Every second she spent on screen was a second wasted
It suddenly occurred to me, halfway through the fantastic Sunrise series Planetes, why Darker than Black felt so lacklustre towards its end. The two shows share a similar structure: both employ a episodic approach where each episode (or two, in DtB‘s case) tells a short story about a minor supporting character or expands upon the main characters, and both tries to weave in a over-arcing storyline. It’s probably co-incidental that both shows have a (vastly different) near-futuristic setting.
What was the biggest difference between the two shows, I feel, is how much better this format is handled in Planetes. Not that Darker than Black is bad – far from it. There are moments when DtB tells a story so compelling that it’s hard to not fall for its charm. The problem is that DtB doesn’t spend much time on exposing us to its minor characters. By the time you start caring about them, they’ve already bit the bullet, kicked the bucket, and so on and so forth. There are instances like this in Planetes (the ninjas on the moon, for example), but that show makes you care about every character that it wants you to care about. Whether it is Cheng-shin, Edel, or even Lavie’s short moment in the spotlight, because you’ve been continually exposed to them during the show, you feel like you know them, and so you care about their personal struggles. I never felt any urge to learn more about Mao or how he felt in his cat body, and he’s one of the re-curring characters.
There’s another thing that I feel was lacking from DtB. It felt like the writers couldn’t decide what to focus on – the overriding conflict between Contactors and humans, or the peronal stories of the characters. For most of its first half, the only glimpse we get of the greater story is the knowledge that Heaven’s Gate has disappeared, and that the same could happen to Hell’s Gate. Amber didn’t even make an appearance until past the halfway mark, despite the fact that she was in the OP of the first 14 episodes. When the writers finally decide to tell us more about the Contractors’ world, they decided to place more focus on Hei’s story and the two got in the way of each other. To me, at least, DtB‘s end is an unsatisfying, if not infuriating, one. Neither the mysteries about Hei nor the mysteries about Contractors were entirely solved. Only little hints were given about Hei’s past and his relationship with Pai and Amber. How did he come to obtain Pai’s power? How is the Syndicate related to Pandora? Why did that police guy have mechanical arms?
How did Contractors come to be?
Maybe it’s all intentionally vague, but to me it’s just sloppy writing. If Planetes can manage a plot about the Space Defence Front and the Jovian explorer, and still get us to care about its sizeable cast of characters, why couldn’t DtB do it? It’s all the more confounding to me because I hold Bones in much higher regards than Sunrise.
I feel that if Bones had focused on one or the other, Darker than Black would have been a much better show. I’d prefer that Bones spent more time in a continous plot line near the end (as Planetes did), instead of trying to wrap it all up in 3 episodes. As it stands, despite some terrific scenes and truly memorable characters, it’s little more than a show with great potential that failed to be fulfilled.
Now that I’ve got all that negative energy out of my system, I will go on and name a few things that I felt Darker than Black did do very well. When it did manage to make us sympathise with its characters, it tugged at our heart strings like a whale tugging on a steel cable. Even though most of the characters only lasted two episodes and felt like throw-aways, there are some exceptionally deep and complex characters. That they managed to make them seem so in the space of an hour is a feat, and in this regard Bones’ story telling didn’t disappoint. It also looked great. The character designs were simple and down to earth, just how I like it. Certain scenes also looked stunning – the surveillance ghosts being freed from the dead contractor in Ying’s arc and the falling petals of Wang’s arc took the cake.
Darker than Black started as my favourite show of the spring season, but somewhere along the line it lost its magic. Moments of brilliance continued to show through, but overall, it didn’t live up to its potential and failed to stay my favourite show that season (the honour would have to go to Gurren Lagann). Nonetheless, it’s an excellent series that I think everyone should watch. Even if you can’t find the time, watch episode 13 and 14; they are simply some of the best that anime has to offer.