Beginner's Guide: Baccano! and Durarara!!

This time for Beginner's Guide, I'm going to be a little current. See, with the Winter season getting ready to start, one of the major announcements that's been getting all the buzz is the arrival of Durarara!! season two. The light novel series got a strong anime adaptation a few years back, but like its predecessor, it was thought it would never get a second season. An entire new studio had to be founded to make this possible, to give you an idea how difficult this undertaking was.

What's that? What predecessor? Well, Durarara was a sort of spiritual sequel to one of the most critically acclaimed shows in the past decade, a little gem known simply as Baccano!, a pile of absolute chaos that has the distinction of sharing both the same writer and director.

Baccano started as a series of light novels in 2003, and the series is still going today, with twenty-one volumes produced as of writing. That's surprising, since the anime itself only got a one-cour season and a three episode OVA. Both Durarara and Baccano are the brain children of Ryogo Narita, only starting each a year apart and still getting installments to this day, written side by side in a work effort that must have put Narita into some serious health conditions. Similarly, both series anime adaptations were directed by Takahiro Omori, whom before these two shows, was known mainly for the previously covered Hell Girl and an adaptation of the cult Dreamcast brawler, Power Stone. The end result are two franchises tied at the waist, each with their own style and subject matter, but with several shared ideas and pacing techniques.

Baccano's anime debuted in 2007, four years after the light novels started print. It followed a mess of characters from the years 1930 to 1932 in the good old US of A, dealing with a bunch of mafia families having bones to pick with each other, a young girl trying to find her missing brother, and a train robbery aboard the flying Pussyfoot that goes wrong as some sort of monstrosity called the Rail Tracer appears out of nowhere and starts killing people in incredibly gruesome ways. There's also some really batty stuff I can't get into here due to massive spoilers, but suffice to say that the simple explanation I just gave you isn't even close to accurate.

The show is loaded with characters, and nobody is really a main protagonist. Among the cast, the most important characters are the lighthearted gangster Frio and his friend Maiza, the theatrical thieves Isaac and Miria, the innocent Eve and her jerk brother Dallas, the murderous lunatic Ladd, mysterious old man Szilard, the strange boy Czes, the bootlegging gang lead by the scared Jacuzzi and pyrotechnic Nice, the Rail Tracer, and the quiet and mysterious women Ennis and Chane, each appearing in the 1930 story and 1931 story (respectfully). There's plenty more I didn't list, but that isn't where the series gets interesting. No, it's not the amount of characters present or even the lack of a lead that makes Baccano interesting, but that the entire series is told out of order. I don't just mean that the three stories are told side by side and the series jumps from time to time, I meant that even in the same episode, one story can be completely skipped around to focus on different characters or show scenes from an entirely different point in the story's current focus. The first episode informs you of this fast, as some newspaper reporters go over some of the basics of the story, shifting around the entire show from end to beginning to second act to end again and at infinite until the chaos eventually ends with bits and pieces from supposed end points of each store, with context completely absent.

The entire show is like this, and it's kind of amazing. One moment, you could be watching Isaac and Miria pulling a job in silly outfits while loudly exclaiming their emotions, then instantly skip right to the Rail Tracer turning someone's skull into mush by smashing it into the ground from outside a moving train. The Eve story could be interrupted for scenes of Dallas being a huge douche towards some gangsters who make him wet his pants two years in the past. Hell, a train robbery scene could suddenly be interrupted by some of Nice's fireworks, or even a stick up at a newspaper office. The impressive thing about all of this is that the tone never feels too jarring. Scenes play out long enough to get the necessary emotion and development clear, then quickly move to something entirely different that has some vague connection with the previous scene or story. That's where the show gets really interesting.

All the characters are intertwined through a few reoccurring characters. The Eve story is tied in through Dallas in the Frio story and the newspaper office, Isaac and Miria are both present on the Flying Pussyfoot and during Dallas' shenanigans, Ladd Russo and his gang are rivals of Frio's family from the first story, Both Ennis and Chane have related origins, and all three stories are tied to the hip by one common element that slowly reveals itself and keeps raising more and more questions as we learn more and more about it. On top of this, elements have a habit of colliding in surprising ways, like a car accident from Frio's story appearing again in several episodes from the viewpoint of an entirely different character. Nothing is ever left hanging (besides one woman from the first episode who may have appeared in the non-existent second season), and you never know when the smallest detail is going to become important again. Also, you NEVER know what a character is really like until later, especially the Rail Tracer. It's one outstanding reveal.

Durarara is a tad different. It has similar pacing and story telling techniques as Baccano, but things are told in a much more traditional, straight-forward way, just from multiple character perspectives and a mess of different stories that end up colliding into each other. Also unlike Baccano, there's a lack of a common thread in all of these stories, making the series a tad more chaotic from a plot perspective, yet told in a very serial way. It's different, but certainly not bad, and there is some strong payoff in how well mysteries are paced out and slowly revealed.

The series also has a radically different setting, though keeping with the urban underbelly theme. The show returns to familiar territory of modern day Japan, focusing on the Ikebukuro district of Japan. A main character is presented with everyman Mikado, a timid kid from the boonies who finds himself getting involved with some insane supernatural madness, along with strange criminals. Among Ikebukuro's many mysteries are the headless Black Rider, the faceless new gang called "The Dollars," an information broker naked Izaya, the superhuman Shizou (who REALLY hates Izaya), a serial stabber that's haunting the city, illegal immigrant hunters, the colored gangs (as in gang colors!), and some good old corrupt rich people. Oh, an a black Russian guy who runs a sushi shop. Any questions you have there are justified, and I have no answers.

Like Baccano, the series jumps focus among different characters, though with a ton more character or plot focused episodes. For example, the first episode introduces Mikado, the second focuses on Izaya's manipulative ways, the third reveals more about the Black Rider and her roommate, and so forth. At the same time, plot points and events from previous episodes can still collide in surprising ways, and there are a ton more mysteries and surprised sprinkled throughout the show. There are absolutely no normal characters present, and about as close to normal as you get are ex-gang members and obsessive loonies.

The characters are all fantastic in there own way, but the two major scene stealers are constantly Shizou and Izaya. They're both the loudest and most hammy members of the cast, which is impressive when the cast includes two otaku arsonists whom like shipping characters in the series. Shizou is an angry bull who leaves rubble and broken bones in his wake, while Izaya is just such a great villain. He loves every single terrible thing he does, always showing off a real shit eating grin and letting out a crazy laugh or two in private. And when they're together ...it's just magic.

Everyone else is no slouch either, but the more reserved or dull characters don't start picking up until their back stories are revealed. The back stories Durarara manages to create are varied and powerful, each feeling like the story of a main character from entirely different shows of entirely different genres ...which makes sense, as that really describes every major character. Everyone has a resolve and a goal, essentially the protagonists of their own stories. Genre representation ranges from crime drama, horror, slice of life, comedy, action, and so forth. Every character focuses on a different shade and style than another character, and stories start crashing into each other and subverting the expected flow.

Another cool thing is that "The Dollars" I mentioned are an internet sanctioned group that basically communicate with each other and form flash mobs. This series beat Gatchaman Crowds (a 2013 reimagining of the popular Gatchaman series, a topic for another day) to internet themes by nearly a decade, and has done the most interesting stuff with the idea before Crowds. Without giving too much away, the series explores how growing human connection can allow us to do incredible things, but also works in the anonymous angle from the then famous Anonymous protests and crimes in real world news. It leads to some really interesting events that match alongside the crazy supernatural chaos perfectly, due to how almost unbelievable it all is (despite being the more grounded and even plausible scenario).

The first season is strong, especially the second half's focus on Mikado and his friends Kida and Anri, but it peeders out with a pretty lame ending. It's so lame that even the show itself agrees that it's lame through some commentary from Izaya, who's simply bored with the whole thing. It's also twice as long as Baccano (not counting the three OVA episodes), so the pacing isn't quite as frantic. The series loses the sheer addictiveness Baccano had as a result, but retains a lot of fun through how much the story keeps twisting and turning to all sorts of unexpected developments. Basically, Baccano is a straight up ten, reinventing how things are done, while Durarara handles a more traditional style very well for a solid eight.

There are a few Baccano cameos in Durarara, but you can mostly view the two shows as their own separate things ...with two major exceptions. One of the last episodes has a Baccano cameo that spoils one of the major secret elements of the series, while the ending does something a bit similar with two different characters. It's advised you watch Baccano first (don't worry, it feels like it takes no time at all).

Both shows are easy to find on multiple streaming sites, though only Baccano's dub is easily found on Hulu and Funimation. It's one of the best English dubs ever produced and the definitely way to watch the series. Durarara's dub has mostly great talent (Crispin Freeman and Johnny Yong Bosch are Shizou and Izaya! Ahhhh, yeeeees), but the direction is poor. It was dubbed by a different company, thus the different results. That's definitely one that lends itself better to subtitles, which fits the Japanese setting better in a neat way. Good luck binging the two shows before that second season, or I guess you could just wait and watch after it's done airing. You know, if you hate other races, you racist.

Comments

  1. I actually watched Durarara first and when I saw the Baccano Characters' cameos I was like, who are these people. But then I suddenly stumbled upon Baccano and I realized who those people were. Mind Blowing really. Baccano is one of my favorite animes besides Blood Blockade Battlefront and Bungou Stray Dogs and I've actually made a friend through Baccano.

    For all you Durarara fans out there, check out this website. You won't be disappointed: http://dollars-bbs.org/

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