Friday, June 24, 2016

Darker than Black

Darker than Black; animated mystery / fantasy series, Japan, 2007; D: Tensai Okamura, S: Hidenobu Kiuchi, Ikuya Sawaki, Masaru Ikeda, Misato Fukuen, Nana Mizuki

10 years ago, an inexplicable spatial sphere, nicknamed "Heaven's Gate", appeared in South America. Soon, a similar "Hell's  Gate" appeared on the other end of the World, in Tokyo. The stars disappeared from the night sky, and were replaced with fake stars. Several expeditions were sent into the "Hell's Gate", but all of the crew vanished. The area around it was sealed off with a giant wall. Simultaneously, some people have obtained special powers, known as Contractors, who murder in order to get their secret goal. One of these Contractors is a group of four - Li, Yin, Huang and talking cat Mao - who perform various espionage tasks for the Syndicate. In the end, Amber rallies several Contractors to stop Syndicate's plan to destroy the "Hell's Gate" which would also destroy all the Contractors, and Li has to decide which side to pick.

This anime mystery series has two fatal flaws: for one, it is presented in an episodic format of 13 two-part episodes, in which there is a new main protagonist for almost every new subplot, whereas the ostensible four main characters (Li, Huang, Yin, Mao) appear overall only as cameos in most of them. Secondly, too many plot points important for understanding the storyline are deliberately withheld from the viewers, almost as an experimental decision, and thus not everyone will have the patience to sit all the way through episode 20 without knowing what is going on, why are all these people and different factions fighting and even killing each other or who is after whom, and thus this inhibits the audience to invest themselves in the characters and the story. In one of the last episodes, Huang says to Li: "The Syndicate is cutting us out! I don't understand why!" But that's just it: since there is no context, there are no surprises. The Syndicate may have well double-crossed them, or not. Li may have double-crossed Huang, or not. Huang may have double-crossed Li or the Syndicate or gone either way. Since we do not know what is their hierarchy, anything goes. There were other anime series where a lot of things were left unspoken as well, such as "Neon Genesis Evangelion", but even there there was a very clear thread of who is on which side and what their goal is. Likewise, the first six episodes of "Darker than Black" were bad.

The only true foray into greatness was done in episodes 7-8, which displayed a refreshing oasis of comic (and creative) relief which grew exponentially - the guest characters of clumsy detective Kurasawa and his pink-haired girl assistant Kiko were a delight and almost every joke was spot on - as well as episodes 11-12 (an expressionistic image of a bus entering the tunel near the giant wall border that surrounds the "Hell's Gate") and the very touching episodes 13-14, which just might feature the series' finest hour while showing the only two episodes that truly say something about the extra Yin (she is a girl who was transformed into an emotionless, robotic servant, a "Doll", and thus Kiko, who has to take care of her, cannot resist but to put her two fingers on Yin's lip and make an artificial "smile" on Yin's face. Later on, when Yin bravely choses to stay in Li's team and abandon returning to her father's home, Li asks if she is OK with the decision - and she gives one of the highest expressions of human spirit ever, when she uses her own index finger to repeat this "smile" by pushing her lip up). This last tandem of episodes almost seems to hint at "Darker than Black's" theme - free will, i.e. how far would a Contractor go to obey even if he does not feel like it - but alas, it is under-explored and underused since Yin never gets another episode to shine again. Episodes 19-20 are not as good as they could have been, but the moment of the ugly Huang who drinks in a bar after remembering his only chance to find love is unforgettable. Rarely were there so many fine episodes drowned in the self-righteous, confusing and convoluted storyline as here.


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