Monday, 18 July 2011

バッカーノ! / Baccano!

I’m glad Baccano! became quite a hit upon its release in 2007, and continues to enjoy excellent word-of-mouth, especially when very loosely-connected follow-up series Durarara! not only became an even bigger hit, but sends people back to check out its precursor. That’s actually how I came to watch Baccano!, although I’d been intending to for a while before that: I enjoyed the first few episodes of Durarara! but decided I wanted to see the whole of Baccano! first.

It’s taken me a very long while to finish – I started watching around the same time as I was enjoying Paranoia Agent – especially because the three OVA episodes were hard to find in good quality, but now I’ve happily watched the whole lot, and I not only like Baccano! and its eccentricities, but I respect the daring and unorthodox approach that went into it.

Takahiro Omori has directed some unusual anime in his time, but usually their complexity comes from empty ambiguity, as in Jigoku Shoujo and Haibane Renmei, the latter of which he worked on as an episode director. He also isn’t averse to cutesiness: he adapted and directed the anime for Gakuen Alice. Somehow, though, Baccano! feels much more mature and idiosyncratic than those, and not purely because it isn’t centred on young girls. Ultimately, the sophistication here comes from the source material, though – a light novel series that I get the impression unfolded the story in a rather more obvious way than the series, which takes quite some time to reveal its supernatural elements.

One factor that marks out Baccano! as something different from the usual crop is its setting: at the centre of the sprawling plot is the Italian mafia based in prohibition-era New York. It is not a setting you see much in anime, and an attempt at a realistic presentation is a very long way from how the mafia is presented in the likes of Reborn!. Though some utterly ridiculous character names (the most obvious being ‘Jacuzzi Splot’) remind you that this is not a setting the author is wholly familiar with, the feel and the aesthetic work nicely, and there’s the great decision to have the majority of the real action of the series unfold on board a train.

The cast is huge and varied – rival gangsters and hired mercenaries, rich and poor, hitmen and small children. All have their own agendas, but get mixed up with one another’s intrigues and grudges during the journey on the Flying Pussyfoot. And through it all, capering like jesters, are the loveable comic relief duo Isaac and Miria, winsome and clueless and yet endearing themselves to almost all they meet.
A backstory involving a sinister patriarch soon comes to the fore, and it becomes apparent that many of the cast members are bound together by a long history. Beneath the turf wars and mafia hits is the rediscovery of an elixir that first surfaced in the early 18th century, and owes just a little to Highlander. Its effects give an added interesting dimension to Baccano!, as ideas of very old minds in young bodies and the limits of pain humans can cause one another get explored.

There were elements of Baccano! I did not like. There was a degree of the annoyance many felt towards Lost – it was soon apparent that novels were basically made up as the author went along, with no real overall structure and arbitrary pacing, and the closing scene where a man with a monocle lectures a small girl about how stories are most interesting when they are open-ended and can just go on forever was a total cop-out and annoyed me despite the man’s hilarious intonation. And while if you can accept magical elixirs, you really ought no to have complaints about other magical elements, I would rather everything was natural except for this one conceit: fun as it is to see guys fighting with ridiculous prowess and strength, it just didn’t feel right in the world of Baccano! and I would have rather seen everyone within human limits apart from the results of the magic potion. Claire was fun, but his supernatural skills just seemed out of place.

But overall, Baccano! does a lot that other anime do not, and does it well. It is not a perfect, polished work, but it is an incredibly fun one, with superb characters and compelling, multi-layered stories. Impressive and well worth watching.

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