I digress.
At first I was turned off by the episodic format of the series and its reliance on the villain/threat of the week (one of the reasons I stopped watching Smallville in ita first season), but as the series wore on it became apparent that each two episode arc was connected to all the others in subtle ways, revealing just enough to keep me interested whole hiding enough to keep me guessing. Every episode contributes something important to the finale, be it a character, an item, or an answer to a question that hasn’t been asked yet; by the end everything seen in the normal episode arcs comes into play at one point or another. By the end of the seasons, a lot of the smaller questions are answered, but many of the more pertinent enigmas still have no closure. It also helps that aside from the main cast, character presence is never guaranteed, so a good deal of characters die off over the course of the season, many of them unceremoniously. Even then, this isn’t necessarily limited to the supporting cast either – the presence of the main characters is constantly under threat, and by the end it’s hard to tell who will die and who will survive.
So anyway, there are four central protagonists in season 1, a group of highly trained operatives working for an organization known only as The Syndicate, an illuminati-type group that have usurped the United States as the world superpower, due to their recruitment of people known as Contractors, people with extraordinary abilities such as electrokinesis and telepathic possession.
Each Contractor possesses a different and somewhat unique power, and each is required to pay a different price or remuneration in exchange for each use of their ability, owing to the chaotic nature of the Gates. A Contractor possessing the ability to teleport matter, for example, has to arrange objects in rows then ruin it. As a result of this transformation, Contractors lose their humanity, and think only in terms of logic and self-preservation. As such, they are feared and hated by those who know of their existence, which are few in number as their existence is a well-guarded secret only made privy to specific law enforcement agents. Whenever Contractors use their abilities they are surrounded by a blue aura and their eyes glow with a red light. Whether this is an actual observable phenomenon in-world or just a visual cue for the viewer (a la Geass in Code Geass) is unclear, as some characters seem to react to it, but never state or comment on it outright.
At the same time, certain humans were turned into what are known as Dolls, emotionless beings largely devoid of free will who are able to see things at distant places via certain mediums, such as water or glass. Because of the invaluable reconnaissance and intelligence gathering advantages the Dolls possess, they are often used concurrently with Contractors to achieve their maximum potential. Similar to Contractors, Dolls are hated and feared by those that are privy to the knowledge of their existence.
Both of these groups appeared prior to the beginning of the series due to the appearance of the Heaven’s Gate and Hell’s Gate, two objects of unknown origin that suddenly appeared on opposite aides of the world, Heaven’s Gate in South America, and Hell’s Gate in Japan. This appearance also brought on a change in the night sky; the moon and all of the stars disappeared, replaced by a sky of “false stars,” with each star representing a specific Contractor. Once a Contractor dies his or her assigned star falls. Directly after these developments a bloody conflict called the Heaven War was waged in South America due to the sudden appearance of contractors, culminating in an explosion from the center of Heaven’s Gate that wiped out everything in a 1500 kilometer radius around the Gate. Nothing has been able to enter the area that has been destroyed since the explosion took place.
The main character is Hei, an ostensibly Chinese young man who has traveled to Japan under the guise of a good natured transfer student named Li Shenshun (an unfortunate butchering of his actual name, spelt Li Shunsheng in Chinese Pingying, or 李舜生). He is a survivor of the Heaven War waged in Brazil, and a Contractor with the power to project electricity through conductive material. Strangely, he doesn’t need to pay a price for use of his powers, separating him from other contractors. Similarly, he doesn’t seem to rely on cold and calculated logic all of the time, something that isn’t fitting with a Contractor. Besides his electric manipulation, Hei is also a powerful and agile fighter, using knives and martial arts skills to dispatch enemies he is otherwise unable to with his ability. Having established a deadly reputation during the Heaven’s War, he is now known as the Black Reaper due to his trademark black trenchcoat and mask.
Huang is the normal of the group, having no special abilities but plenty of innate skills, such as being an incredible sniper. He is the one who receives mission assignments from The Syndicate. He despises Contractors and Dolls, though it’s never truly apparent why until later on in the first season, and by then he begins to reassess his beliefs in that respect.
Mao is a Contractor with the ability to transfer his consciousness to animals. Because of a specific incident in the past he is now stuck to using animal bodies, having lost his original human body. As such, his payment for using his ability is considered paid on full, thus he is not required to enact payment when he uses his ability, not that he uses it much, he seems at ease to reside in a cat. Because animal brains are inadequate for carrying human brainwaves, Mao is required to sync with a server every so often, else he risks having the animal mind take over.
Yin is the Doll of the group, who used to be a blind girl living with her mother. She became a doll and gained the ability to see over great distances through water, though she must be in contact with water to use her abilities. As she is a doll she isn’t supposed to have emotions but it seems she becomes more and more susceptible to emotions as the series wears on.
The series seems to ride on the realism of its content, outside the obligatory series lore. The laws of physics and thermodynamics are in effect as to ability usage – Hei can’t arc lightning through the air, for example, he can only run it through conductive material. Suspension of disbelief is never really stretched too far in terms of abilities, and the payment each Contractor must pay upon use of their powers puts an interesting twist to the superpowered humans premise.
Season 1 has a slow, methodical method of story telling, with a full four episode arc at the end concluding the season. Each two-episode standalone story leading up to the conclusion offers some insight to the characters or the world in the series.
Season 2 starts interestingly, and takes a more linear and direct storytelling method than the first season, spending 10 episodes building up tension and conflicts and leads into a vague and unclear finale. This, combined with a shift in tone and character focus, ended up alienating many fans of the first season, with good reason. It brings into the story elements that were never mentioned before, and none of the pertinent questions left from the first season get answered. Instead, more questions are brought up and left unanswered and fans are now hoping for a season 3, hopefully to wrap things up. The end of season 2 definitely leaves things open for another season, but it’s been over a year with no news yet – though, season 2 came over a year after season 1 ended, so there’s still hope.
The OVAs bridge the story gap between seasons 1 and 2, and answers a few questions arisen in season 2, but not nearly enough to put closure on the series.
So anyway, that’s it for the introduction and characters, the next few entries will focus on the individual seasons. In the interest of being chronologically accurate, I’ll be reviewing the seasons by the order they take in the in-world timeline, so I’ll start with season 1, then review the OVA, then season 2.