Darker Than BlackA column article by: Park Cooper
One problem I’m having with manga and anime... and video games, too, come to think of it... is that everything new either seems like a cheaper, less-good version of stuff that’s come before that I’ve either already tried or else didn’t like the first time. Rarely, some things are, instead, cheaper, less-good versions of MULTIPLE things that have come before. The manga Deadman Wonderland was one of these.
An anime that succeeds pretty well by these rules, on the other hand, is Darker Than Black, a two-season series that is a lot like multiple things that have come before, but is only BARELY, FRACTIONALLY less good than the originals, and not one bit cheaper, especially as far as looks.
I’m sorry, Park, could you say that again?
Certainly: Darker Than Black is a good-looking anime that will likely remind you of many things that you’ve already seen, but since it’s almost as good as any one of those things, who cares! It’s good enough for now, since so many better things seem to have come and gone—it’s the best equivalent-exchange replacement experience I’ve found.
The setting: something like the present, or a just a little farther along, except that ten years ago, a Weird Thing happened—two gates to other dimensions apparently opened up—one in Brazil, and one in a neighborhood in Tokyo. All the stars and moon disappeared from view (I don’t know why, I didn’t do it).
The consequences: Everyone in those two areas died, and a few thousand (or so?) other people in the world, called Contractors, got superhuman abilities—rather, ONE ability each, no one who can levitate AND be bulletproof AND have x-ray vision. Nope, one power per customer. The new stars in the purplish night sky look like real stars, but each one really represents one of the Contractors—they shine brighter when that person is using his or her power, and fall from the sky when that person dies (cough cough end of Cowboy Bebop cough).
Okay. Setting aside the Wild Cards series of prose books from America, this is also right away clearly a fair amount like the anime Witch Hunter Robin (only slightly better animated and way-better adapted, thanks to John Burgmeier, the guy who adapted the Fruits Basket and xxxHolic anime series).
--Lee, also known as Hei (so when his teammates go “Hei” when he shows up, they’re saying his name, not “Hey.” It took me a while to figure that out. Still, since he’s undercover a lot, I’m gonna call him Lee). Lee is our main character, and he’s pretty awesome. Not only does he have a zappy electric-shock touch power, he can also suck the power out of (or into) electrical devices, or zap you from a distance if there’s a lot of water on the ground. HOWEVER, he also clearly went shopping at the Dark Knight Outlet Store, because he’s got what basically amounts to the BatLine from the animated adventures in his belt buckle, allowing him to line-swing and zip up through open or broken skylights with the best of them, as well as a bulletproof Matrix-style coat (and a mask that may or may not be bulletproof, but which I'm sure he thinks makes him look really cool). Oh, and he’s also really good with knives. Big knives. So Lee has one super-power and three more very special talents that border on being powers just by dint of being badass and knowing where to shop.
However, arguably his most impressive ability is his acting, helped, I tell you once again, by Burgmeier’s scripts. For you see, Lee is an antihero who specializes in going undercover. He seems like a very nice, laid-back guy.
He is not.
There’s a scene I really like early on where he says so long for the day to a woman he’s stringing along, a dopey smile on his face. Then she’s out of sight, and his face falls into unemotional nothingness—he’s sort of emotionally dead inside, it appears.
Then it falls AGAIN, and this time you can tell he’s got some serious self-loathing going on for his part in this elaborate lie he’s playing out. Seriously. A whole nice little scene that takes maybe five seconds and manages to tell you a lot without words. Very nicely done (okay, since there's no words, Burgmeier didn't orchestrate that, but he totally pwns every scene with words in it).
The other main characters are a grumpy ex-cop with no powers, a guy (who is usually a cat) who can move his mind into animals (he’s also some sort of hacker, though how he does this while in an animal is never explained), and a girl who has clairvoyance as long as she’s touching water (and as long as there’s open water in the place she’s trying to look). Their code names are Yin (meaning Silver), Hei (meaning Black), the word that means yellow, and a word that is translated as “cat” (although I think it was something else before it was adapted). So that’s also a little Reservoir Dogs playfulness, since it means they’re like “Mr. Black,” “Mr. Yellow,” “Miss Silver,” and “Mr. Cat.”
One interesting twist, perhaps the only really original one, is that everyone with powers has a sort of obsessive-compulsive price to pay—whether it’s smoking a cigarette after you use your powers (especially if you hate cigarettes), or reading a whole book, or breaking one of your own fingers... it’s often something inconvenient, to say the least. You have to pay this specific price, whatever it is for you, after each session of you using your powers, or else you go into “forfeiture,” which means painful withdrawal and losing your powers, maybe forever (and probably worse)—and it tends to affect your mind, too.
So the plots revolve around Lee, who wants to find out what happened to his sister, who disappeared when something very weird happened to the other Gate in Brazil five years ago. In the meantime, he runs missions with his teammates for The Syndicate, which is half The Mob and half The Illuminati. Everything revolves around what the heck is the Gate, how does it work, what can we learn from it, so the missions tend to be very spyish, undercover affairs involving assassinations, stealing or recovering information, and so on.
The animation is extremely well-done and looks like it was done by the crew who did Cowboy Bebop (in fact I have been told that it is just that). Indeed, the music is by Bebop’s same musical talent, Yoko Kanno. (Barb says: “WOW!”)
One problem I had with this series, especially at first, was that Contractors are known, in their own circles, for being cold and unfeeling. This made the first half of the series low on emotional connections, albeit high on style and everything else, so I wondered if I was ever going to warm up to these characters, who had so much trouble warming up to each other. But at the halfway point to the series, these wished-for connections started happening—not only is Lee not a normal Contractor (for reasons that become clear in the end), but the cold and unfeeling nature of being a Contractor was, the end strongly suggests in a number of ways--one large, mostly small and subtle--always sort of something that used to be true but that they are all increasingly growing out of as they become increasingly accustomed to their new natures... That’s not a key spoiler, in my opinion—it’s something I felt I need to tell you to make you watch the whole thing.
I know I’ve given you more information than what you need, here, because I’m not just reviewing this series—that would be a matter of giving you information combined with my own opinion that would help you decide if you wanted to watch it—I’ve decided you should watch it, and I’m deliberately trying to get you to do so. If you’re wondering where the next Cowboy Bebop, Trigun, Witch Hunter Robin, or Ghost in the Shell The Series is... or even where the next FLCL or FullMetal Alchemist or Fruits Basket is, although the only real connection in each of those cases is that they all use character-driven backstory to drive the viewer’s interest forward—if you are...then so am I, because Darker Than Black doesn’t quite make the grade in the same way that any of those do. But if you feel that a not-totally-original withdrawal drug is better than nothing at all, Darker Than Black is the finest methadone you can get ahold of today, and the whole series is currently free to watch via Netflix’s insta-watch feature. It should prove particularly enticing to non-anime fans who love superhero fare, particularly the X-Men series. Anime and manga fans who like the various series mentioned earlier in this paragraph, but who are not fans of superhero fare, however, will not be bothered by this one bit.
Say, fellows and girls:
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