Personal policy dictates that any story you cannot summarize in two sentences is probably not worth the trouble. I’m happy to break this rule for Darker Than Black, because while it has a story so convoluted it must have given the back-of-the-box copywriters at FUNimation total fits, it’s a grabber for that exact reason. There’s a fine line between convoluted and confusing, and they dance along that line very carefully in this series.
Darker Than Black starts ten years after some cataclysm — the opening of “the Gate” — the end result of which was the construction of a giant wall around Tokyo. (Whether to seal something in or out, it’s not clear.) Since then, people with strange new powers have appeared — “Contractors”, as they’re called — who sell their powers to the highest bidder and are feared by the powers that be worldwide. Those who come into contact with Contractors have their memories forcibly erased by the authorities — that is, those who aren’t killed by the Contractors themselves.
Contractors are a curious bunch. No two of them sport the same powers, but in every case their powers come at a cost: when they run out of energy, they must complete a sort of obsessive-compulsive personal ritual to “recharge”. Mostly it’s something innocuous, like dog-earing every single page in a book, or laying down a hundred stones in a perfect grid. Sometimes it’s a lot more than that; in a moment that struck me as a sidelong reference to Blade Runner, one Contractor has to break his own fingers in order to continue. xfuni=19
The story splits into roughly two parallel tracks. The first involving the authorities tracking down several key figures: a dangerous Contractor from France; Chiaki, a woman who used to work in one of the labs studying Contractor abilities; and so on. The other involves a newcomer to the city, Li Sheng-shun (“Li-san”). He calls himself an exchange student from Taiwan, and he claims to have an interest in astronomy. His next-door neighbor’s a reclusive woman, Haraguchi, who works at a hostess club and may be a fugitive from the police.
It doesn’t take long for these two threads to link up. You are correct if you’ve guessed that the woman next door is in fact the missing scientist Chiaki; that much is just about dropped into our lap by the opening of the second episode. She latches onto Li with unexpected fervor after the police come after her in the hostess club, and confesses to him that living like this has been downright liberating for her. Li talks of escaping with her, maybe to Macao where he knows people. She claims to know how to break into Pandora, the supercomputer that holds information about the Gate. Maybe they can use that as a bargaining chip…
By now you are probably wondering if Li is a Contractor himself. Well, yes he is, but that revelation by itself is nothing. It is just the doorway through which we are thrown, headlong, into the real plot of the story: Li’s double life, wherein his unassuming day-to-day persona is used as a cover for the more unsparing and tangled life he leads as a Contractor. The agency named “Pandora” that covertly tracks Contractors only knows him as a masked figure and a code number, BK201. Like us in the audience, they’re not entirely sure of the scope of his abilities, either: by the end of the first disc, all that we’re sure of is that he can command electricity, but there seems to be something more to it than that.
And then there is the whole question of what Li really wants — what has been driving his life as a Contractor. Two incidents provide that much more insight into this. The first involves the daughter of one of the few men who went into the zone beyond the Gate and returned to talk about it. He brought back with him a plant whose spores seem to be what allow ordinary people to become Contractors, but this discovery has not brought him anything except grief. His daughter’s been infected (or is that implanted?) with one such spore, with the end result that father and daughter have become alienated from each other — not to mention themselves.
Li’s response to this situation is to grow unexpectedly close to the girl, to treat her like a younger sibling and make her feel not so alone. It’s startling behavior, since his typical response to most everything has been to put it at arm’s length … except, that is, whenever women are involved, as his encounter with Haraguchi/Chiaki demonstrated. The situation with the daughter ends very badly indeed, but as it turns out, it’s just prelude to another and even more problematic situation. When a Contractor of remarkable (albeit lapsed) power is brought into custody — a woman with the wasted look of someone who’s had a good part of her soul burned out of her — Li kidnaps her and asks her a question that serves as the perfect cap for the first volume of this show. Like I’m going to ruin that for you.
I shouldn’t make it sound like the tricky plotting is all that makes Darker Than Black worth seeing. Above all else this is a superbly written, directed, animated and photographed show — animated by the Aniplex crew, and written and directed by Tensai Okamura of BONES. Most dialogue in anime exists for little reason except to further the plot and make the characters throw prepackaged little personality-exemplifying speeches at each other. Here, the dialogue has wit and smarts and even a bit of poetry, as when Chiaki sprawls on the floor of Li’s apartment and muses about how she’s not even sure what kind of person she is anymore. It’s always difficult to tell where a show may be headed from only watching the first disc, but what’s on display here is promising enough that I’m going to have a hard time saying no to the rest.
Video: Two big thumbs up for the video transfer: not only is it 16×9 and sterling to look at (no compression issues), it’s been flagged for progressive playback throughout, so it’ll look fantastic on both computer monitors and high-definition TVs.
Audio: Curious how Japanese audio tracks tend to only come in 2.0 mixes for many titles. I suspect there’s not as much of an emphasis on the culture of home-theater experiences in Japan, which would explain it. The Japanese audio on this disc is 2.0 only; the English dub is 5.1 surround.
Menus: FUNimation’s habit has been to provide simple static slates and music loops for their menus, as well as a (thankfully) skippable FBI logo. One other thing that’s been addressed with this disc is the way some FUNimation discs have had the menus in 4×3, but the feature in 16×9 — which makes for a jarring transition when you go from menu to title and back. The menus here are 16×9 as well.
Dialogue: A story like this deserves a dub with grit and panache, and guess what, we get one. The voice cast is solid, but even more so the writing for the dub, which follows the Japanese dialogue when needed and deviates from it when a little creativity is called for. Most of the cast are unknowns to me, barring Colleen Clinkenbeard as Chiaki, although Jason Liebricht as Li showed up as Kisaragi Saemon in both the live-action and animated editions of Basilisk/Shinobi (how’s that for consistency?!), and will probably be most broadly recognized to others as Syaoran from Tsubasa.
Extras: The bonuses here are really good for a single-disc edition. Episode two comes with commentary by the English voice cast (Colleen leads the whole thing with her typically effervescent delivery), and a whole mess of English-language cast auditions, each short but a lot of fun to listen to. Also included are galleries of character and setting artwork, clean opening and closing segments, and the usual spate of trailers for other FUNi titles: Black Blood Brothers, Vexille, Claymore, Afro Samurai, Ghost Hunt, Dragon Ball Z, STRAIN, and of course Darker Than Black itself.
The Bottom Line: For a show to throw this much plot and happenstance and possibility at us right in the first volume is either hubris or confidence. I vote for confidence, because from what I’ve seen Darker Than Black is going to be worth following all the way through.