Immediately following my Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood spree, I revisited an anime that I had picked up and dropped halfway some two years back.
Darker Thank Black: The Black Contractor
Written and Directed by Tensai Okamura, Darker than Black is a 2007 series spanning just 25 episodes.
First, the brief story.
The anime follows the story of Hei, a young man with supernatural powers that allow him to manipulate electricity. But he’s not unique in terms of being gifted. The world is filled with such people who have been given gifts which can range from Material Substitution, Manipulation of Air currents and Teleportation.
Those who are given such powers are called Contractors, so called because they have apparently ‘sold their souls’ in return for their powers and cannot feel emotions. They also incur a unique debt with each use of their ability. One woman who can send out shockwaves has to ingest cigarrettes, another has to arrange small pebbles in a square pattern and another has to dislocate his index finger.
These contractors appeared with the appearance of two supernaturally charged areas called the Heaven’s Gate in South America and the Hell’s Gate in Japan.
And that’s a brief description of the story.
The story is very complex and at times feels suffocatingly complicated. The first few episodes are confusing and bring up more questions than they answer. It’s only by the end of the series that answers start to crop up and even then, the exact question of ”What exactly is the Hell’s gate” is never answered.
Obviously the short length of the series contributed to this lack of answers but there is another reason.
The anime focuses not on the large scale questions such as how these phenomena occurred but on the problems faced by Hei, the main character. He is trying to solve his sister’s disappearance and that’s what the main focus of the anime is.
But it’s confusing.
At times the watcher is brought tantalizingly close to deciphering the mystery of the Hell’s Gate but is then quickly yanked away so that Hei can discover an important clue as to his sister’s disappearance. It’s both frustrating and exciting.
So let me put any expectations to rest. Most of our questions aren’t answered until the very last episode and even then, many of them are left unanswered. If you like that, then watch this anime. If you don’t, well watch it anyway because despite the confusing story and complicated narrative, this is a beautifully directed and well produced anime.
The atmosphere of the anime is dark and most of the action happens at night. Rarely do fights break out in broad daylight, one reason being that the existence of ‘Contractors’ is supposed to be secret from the public.
As such, the the producers probably had to work and think hard about how to bring out the correct atmosphere of the anime through the limited environments of a dark, unfeeling, metropolitan area filled with mindless lights.
The answer they came up is brilliant: The entire city is tinged with a lime green which from the first frame works to unnerve the watchers. All the night scenes, save for a few, are tinged with this oppressive green tint and the sky, has deep purple shade that is at once artificial and off-putting.
The show is also liberal with it’s violence and graphic deaths. Blood spills across the screen in horrifying close-ups and cold staring eyes of a victim glare at you, leaving chills down your spine.
Contractors get gleams in their eyes when they use their ability and almost everyone gets manic expressions on the verge of a kill. It’s unsettling yet at the same time, it never feels fake. Everything feels amazingly correct.
That’s the visuals done. Now onto the sounds.
The sounds in this anime are marvelous. Not the music. It’s largely unnoticeable. What’s amazing are the sound effects.
To mirror the feel of a cold, almost dystopian society where technology reigns supreme, everything in the world sounds sharp.
From the clicking of heels, a door lock being opened to the sound of the Chief Inspector brushing her hair, all the sounds are crisp, clear and sharp. The rings on every telephone is the same, digital tone that sounds robotic. The talking is done with a large lack of emphasis and every word the characters speak is quick, instant and closed off. This is offset by the silences that follow. The sense of oppression and a lack of true freedom is beautifully brought out by the silence contrasting the sharp sound effects.
The animation is fluid and engaging, slowing down to throw focus on quiet conversations and revelations then speeding up and switching quickly between angles to capture effectively the fast pace of a fight sequence. Indeed, this is one anime where the fights are incredibly quick. Despite the characters exchanging no more than a few blows, each is designed to kill and aimed precisely. There are no wasted movements in any fights and perfectly captures how terrifyingly deadly ‘Contractors’ are.
So the only negative points: The story.
Yes it handles a good load and manages to solve most of the important issues by the end but it sacrifices some revolutionary issues to solve smaller and more personal issues. It does help character progression obviously but it’s always better to see character progression happen along with conflict resolution rather than instead of.
The artistic direction of this anime is amazing and even though it contains its share of blood and gore, this is not a crime or horror story. At its base, this is a story about discrimination, rebellion and love.