Darker than Black wants to be Cowboy Bebop so badly, it hurts. There is such a noticeable similarity between the two series that comparing them is virtually unavoidable. The problem, of course, is that Darker than Black is not Cowboy Bebop.
To be sure, Black isn't a total carbon copy. The series' plot is, at least superficially, very different. Also, Darker than Black, true to its title, starts out somewhat moodier than Cowboy Bebop's beginning. However, the same hodgepodge of genres and episodic story structure is here, as well as some other familiar themes and motifs (The Girl who Haunts the Hero's Past, the ephemeral nature of life, etc).
Sadly, Cowboy Bebop’s story might just have been one of a kind. There was a giddy, off-beat, almost poetic flow to the series, which was a major part of what made Cowboy Bebop such an entertaining work. This feeling is all but missing in Darker than Black, and in its place is an uneven, somnambulant narrative that lurches and groans under its own weight, even as it delivers clever premises and interesting twists.
Still, Black’s plot isn’t without its strengths. In particular, I loved the various superpowers that each of the characters had. While not particularly original, the cleverness with which the abilities are revealed and used never ceased to impress me.
Nonetheless, in spite of some extremely entertaining isolated moments, there was always something missing. In Cowboy Bebop, I eagerly pressed on to the next story arc, curious to see what the writers could possibly come up with next. In Black, I progressed more in the reluctant hope that the series might finally find its feet.
It never did.
Instead, the story continues to waddle at its own uniquely awkward pace. The show tries almost everything – action, romance, comedy, tragedy, mystery and even some philosophy – but never seems to find the right combination to make things work. This is a shame, because in each of these half-hearted attempts, there are occasional moments of brilliance. One gets the feeling that if Black had concentrated on something, anything, it would have done it impressively well.
Unfortunately, this never happens, and what we’re left with is a plot that is easy to admire but difficult to actually like. Cowboy Bebop felt joyously eclectic; Darker than Black is tragically so.
This is one of the better animated series this year. The character designs are appealing and memorable, and the action scenes are top-notch. Of particular note are the backgrounds of the city that Darker than Black takes place. The eerie, futuristic setting is detailed and frames the action nicely.
If I have one complaint, it is with the general style of the studio. Bones has always had a distinct style, but in this case I feel it works against a show that is trying to be melancholic and “Darker than Black.” While the studio’s signature look (particularly the colorful palette and crisp borders) is fantastic in a vacuum, I feel a more muted, fuzzy visual style along the lines of Ergo Proxy might have fit better.
If the soundtrack had been made by anyone else it would have been a nice surprise, but coming from Yoko Kanno it is a mild disappointment. Here she goes for a jazzy sound that evokes memories of her work in Cowboy Bebop, but the end result just isn’t as captivating as it was 10 years ago. The music, while not terrible by any means, is the first Yoko Kanno OST that I can remember not bothering to download.
Still, her work remains well above par, and the two OP’s also help keep things fresh. Furthermore, while the tracks aren’t much to listen to by themselves, they tend to do a fine job of setting the mood.
Most series tend to do a decent job of developing their protagonists, but neglect their villains and supporting characters. Darker than Black has the opposite problem; in some cases, the single-episode characters feel more developed than the main character.
The problem with Darker than Black’s hero is that his motives and feelings are largely kept secret until almost the end of the series. As a result, it’s very difficult to feel for this character; I could watch what he did in passive interest, but was ultimately unable to form any sort of empathetic bond.
On the other hand, the villains are some of the nicest I’ve seen this year. As well as having nifty and creative super-powers, they tended to be surprisingly developed. The exception, again, is the “main” villain, who remains a completely uninteresting enigma until the final episode.
Despite its considerable strengths, Darker than Black is and oddly muddled and unfocused show. While the series’ excellent disparate elements are enough to make me (weakly) recommend it, I can’t help but wonder what the show could have been if these elements had been better tied together.
A giant wall looms over Tokyo, shielding the city from a dangerous otherworld called the 'Hell's Gate'. Within the city, things are no less terrifying because Contractors, psychopathic killers with phenomenal powers, have started to appear. These killers are compelled to pay a price every time they use their powers, often in the form of a meaningless or painful task. As their deadly habits rack up a gruesome death toll, Kirihara Misaki and her team from the Foreign Affairs Public Security struggle to solve the cases and bring the Contractors under control. Their task is further confounded by the interference of a masked individual they title Messier Code BK201, a man with abilities that allow him to fight and defeat the Contractors. Who is this BK201? How can the Contractors be stopped permanently? And what does the appearance of the Hell's Gate mean for the people of Tokyo?