Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Darkness > Black

It's been a good long while since I wrote about anime, and I think it's high time to break the dry-spell. Enter Darker Than Black: Kuro No Keiyakusha; a series that is strange, stylish, and surprising, brought to you by Bones. Admittedly, this is old news for the torrent hunting, fan-subbing anime aficionados of today's youth; the series came out in Japan in 2007 which makes it positively ancient by internet reckoning, but I happened to encounter the series via Netflix instant viewing. So if you too enjoy the manifold benefits of Netflix, you could be watching  the entire series right now instead of reading this. But would you want to?

I would love to see a serious graphic designer's response to the show's title font.

Contrary to what the title implies, the show isn't terribly dark. I mean, yes, it is about emotionless, super-powered hitmen (hit people?), so there's lots of killing and blood, but there's a surprising amount of levity as well, and all of the main characters are presented sympathetically. If you are a general fan of anime, or of Studio Bones' work in particular, you'll find plenty to love here. If you're on the fence, maybe a more detailed synopsis is in order.

The series is set in the near future or an alternate present where the world is recovering from a strange catastrophe that occurred ten years ago. Two massive structures have appeared on the Earth's surface:  Heaven's Gate in South America, (which has subsequently vanished), and Hell's Gate just outside of Tokyo. During this time, the stars in the night sky have winked out, and been replaced by new, "false stars." Each of these stars corresponds to a person with a supernatural ability; though unlike your usual super heroes, these individuals have to pay a price to use their power. This price can range from consuming certain foods or drinks, to obsessive compulsive quirks like stacking stones or composing awful poetry, to raw self-mutilation. These individuals, dubbed Contractors, have completely rational and logical minds. So, free from the burdens of conscience, these individuals frequently turn to a life of crime, or sell their services as wet-work men for a number of shadowy organizations. And because these super-powered individuals would undoubtedly upset the natural order of things paranoid governmental types and scheming scientists strive to keep Contractors' existence a secret.

Admittedly, the premise is extremely complicated and convoluted, but the show does a good job of pacing its exposition and keeping you rooted in the present moment. Each of the four main characters have episodes that develop their individual histories and personalities which are interspersed with episodes developing the over-arching plot. There are even a few comic relief episodes starring an idiot detective and his otaku teenage secretary thrown in, that are genuinely and disarmingly funny. The closest referent I can think of is Cowboy Bebop, even though the narrative tone and visual style are completely different, and the soundtrack, save for the show's openings, are terribly forgettable.

I think the thing I like most about Darker than Black is that it manages to take many familiar manga tropes (people with super-powers, talking cats, a brooding hero wearing a clumsy facade) and make something original out of them. I'm also a sucker for shows that display intense, complex world-building. The contractors each correspond to number star in a messier catalog, and their activity is tracked by their contracts. Nothing ever really comes of this, short of giving the police a heads up as to when stuff is going down, but it's a neat concept. And the contracts themselves are a stroke of genius. They afford single episode villains personality, which is delightfully ironic considering Contractors are supposed to be unfeeling tools of war.

Another refreshing thing about Darker Than Black is that it doesn't preach at it's audience, or rely on endless "shipping" and churning to carry the plot. At first the characters are cold and without personality, but relationships do eventually arise in the series and their poignancy is pleasantly startling. There is a little bit of hackneyed philosophizing pertaining to the nature of rational thought versus emotional attachment and sentimentality, but for the most part the show just gives you interesting fights, conspiratorial intrigue and amusing characters.

To give you a brief rundown of the main cast, we have Hei, the titular Black Contractor, who makes bipolar swings between being an impossible bad-ass who can control lightning, and an unassuming dweeb named Lee Shinshun. Next up is Yin, who is remarkably similar to Rei Ayanami, and capable of sensing other Contractors. We also have Huang, an ugly, hard-bitten man with a heart of gold, (or maybe pyrite?) who can't stand the Contractors he works with. And last but not least, we have my favorite character: Mao. An acerbic computer hacker trapped in a cat's body.

Front and center we have Hei, off to the right is Mao, and to the left is Yin and Haung.

Like many other anime, the show's greatest flaw is it's artificiality. We have an overly complex premise that waxes fanciful and science-fictional, characters who are defined either by their lack of emotion or their broadly drawn personalities, and sin of all sins, the whole thing wraps up with a "WTF Anime!?" endings that flirts with apotheosis only to end up in bed with the absurd. Still, I can't help but wonder how a show a like this would fair if it was given a wider audience and a bigger advertising budget. Considering the huge following for shows like Lost and Heroes (just pretend they stopped after season 1), I think shows with more speculative premises have a lot of promise.

Long story short, if you dislike other anime, you may not find much to like here. If you are a fan of anime and you haven't seen Darker than Black, you're in for a good time.

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