Ten years ago, a strange phenomenon known as Hell’s Gate appeared in Tokyo, altering the sky and causing the emergence of Contractors, people with superhuman powers gained in exchange for performing morally degrading tasks. Although the general public remain blissfully unaware of them, Contractors have become integral to the workings of many powerful organisations, from syndicates to governments. One such Contractor is Hei, a young man who works for the shadowy Syndicate even as he tries to uncover the fate of his long-lost sister. With his powers of electrical manipulation and ability to morph from a self-effacing young man into a cold-blooded killer, just what kind of truths will Hei and his allies be able to unearth?
Given my oft-declared love for the likes of Wolf’s Rain and Kurau: Phantom Memory, it should come as no surprise that these days I have high expectations of Studio Bones, and when the Spring 2007 season rolled around, my hope was that they would deliver once again with Darker than Black. And indeed, at first it seemed that they had, as the series got off to an explosive start that replaced cautious optimism with outright devotion.
Those promising early days
In those early days, Darker than Black truly seemed to have it all; a fascinating sci-fi setting filled with secrets and mysteries, well-realised special powers that gave rise to superbly choreographed action scenes and a varied cast who promised much in the future. With direction that never fell short of excellent, those first six episodes of Darker than Black felt like the beginning of a masterpiece, delivering exposition without boring and action without skimping- was this at last the ‘perfect anime’?
Unfortunately, it was not to be, for by going all out in these early stages, Darker than Black only ensured one thing- that it would peak too soon. A run of three good two-episode arcs was rounded off most disappointingly when instead of welcoming interesting new character to the permanent cast, it killed her off completely, in what Hige quite rightly called a ‘cocktease’. The only reason to do such a thing was because the series had even stronger cards to play later on, but as we were to gradually learn, it did not.
Even so, it was not apparent straightaway just how far the series was going to go downhill, for whilst episodes 7-8 deviated from the serious tone to offer a ‘light entertainment’ arc, at the time, they were still enjoyable enough in their own right- and surely such a thing was only going to be a breather between darker (forgive the pun) content anyway. Even 9-10 offered what then seemed to be a worthy arc, at least if you discounted the fact that we were now over a third of the way into the series and we had still barely scratched the surface of the characters and their back story.
The middle stretch, and the beginning of a slow decline
Unfortunately, the true turning point was to come in episodes 11-12, an arc which initially promised some long awaited answers as Hei was sent to infiltrate PANDORA, yet another mysterious organisation with a contrived acronym for a title. With this move, we were closer than ever to Hell’s Gate, and surely that could only mean that it was time for the series to play a few of its cards and blow us away with even the tiniest hint of a main plot. Alas no, instead we got a murder ‘mystery’ with only one plainly obvious suspect, punctuated by what was to be the first of many long stretches of dullness and concluded with a drug-induced ending worthy of the dango-sniffers at Sunrise.
From this point onwards, matters were only to get worse, for whilst the next two arcs were still mildly enjoyable on their own merit, it was becoming increasingly apparent that the writers were in no hurry to kick off whatever main plot they were planning to work on. By this point in the series, we should really have been building up the momentum, but instead DtB had lapsed back into the kind of character exploration arc that we should have had way back at the beginning. Week after week, it was the same old question- just where was the main plot?
The last weeks of decline
By the time episode seventeen was reached, my love of Darker than Black was heading towards an all-time low, to the point where much of what happened was barely able to hold my interest. The entirety of episodes 17-20 was a mixture of one-shot characters, “it’s too late for that now” character moments and gratuitous cameos from faces that should have been and gone. Oh look, random minor character A was just killed- should I even care?
Finally, after a long struggle of increasing disappointing, we were into the final stretch- five more episodes remained, and for better or worse, the series was to be concluded. By this point, my expectations were at an all-time low, and in truth, it was just as well they were, for DtB was to have little to offer in its finale. The randomly collected group of antagonists reveals themselves to not be all that evil after all, whilst Hei discovers that the Syndicate he is working for is as shadowy as the name suggests, and indeed is part of an Organisation (the capitalisation is important here) that effectively controls every government. What then follows is a rather pedestrian struggle between those who wish to wipe out the Gate and Contractors and those Contractors who wish to fight back because they are most likely the next evolution of humanity. Oh yes, and Hei also happens to be a Destined Character with Special Powers that No One Else has- what a shocking development for a main character!
All-in-all, the series limps its way into the end, leaving all too many questions unanswered about the nature of the Gate; the reason Contractors appeared and why the fake stars each correspond to one of them; the motivations of the shadowy Syndicate; the purpose of PANDORA and the bizarre old Stargazer, and so forth. Some series can get away without explaining everything because they offer other strengths, but Darker than Black never really made enough of a consistent effort in either pacing, character or story development to make up for flaws elsewhere.
Visually, Darker than Black uses a simple but generally technically accomplished style, with some nice settings and character designs alongside a selection of rather more bland ones. The ever-talented Yoko Kanno handles the music, but sadly, this isn’t one of her better efforts- some good tracks enhance what would otherwise be mediocre scenes, but overall the music seems lacking in the usual depth and complexity we’ve come to expect.
Darker than Black’s fall from grace is nothing short of legendary; it went from a series that dripped with sheer excellence to a mediocre piece that meandered all over the place and lacked any real focus. A series that put a lot into the concept and far too little in its execution, Darker than Black must surely stand as a testimony to the need to plan out an entire story instead of hoping the momentum of a strong start can carry viewers all the way through.