It’s been said that TV’s matured to the point where long-form dramatic shows (The Sopranos, The Shield, The Wire) provide the kind of depth of character and scope of story that we’d normally get from a novel. In a novel you can stretch out and explore at your leisure; you can create a whole world, populate it, examine each corner of it in turn, and allow the reader all the time he needs to do the same thing. We’re getting to that point now with episodic TV, too — thanks to DVD sets, video-on-demand, and round-the-week reruns, a good TV show can be savored just as thoroughly as a book you re-read and get that much more out of each time.
There’s been few anime that reach the same heights. The few that do are as good as anything else on TV, live-action or animated: Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex; Berserk; and a select handful of others. Darker Than Black is slightly shy of that category — but only slightly. Even before its first volume was released Stateside, I’d seen a few fansubbed episodes and been enthralled, and when FUNimation snapped it up for a domestic release I stuck my neck out for it and was not disappointed. It’s not just the intriguing concept or the broad roster of characters, but the consistently intelligent writing and storytelling. The premise, convoluted and complex as it is, has been subordinated to the needs of the characters. Usually it’s the other way around. xfuni=19
The first disc ended on a grim note: Li (aka “BK-201”), the “Contractor” who is the closest thing we have to a protagonist in the show, had kidnapped another Contractor — the infamous Havoc, a frail-looking woman with eyes that have seen too much for too long. Li is convinced Havoc knows the whereabouts of his sister, and attempts to torture her to get that information — but he hasn’t got the stomach for that kind of work, and Havoc has seen far worse things in her own time. Like every other Contractor, her powers came at a cost, and in her case the cost was to drink the blood of children. She would rather die at Li’s hands than face the re-activation of her power — but , irony of ironies, it isn’t Li who kills her but the super-powered MI6 agent “November 11”, in accordance with an outstanding warrant for her destruction.
Episodes 2 and 3 on the disc make a stark break from the show’s generally serious tone and perform a wide U-turn into broad comedy. The main characters here are a seedy private eye, Gai Kurosawa, and his pop-culture-obsessed personal assistant Kiko (she steals every scene she’s in). As per the usual noir-detective clichés, Kurosawa’s business has been lousy, until the day a sultry woman saunters into his office and offers to pay him piles of money to find a missing cat. This is clearly not the kind of work he had in mind, but it leads him that much closer to the world of the Contractors whether or not he realizes it — specifically, Mao, the Contractor who “borrows” the bodies of animals (in this case, a black cat) and advises Li about various goings-on in the Contractor underworld.
As goofy as these two episodes are, they embody something central to the show’s approach. Instead of jumping into each plot thread head-on, through the main characters, they often flank it or back into it — so that when the main characters do pop into view, they’re almost secondary or tertiary elements. This not only keeps things fresh and interesting, but adds to the feeling of the show’s world being a world, not just a glorified cartoon backlot of sorts. The other week I was re-watching Berserk in its terrific new remaster and commented to Eric (the author of the linked review) that there were times when I got so into it that I didn’t feel like I was watching an “animated show”. More like they had taken a camera and gone on location to shoot that story, not because the animation itself was so accomplished (it’s actually pretty rudimentary at times) but because I gave a damn about these people and wanted to find out what happened to them. And while, again, DTB may not be up in the same stratosphere of storytelling, it tries a lot harder than most other shows ever do — through tricks like the one I’ve just described here — and the effort pays off.
The last two episodes switch back to one of the other major characters in the series, Misaki Kirihara, a government agent responsible for investigating Contractor-related incidents. So far she’s figured in from time to time in a peripheral way, but now we have two back-to-back episodes that deal almost exclusively with her. Here, she becomes reunited with a childhood friend — someone who’s the daughter of a major crime syndicate master, and who’s also become addicted to a curious drug only obtainable within the confines of the forbidden zone known as Hell’s Gate. Misaki is no shrinking violet, but here she’s badly outgunned and outnumbered, and so when help shows up she accepts it with open arms.
That help, however, is none other than Li himself … the Contractor who currently tops her personal most-wanted list. Even more tangled is the fact that an unmasked Li was also tailing the same criminal crew, and so now she has seen both sides of the man. With his mask off, Li’s rather gentle and unassuming, and from what we’ve seen it’s that side of him which deserves to have more of a life. Perhaps even a life with someone like Misaki.