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Friday, 22 October 2010 00:00

Darker Than Black

Darker than Black is pitched as "covert agents with super powers" - the last show I saw with that sort of pitch was Kurau: Phantom Memory, which turned out to be something of a disappointment, especially given the hype that went along with it. Darker than Black, though, manages to live up to its billing - and then some, quickly becoming one of my favourite shows of 2009 when it got its DVD release. Now it's back in online form...

Ten years ago, a large area of Tokyo was lost to the Hell's Gate, an area which was soon enclosed inside a huge wall to keep people away from the devastating effects that the Gate produced. At the same time, people with strange powers began to appear, and were given the name 'Contractors' as a result of their compulsion to 'repay' the use of their abilities in some rather unpleasant ways. Now, a French agent, codenamed Louis, has been uncovered, but before he can be brought in for questioning he's killed. Louis was a Contractor, with the power to negate gravity in a limited way, and it seems another Contractor was involved in his killing - but what was Louis after, and why was he killed? That falls to investigator Misaki to uncover. Meanwhile, young man Hei has arrived in Tokyo. On the surface a normal student, in reality he's a Contractor himself working for the shadowy Syndicate, carrying out some rather illegal work on their behalf - work that soon brings him to Misaki's attention.

Spot the source of the superpowers of our various contractors, then. The world's governments, while doing their best to keep the existence of Contractors a secret from the general populace, also have ways of keeping track of their activities – when the Hell's Gate appeared, the stars in the sky disappeared, to be replaced by "fakes" that appeared to be associated with the Contractors: when a Contractor uses their abilities, their associated star reacts, and so the Contractors came to be known after their star.

All of which brings us to BK201, the Black Reaper, who we know better as Hei. Like most Contractors he's a ruthless killer – but while he works for the Syndicate, he also has an agenda of his own: to find his sister, lost years before when Heaven's Gate, a phenomenon in South America very similar to Hell's Gate, disappeared. Hei's a strange one. Every other Contractor shown early in the series is presented as completely amoral, clearly evil in nature – but Hei is usually seen as a clueless bumbler, and while that's as much part of his cover as anything else it's also clear that he still has some of the emotions that other Contractors seem to lack (something that's explored in more detail as the series goes on). In his work for the Syndicate, he's part of a team with three others: Yin, a "Doll", the emotionless balance to the contractors and, as a spirit medium, possessed with the ability to track others; Mao, a Contractor with the ability to possess animal bodies – but who is now trapped in the body of a cat after something went wrong previously; and their controller, Huang, a normal human possessed with nothing more extraordinary than a certain contempt for Contractors and their ilk. You don't get to see as much of the rest of the team as I would have liked, but in some ways that's the point – Hei seems to be using his work for the Syndicate as a way of getting to the truth about what happened to his sister, and isn't all that concerned about teamwork, even though Yin and Mao do come to his rescue on occasion.

On the 'good' side of the equation is police officer Misaki Kirihara and her sidekicks Saito and Kono. Misaki is a no-nonsense character who has a strong sense of justice, having joined the police on a mission to help those who weren't strong enough to help themselves, and cases involving Contractors are her speciality. Coincidence tends to bring her and Hei into contact quite often – quite ironic, considering BK201 is the one Contractor she'd most like to get her hands on, but with Hei's public persona being far from what you would expect a contractor to be, Misaki never draws the connection between the two.

But enough of the personalities – while they're an intriguing bunch that form a good basis to build the show around, that's not much use if the stories they're put into aren't up to scratch. For most of the series, two-episode arcs tell essentially standalone tales, with very little to connect them other than the lead characters. Each one features a new Contractor that both Hei and Misaki have taken an interest in. The tone of most of the stories is very much that of an investigation – while the nature of contractors and the strangeness provided by the Hell's Gate provides a hook and an atmosphere to the series, you could almost have written them as real-world stories without that much tweaking, but in many ways it's the setting that really makes them interesting. There are a few plot threads that take a look inside Hell's Gate and provide little hints as to the power that the place contains, too, that really do grab the attention, and it's that side of the story that the final arc of the series eventually delves into. But for the most part, it's a struggle between the Syndicate, the police, and various other agencies that make use of Contractors to see who can keep the upper hand.

There's only one thing that seems to be able to divert the agencies from their constant struggle for power: Amber. A former colleague of Hei's, the two worked together for a time while she was part of the Syndicate. When the South American Heaven's Gate disappeared, though, Amber also disappeared, and hasn't been heard from since – but now she's back, and her appearance in Tokyo singularly draws the attention of all the groupings in the series. Quite why they're all so frightened of her isn't immediately apparent – yes, she has an unusual Contractor power, but that in and of itself wouldn't be enough. There's something else about her, touched upon in some conversations shown mid-season – something that ties her into Hei's quest to find out about his sister, and the events leading up to the disappearance of Heaven's Gate. For a while, it's frustrating that the subject is dealt with in such a roundabout way – but being left to try and work out a mystery with just a few facts and plenty of opportunity for speculation is rewarding in its own way, and the series does eventually get around to filling in all the blanks in its final arc.

And it's a good 'un. As you'd expect, the lives of thousands or millions are on the line, depending on which side wins, with Hei put in the position of deciding which side will be given victory - and with most of Hei's scenes set inside Hell's Gate, we finally get to see in some detail why the area has been walled off from the populace and what the gate has done to the area inside of it. What you don't get from this is any sort of epic, climactic final battle, as the battle Hei faces is rather more mental than physical, in keeping with the nature of Hell's Gate. Along the way to him reaching his decision, events at Heaven's Gate in South America are finally detailed and we learn what happened to his sister, Pai - although her ultimate fate is perhaps the one thread that's left hanging for the second season to deal with.

The three episodes that make up the final arc were nothing short of engrossing - I couldn't tear myself away from the screen for their duration, taking in all the details as most of the show's mysteries were neatly wrapped up. That the situation couldn't be resolved with violence or a suitably large explosion might put some people off, but for me that just added to the appeal and confirmed that Darker Than Black is about more than the 'secret agent' side of things. The only criticism would be Misaki's role as a passive observer for most of it, unable to do anything to intervene - a real shame given the lead role she played for most of the series.

The series also has a healthy sense of humour, especially when Mao or the detective duo of Gai and Kiko make an appearance. Gai and Kiko typically get episodes of their own where they get a chance to unleash their chaos, although Kiko does come to strike up an unlikely friendship of sorts with Yin. While they're a diversion from the main story, they're a fun diversion, and very enjoyable to watch.

Some shows promise much but fail to deliver – Darker Than Black promised very little, but after a slow start developed into a show with many different aspects, all of them intriguing and entertaining to watch. It closes out with a closing arc that's damn near perfect, tying up essentially all of the series' mysteries while leaving just enough hanging to give the sequel series a hook to work with. It's not an all-action finale, but that's part of the appeal for me and one of many ways in which the series stands above the crowd. Highly recommended.

For full episode summaries and screenshots, check out the following pages of this review.

Rating - *****