I know I go on a bit, but the problem with a lot of anime is how slow they are to show their hand. It’s as if there is some misplaced prevailing wisdom that starting with lazy stereotypes, predictable set-up and a culminating in freak-of-the-week fight sequence of all speed lines and no substance will lull the viewer into a sense of pattern-recognition comfort. Once subdued, five or six episodes in, all manner of aces, kings and queens start appearing – yes I’m looking at you, Witch Hunter Robin and S-Cry-ed. I’m sorry, but if you haven’t got me at ‘hai’, I’m not waiting around. I’m taking my anime love elsewhere.
With its block color, cool tones and use of negative space, Darker Than Black’s cover is telling you something. It wants you to know that it’s going to be spiky and unpredictable. And while its introductory building blocks are familiar, its details are quite unique: weird alien manifestation known as Hell’s Gate creating ‘contractors,’ humans with super-powers (accompanied with what is implied to be severe autism), ‘dolls’ that have the ability to be possessed, a walled-off city in lockdown and whole army of international spy rings, police task forces and syndicates seeking information on what created the gate so they can have their own piece of the super soldier pie. If that’s not enough, into this mix comes a rogue group led by the mysterious contractor known in turns as the Black Reaper or, to the police: BK201.
Talking any more about Darker Than Black actually becomes quite difficult. The police are chasing BK201 who is pursuing an indiscernible agenda of his own. Certainly on the first disc, the labyrinthine plotting and opaque character motivations give nothing away. To use the onion analogy, peeling away a layer does not reveal a new layer, it reveals more onions. But it makes for gripping, if slightly confusing viewing. The viewer is off balance with as little understanding as anybody else. There is something truly horrific about people not knowing what they’re doing but who are prepared to kill indiscriminately in the hunt for information that may or may not have ever existed. And a nominal ‘hero’ who is prepared to kill for an unknown agenda is unsettling to say the least.
This confusion is all part of the plan. Darker Than Black is being intentionally oblique. Its themes of artifice and things not being what they appear are embedded everywhere: the starry sky is an artificial extension of the wall surrounding the city, the Black Reaper’s mask is simply one of multiple personas, in that case, where the disguise is visible.
What makes Darker Than Black so compelling it that it confounds your expectations at every turn. Every episode is built on uncertainty and its refusal to give away any information. Its characters display a range of personas that do not allow the viewer to get comfortable with a single identity. With so many anime willing give away their hand early, Darker Than Black can be a frustrating experience. But it is a series that looks worth sticking with and rewards repeated viewings. One piece of undeniable truth: Darker Than Black really lives up to its title.