UPDATE Sep 4/09, this review is under revision!
This is another review post. Meaning there will be a non-spoiler review followed by my spoilerific thoughts at the end. Please enjoy. Just as a note, I had no idea there was this epic cross-blog rewatch of this show going on. It’s pretty cool, and just the introductory posts helped me a lot with formulating this review since I was a little unsure of myself at first.
The general theme in Darker Than Black is that everyone is being used. Every single character is being egged along by the characters around them who wish to fulfill their own purposes. They control others as if it were a game – however, it’s when the players start to make themselves a piece in that game that things get interesting. It’s a game of ‘who’s controlling who?’ and an exploration of what it means to be making your own decisions versus letting someone else make them. Through this theme, there is explored the idea of identity, social acceptance, the importance of will-power, and more all wrapped up in a cop-drama/action thriller with fantasy elements. Decent at worst and excellent at best, Darker Than Black has a good amount to offer in terms of entertainment and a little bit to offer for thought if you look for it. Mostly it’s a show to chill out and enjoy when you want something on the darker but fun side.
Darker Than Black’s OST, ~Kuro no Keiyakusha~ Gekihen, is composed by none other than THE Yoko Kanno (Arjuna, Cowboy Bebop, Escaflowne, Ghost in the Shell SAC, Turn A Gundam, Wolf’s Rain) who is easily the most famous and acclaimed anime composer there is. The soundtrack is all very smooth jazz and lounge music ranging from higher-tempo excitement to very relaxing, chill songs. As usual for Kanno, there is boatloads of bass and lots of unique percussion instruments.
A couple of the songs have some electronica touch and there are numerous vocal tracks. Generally, the feel of the album is to be as cool as possible. Whether it’s chase music or something more laid-back, it’s always super-cool like the whole album is wearing sunglasses. My favorite track is one called ‘Blend In,’ which fuses some smooth-as-hell guitars with a suave voice and a great low-tempo beat (though interestingly I have no idea where this song was in the show.) As expected from Yoko Kanno, there are no complaints about the OST, and as usual the album is so unique from her other works that it’s impossible to compare them against each-other.
Both of the opening songs for this show are quite nice. The first is Howling by Abingdon Boys School which has been hugely popular ever since this show began 2 years ago. I’ve listened to this song a great many times since then myself, and hilariously since I’d originally stopped watching after 10 episodes I’d been totally unaware of the second op, Kakusei Heroism ~The Hero Without A Name~ by An Cafe, which is just as nice. Both have pretty good videos as well. I didn’t care at all for either ending theme. They were both very slow and boring and didn’t reflect any part of the show’s style whatsoever.
As far as voice acting goes, Darker Than Black employs about as many big names as any production of this high budget, but I didn’t really think there were many exemplary performances. The show doesn’t have a whole lot of emotional dialog, so there aren’t a terrible amount of chances to emote, and all of the minor characters sounded just average. Thankfully, most of the cast power is in the recurring characters. My favorite voice was easily Ikuya Sawaki as Mao, a deep but wholly suaze voice given to a little cat. Misato Fukuen (Miyafuji Yoshika in Strike Witches) has to act deadpan as Yin but her voice remains very memorable and stirring. Masaru Ikeda is the perfect gruff voice for former cop turned syndicate member Huang, bringing back thoughts of the kind of acting you expect in detective dramas.
Nana Mizuki (Morinas – Simoun, Fate – Nanoha) is there as Misaki and is great, but her character needed more screentime. Tomoko Kawakami (Misuzu – Air, Athena – Aria, Sayuri – Kanon, Utena) and Kazuhiko Inoue (Kakashi – Naruto, Nyanko-san – Natsume Yuujinchou, Dusty A – Legend of Galactic Heroes) both play very cool characters (Amber and November 11, respectively) with all of the necessary cool required to make those characters stand out, especially in scenes with them together. There was one voice that really bothered me, though, which was the voice fo the main character, Hei, played by Hidenobu Kiuchi (Tenma – Monster) which just felt forced to me. When he was pretending to be a nice guy, his voice seemed overly idiotic and when he was doing his serious voice, he didn’t sound dark enough. I think the role would have been better if it was closer to something like Jun Fukuyama’s voice as Lelouche in Code Geass, but maybe less theatrical.
Animation production on Darker Than Black is done by Studio Bones (Eureka Seven, FullMetal Alchemist, Soul Eater, Ouran High School Host Club, RahXephon, Xam’d) who happen to be one of my favorite studios (all of the aforementioned shows being favorites of mine). Bones always has a very clean, high-budget production with emphasis on style and cool fight scenes. Darker than Black is certainly no exception (if not the rule) though there were one or two places where I saw some cheap corner-cutting.
Most of the staff on Bones shows seem to be employed by Bones directly since their libraries tend to consist of nothing but Bones shows as well as most Bones shows. This is true for animation director and character designer Takahiro Komori as well as art director Takashi Aoi for the most part. Most likely, this is how Bones keeps such a consistent feel across most of their shows.
All of Darker Than Black takes place in metropolitan Tokyo of the near future. As such, 95% of the scenery is buildings, houses, parks, alleyways, etc. There is pretty much an even split of night and day shown in the city which overall is probably a fairly accurate depiction of Tokyo – there are fucking buildings everywhere. I can’t make any complaints about the backgrounds, since they look as nice as they ought to, but there’s nothing terribly unique about them. They aren’t especially detailed and no particular place stands out in my mind. Other than Hei’s apartment, most of what I think about this show’s locations is just ‘well, there were buildings.’ I happen to be a big fan of urban settings, and I did like DtB’s Tokyo, but I’ve seen much more interesting and alive cities in other anime. You can consider me biased in this regard, I guess.
The character designs I felt were awesome and perfectly cultivate the show’s ‘cool’ atmosphere as well as it’s notable detective-drama characteristics. Hei exudes badassery with his combat suit, cloak, and cool mask. The villains range from badass to suave and the women range from sexy to cute (and the cute ones are usually broken, prior to or during the show.) Poeple of all kind of personalities are present in the show and look their parts without clashing with the show’s style. Probably the most notable aspect of the designs are the eyes which have a very thick, dark outline that makes everyone just look a little bit insane. I’d say the eyes more than anything else in the show attribute to it’s dark tone.
Being as this is Bones, the animation as a whole was superb, especially during action scenes. The guys at Bones have a great sense of how the body moves and always replicate it smoothly. There were some cool little techniques used here and there, like a perspective-cam in places or some scratchy outline effects here and there. However, as awesome as the animation is most of the time, it’s not totally consistent. The arc of episodes 11-12 (which I hated all around) had some pretty downplayed animation and there are some parts that would loop footage or show a couple of images a bunch of times. These moments only stand out because the rest of the show looks so great, so it’s hard to decide if they really impact the overall impression.
Darker Than Black is pretty much entirely the child of Tensai Okamura, director of the Stink Bomb segment of the classic movie Memories, as well as director, scriptwriter, and storyboarder for fellow Bones anime Wolf’s Rain. Okamura is not only the original creator of Darker Than Black, but directed it, wrote it, and did scripts and storyboards on several episodes. As such, I see the story as a whole as something Okamura really put all of his effort into and wanted to make as great as possible.
As a director, he does an excellent job. He ties all of the show’s episodic plots into each-other beautifully, paces most of the series perfectly, balances the information and action present in every episode perfectly, and uses plenty of fun directing techniques to exemplify certain scenes. That said, there were a couple of arcs where the pace and plot kind of hiccuped. Most notably the aforementioned 11-12 arc. That arc just fucking sucked, period. Everything about it completely sucked. It was boring, heavy-handed, went around in circles, introduced some elements without explaining them very well, and all-around could have been done much, much better. I feel like if this arc hadn’t sucked so bad the whole show would have flowed near perfectly.
Darker Than Black has it’s own alternate-reality setting with plenty of details which, if you’re interested, you can read about here. DtB makes a point to reveal this information slowly and carefully, and more through actions than words. There are no moments of tiresome info-dumping – all of the exposition is perfectly integrated into the action so that there is never a dull moment (with the exception of 11-12.) This is one of the biggest evidences of the show’s careful construction.
Moreso still, though, is how inter-connected the parts of the show are. Dialog and scenes from early episodes gain a deeper meaning when you’ve seen later episodes, and many of the ways characters react and interact are better understood or explained later. Even small things are tossed in all over the place that you may miss the first time. A great example from the first 2 episodes is the cat character, Mao. In these episodes, he can bee seen all over the place in the backgrounds and at one point even drops in on the action in a seeming soincidence. It isn’t until the end of episode 2 that we find out he is a major characer, and all the previous cat-sitings are tied together. Darker Than Black all around promots multiple viewings from it’s recurring events to it’s easy accessibility. It’s pretty easy to go back and watch your favorite arcs as much as you want.
Aside from being extremely well constructed, the overall plot in DtB is pretty good, but I’m not sure it’s something to write home about. The show’s formula is 2-episode arcs up until the climactic final 3-episode arc. Some of the arcs focus on a story that is only somewhat related to the whole while serving to introduce important concepts to the show’s groundwork. Some of the arcs, especially in the later episodes, are focused on the overall plot progression, and finally there are arcs designed to explore the backgrounds of major characters.
For the same reasons that this show is well done, things are accomplished very slowly and only about as much really happens as you’d expect from a 13-episode anime (which some believe it should have been.) It could be said that DtB sacrifices depth of plot in the name of cinematography, and it’s hard to decide how to take that. On the one hand, the great construction of the series is what makes it so fun and interesting to watch, but leaves the plot less than memorable. I wouldn’t even consider this a flaw usually, but the show is so focused on it’s plot that it’s weakness permeates the show.
Darker Than Black’s greatest weakness is probably it’s characters. The show only does enough to make the viewer care a bit about the characters and not enough to really attach you to them. All of the cahracters are monumentally cool, many quite eccentric, and all a lot of fun, but don’t have a terribly memorable presence.
The main character, Hei, shows a multi-faceted personality and we learn some of his backstory, all of which is nice, but he doesn’t have any real grippng scenes or crowning moments of awesome. Each of the major characters gets a backstory and small introspective treatment, but I couldn’t see myself feeling sad if one of them died or getting excited for their sakes. They were simply ‘fun’.
The most notable characters are pretty much the most cool and/or cute ones. November 11 really stole the show with his badass moments and boatloads of charisma. Cute girls like Amber and Yin stake out their fandoms through cute looks and fun personalities. My favorite was actually the least developed major character, Mao, because he was an awesome cat with a deep-ass voice. Take that to mean what you want.
One thing I definitely loved about this show is it’s arcs that pay homage to classic pulp story types. The whole show is classic-style pulp, which is part of what makes it so great, and all of it could be called throwback to pulp stories (which really, all pulp is) but a few arcs really took the cake. Huang’s backstory was my favorite for being a perfect detective story deal and having some of the most well-done flashbacks I’ve seen in anime. There was also the excellent yakuza arc which involved the innocent guy whose in with the wrong crowd and the cute girl he falls in love with and tries to protect. There were gang-run corporations getting trampled by supernatural beings, demons of the city night streets, prostitutes on the run, and no shortage of ‘break the cutie’ moments. If you’re a big fan of pulp stories, you’ll find a lot to love there.
Overall – 8/10
Darker Than Black is extremely well-structured, fun, cool as hell, and more than likely will get better every time you watch it. It’s only lightly marred by some poor episodes and animation ticks that are largely overpowered by the sheer awesomeness of everything surrounding. Weak characters and a plot that’s not as good as the way it’s told keep my emotions at bay and prevent the show from a real favorite status for me, but it’s more than woth watching and rewatching for the pulp fun set to great music.
Talk about a Gainax ending, lol. But at least it reverted back to normal instead of just ending in the crazy mind-universe. I enjoyed this show a good deal, but as mentioned in the review, it didn’t connect with me emotionally enough to reach a favorteistatus. It’s sort of in that weird interim space like Hitohira and Niea_7 where I love the shows but ‘not that way’. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if I grew to love it more through rewatch since tehre’s SO much going on here.
November 11 = best manservice moment ever. Overall, my favorite arcs were the yakuza one and Yin and Huang’s backstory arcs, all of which were just so fucking well done it was unbelievable. I really wanted more info on the whole backstory in South America with Bai, Havoc, and Amber (seriously, what was Havoc’s involvement? she never shows up in the other flashbacks.) From what I’ve read, there are rumors of a Darker Than Black second series – maybe we’ll get a prequel? It’d certainly make Hei a lot more interesting of a character. I also wanted more Misaki Kirihara. I really wanted her to end up with Hei, too, though I knew it wouldn’t happen.
Overall, what I liked best was the cinematography, the badassery, November 11’s sexy body, and Mao. Will do business again, and will probably buy the DVDs at some time.