‘’Darker Than Black’’ immerses the viewer in a fascinating world rife with cool superpowers, intrigue and mystery carried by beautiful animation and an evoking soundtrack by none other than Yoko Kanno.
Well, that was the idea……
The actual series definitely boasts impressive animation and cool superpowers, but that which the series tries to pass of as a story full of intriguing mysteries is nothing more than a total mess full of inconsistencies and plot contrivances. Worse yet, it wants to be seen as a dark and serious story but nevertheless shoehorns in some anime-trappings to try and hook a bigger audience.
Said story goes as follows: 10 years ago a mysterious gate (creatively titled ‘’Hell’s Gate’’) appeared in the middle of Tokyo which caused the stars to disappear and prompted changes in some people. People affected could be split up into 2 types: first there’s Contractors, who get a badass power (e.g. gravity-manipulation or teleportation) at the cost of an arbitrary payment (e.g. eating eggs or kissing someone) and then there’s Dolls, (seemingly) emotionless people who can track people through an arbitrary medium, like water or mirrors. Knowledge of these things is kept under wraps by a secret international body called ‘The Syndicate’. They hunt down Contractors and offer them an ultimatum: submit or be killed. Normal people who come in contact with Contractors have their memories erased.
It is in this backdrop that we follow a team of Syndicate agents consisting of a bland Batman-knockoff, a Rei Ayanami-clone, a grumpy old fat guy and Salem from ‘Sabrina The Teenage Witch’. A large part of the series consists of 2-episode story arcs detailing a random mission carried out by said team. Well that’s actually a bit misleading since it’s Batman who ends up doing all the work while Rei (being a Doll) occasionally does some surveillance. Fatso and Salem are mostly there to be grumpy and snarky, respectively.
Of course a team of secret agents needs to have a couple of real ones hunting them down for some tension. Problem is that the police officers in this series are idiots who couldn’t catch a cold if they ran outside naked while it was snowing, so that’s it for tension. Their only purpose in the narrative is that one of them often ends up listening to infodumps courtesy of that episode’s exposition vessel.
The story-arcs all end up having a pretty similar pattern. Syndicate team tackles a case related to either a Contractor or a Doll,the police officers have a storyline that ties into the secret mission, Syndicate team gets to pull of secret agent stuff that often involves fighting dudes while the officers get to listen to exposition and remain ignorant of all the mysterious things that keep happening around them. Batman meets X-files, basically. The series makes an attempt to shake things up towards the end by introducing an overarching storyline, but it’s so convoluted and filled with retcons and Deus Ex Machina that it ends up causing more damage than it fixes.
All of this is made worse by a number of plot elements and trappings that are inconsistent either within the show’s universe or in a narrative sense. Some examples:
- A big deal is made about how a Contractor has a power that has to be paid for by doing something. 1 power, 1 payment. Except that there’s Contractors whose powers can change in arbitrary ways, and there’s Contractors who don’t have to perform a payment. Worse yet, some payments aren’t really payments at all. There’s one Contractor whose payment is basically something that comes naturally with using his ability, and some payments are actually rather beneficial.
- A big deal is made about how Dolls have no emotions. Except that they do, they just appear emotionless. Why? It’s never explored, in spite of the fact that it’s a crucial part of one character’s personality seeing as she’s a doll. Guess they were fine with having a Rei Ayanami clone to attract otaku.
- The series wants to be viewed as a gritty and serious ‘noir’ type story only to introduce a pair of supporting characters who outright parody these concepts. This creates a jarring tonal dissonance. Playing a genre straight can work. Parodying a genre can also work. Not both. The introduction of a blatant comic relief character in a serious story basically destroys the tone the makers were trying to establish. It’s akin to putting Frank Drebin smack-dab in the middle of The Wire.
I could talk about how some characters act completely out-of-character just so they can get killed or how a certain character’s power goes from a basic elemental attack to being able manipulate reality but I’ll stop here for brevity’s sake.
It’s pretty clear at this point that the makers didn’t think this series’ narrative and concepts through. The whole series is deliberately ambiguous in regards to its overall plot and universe which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. The problem is that the narrative is a mess. One could say that it doesn't matter seeing as the story is character-driven (ie. he J.J. Abrams Defense) but that's a rather weak defense as far as I'm concerned. Even a basic plot has to be somewhat coherent.
Darker Than Black could’ve been great. It had an intriguing setting, stellar animation, great sound direction (the actual soundtrack is forgettable despite being from Yoko Kano) and a few cool action scenes involving rather creative use of superpowers. But the storytelling is deplorable, the characters fail to be interesting or even entertaining and for every decent fight there’s 2 fights that are essentially 3-second massacres that are there to impress you with the main character’s ‘’awesomeness’’.
Just goes to show: you can have all the best ingredients but you still need to have some cooking skills to make them into a tasty dish.