I’ve noticed that the kind of fiction I tend to enjoy the most has a few common threads, like big modern cities at night, where detectives and professional criminals make their living. This is a big factor in cyberpunk stories, but it can also work for fantasy stories, as is the case in Darker Than Black.
This show is about a world populated by Contractors, human beings granted superpowers by mysterious demons, forced to make “payments” of OCD-like behavior, and stripped of their emotions in favor of cold, pitiless logic. The show is split between Hei, a Contractor who carries out assassinations for the mysterious Syndicate, and Misaki Kirihara, a Japanese foreign affairs officer who is determined to find out the truth about Hei, known to her by his astrological designation “BK201.”
Much like Hellsing, Darker Than Black has both a twenty-six episode anime series, a twelve-episode OVA sequel series, and a four-episode gaiden series. I’m going to review each series on their own merits, as they definitely differ in tone and plot resolution.
Darker Than Black
In the first series, we follow Hei and his friends along various jobs for the Syndicate, while Kirihara and her unit deal with other Contractors and come face-to-face with Hei almost every time (figuratively speaking–Hei wears a white mask to hide his identity; Kirihara has seen his true face, but only knows him as a humble student named Lee Shenshun). Things eventually come to a head when a plot to rid the world of Contractors is revealed and a group called Evening Primrose emerges to block the Syndicate and seal off the mysterious region in Tokyo known as Hell’s Gate.
Overall, I love the first series. While some of the episodes are just filler, they’re pretty good filler, like Cowboy Bebop was able to pull off. We get to see a little piece of every main character’s past and what they’ve struggled with all their lives. This becomes more satisfying once we reach the Evening Primrose arc at the end. I also like the noir ethos of late-night Tokyo, as Contractors square off with one another or try to outrun the police. Hei embodies that ethos perfectly, a monstrous figure who sometimes turns out to be a protector of the innocent, even despite his rational Contractor nature. While the resolution of the whole plot was a little strange, it was emotionally satisfying and made me glad to see how things would develop in the sequel.
Darker Than Black: Gemini of the Meteor
In this follow-up to the first Darker Than Black series, years after the Evening Primrose attack on Tokyo, Hei resurfaces as a fugitive from the Syndicate and a Contractor working for the CIA. The new plot centers around a Russian girl named Suo Pavlichenko, whose father was a memory-erasure researcher and whose twin brother is a powerful Contractor. While separated from her family, Suo relies on Hei as a protector and mentor as she tries to discover more about her past and come to terms with her newfound Contractor abilities. It all comes to a head in the search for the Doll known as Yin and a prophecy about the end of the world that will come to pass unless she’s killed first.
While this series was shorter and packed a lot more emotional energy than the first show, I don’t esteem it as much. It does a good job of reintroducing characters like Hei, Mao, Kirihara, and July, but doesn’t give them a satisfying conclusion. Suo was a decent character in her own right, but her fate in the end–along with the entire ending for the series–just left me confused. I’m sure it was meant to be relatively happy like in the last series, but there wasn’t a strong definition of where things stood after the climax. I will give the show credit for reusing Kirihara, who really stands out as one of the protagonists for the show and a good model of humanity compared to the rest of the cast.
Darker Than Black: Gaiden
The final entry was a four-episode OVA series set between the first two shows. It follows Hei and Yin after they leave the Syndicate in Season 1, whereupon they run into the remnants of Evening Primrose and the Syndicate. While they try to escape and survive, Yin begins to undergo a process of “awakening” as foretold by prophecy, showing more of an individual personality with tragic consequences for Hei.
In four episodes, the OVAs manage to pull off a decent story arc of Hei trying to start a new life with Yin and the futility of that goal in the world they live in. Because of their abilities and the people who want them either dead or under their control, there’s no such thing as a safe haven, even when most of the episodes’ second acts are about being in a quiet place in between deadly fights. It’s also nice to see Yin develop, even if she doesn’t get a happy ending for it. I also like the inclusion of Claude, a friendly but villainous Contractor with illusionist powers voiced by the wonderful Johnny Yong Bosch. He serves as a nice contrast to the anti-heroic and serious Hei. But if forced to pick, I would rate this OVA series as being on par with Gemini of the Meteor. It just doesn’t have the same weight and breadth as the first show did.
All things considered, Darker Than Black is a very energetic, colorful, and intelligent show. The demonic powers at play could be viewed under any kind of real-life analysis, be it as a metaphor for criminality, nuclear proliferation, or the aftermath of tragedy. And for all the talk of Contractors no longer being human, the struggles they undergo bring out something human in them–and in the audience as well.
The English dub for Darker Than Black is available through Funimation.
Bibliography: Darker Than Black. Directed by Tensai Okamura. Written by Tensai Okamura. Bones, Aniplex (studio). Funimation. April 5, 2007 –September 28, 2007.
Darker Than Black: Gemini of the Meteor. Directed by Tensai Okamura. Written by Tensai Okamura. Bones, Aniplex (studio). Funimation. October 8, 2009 – December 24, 2009.
Darker Than Black: Gaiden. Directed by Tensai Okamura. Written by Tensai Okamura. Bones, Aniplex (studio). Funimation. January 27, 2010 – July 21, 2010.