Anime-Breakdown: Darker than Black: Kuro no Keiyakusha (2007) Series Review

What format is best for telling a story of an anime series; a narrative format that’s episodic or a format that has a continuing story from beginning to end? It honestly depends on who or what story is trying to be told if any at all. While episodic is easier to get into since the format can be better use for just entertainment. Thus you can eliminate the need of continuity, making it favorable for anyone to just jump into the series at any point. An overarching story on the other hand can build up to a greater or more disappointing outcome depending on the execution since it requires commitment. “Darker Than Black” combines both formats in its narrative will which lead to commitment issues. Thanks to it’s careful execution in combining both types of story formats you have a first half that does a great job of world building and a second half that has an overarching story that remains engrossing to the end.

Good: Strong Writing

Darker Than Black uses a two episode format to tell its stories. Allowing side characters to receive enough development to them feel like characters part of a bigger story instead of coming across as unimportant one shot characters. Thanks to this format it offers a host of well thought out characters and storylines on a variety of themes. Each contributing to either fleshing the setting or further developing a recurring character. No matter the screen time of certain side characters, their contribution feels like they added a piece of lore to the series. The atmosphere excels due to its extensive world building in the first half. Not only does the world fill unique, but by the end of the series it’ll feel like a real place even if it belongs in the realm of fiction.

For an anime that is mostly serious it knows when to have fun. The few comedic episodes in the anime don’t affect the overall plot, but are nice a diversion to lighten the mood. These episodes inclusions make the series a bit enjoyable preventing from being a downer all the time. Generally though it has the well written dialogue to keep it afloat all throughout and engaging conversation among the characters as well.

A downside to the two episode format is it will take half way before the main cast gets developed. In turn, this makes sticking with the anime a risk versus reward deal. Making it more dangerous is the fact that it doesn’t have an overarching story until it reaches the second half either. So the first half focuses on Hei taking on jobs for a shady organization called “The Syndicate”. Being more in line of an episodic anime generally not connecting story arcs. This will make it difficult to want to commit to the anime since the main cast is the only guaranteed returning characters while every supporting character is not guaranteed to return. The main cast will remain underdeveloped before reaching the halfway mark. There’s no way around this issue other than having complete faith in the anime. If you’re unable to attach yourself to anything in the anime before the main cast are developed in the second half, then staying committed to the series is a task on itself.

Once it starts developing an overarching story in the second half everything falls further into place. The stakes become bigger, the main cast get developed, and answers on some of the series biggest dangling questions get answered. For example, “The Syndicate” motives and goal are revealed in the second half after being mentioned heavily in the first half. There’s also the start of an overarching story that instead of creating more action goes for giving Hei a greater mental obstacle to overcome. Building it up nicely before reaching the finale and feeling the weight Hei has to shoulder.

The reaction towards the finale of “Darker Than Black” will draw mix reaction. It doesn’t end with a bang making it fit more with the rest of the series. However, not everything will be answered. It’s appropriate for some questions to remain unanswered since the characters themselves don’t know all of them either. It’s more in line of capturing a noir mystery so some dangling questions will be forgivable. One thing is certain about the finale is it does close the story up and ties up all loose ends. Completely understanding everything after it ends that’s a whole other matter.

Good: A Cool Cast

Hei is the protagonist of the series and for more than half of the anime his past is kept secretive. Unfortunately revealing anything about him should be a consider a spoiler. Learning about Hei and seeing his backstory developed is a major part of the story. His personality can throw viewers off since the series does take its time giving background towards contractor and explain why they are emotionless. Hei is written in such a way that part of his character is difficult to read because of it. He fills the quota to be an emotionless contractor, but shows emotion in everyday life with sarcastic remarks when he interacts with other in the cast. He’s an intriguing mystery within the story and as a character becomes fully realize.

The rest of the main from talking cat Mao who gathers information, to the unable to get drunk when drinking handler Huang, and emotionless medium doll Yin are handled in the same way in their characterization. Like Hei, these main characters don’t get developed until later on in the series. When they are develop the two episode format allows room for in depth characterization. Setting up the character conflict in that episode and then following up by revealing bits of their themselves once the main cast reach closer towards a solution. Seeing them interact with one another never goes smoothly. Since they have varied personalities the chemistry between the characters can be both hilarious and captivating at the same time.

Half of the supporting cast tend to be done with after a single story arc. Once the story or job is finished that supporting characters will likely not be seen again. One of the few recurring supporting character is private eye detective Gai Kurusawa and his young manga obsessed assistant Kiko Kayanuma. The majority of the comedy revolve around these two characters. Gai Kurusawa is the closest the anime has to an exaggerated character. Reacting to his situation in over the top ways for a comedic effect. His interaction with Kiko usually revolve being desperate to accept any job for cash to arguing about the methods in getting cases solved. Episodes revolving around Gai Kurusawa and Kiko Kayanuma are easily entertaining with humor that hit due to their personalities and chemistry.

Though the setting of the story is in Japan the cast is composed of characters from other parts of the world. It’s not racial diversity just for the sake of it, but rather more of story tool to get across how big of a crisis it could escalate too. The CIA are involved, MI6 Agents are involved, underground organization “The Syndicate”, and the organization Evening Primrose that attempt to obtain peaceful coexistence between contractors and humans are involved. That’s quite the batch of organizations to keep track off and the same applies to the characters that work in them. Fortunately each organization is given a different objective for their goals and how they operate varied from one another. What this does is create different viewpoints within the setting on how the matter of contractors should be resolved. Giving several viewpoints on the matter as it grows into a bigger issue for everyone.

Good: Capturing the Intended Mood Perfectly

The animation is handled by studio Bones. While not impressive in the least on the visual side or in movement the style is a good fit for the anime. Character designs don’t have any exaggerated features and the environments are kept down to Earth as much as possible. Backgrounds are detailed with careful lighting that helps create the noir feel the series goes for. Everything is portrayed with some level of realism, including the contractors powers. Whenever a contractor uses their power the animation withholds from creating an excessive visual effect. Action scenes don’t feature any flashy particle effect that draws attention to a contractor power. So everything meshes together for a unify look even when the more exaggerated element of the story are on screen.

This also holds true for the action scenes which aren’t a drawing factor for the anime. Usually the action scenes are slow with the already mentioned restrained on flashy effects when a power is in used. In general, most of the action scenes have simple choreography that gets interrupted by conversations or is just slow in execution. Not counting the second opening. There are a few action scenes that combines contractors full abilities with the restraint display of powers, but unless Hei opponent Wei the action is underwhelming. CGI is used rarely, but questionable since it’s primarily used on cars which aren’t used for any elaborate scene. Cars simply go from one point to the next. Thankfully it does not stick out enough to become an issue since it’s only use from far shots. If anything can get annoying is seeing product placement for Pizza Hut in the background.

Voice acting from both the Japanese and English dub cast are terrific. In both versions the low key and restrained performances give off that noir feel the anime goes for. Unfortunately in both versions, some cast members aren’t allowed much ranged because part of the cast play the emotionless contractors. However, they are not stiff performances. The voice actors walk a thin line of coming across sounding wooden that they never cross. Most notably the most balance and perfected portrayal fall under Hidenobu Kiuchi in Japanese and Jason Liebrecht for the English dub both of whom voice Hei. Regardless what language you hear Hei speak both voice actor performances are tailored for this character. Neither are a dead giveaway in their delivery always surrounding Hei in this mysterious aura. His character is very difficult read, thanks to the voice talent, even delivery their jokes in a careful manner. Both actors are able to be funny while staying in character despite how little emotion they display in general.

Ikuya Sawaki in the Japanese cast and Kent William in the English both voice Mao. These two actors’ voices give off vastly different vibes in their portrayal of Mao. Sawaki sounds more natural like a friendly person with many connections, while William deeper sounding voice makes him sound wiser. William older sounding voice shines when he delivers sarcastic remarks. In the English dubbed Kent William is an easy standout and my favorite actor in this season.

One area where the English dub surpasses the Japanese cast are the accents for foreign characters. The Japanese cast in general don’t even come close in copying accents for foreign characters. In the English dub Troy Baker voices November 11, a clearly British character terrifically. Adding to an already accurate portrayal he fits the sophisticated character just fine.

The only major differences between both version is the comedy. Depending on what version you see the humor will be written for that specific culture in mind. Aside from that the English script remains as faithful as possible. While there’s the obvious dialogue changes there are episodes where the story changes are less subtle. There’s some episodes where certain plot points are beaten over the head. It’s not damaging to the point that it’s a complete turn off as it, though the material won’t always match the quality of the original in the English script.

If you had to choose how to see the anime I would say watch the series subbed since the Japanese cast is consistent throughout the whole series. While the English dub in season one is the clear victor due to the voice actors more accurate portrayal of foreign characters. However, in season two some casting choices end up backfiring as the script changes are notably different making some of the English voice cast come across as annoying. The English dubbed has a better cast for the first season, but the Japanese cast is consistently good all the way. If it’s short term English dub, but in the long run go with the English subbed.

The soundtrack is filled with good music. It’s diverse in genre from rock ballads, to cool jazz, and to slower more calming sounding tracks. The two opening tracks can come across as misleading when representing the mood and pace of the series. “Howling” by Abingdon Boys School for the first 14 episodes and “Kakusei Heroism” by An Cafe is used in episode 15 and onwards (minus episode 24) for the remainder of the series. Both opening theme makes “Darker Than Black” come across as a quick pace action series. While not accurate in presenting the series the two opening songs are fine for the anime. “Tsukiakari” by Rie Fu is a slow and melancholic track. It’s the ending theme for the first 14 episodes with a more emotional feel to it unlike the opening themes. Rie Fu soothing vocals are in harmony with the soft piano ballad. The second ending theme is “Dreams” by the band High And Mighty Color. “Dreams” is more upbeat than the first ending theme in it’s serenity.

Personal Enjoyment: More than thrilled I stuck with it

It took me fourteen episodes before I was actually able to enjoy watching Darker Than Black. Everything is kept deliberately secretive so I found it difficult to care about my main cast in the first half of the series when they weren’t developed. Eventually in the second half I started to care about them on episode 13 & 14 both of which focused on Yin. It was with these two episodes that my skepticism were gone since it made me feel that much closer to the main cast. I was convinced with these two episodes that this anime has something else to keep me coming back beside the first closing theme “Tsuki Akari” by Rie Fu. Thank goodness too for those two episodes because episode 15 the ending theme changed. Episode 15 and onward the whole development of the main cast made the strong writing that much better in subsequent episodes. It just took a while to get into it.

Calculating Points:

Story: 3/3

Characters: 3/3

Technical (Animation, Soundtrack, Voice acting, etc.): 2/3

Personal Enjoyment: 1/1

Final Thoughts:

Darker Than Black is not a series that will immediately hook you from the get go. The pacing is slow with it two episode structure taking half-way before developing a main story, but over time the strong writing, and great characters become far more memorable for it. Thanks to it two episode format for storytelling even side characters get fleshed out. Creating a fully realize world with diverse and complicated characters. It’s a difficult anime to fully get into, but the payoff it worth it if you trust it and stick with it through the end.

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