February 10, 2009
“Now I’ve lost it; I know I can kill. The truth is just beyond the gate…!!”
STORY – For a series that essentially never explains anything, I’m actually extremely surprised I ended up liking it as much as I do. I’m not a fan of overt exposition, but I’m not a fan of dancing around all the obvious questions either, and Darker than BLACK does almost exclusively the latter. The majority of the series is episodic and comprised of two-episode mini-arcs; these episodes serve to explore the world and the characters, but any insight gained is limited and generally lead to more questions than answers. And yet, the world presented is a very intriguing and unique; the concept of a select few with special abilities is everywhere, sure, but I’m totally in love with the idea of having to consistently pay a price for it. The series starts off a little slow, but none of the episodes are outright boring, and it’s fun cataloging all of the data you receive and formulating various hypotheses about what had happened and why things are they way they are. It’s the mystery that keeps you going.
Yes, it’s immensely frustrating trying to understand anything sometimes, including the overarching plot and the motivation of any of the characters, which are, you know, kind of important, but even though I say that nothing’s ever explained, there’s definitely enough there for you to work off of. The episode-to-episode story is easy enough to get at a basic level, and as more and more elements present and repeat themselves, it becomes more and more interesting. It’s open-ended in many ways, and there’s plenty of room for interpretation. For that reason, it probably isn’t for everyone; if you’re looking for concrete answers and explanations, you’ll almost certainly be disappointed. Most characters in the series don’t even know what’s going on, so there isn’t anyone to spell it out for you.
CHARACTER – It really doesn’t seem like it at first, but Hei is quite the fascinating character. It never seems quite clear whether Li is the disguise and Hei is the real personality or if it’s the other way around. Both seem so sincere in their actions and words. The duality of his character seems contradictory because he comes off like he should be very straightforward, especially considering that “contractors are logical creatures.” The details of his past remain hazy and vague for a majority of the series, though it becomes obvious rather quickly what he still feels towards whatever had transpired. That in itself isn’t all that interesting or original, but it’s a good starting point for all the contradictions and a huge catalyst for the grand plot. I wouldn’t say that Hei actually changes much throughout the course of the series, which is usually what I measure the merit of characters by, but he does learn a lot about himself, and those revelations seem to work just as well.
The rest of the characters aren’t nearly as interesting, but together, they make a great supporting cast. Mao and Huang are both fun in their own way, though I do wish they had explored the former’s past more. Too much about Yin was left unexplained for me to really take to her, but it didn’t bug me all that much either. The detective and his assistant were pretty standard comic relief, but standard doesn’t mean bad. Kirihara was also a pretty generic cop-type character, but she worked her role very well and her interaction with Li made for an interesting angle. (Or maybe I’m just a sucker for the secret identity drama thing.) The vast bureaucracy that stood over the plot was confusing to keep up with at times, but after a while, I found that it didn’t really matter what the details were — it’s just bureaucracy. And it works out all right.
ARTSTYLE & ANIMATION – Most of the things that BONES animates tend to impress me, and Darker than BLACK is no exception. Everything is smooth, beautiful, and entertaining to watch; the action scenes were fluid and well done, and most of the character designs were slick and distinctive. It’s worth noting also that one of the sponsors was obviously a car company (I don’t know which though because I don’t know anything about cars) — all of the vehicles in the series are explicitly detailed, with many utilizing 3d animation. There’s also a pretty epic driving scene in the second opening’s animation sequence. For the most part, this works out well, but there’s that occasional 3d car that looks a bit out of place.
One of the sponsors is also the notorious Pizza Hut! In contrast to Code Geass’s overt product placement though, DtB is much more subtle in its ways. The logo will appear on a few buildings and storefronts, but as much as Hei does gorge himself every other episode or so, he never actually goes out for pizza. I think this fact helps keep the overall mood of the series relatively serious; there are humorous bits, certainly, but it doesn’t come off as nearly as crack-filled as the aforementioned. (I guess that’s the difference between BONES and Sunrise.)
MUSIC – My little blurb at the beginning of this review is from the first opening theme. Once again, I really appreciate songs that relate directly to the series and contain lyrics specifically referencing it; I’ve always respected Takanori Nishikawa for this. Unfortunately, I find that his music under abingdon boys school is sub par compared to his music under T.M. Revolution. “Howling” has an interesting beginning, but the rhythm and melody feel jumbled up until the end/chorus. Being a Rie fu fan, I’d heard “Tsuki Akari” long before seeing the series, but while it’s a pretty song, I didn’t really feel as if it fit. It was almost jarring to hear it after every episode. The second opening, “Kakusei Heroism ~The Hero Without A Name~” by An Cafe is better in that it’s more energetic and not as forced feeling; the second ending, “Dreams” by HIGH and MIGHTY COLOR is similar to the first in tone and mood, but something about it fits better — I think it was just that Rie’s voice itself didn’t seem to fit the series, rather than anything about the music.
The soundtrack itself mostly average, though there are a number of standout tracks — particularly the intense tracks for high-action scenes and the horror/suspense movie-like tracks for the creepy and contemplative scenes. Still, I was surprised to find that Yoko Kanno was the composer because I don’t feel as if Darker than BLACK’s soundtrack is of the same caliber as the stuff Kanno is generally known for. It’s not terrible by any means, but it certainly feels more subdued.
VOICE ACTING – Most of the cast is pretty average — they’re effective in their portrayals, but not particularly amazing. I did like Hidenobu Kiuchi as Hei a lot though; the differences between Hei and Li were really well done and it was great at highlighting the conflicts within his personality. I was also fond of Kirihara’s voice, though it was pretty much the typecast for a strong-willed and morally infallible woman. The first two episodes are available dubbed and streaming from FUNimation’s video site. Those two episodes didn’t really leave that much of an impression on me, but I didn’t think it was too bad?
OVERALL – To be honest, the first five episodes didn’t do much for me. At six, it started to get more interesting because that was when Hei’s past first started affect his present, and that was when the gate started to play a bigger role. After six, I never had a problem staying engaged, and the two-episode mini-arcs really helped keep my thoughts organized. As the overarching plot comes to reveal itself and the series climaxes near the end, you kind of forget that the episodes were ever structured that way because everything comes together so neatly. It’s very smooth storytelling. And I liked the ending a lot too; it doesn’t really explain much, and I’m still not completely sure what happened, but I like what I could understand and interpret. The concepts were good. It leaves me with a lot of questions, and I’d really like a sequel, but it’s not the end of the world if there never is one. Few series can pull off that kind of open-endedness, but Darker than BLACK does.