Darker Than Black caught my attention from the beginning, held it through each successive installment, and continues to keep me guessing and absorbed. Volume five, the next to last disc in the whole series, does what most penultimate volumes of any series do: it sets things up in preparation for what we anticipate will be their final resolutions. Some of this is by filling in backstory, and some of this is via breaking equilibriums that have held the story together until now.
The first half of the disc revolves around Huang — Li / Hei’s “controller”, a regular human who makes up in nerve and bluntness what he lacks in super-powers. He was once a cop, we learn, who lost a partner of his to a Contractor. That alone would be enough to instill the distrust of (and disgust with) Contractors that we see him evince throughout the series, but there’s more to it than that. It’s also precisely the sort of “more” not served by talking about her in detail, since the details go a long way towards providing the kind of character depth that has made this show a winner.xfuni=19
Huang’s backstory is interleaved with a present-day plot about a religious cult that has sprung up around the Gate, the source of all that is strange and new in the Darker Than Black world. Cults at least this weird exist in real-life Japan right now, and in Japanese fiction they’re often a) fodder for lampooning or b) a common plot device (many a Japanese mystery or thriller story revolves around such a cult). Here, the cult seems to be the base of operations for at least one Contractor — in fact, from the intel Hei and Huang come across, the cult’s own leader may be one herself. Hei’s job is to infiltrate the cult and put a stop to any plans germinating there, but the last thing Huang expects is to find an old flame of his there, too. There isn’t a happy ending here, as you can guess.
The second half pulls several disparate plot threads together into one neat package. The most crucial is a piece of Hei’s own past — something we’ve seen him chasing and closing in on before, only to have his hands wrap around thin air. Here, Hei comes perilously close to learning crucial details about the Heaven’s Gate incident, and in the process learns of a plot to close the Gates and destroy all the Contractors in one fell swoop. That’s probably not the solution to his problems that he had in mind, but if he doesn’t act, it’s going to be the solution that’s imposed on him. We also see the fate of at least one of the major Contractors, and it is rich with both irony and sympathy: even a Contractor has to admit that he can’t cheat death forever, but if you go out in style it’s at least partial compensation. And in “November 11”’s case — he being the MI6 Contractor with his fingers in a few too many pies for his own good — it comes in the form of a bottle of liquor, a roomful of men with guns, and a final cigarette extinguished with his own blood.
Right after watching Darker Than Black I sat down with a completely different sort of production from Japan — a live-action movie named Face. That film featured a pudgy seamstress who strangled her bar-hostess sister, stole her mother’s funeral money, went on the lam, and reinvented herself in her sister’s image, much to her own horror. Because the movie was always about a specific person and not a plot, it remained fascinating all the way through. Darker Than Black’s cast of characters is broad and its plotting thick, but it’s the first part of that equation which has consistently won me over and brought me back in. We are interested in these people, genuinely curious about their situation, and that they surprise us so thoroughly with what they do next is how we are compelled to know about them to the bitter end.