The good news about Darker Than Black continues unabated. This has shaped up to be one of the best shows coming out in 2009 — not just a great anime, but a solid TV show even for people who would never label themselves as “anime fans”. So, yes: those of you thinking of using this as a gateway drug for that special someone, do it. You (and they) may need to stick with it for several episodes at a time for it to really click, but that’s actually one of the best things about DTB: it builds its impact cumulatively. The longer you stick with it, the more rewarding it is.
Disc three’s four episodes are actually best thought of as two double-length installments, and are in fact billed that way: “When One Takes Back What Was Lost Within The Wall…” and “A Heart Unswaying on the Water’s Surface…”, each with parts 1 and 2. In the first half, Li’s new assignment is to infiltrate the PANDORA research base that’s in the Hell’s Gate forbidden zone. There’s no way he can just waltz in there and use the full gamut of his powers, and for two reasons: a) the PANDORA people would skin him alive if he pulled a stunt like that, and b) Contractors, him included, tend to have serious trouble keeping their powers on a tight leash when they’re in or near the Gate. To that end, he’s given a cover story: he’ll apply for a job with the janitorial team and hide in plain sight. His ultimate goal is to recover an artifact from within the Gate that might have game-changing consequences for Contractors as a whole. xfuni=19
It doesn’t take long at all for Li to figure out things are not what they should be, even by PANDORA’s standards. The fact that some people freak out and don’t handle being close to Hell’s Gate (like one of Li’s co-applicants) isn’t by itself the biggest issue. It’s also the presence of one of the scientists, an ex-NASA researcher, who warms up to Li a lot faster than seems proper. Another scientist there, a woman, is an operative who is helping Li, but Li finds himself deeply at odds with her perceptions of the goings-on — especially when someone in the base is found dead in a manner that seems only explicable by the presence of another Contractor.
The second half deals with Yin, the blank-eyed “Doll”, a regular member of Li’s Contractor team. We’ve seen her powers of scrying and clairaudience before, but never got the impression there was a character there, let alone a backstory. These last two episodes give us both of those things. Once, before the Gate opened, Yin was a girl with a prodigious gift for music — something she used, maybe, to fill the emotional hole left by the death of her father in a plane crash. Her mother and her piano teacher warmed up to each other, and when the girl went missing with the appearance of the Gate, he became determined to find her.
Cut to the present day, where the piano teacher, Castanen[?], has hired the one detective you’d least like to see on such a mission. That’s right — Kurosawa and his anime-obsessed personal assistant have landed the job. In most other shows I’d wince at such a thing, but even something as frivolous as the goofy byplay between Kurosawa and his assistant is done well here. Their timing couldn’t be better, too: Yin has gone missing even from her own unit, no thanks to the machinations of two other Contractor operatives. Worse, Li has been commanded by his handler, Hwang, to find Yin and terminate her (since in the wrong hands she could compromise the rest of the team). They all learn, to their surprise, that there is more of Yin’s past still locked up in her skin than they were willing to admit — or seek out for themselves.
What I’ve come to love most about this show is how it is willing to take two important but rewarding risks. One, it assumes the audience is intelligent; two, it assumes the audience is patient. It doesn’t explain everything at once. It gives us just enough to follow along at any given moment, and then over time drops in bits of data that we realize are all part of the larger whole. A casual reference in episode 14 might refer to something back in episode 3. (This exact point is also made by the voice casting director in the commentary track for episode 13.)
Above and beyond that, the show is firmly character-centric: we’re never looking at drawings, or cartoon characters with super-powers, but people. This comes through best in these last two episodes in the scenes with the two Contractors who’re after Yin. One of them is a former opera singer, and at first from the way she’s depicted we assume she’s going to be a comic-relief character on the order of Kurosawa. Then she talks about her former life, about the reason why her contract takes the form it does, about the child she had and lost, and you sit there and go: There’s nothing that obliged them to go this deep with these people. But the fact that they do is some kind of miracle.