Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Anime review: Darker Than Black

[Does the Reaper dream of darkness darker than black?]

Following the opening of two zones that yielded unusual properties - one in South America called Heaven's Gate, the other in Japan called Hell's Gate - the world saw the emergence of a new breed of humans, known as contractors. Contractors have superhuman abilities - anything from the ability to light things on fire to opening temporary black holes. But each contractor is called such because they have to pay a price in order to use their abilities. For some, this is a less demanding routine, like smoking cigarettes or drinking beer. Others have it more rough, being forced to break their own fingers or slice open their wrists. And some contracts are just plain bizarre - writing poetry, eating dandelions, and folding every page of a book as it is read, to name a few.

The story of Darker Than Black is centered around Hei, a contractor known as the Black Reaper due to his skill and efficiency in dispatching targets. Hei has the ability to channel electricity, both through direct contact with others and by surging it through his collection of knives and grappling cables. Hei works with a team under the employment of a group known as the Syndicate. Mao is a fellow contractor, but lost his human body an accident and has since been forced to reside in the body of a black cat. Mao can interface with computer systems thanks to a chip on his ear. Huang is the team's only human member, and issues out their orders as relayed to him from the Syndicate. He often relies on conventional firearms, and is not shy about his general distaste toward contractors. Appearing as a young girl without much capacity for emotion, Yin is a doll who acts as the team's eyes and ears, able to detect movements through water. Together they track high-priority contractors for the Syndicate, whether their orders are to retrieve valuable information or to kill.

On the other side of the story is Chief Misaki Kirihara, head of Foreign Affairs in Section Four of Tokyo. Misaki and her small, close-knit team present the human perspective of the tensions with the contractors. Due to the nature of their work, Kirihara and co. are often assigned cases that match those of Hei, and the two cross paths a number of times, though Hei's identity is kept safe due to the mask he always wears. After Heaven's Gate and Hell's Gate opened, the night sky was replaced with a new one, with each star representing a single contractor. Kirihara is privy to this information, knowing Hei by his messier code of BK-201.

As tensions mount over the course of the series, a number of new factions are represented, and some new angles on the situation come with them. British Intelligence sends their own team into Japan, which leads to the side stories of November Eleven and Havoc. Evening Primrose is an organization led by Amber, a woman who Hei knew back when contractors first appeared, and their aims are not entirely clear. There are a few minor organizations, such as a local Yakuza in the business of smuggling dolls and quirky mismatched private eye partners Gai Kurosawa and Kiko Kayanuma. But the narrative style of detective noir mixed with superhero action remains consistent from beginning to end.

One of the major themes that pops up early on is what it means to be a contractor. The first half of the series depicts them as largely cold and calculating, with many of the humans - Huang included - labeling them as emotionless. The potential for love between a human and a doll is touched upon briefly, but the second half is where this question of identity becomes more prominent. Even the contractors themselves are not sure if they can really be called human, though some, like November Eleven, seem to display more emotion than others. It's an issue that resonates most closely with Hei, as the entire reason he joined the Syndicate was to find out what happened to his sister after the disappearance of Heaven's Gate.

The animation is visually dazzling, with the art style using an overall dark palette. However, brighter reds, greens, and blues stand out, often with a glow effect that isn't overbearing. The soundtrack, with pieces by Yoko Kanno, delivers a zesty blend of jazz and rock numbers, with the occasional big band and even techno influences sneaking in between. Character designs are stylized to reflect their abilities and character traits, but are still rather realistic looking, walking a fine line between overly fantastical and overly human.

Darker Than Black has some brilliant pacing and nice changes in the angle of the storytelling that occur every so often. But it never forgets the narrative it is weaving, and has some genuinely great storytelling. The finale episodes prove incredibly intense, but also thoroughly satisfying (despite one scene that leans perhaps a bit too close toward End of Evangelion territory). Every piece of the puzzle falls into place before the series wraps up, and there are some great jaw-dropping moments. Darker Than Black blends the classic noir formula with some new-age elements, with only a few hiccups in an otherwise phenomenal series.

My rating: 9.5 (out of 10)

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