So dark, so bright

Darker Than Black is a tale that illuminates with the conflict between humans and former humans.

DARKER THAN BLACK 25 episodes and 1 OVA (original video animation)

WHAT is it about assassins that are so fascinating in popular culture? Is it the guns? The brutality? The doomed life of sin and damnation?

Darker Than Black (Kuro no Keiyakusha) is not really about assassins, but it does feature a main character who is one such killer caught up in a world as conflicted and grey as he is.

Ten years ago, two alien phenomena emerged out of nowhere to literally swallow up whole chunks of territory. One manifested in South America and came to be known as Heaven’s Gate, an irony considering that it would become the scene for a brutal war.

The other is Hell’s Gate, around which the story revolves in a present-day and irreversibly changed Tokyo.

Hei, the conflicted and enigmatic protagonist of Darker Than Black. Assisting him on his mission are...(below, pic)

The arrival of the Gates led to the appearance of super-powered beings known as Contractors and Dolls.

Once human, these Contractors and Dolls were altered by the Gates for unknown purposes. They gain power and abilities, but at a price.

Contractors have apparently been stripped of their humanity, leaving behind coldly rational and amoral individuals highly sought after by governments and other shady groups for their unique skills. (And it just so happens that many Contractors have abilities that make them very, very good at destroying things. And people.)

Dolls, in contrast, are equally emotionless but seem to lack free will or even a personality. They are used as tools, able to carry out remote surveillance from a distance.

In the midst of all this is Hei, a ruthlessly efficient operative working for the Syndicate, one of the many factions scrambling to unlock the secrets of the Gates.

Let me make this clear. Darker Than Black is produced by Bones, a studio renowned for its animation quality and the strength of its characters. But do not expect straightforward answers in this anime. The questions you have may not be answered as easily as you wish, so if you can live with that, then sit back and enjoy a show that has generally been touted the best original anime of 2007.

Darker Than Black has it all: a dark and riveting storyline, amazing visuals, sympathetic villains, ambiguously aligned “heroes” whose actions can be unpredictable, and best of all, a sufficiently satisfactory ending.

It’s refreshing to have a show that doesn’t insult your intelligence, where everything is subtly done and the clues are all there for the viewer who pays attention.

...(from left) Yin, an emotionless Doll; Mao, a Contractor in a cat’s body; and the gruff messenger Huang.

The team

Hei is not acting alone. Helping him are a Doll girl named Yin, a Contractor called Mao, and the hostile Huang who relays orders from the Syndicate to the group.

At first it seems that the four barely qualify as a team – Huang often threatens Hei if the latter ever disobeys the Syndicate’s orders. But as time goes on, the characters’ motivations and (most of) their pasts reveal themselves in emotionally wrenching episodes. My favourite moment was when I realised the kind of bond the team has later on, which is as fractured as these souls are.

The anime starts off with Hei’s team sent out to locate a girl on the run after she was linked to a dead Contractor. They are not the only ones; the police and certain nasty types, too, are looking for her.

Incidentally, the police are also keenly interested in nabbing Hei – it probably has something to do with him constantly bumping off their suspects, or something else equally annoying.

From there, the narrative scarcely pauses for breath and we see it all comes down to the plans various people have for the Gates.

Little is wasted and each episode always advances the plot in some way. For instance, one episode reveals the origins of a little-liked character, enough for us to sympathise with the person, which heightens the tension when the Syndicate orders Hei to take the person out.

The brilliance is in how the anime balances it all, sometimes juggling tense drama and gentle humour in the same episode even.

Hei is an enigma. As bishonen go, he is not that spectacular looks-wise. But there’s something morbidly fascinating about watching a guy blend in by acting like a bumbling exchange student one moment, and the next moment, react violently to a threat with utter coldness. Chilling.

At one point, I winced when Hei resorts to torturing someone, only for him to occasionally demonstrate some measure of compassion towards others ... unless, of course, all that is an act as well.

Viewers can spend many a fun moment guessing Hei’s Contractor ability (as it is unclear at the outset), as well as try to figure out the price he has to pay for it.

You see, each time Contractors use their powers, they are compelled to pay a weird sort of remuneration. Some are plain bizarre, like having to eat flowers or arrange shoes upside down. Others are quite horrific; imagine having to break your own fingers (ow!). (This is the contract each of them must pay, making me wonder what happens if a Contractor doesn’t.)

Part of the show’s appeal lies in seeing a new Contractor and identifying what their unique remuneration is.

As time wears on, viewers will also start to notice changes within Hei. Despite his apathy, there are hints of indecision and even loneliness when this anti-hero has to mingle with the human race.

Is he really what he seems? When the answers come, one starts to realise what Hei represents to the Contractors and humans battling each other.

And this emotionless, seemingly soulless, man will be the anchor for everything.

Multi-faceted affair

It’s hard to write about a show that has so many facets to it without spoiling everything. And I haven’t even touched on the other interesting characters yet. Or the many groups that will clash with Hei’s team one way or another.

With so much going for it and many questions about the Gates unanswered, it’s frustrating to have the anime end so abruptly when viewers (like me) might be left demanding for a resolution between certain characters.

(After the series ended, an OVA was released some six months later around March this year. Sadly, it is not a sequel but more of a prequel. Nevertheless the OVA, known also as Episode 26, is mindless fun.)

At the end of the day, Darker Than Black might not raise deep philosophical questions a la Ghost in the Shell or Evangelion, but it is a gem of an anime that entertains, thrills and moves without resorting to cheap theatrics or explosions.

Watch it for the amazing fights and for its beautifully quiet moments – the night skies, the talks between lonely souls, the soft neon lights of a city on the edge of destruction.

Watch it and wonder at the differences between the “inhumane” Contractors, and the callous humans who send them to their deaths.

Watch it for the characters that give you that lump in your throat.

For heaven’s sake, just watch it.

Now, if only there was a movie....

‘Darker Than Black’ airs on Animax (Astro Channel 715) at 8pm on Tuesdays, beginning Dec 30.