It is said by many that everyone has a story inside them just waiting to be told. But what makes a story? Many action adventures rely solely on plot, letting the characterisation come second; inversely, many romances have virtually no plot to speak of, letting character interaction and reflection drive along the drama; while historical chronicles often rely on the setting and the carefully researched daily-living conditions of the characters to paint a rich saga of that time and place.
Baccano! - Italian for 'ruckus' - is a blend of all these genres, and yet, it fits none of them.
Set the scene: it is New York, 1932. The Great Depression, the mafia, jazz and swing, the repeal of Prohibition. Two characters attempt to catalogue a series of strange events ruminate on the nature of stories. Where do they truly begin? Within the shifting perspectives of multiple events, how can you choose a main character as the focal point?
It all started in 1711, you see... on the ship Advenna Avis, a group of alchemists summoned the Devil in order to drink the elixir of eternal life...
... meanwhile, New York 1931, there's a turf war between two mafioso families, the Gandors and Runoratas, and the assassin Claire Stanfield is enlisted to resolve the situation...
... and a year earlier, in 1930, wannabe-gangster Dallas Genoard is enlisted by an ancient-looking man to retrieve the stolen elixir the man had finally managed to recreate....
... aboard the transcontinental train The Flying Pussyfoot an urban legend, The Rail Tracer, a monster who eats any passenger who utters its name, is claiming more victims...
... while the small Camorrista family the Martillos initiate adopted son Firo Prochainezo into the family business...
... and two idiotic and eccentric thieves, Isaac Dian and Maria Harvent, attempt to steal time.
Baccano's narrative slips in and out among the different times with graceful ease, and not at the expense of the viewer, either, as a title card with the year appears for a second as a transition. Tension is continually built and smaller revelations continue to break as we see other character's points of view on different incidents, overlapping, building up and foreshadowing. In this way, Baccano makes a ruckus of dramatic structure, placing denouement before climax and climax before action. In this way it challenges the viewer to make sense of the present while being aware of the future events playing out: instead of asking "what will happen next?" we ask, "what happened before?"
Despite the seismometer plotline and the lack of clear protagonist, characterisation is never sacrificed. Characterisation comes first in this series, as everyone has their past and their reasons even if they aren't immediately apparent. How did a crybaby like Jacuzzi Splot end up in a gang - and why does he have such a large tattoo on his face? Who is Chane, why is so silent and who are the cults Lemure and Lamia that follow her? Who is Ladd Russo and whose side is he on? What other powers do Immortals have, other than their resistance to dying? And where the hell did Firo get such a snazzy hat?
It is hard to be original and compelling without alienating an audience with outright post-modernism, but despite the fantasy element of a panacea, Baccano! feels thoroughly grounded in reality. Perhaps it's the realistic setting; perhaps it's because the characters act so much like real people would - no, better, like people wish they could. Capturing the surprise felt as children, watching the idle sketches in the corner of your notepad suddenly gain life when flipping through, and audacious, like robbing a train for explosives with only your boyfriend and your two friends by your side.
The 1930s New York setting is gloriously rendered, yet, it is not a setting that the series gloats about. There are hardly any scenes that pull back and focus on the environment as a pat on the back to reveal all the research and effort put into recreating it. Though the series is very obviously set in the 1930s, we see it through the characters' eyes as their present - pressing, urgent, real.
I mentioned romance before, and, without giving too much away, the affectivity of the characters throughout all this constant turmoil is not glossed over. Firm friendships are made from chance meetings and several romances appear, each one uniquely forming in ways that tug upon the heartstrings and ultimately feel very real.
Of course, I can't talk about the validity of this series without touching upon the English dub, produced by Aniplex. While the Japanese dub certainly isn't bad, the addition of accents and slang added so much to the characterisation and atmosphere that it was almost like the difference between 720p and Bluray HD: like watching a slightly better, sharper series.
However, this dub is no means perfect: the generic cute voice that sounds so natural in Japanese dubs came off slightly annoying with Maria (a general complaint of all English dubs, not this one in particular nor the voice actress herself), and the fact a few epic lines of Ladd's were changed. 'Thank you, f*ck you, a villain has arrived' is one of my favourite things to say when entering a room, and its omission irked me a little bit - if memory serves, some other lines were changed, but it wasn't so obvious in their cases. However, I think this is a small price to pay for such perfect synching of, for a lack of a better term, the lip flaps. They were absolutely perfect, throughout it was hard to believe the animation wasn't made to fit this very dub.
The soundtrack, too, is absolutely top-notch. One word: jazz. The opening song is plain addictive, and while the ending one is rather dull in comparison, it did grow on me. The OST throughout the series always adds to the scene and atmosphere, never feeling out of place, and adds a sense of fun.
The art in this series seems rather dark at first glance. There is not much use of bright colour in the design, but there is a deep saturation like the smog that clings to a city, and it fits the general air of the 1930s well. The character designs are on the realistic side and though many of the older, blonde men look alike, most characters have distinctive visual traits that set them apart and make it easier for the viewer.
The characters themselves are all enjoyable in their own way (except Dallas, he has no redeemable features). Isaac and Miria are contenders for the most well loved character duo of all time, the most incompetent thieves ever, who spread happiness inadvertently wherever they go. Other than Isaac and Miria, there is a guy who eats birdfood, an explosion fetishist, the Rail Tracer and enough psychopaths to keep you chugging along until anime does some sort of answer to Girl, Interrupted.
Overall, I would recommend this series to anyone who enjoys piecing together a very satisfying plot or anyone who enjoys a cast of diverse and interesting characters. This is not a story for someone who wants to switch their brain off; nor is it for anyone with an aversion to animated blood or gore.
This review is about the story that is Baccano! It is a story can never really end. Why? Because it's enjoyable, of course.
Price (ATOR): £19.45
Episodes: 16 (13 + 3 OVA)
Region: Region 2
Number of discs: 4
Studio: Manga Entertainment
DVD Release Date: 11 Oct 2010
Run Time: 406 minutes
Parts of this review were taken from a previous one of mine posted at MyAnimeList.net under the username marusamarento.