Thursday, March 10, 2011

Anime Review: Darker than Black


Darker than Black: Kuro no Keiyakusha is an original anime series aired in 2007 and created by Studio Bones, the same studio behind Soul Eater.  As an added bonus the music is done by Yoko Kanno whom I mentioned once before but to reiterate she is a famous anime composer who is best known for her brilliant work on Cowboy Bebop and one of the reasons why that show is considered one of the best, if not the best, of all time.  FUNimation brought it to North America starting in 2008.  I’ve seen this show floating around for months and I’ve been trying to ignore it but I finally broke down and went through it.
Click the link below for the full review.
Trust me; this picture is misleading
Ten years ago Hell’s Gate, a supernatural area, opened in Tokyo.  The stars disappeared and were replaced by new ones, but the real change was that a wave of people possessing various powers and abilities, Contractors, began appearing.  In present day the reality of these beings are hidden from the public but they are constantly being used by government organizations for espionage and assassination.  Hei is one of those contractors and something of a boogey man among their community.  Along with his team he performs various missions to further his mysterious employers’ agenda.  But there is more to Hei than his icy, emotionless killer exterior and he has an agenda of his own.
Darker Than Black is a very episodic series for the most part.  Most episodes are two-parters but are more or less stand alone, sometimes furthering the main plot but sometimes not.  In a lot of ways his format is reminiscent of Cowboy Bebop except there’s more of a forward moving storyline here rather than just being about a group of people making a living.  Actually I think it’s safe to say it is very much an anime in the same vein as that iconic show, and not just because Yoko Kanno was involved (Although it doesn’t hurt).  Like Bebop this show focuses on small group of morally ambiguous character undergoing various jobs/missions and the guy we seem to see the most just happens to be a badass with a dark and mysterious past who may or may not be the person he acts like when everyone is looking at him.  It also shares Bebop’s habit of introducing one shot characters that are surprisingly well developed and likeable...but then also possesses Bebop’s capacity for dark mood shifts that can make things genuinely heartbreaking.  On the one hand if a show draws comparisons to something like Bebop and is not as good, and Darker Than Black is in no way as good, it can potentially been viewed as a pale imitator but things are pretty positive here; it takes a lot of what was good about that classic anime’s formula and utilizes it as well as they can without being a total rip-off.
The world crafted by the writers is pretty awesome.  The mystery and intrigue surrounding Hells Gate and the Contractors make up the majority of the action throughout the series and what we learn of them is pretty cool.  In particular Contractors are AWESOME.  Each with their own superpower they are compelled to do certain tasks every time they use them, from mundane things like kissing someone on the cheek to breaking their own fingers and similarly disturbing actions.  This is the random price they must pay for their power, which is a really interesting take on have post-human abilities.  Plus, unlike normal humans, they are either emotionless or are always able to suppress emotions and use cold, analytical logic to make decisions, making them extremely creepy in the eyes of the Average Joe.  They’re like X-Men mixed with Vulcans with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.   The music was pretty good, not revolutionary.  There was a lot of variety but I admit that there wasn’t a large amount of stuff that stayed with me but that might change after a second viewing.
Hei and Amber's, um, "relationship" is a very complex one
The artwork was pretty good here.  The action scenes weren’t bogged down with things like speed lines or stock footage, and in general things looked pretty smooth.  The character designs were either harmless or in a few instances pretty sharp looking.  Although I’d argue that none of them were super memorable but that might just be my own taste.  Bottom line is this was a good looking cartoon.
The cast, and this is where comparison to Cowboy Bebop starts to fail, is not the most memorable.  Now how much you’ll enjoy the four main characters will depend on your taste.  There’s Hei the main operative, Yin the emotionless doll who can locate people through water, Huang the grumpy supervisor who seems to actually hate Contractors, and Mao a talking cat.  They each have their own distinct voice but don’t do very much of anything to make us care that much about them with a few exceptions.   For example Yin may not be the emotionless husk she seems to be…but we barely scratch the surface of that plot point before moving on with something else.  Gee, thanks guys.  Hei on the other hand gets lots of attention but his character is so enigmatic that its hard to build a report with him.  The show basically keeps us guessing about which of Hei’s two personas he uses during the show is the real one; the ruthless killer or the friendly and selfless young man, but by the time it becomes 100% clear the show’s damn near over.  Basically Hei is very cool, and I do like how the character is portrayed compared to other Contractors but ultimately he is forgettable which is a shame because, were he a bit more interesting and complex, he might have been able to lift this show in Anime Royalty.
The rest of the cast that show up are similar in that they’re “okay” but probably won’t be winning any spots on Top Ten list.  The big exception is the character Amber, a mysterious woman tied to Hei’s past and the Contractor community in general.  I won’t say much about her because her story was one of the more gripping aspects of the show’s plot but I will mention that I was very intrigued by her relationship with the protagonist.  I also really liked November 11, a suave English special agent who you never really are certain which side he’s on who gets a lot of the better lines.  Sadly he is criminally underused due to the episodic nature of the show.  Really I wouldn’t have minded that guy being the main character (Plus he also has a history with Amber so really the show could have been slightly altered to make a more interesting protagonist if the writers had chosen to do so).
Remember, Remember the 11th of November
I’m just going to say it; this is a really good anime.  Its easily one of the best I’ve watched.  The story had me glued to my seat and I more than once stayed up late watching it regardless of where I had to be the next morning.  In fact there wasn’t all that much wrong with the show.  The only real complaint I had was the comedy bits.  In general this was a dark show but every once and while the tone will shift into slapstick.   One episode you’ll see a guy get cut in half and the characters learn a bitter lesson about trusting people and then BAM!  Next time there’s a dumb/wacky story about a detective looking for a lost cat.  That is not a smooth transition!  Almost all of this nonsense is driven by private detective Gai Kurasawa and his apparently mean spirited otaku assistant Kiko, neither of whom add anything to the story whatsoever except to periodically show up and be incredibly unfunny.  Yes, that’s right; not only is the comedy really out of place in this show it’s also flat-out dull.  Well there may be a chuckle to find in the season one OVA, which acts as an episode 26 in the DVD release, mostly it’s just a drama trying to force itself to be humorous and failing spectacularly.  It’s as if the writers went to the Harold Zoid School of Fiction Writing.
"Just because this is a drama doesn't mean you can't a throw a pie or two"
Distracting though that aspect may be the anime is still really well done.  If I were to rank all the shows I watched for this blog Gurren Laggan would be #1 and Darker than Black would be an extremely easy pick for #2.  Almost no other show had grabbed my attention the way this one did and while it’s not quite on the same level as the very best anime has to over it is close.  As an interesting side note to that this show, unlike damn near every other show I’ve reviewed, has had a sequel made; Darker than Black: Ryusei no Gemini.  As of this writing it has been licensed but has yet to actually become commercially available but I have to wonder whether further adventures in this world will be the push the series needs to make it into that elite few of near perfect anime or if it will showcase exactly why sequels are almost always a bad idea.  Regardless this season of the show at least is still worth checking out.  I highly recommend it to any anime fan, especially if they liked Cowboy Bebop as it shares many of its themes.
Shut up, Kiko
I give Darker than Black: Kuro no Keiyakusha 4 out of 5 Adorable Pandas.
Pros
-Contractors are a neat science fiction species
-Dark and emotional tone is both unsettling and intriguing
-Well developed back-story and mythology
-Really interesting mystery plot
-Good artwork
Cons
-Does not understand this thing we call “Comedy” and repeatedly butchers it as a result
-Characters for the most part aren’t as great as the world they inhabit

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