Anime and Manga — Reviews and Previews
“Don’t let nobody tell you there’s no future in a life of crime, because some rackets can last forever. But we’ll get around to all that immortality jazz later. A mafia turf war is raging on the mean streets of the Big Apple, a place where regular joes bounce between backdoor booze joints and the breadline. But this caper ain’t about a simple gangland brawl. It’s about hoods who can’t seem to die proper after catching a bullet or five between the eyes. Sadistic hit-men and the dames they love, mad bombers going boom, monsters going bump and soul sucking alchemists bootlegging an elixir of eternal life. Just remember, Baccano! ain’t about beginnings and ends. It’s about the twists and turns, bub. Paths don’t cross in this story – they collide. Every Dick and Jane plays the lead and it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.”
Did you read that in a 1930s gangster accent? Because you should have. It’s 1931, and the fabulously opulent train The Flying Pussyfoot is headed straight to New York. On board: four equally destructive factions, all intent on using the passengers as hostages for their own destructive purposes. There may or may not be a bomb in the cargo hold, too, not to mention a passenger or two who just can’t seem to stay dead. And what about the nightmarish myth of the Rail Tracer, a monster who leaves no survivors behind?
You’ll notice I’m not throwing around any character names, here. That’s because there’s too many to count, all tangled up in this gangland vendetta that goes nuclear on one particular train ride. The first episode begins with an information broker and his associate attempting to choose the main character – and even they can’t decide.
Chances are you might have noticed a similarity between this 2007/2008 show and the more recent Durarara!!, right down to the excessive punctuation. That’s because both Baccano! and its spiritual successor are the brainchildren of Ryohgo Narita, and you can see some of Narita’s writerly obsessions appearing in both. Supernatural elements, information brokers, and love in all its twisted forms. Those are the things that Narita writes about, and writes about well.
But back to Baccano! the anime: does it live up to the hype that reviewers have been heaping on it for years? Yes, definitely, and for five particular reasons: the intriguing setting, the vast cast of characters, the sickening level of gore, the atypical storytelling, and – of all things – the incredibly high quality of the dub!
First and foremost, how many anime series can you name off the top of your head that take place in 1930s New York? To compare, how many can you name that take place in a generic Japanese high- or middle-school? The simple fact that Baccano! is giving me something new awards it a copious amount of points in its favor. Unlike with Durarara!!, which at least moved us onto the streets of modern-day Ikebukuro, Baccano! also switches up the time frame on us – the show seeps itself in jazz (the opening credits are set to a jazzy number called “Guns and Roses”), Prohibition, and mafia life.
Second, even though there are too many characters to possibly name and deconstruct in this little review, rest assured that there is no one who isn’t at least fascinating on a surface level. For convenience’s sake, I’ll stick to Ladd Russo, Claire Stanfield, Isaac Dian, and Miria Harvent. Ladd and Claire are both mafia hit men, though for conflicting families, and spend most of the show’s running time killing with impunity and waxing rhapsodic about their philosophies on life and death. Isaac and Miria, meanwhile, are a pair of bumbling thieves who once stole the door off a museum because they couldn’t carry away all the goodies inside. The slickly evil and the brainless good – Baccano! brings them both together.
But while those are the two extremes of the spectrum, there are a couple dozen characters who fall in the middle – more than enough to pick and choose who you want to root for and why.
Unfortunately, by virtue of its 13-episode runtime (16 if you count the DVD extras), very few characters ever get the treatment they deserve, and unanswered questions abound about them all. It’s not that the show feels incomplete like [07 Ghost], but you watch the screen fade to black and know that there are a million more stories waiting to be told. Still, like a character in the last episode explains, it’s better to imagine those sorts of things, instead. Or, you know, read the light novels.
What Baccano! doesn’t skimp on, however, is the gore factor. If you are in any way squeamish, that may break this show for you completely. Watch episode one, and if the severing of fingers and people getting shot to pieces affects you, then know that it’s not going to get any better. Limbs are going to be torn off, faces are going to be shredded on train tracks, and the show is going to explore everything it means to be immortal in a time period when the life expectancy of mobsters wasn’t very long.
All of this gore and craziness would be too much, however, if it were presented as a straightforward narrative. The production staff obviously knew what they were doing when they sat down at the storyboard and editing table. Episode to episode, minute to minute, you never know when the show is going to cut away from the action on The Flying Pussyfoot to show you an event in 1930 or 1932, giving you an insight into what led up to the devastation or showing some of the ramifications. It’s confusing until you get used to it, and episode one in particular suffers for this, but the further along you get, the more rewarding it is to see a clue and fit it into the big picture.
Finally, if none of this has been enough to win you over, then I’m going to cite something that I normally dislike or am ambivalent to in my anime: the dub. Never before has there been a show in which the dub cast has obviously had so much fun. 1930s lingo, surprisingly believable gangster accents, lively dialogue that fits the characters perfectly. There are one or two places where you can hear an accent slip, but those few instances are completely overshadowed by the outstanding performances. Just listen to Bryan Massey [be fantastically crazy] as Ladd Russo, or J. Michael Tatum and Caitlin Glass [be stupid in the face of danger] as Isaac and Miria. I’ve seen only one episode of Baccano! subbed, but as far as I’m concerned, the English cast have become the characters for me. The only other shows I can really say that for are Cowboy Bebop, [Romeo x Juliet], and Code Geass.
So go watch Baccano! – don’t do what I did and ignore the armies of people shouting its praises!
P.S. Other people have noted this before, but why hasn’t Quentin Tarantino adapted this yet?
P.P.S. Jacuzzi Splot wins worst character name of the show. He’s in the running for “Of All Time,” but faces stiff competition from Carrot Glace of Sorcerer Hunters. What are some of the worst anime character names you’ve come across?