If an anime, or any popular entertainment, borrows from other things, that by itself is never the crime; it's only a crime when the work in question begins and ends with such borrowing, and never moves past that. Darker than Black is, in the abstract, full of borrowings — some obvious, some more cryptic — but the fact that the creators had good taste guiding what they borrowed from wasn't the only thing that paid off. The best of influences do not automatically make for the best of end products, although they sure help. What ultimately makes the show work is a good sense of the fundamentals: an intriguing premise, a lively cast, the intelligent development of the ingredients, a sense of fun that doesn't distract from the main mission, and a worthy way to wrap everything up. It may not shoot for the moon, but it also doesn't blow off its own toes — and it hits squarely all the things it does aim for.
Supermen at work
Most of the influences Darker Than Black draws on are easy ones to spot; one bit of ad copy described the show as "X-Men meets X-Files". But the one influence that seemed at the same time most prominent and least widely known is Roadside Picnic, the novel by the brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, two of Russian SF's greatest luminaries. In that story, a zone of forbidding power appears on the face of the earth, yielding up artifacts of inexplicable function and forever changing all those who come into contact with it.
Darker Than Black borrows much of the same basic premise, but spins many more of its own conceits on top of it. A decade before the start of the story, two anomalous zones appeared on the face of the planet — "Heaven's Gate" in South America, and "Hell's Gate" in Tokyo. Earth was shrouded in a veil that hid the real stars from view, replaced with fake ones — each of the fakes corresponding to people of mysterious, newly-manifest power. These purportedly emotionless "Contractors", as they're called, are fixtures of the underworld, often selling their powers to the highest bidder whether it be a government, a power bloc, organized crime, or the mysterious "Syndicate" that now wields more power than many nations did.
Contractors have limits on their power. Each use incurs a cost, the enactment of a unique compulsive behavior. For some it's relatively benign, like having to slam a beer; for some, it's annoying or crippling, like having to dog-ear every page of a two hundred page book. Contractor Hei is doubly blessed: his price is nothing more than overeating, and his power — commanding electricity — is so widely applicable it's little surprise he's become a Syndicate assassin. His landlady and neighbors just know him as amiable part-time exchange student Li Shenshun. The only ones who know the truth are his controller, gruff ex-cop Huang; his partner, the body-jumping Mao (although he can only switch bodies with animals, and is currently occupying a black cat no thanks to the death of his original human host); and the "doll" Yin, a soulless spirit-tracker, although her soullessness — like the emotionless of Contractors — may be more supposition than fact.
The Black market
The first several episodes of Black set up the show's basic tension: a bemasked Hei and his crew vs. other Contractors, with the government's anti-Contractor squad, primary agent Misaki Kirihara, against the bunch of them. Much of it is "freak-of-the-week" storytelling, where Hei's encounters with other Contractors — most of them violent, some of them tragic — are used to fill in our understanding of their underworld.
How inventive the powers are is not the point here. Many of them are lifted wholesale from other source material — e.g., the schoolgirl Mai, who sets fires with her mind (a nod to both both Stephen King and Miyuki Miyabe there), but whose real tragedy hews closer to one of the early subplots in Fullmetal Alchemist, where man's need to tinker with his world to satisfy his own messy needs has terrible consequences. Instead of the story revolving around who can beat whom and with what powers or skill sets, which is mere logistics, it deals with how they come into the world, how they cope (or do not cope) with the emergence of their powers, and how they are used by others, both human and not.
Over time, Hei's own personal mission comes into focus. Two women from his past life haunt him — one his sister, the other a woman who may have been the first known Contractor, Amber. His obsession with them is one of the first things that tips off the audience that the emotionlessness of Contractors is more a propaganda they spread than actual fact — and may well also be a propaganda they use with themselves to justify their decisions. Hei is a slave to his emotions as much as any human he crosses paths with; the degree to which he denies it only makes him all the more pitiable.
This is good stuff, and the show works best when it allows that material to get behind the wheel and drive. In fact, this happens more often than not; even when the show is ostensibly setting us up for some comic relief, it finds a way to reconnect, if only at a distance, with its stated ideas. At one point we're introduced to an obviously for-laughs character in an obviously for-laughs storyline: a shady private detective named Gai Kurasawa who's hired to find a missing cat. He's even outfitted with a sidekick that further disarms our expectations, his anime fan Gal Friday (one of the show's few concessions to winking at its own fanbase). The resulting storyline goes from noir-lite to more than a little genuine darkness. it's a reminder of how a show can opt for more than one mood or flavor, and in the right hands not feel schizoid.
Any show with a plot this sprawling and complex runs the risk of feeling schizoid even if it follows strict stylistic guidelines. Aside from Hei and his clan vs. Kirihara and hers (which at more than one point turns into Hei vs. his own people), there's also a thread involving a cadre of MI6 operatives led by "November 11", a Contractor himself ostensibly working to stop a terrorist cell known as "Evening Primrose" — although over time, and with merciless Contractorly logic, he decides it might be better to switch than fight. When Hei finds out one of the members of Evening Primrose is in fact his former compatriot Amber — and that is only the tip of a whole slew of world-wrecking revelations — he finds himself at the dead center of this skein, and is faced with having to make choices for the sake of both the old and new human races
A cut above, if only one cut
The best things about Darker Than Black may be more matters of good taste and selection than breaking new ground, but that by itself is nothing to dismiss out of hand. Choosing good influences is deceptively difficult, and it says something that there's at least as much Le Carré-to-Clancy style espionage, especially later on, as there is Strugatsky Brothers SF in the mix. I am always grateful when a show manages to be adult in the non-fratboy sense of the term, although I imagine the creators — specifically, series creator and director Tensai Okamura — knew they had to nod to their (anime fandom) audience at least a couple of times. Hence the business with the detective and sidekick, or the occasional situational humor, albeit kept on a leash.
Unfortunately, it means the material that doesn't work sticks out all the more because the rest is so solid. Most egregious is a subplot wherein Hei forms a passing acquaintance with Kirihara — complete with a silly Meet Cute — by way of one of his day-job guises. The fact that Kirihara doesn't sooner figure out his Contractor persona is the same person feels pulled straight from the playbook of obligatory plotting about people with dual lives. Worse, it has the unintentional side effect of making the competent, controlled Kirihara look stupider than she actually is. It always annoys me when material this cheesy and trivial is shoehorned into a story for comic relief (or, worse, romantic relief), not only because it unthinkingly undermines other things, but when it's forced to sit elbow-to-elbow with far more inspired storylines. In this case, for contrast, there's Huang's backstory and previous life as a detective, one interwoven with a present-time storyline that ends tragically. It's powerful stuff, emblematic of what the show can do at its best.
Black also stands out for me as an example of how a good-to-great show doesn't have to be a direct adaptation of an existing piece of material — light novel, manga, game, or what have you. Many shows are adaptations for economic reasons, since it's easier to find financing for and effectively promote something that has a proven track record than roll the dice on something entirely original. This isn't to say I want to set all original for-the-screen creations I like (Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo, C: Control, Dennou Coil, Mononoke, Psycho-Pass, REDLINE) against all the adaptations I also like (Black Lagoon, Berserk, Claymore, Kiki's Delivery Service, Ghost in the Shell, Moribito, Steins;Gate), only that the former often bring to the table things I rarely see in the latter, especially when it comes to episodic television. Black is not as risk-taking as some of the stuff in the first category, but delivers consistently, and even at its worst is still solid.
Darker Than Black first appeared in 2007, not quite long enough ago as of this writing (at least by my thinking) to either qualify or disqualify for proper status as a classic. But it does do enough things well, and a few things really well, to classify as the next best thing: a perennial, one of those titles that's worth bringing back to mind and reminding others of. To use a formula I've copied before from Frederik Pohl, it may not be Bach, but it's certainly Offenbach. Nothing wrong with that, and a lot right with it.