Shallan

The Problem with Darker Than Black (and Many Other Anime)

The epic marathon reading of Brandon Sanderson continues – the latest to fall before my hungry eyeballs were the first two 1000+ page novels of The Stormlight Archive – which leaves The Alloy of Law as the last Cosmere universe novel I still need to read before being caught up.

Reading the various novels by Brandon Sanderson back-to-back like this focuses my attention on one of the parts to his writing that amazes me that might otherwise go unnoticed or under-appreciated. That is, how well he can create a magic system for each novel/franchise that is completely different from all his other novel/franchises, detail how it works, explore the societal and personal ramifications of this magic system, and show how the various characters can work around the limitations of the magic system to solve problems. This feat of writing excellence was on my mind as I recently finished Darker Than Black.

And not in a good way.

Darker Than Black, like many other “plot heavy” anime series set in a world that’s radically different from the real world, suffered immensely because the creators never felt the need to actually explain how the world, it’s people, and organizations differed from the real world. I know all the “How-to” books tell writers not to put infodumps in their literary works but that information still needs to be put in the book/TV series/movie; you can’t just skip it.

In the case of Darker Than Black I spent the entire series – literally right into the last episode – trying to figure out and understand basic components of the setting and I’m still not sure I actually truly understand it all. This is bad writing. I shouldn’t be asked to puzzle the series together like this – this is a plot-driven drama, not a mystery. A couple of infodumps at the beginning probably would have greatly increased my ability to like this series. (Or better yet, work this knowledge in gently over the first few episodes.)

Brandon Sanderson actually has something to say on this topic. He calls it Sanderson’s First Law and it goes like this:

An author’s ability to solve conflict satisfactorily with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.

The magic in Darker Than Black was never really explained thus the series could not satisfactorily solve it’s conflicts. Coupled with emotionless slabs of meat for characters – the series takes great pains to explain those with superpowers are “Contractors” and they’re logical and emotionless people – and there’s not much for the audience to latch onto and compel us to keep watching. There’s two more series to this franchise and I’m not even slightly interested in continuing.

It’s series like this that remind me why I watch so many school age, comedy series; namely, I’m probably never going to catch one that is earth shatteringly good but there’s a lower bound to them that all but guarantees that they won’t be complete waste of time, like so many  failed “serious” dramas are.

13 thoughts on “The Problem with Darker Than Black (and Many Other Anime)”

  1. I watched DTB years ago, and it was actually one of my first action series that I really liked. I guess I liked it very much for the action and not so much on the story and character interactions. (Confession: though I shipped Hei and Yin just for the sake of having something to hold onto, for my then-teenage self) Years passed and I wonder what made me so attached to the title. I can’t quite say that I like the story, because I can’t recall what it was about, and that I barely understood anything about its universe (the only stuff I knew was that the Contractors will surely exhaust themselves and have to recuperate via Renumeration unique to their characters) which made the Gaiden very hard to get invested in. If asked what I think or how I feel about the series, I’d be more comfortable to just say it was okay, liked the action, but I never really understood it–so I don’t particularly like/love it now.

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  2. Modern anime are frankly pretty bad with exposition whether it is there or not. See also the recent Unlimited Blade Works adaptation, which is so rife with exposition in places that you have to be just as willing to suspect your critical eye with it as you do with Darker than Black.

    I’d say that anime writing needs to improve in general. Too many studios have taken the easy way out and focused only on visuals and other easy-to-sell-to-teens stuff. I’d be hard-pressed to name many “timeless” anime from the 201x’s compared to the earlier eras where storytelling skill had to make up for a lack of technical animation excellence (and that’s well after adjusting for nostalgia).

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  3. Lee Child made a great observation in the intro to one of his books. He said, “Character is king. There are probably fewer than six books every century remembered specifically for their plots. People remember characters. Same with television. Who remembers the Lone Ranger? Everybody. Who remembers any actual Lone Ranger story lines? Nobody.” That strikes at the heart of the problem I have with many series that are plot-centric, or that rely too heavily on flashy animation or fanservice or other sensory stimuli to draw audiences. Those things are fine to hook our interest in a series initially, but almost always it’s the characters that are going to sustain us over the long haul. Even more so when you’re talking about a series with dozens or hundreds of episodes like a One Piece or Legend of the Galactic Heroes. If we care at all about what happens in the plot, it’s because of how the resolution of the plot (or any given story arc) is going to affect this cast of characters that we’ve become emotionally attached to. When you look at my list of top five/top ten favorite anime series, one thing they almost all have in common is strong characters and a very character-driven story. Haruhi’s a perfect example here, because that is such a heavily character-driven series that you can’t alter or remove any of the five main cast and still have the same show (as Nagato Yuki-chan unfortunately demonstrated). And while the nature of Haruhi’s magic is explained well enough that we get how it works, it isn’t over-explained down to minutiae – things like how she came to have her power in the first place, whether she always had it or only got it three years ago, and how the espers are actually physically able to sense and react to her magic, those all remain mysteries, and that’s probably for the best. After all, if you know all there is to know about how a magic trick works, it isn’t magic anymore.

    And Sanderson is absolutely right in his comment about reader understanding, but at the same time our level of emotional engagement also affects how analytically we watch a series too, and how accepting we are of any gaps or flaws in explaining the “magic.” I learned this lesson early on with the original Star Trek, where a lot of the crises were resolved thanks to some magical applied phlebotinum (or a magic potion from Dr. McCoy). Sometimes they explained with lots of technobabble how these things were supposed to work, and sometimes they didn’t. But in almost all cases, explained or not, my willingness to suspend disbelief was directly proportional to the quality of the episode and how caught up I was in the characters’ adventure. Some old alien race built a nearly invincible war machine that sustains itself by feeding on planets? Who cares how implausible that is, it’s pounded the hell out of two starships and it’s about to swallow up Captain Kirk! The crew finds a device that makes the user insanely smart for a few hours before they forget everything (conveniently just long enough for the Doctor to save Spock’s life)? Yeah, right, tell me another one.

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  4. Thanks for the comments, I’d’ve responded quicker but I had jury duty which turned out to mean I sat for an actual trial yesterday and I felt drained afterwards.

    @madreceiver: thanks

    @miharusshi: It is funny how memory of a show slowly changes over time. At least for me, my remembered perception of the show will sometimes improve or decrease over time. I watched a Tsuritama AMV the other day and I wondered afterwards exactly why did I give Tsuritama an 8/10 Very Good on MAL when I remember really liking it as it aired.

    @Hogart: Yeah, Unlimited Blade Works was pretty bad with the exposition. It’s problem is on the other end of the scale; it thought it’s love of hearing itself talk meant the the audience wanted to watch a self-important anime that liked to about itself without really having much to say.

    I’d like to disagree with your statement about the declining number of “timeless” anime but my gut is telling me that you might be right. There are still recent anime I’d consider timeless. The two that come to mind first are Hunter x Hunter and Shirobako.

    On the other hand, the animation studio Production IG hasn’t put out a TV series that has been better then it’s GiTS:SAC series and that’s 10 years old now.

    @WingKing: I agree with you about characters. Give me a show with interesting, realistic characters and I could watch them do pretty much nothing and still continue watching.

    I’ve noticed that about how emotional engagement affects how analytically we watch something. Most professional critics want to pretend that their personal like/dislike of a show doesn’t factor into how they rip apart or praise that show and they do it by using impartial sounding criteria, which is rather dishonest. I think critics and people who write reviews should mention if they honestly liked the work they are reviewing or not.

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  5. @ymarsakar: That he is.

    In the case of Darker Than Black even a rudimentary, slavish following of Sanderson’s First Law would have yielded a decent anime and a better handling of the characters would have pushed the series up to a good to very good level.

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  6. Your comment on Production IG got me thinking that it’d be interesting to come up with a TV anime “Mount Rushmore” for various studios, and see not just how long ago the four selected series were made, but the last time each studio made a series that would even be in the discussion for it. Like with your comment on Production IG not topping GITS:SAC in the last ten years, I’m sure there are fans of Kuroko’s Basketball, Moribito, Eden of the East, Psycho-Pass (season 1 at least), and Usagi Drop who’d disagree with that, and if you were doing a Production IG Mount Rushmore, most of those shows would at least generate some legit discussion even if they weren’t picked.

    Conversely, what’s the last anime from Gonzo that would generate any serious discussion for their “Mount Rushmore”? The most recent one I can think of that’s even worth mentioning in that conversation is Saki, which came out six years ago, and even that seems like a shaky candidate once you start comparing it to its older competition (NHK, Gankutsuou, Bokurano, Kaleido Star, Chrono Crusade, Full Metal Panic, Last Exile, etc.)

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  7. @WingKing: That would be an interesting thought experiment to carry out for the various anime studios.

    Having seen all but Kuroko’s Basketball from that list I’d still stand by my statement about GiTS:SAC being the best TV series Production IG has ever made. Though, I know personal preferences play a big role for others and myself in deciding something like this.

    Psycho-pass could have built themselves into something that, at least, rivaled GiTS:SAC (though the characters and amount of action were always going to be inferior to GiTS:SAC).

    The only series that approached GiTS:SAC, for me, was Kemono no Souja Erin but it was only co-produced by Production IG so it would be hard to call it a Production IG series.

    Gonzo definitely has seen much better days.

    I used to lump JC Staff in with Gonzo in terms of quality but they seem to be heading in the right direction again.

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  8. Sanderson’s work is more comparable to Japanese light novel authors. Short stories packaged in over arching long term plot arc volumes, with some illustrations. The authors of Chrome Shelled Regios, Fate Stay/Night, Sword Art Online, and various other figures were already utilizing advanced story mechanic concepts. The reason Sanderson is considered a genius is because he worked from a Western foundation that had little to no benefit from the Eastern traditions which Japanese LN novels draw strength from. Automatically picking up the harmonies, strengths, and weaknesses of the human condition, bridging East and West with merely normal effort, cannot be done by normal people. Because if it could be, they would already have done it in the last 50 years.

    They do say geniuses are often rejected by their peers in the beginning. Sanderson isn’t the first person to come up with these concepts in the West. He’s merely one of the first ones to become successful at it, given that it’s kind of late by now given how many people are starting to reject traditional publishers. That limit and capstone they put on people to suppress crazy authors that have the same ideas as the Japanese LN authors, is starting to become uncorked due to Amazon, kindle, the internet, self publishing, etc.

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  9. quote: “I used to lump JC Staff in with Gonzo in terms of quality but they seem to be heading in the right direction again.”

    Agreed. I enjoyed both Danmachi and Food Wars last season, but before that it had been a while. Index has been their big tentpole franchise lately, of course, but I’m not a huge fan of that.

    On that topic, I just finished reorganizing my anime collection a couple of months ago. I like to switch around how I display it every once in a while, and right now I’m shelving everything by production studio. I discovered from doing that project that JC Staff is actually the second-largest studio in my collection, behind Madhouse and just ahead of KyoAni. But the most recent show of theirs that I own is Toradora, which is about 7 years old now, while I have much more recent stuff from both of the other two.

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