Combine Monster with FLCL, sprinkle with a little Jojo, plop it in the middle Prohibition-era New York City, and voila! you have Baccano! Definitely on the weird side of crime mystery, this show takes place in multiple times, multiple places, with no main characters and no single thread of story, all at the same time! And it’s as funny at […]
Definitely on the weird side of crime mystery, this show takes place in multiple times, multiple places, with no main characters and no single thread of story, all at the same time! And it’s as funny at times as it is horrifying. A very strange, short, and interesting work in the world of anime!
Side characters are great! Sometimes side characters are better than main characters! But this anime has nothing but side characters! As it clearly points out at the beginning, this story has no main characters!
It just has a lot of characters. You know how I am about this by now. It’s impossible to keep up with all of them, right? But this show did something very simple and very clever to help with this. The opening introduces you to every important character, by face and name, at the outset of every episode. You start episode 1 and you’re introduced to Ladd Russo, Chane Laforet, Luck Gandor, Eve Genoard, Czeslaw Meyer, Issac Dian and Miria Harvent, Nice Holystone, Jacuzzi Splot, and a few others. I basically named those from memory. Of course when the show starts and the first thing you see are all these characters and all these names and all at once, it’s confusing, but it becomes helpful really quickly. When you hit episode 2 and you still have zero idea who anybody is, the re-introduction via the opening is most welcome. I loved it.
While this solves the problem of knowing who everyone is, it doesn’t solve the other problems inherent to a large number of characters. No one gets development. Well, I guess you could argue Chane Laforet, Jacuzzi Splot, and Szilzard Quates get some, and perhaps the homunculus Ennis, but it’s just a tiny bit if any. Mostly, you’re presented with a fully equipped character pretty much as soon as you meet them. But also, it doesn’t really matter that we don’t know much about them individually. They contribute in their own ways, and they all fit effectively in the story.
Isaac and Miria are probably the best examples. This Bonnie and Clyde style duo is the only source of humor in this show, but it’s all it requires! From the moment we meet them, they dance a highly entertaining comedic dialogue back forth between the two of them. This does not change for the entirety of the series. These two almost steal the show along with all the other weird things they steal! They’re at the center of every scene they’re in just about. They’re a ton of fun. Interestingly, they are the first and the last characters we see in the series. They’re the first introduced in the opening, and the last we see at the end of the final special episode.
Each character has specific quirks or traits that distinguish them. This is part of what allows for the writers to limit development, and part of what makes the characters “fully equipped” upon introduction. Isaac and Miria have their exchanges and bizarre robberies. Chane can’t speak, part of some strange secret imparted to her by her father, who she unhealthily worships. Ladd Russo just wants to kill people. Ennis is at a stage where she’s becoming more human. Czeslaw is an interesting character type, a child that doesn’t age. Claire Stanfield, Vino, Rail Tracer, pick your name, is a superhuman acrobat that employs his skills as an assassin. His love story with Chane is oddly sweet. Nice is a pyromaniac who blew part of her face off as a child while playing with chemicals. Jacuzzi is so sweet, he tattooed his face to make her feel less self-conscious about her resulting visage.
If I had to pick a single character that embodies everything about this tale, it’d be Graham Specter. He’s riddled with personality– he could talk to a wall for hours and entertain us doing so. He’s strange. Strong physically and a natural storyteller, his presence screams “abnormal.” And he contributes to a very interesting role in the series.
The author mixes his own persona into this brief tale. Graham Specter only appears in the three special episodes that followed the main 13 episode single season, but he takes over the series. He talks all the time, aforementioned. What does he talk about? Storytelling. Some of his dialogue is incoherent and confusing, but I think a lot of it is just the writer of this story, Ryougo Narita, mixing his interesting perspective on storytelling into the dialogue. I wouldn’t be as convinced of this except for the appearance of the Daily Days Vice President and the little girl Carol at the beginning and end of the series. They’re the first to spark the mystery of this series, throwing ambiguity in our faces right away about who the main characters are and when the story actually began. Then at the end, the Vice President tells Carol not to be fixated on figuring out who the main character is, and implies that the story doesn’t really need to have a starting or ending point. All of this sounds like the author trying to speak directly to the audience through characters in his work. I find it fascinating.
Two further things about the author. One, I applaud his abhorrence of character stereotypes. I can’t find an obvious one to point to in this series. He quite obviously is averse to cooke-cutter characters. The flip side of this coin is as a writer is that you must have the skill to create original and interesting characters without building from a mold. Obviously this is the more difficult undertaking when compared to stereotypical character types. This effort is noted and appreciated. Two, I should note that Narita-san also authored the Durarara!! series, also known for its seemingly directionless but intricate story and massive number of interesting characters. And its quotation marks in the title.
Entertaining characters are the name of the game in this show. There’s nothing to latch onto and launch into an academic critique over in any character (more so in the story and how the characters relate to it, but more on that later), but there doesn’t have to be. They’re still wildly entertaining. They get your blood flowing, focus your attention, tug at your heartstrings, and pull you into their world. They’re very well done.
The original manga for this story started in 2003, and the anime was created in 2007. Anime artstyle hadn’t shaken off the ‘90s styling at this point. Since anime usually trails manga or light novels chronologically, previous decades’ styles tend to appear and endure a little longer in the world of anime. Such is definitely the case with Baccano!, and I love it. Anime went from Dragon Ball Z and Mobile Suit Gundam styling to the unusual but oddly beautiful styles we see in Neon Genesis Evangelion, Serial Experiments Lain, Monster, and of course this series, all during the ‘90s and early 2000s. I can’t ever get enough of it.
I’ve never been fully able to describe why anime is beautiful in the first place. But I’m even more at a loss for words for this style of artwork. It’s not particularly what we think of as “beautiful.” But it also is beautiful, and there’s no way to describe it otherwise. Like all great anime artwork, it portrays the human world in a completely non-human way. That is the basis of its beauty for sure. But beyond that, I can’t describe it.
I should mention coloring. Some of you will say “Hawk, listen, I’ma say this slowly so even you can understand: this is just how a lot of anime were colored in the late ‘90s and early 2000s.” Perhaps, if you think about Monster and Lain, aforementioned. You might also say that since this is set in the 1930s, perhaps it’s supposed to look old, and therefore desaturated. You might also say that this is simply the result of the passage of time. Recordings of these shows existed in various forms during the ‘90s and early 2000s, but were not preserved digitally the way media is nowadays. Those physical recordings break down over time, and unless someone spends significant money on restoring them, they lose image and color quality. By the time they are preserved digitally, you only have aged physical copies to create the digital media from.
I believe this can explain a lot about the quality and color of anime from this period that we see today, but not everything. The coloring is intentional on some level. For one thing, look at Durarara!!, from the same author. Yellows, grays, desaturation. But also, look at Neon Genensis Evangelion, One Piece, and InuYasha. These anime have no issues with coloring. Any issues they do have likely come from aging, as I just discussed. So while the desaturation might be a more popular feature in late ‘90s and early 2000s anime, I don’t think it’s that way just because it’s from that time. The dark tenor and mystery of the show is intentionally heightened by this dim coloring.
I should briefly mention Jojo. The male characters have shades of this style in their faces. Jojo wasn’t the first place for its distinctive art style to appear, but it made it famous. Obviously there were other iterations of Jojo before the well-known modern anime version, but this male facial style is characteristic of Jojo characters, and before the modern version of that show debuted, we see hints of that style in Baccano!
Each character is drawn very differently. Whether it’s obvious differences like Nice’s scars and eyepatch and Vino assuming a monstrous appearance as Rail Tracer on the train, or subtle differences like the triangular eyebrows on Issac Dain and the harshness of Ladd Russo’s countenance, most characters are instantly recognizable within the show. Some of the guys are difficult to tell apart at times, like the Gandor brothers, but it’s not terrible.
There’s nothing spectacular about the art, but at this point it’s classic, and it serves the series well. So while I’m not jumping up out of my chair at the sight of a favorite character’s gaze or figure, I’m absorbed in the wonderful nostalgia, and I’m very much a fan of the artwork in this show.
In my brief research on this show, I found a lot of pedantic criticism of this series. “Criticism” as in the academic kind, not “I hate it because I hate it because I hate it.” And this show feels like it has a lot going on in it that lends itself to that kind of critique. The story is nonchronological, the characters showcase a lot of different facets of human nature, and its eccentricities gives it a high-class art feel.
But you know what? I think this is just a story. A story just for the fun of telling a story. It’s not complicated. But it is high quality.
This explains the behavior exhibited by Graham, the Vice President, and Carol, as reflections of the author. They emphasize that this isn’t an ordinary story. It doesn’t have a definite beginning. It doesn’t have an obvious ending (the blip into 2003 with Isaac and Miria had me laughing out loud, to the consternation of those around me at the time). It barely has a genre (“our surprise story…turns into a sad one” Graham Specter says something along these lines at one point, and lots of similar lines throughout). It doesn’t have main characters. All of that’s pointed out to us, and confirmed as you watch the show.
But also there isn’t a great deal of coherent story. Every set of events we see from 1930 to 1932 tie together, that’s not what I mean. I mean if you stop and think about it, there isn’t a thread running through the whole. The only constant undercurrent is the elixir that creates the Immortals, and even that isn’t the focus of the story.
Because of this, everything seems as random as the character types. Why is Jacuzzi and co. trying to steal the train’s cargo? What is that cargo? Why are all these people on the train in the first place? Ladd Russo is sent there with his army to do something, but it isn’t clear what. The Lemures have something to do with the shadowing Huey Laforet, but obviously aren’t completely on his side, since they’re willing to kill Chane if the situation calls for it. Why involve the mafia families at all? Why is there a character named after a hot tub brand? Why is Vino on the train? Why do Isaac and Miria steal candy bars and museum doors?
Then there’s the more obvious oddities. What the hell is a Flying Pussyfoot? Why is the president of the Daily Days newspaper/information brokerage sitting invisible behind a monstrous pile of papers at his desk? Why is Chane so devoted to her father and his secret (whatever that is) that she deprives herself of her own voice? What role does Firio play in this tale at all?
The most obvious oddity is the Immortal elixir. This story is all ordinary mafia crime mystery except for this crazy supernatural aspect. These guys can’t die. They drink the goo and even mortal wounds—like having your head blown off by a shotgun slug, or no less than twenty Thompson .45 blasts through the torso—heal away within seconds. The modern proliferator of this substance, Szilard Quates, is trying to recreate the original formula, which allows you to not only be immortal, but also prevents aging. His current attempts created an elixir that doesn’t prevent aging, but does keep you alive, much to the frustration of his decrepit clients. A handful of people get this elixir (Dallas Genoard, Isaac and Miria, and probably Ennis and the other homunculi who we don’t see in the anime), but a lot of the Immortals we see got the original elixir. Szilard Quates looks old, but doesn’t age any further than his current state. Czeslaw is the best example of course, stuck forever at ten years old or thereabouts. Maiza, a side character among the side characters, is an original, at one point the leader of the alchemist group. We see a couple more of the originals in the last special episode, Elmer Albatross and Slyvie Lumiere. We don’t learn much about them except that this all started with them, Maiza, Quates, and a group of other alchemists from the early 1700s.
They posses not only immortality, but also the strange ability to transmit thoughts via their right hand. They place this on the head of another Immortal and thus can share memories. That’s not the only thing they can do with their right hand though. They can also “eat” other Immortals with this same touch. Czeslaw frees himself from his past imprisonment this way. Szilard Quates wages his war with the original alchemist Immortals via this touch of death, eventually succumbing to it himself at the hands of Firo Prochainezo, who his new formula created. Just as they can share thoughts by this touch, devouring an Immortal in this manner transfers all of the victim’s memories to the consumer.
So it’s really weird! Part of the mystery in this story, compounded with the crime mysteries, is that we don’t know who all the Immortals are. Some are shown as Immortals right away, as their wounds heal instantly or they come back to life. But others we’re not sure about for a long time. Issac and Miria are newly immortal, but we don’t realize it until very late in the series (although this makes their reappearance in 2003 confusing, as those who drank the new formula are supposed to age). The way Ladd Russo and Claire Stanfield behave makes it seem like they’re Immortals, but we come to find out they’re not in the end. This definitely adds another layer of mystery to the story.
Not all of the manga is covered by the anime. Apparently more of the backstory from the 1700s is discussed there, as well as some subsequent events in the modern day of the 2000s. So there’s a little more to the story than what we’re shown, even if those missing parts are hinted at. That too adds to the mystery, because we realize we’re not seeing the whole picture here.
I could dive into how the elixir appears in the late Prohibition Era and how that plays into this story. I could explore the idea of immortality and aging. I could look at several of the interesting themes associated with the 1920-1930s Western world, like those two above, that appear in this story. I could dive into the quality of the usage of the train environment in this story, an oft reappearing plot device in post-Industrial Revolution Western literature. All of these things are fascinating, even more so given the familiarity with which they’re used by a Japanese author.
But while I acknowledge the artistic prowess of such an author and the resulting tale, I still believe all of this is simply used to create a fascinating tale more than explore some deep literary concept. The story takes all these interesting literary pieces and puts them all together to form a coherent whole that is simply entertaining. It’s very well done at that rate. If there is something deeper to it, that would simply add to the quality of the story. As entertainment, it’s right up there with the best of story-driven anime.
I love a complicated story that makes sense and has lots of artistically interesting parts rolled into it. Such creations are at the height of literary art. But if the story isn’t entertaining or evocative, there’s no point to all that academic art stuff. This show is a great example of how that academic art stuff, love it or hate it, can serve a story for entertainment purposes. Throw aside all the academically interesting aspects of this anime, you still have a wildly entertaining exhibition that is instantly and permanently memorable.
Apparently when people say “the music is great!” in an anime, they mean it’s Western elevator music. I don’t mean it quite so harshly. But it’s that American Tin Pan Alley style of parlor music that we associate with underground nightclubs filled with dim ambience and cigarette smoke and the ominous click of billiard balls. People say the music in Cowboy Bebop is great too, and it sounds the same. Far be it from me to argue with the quality of this music–I like it, it works for these shows–but it doesn’t strike me as “great.” Maybe that’s just American audiences recognizing something familiar in a show, and therefore it ends up discussed more than perhaps it deserves. I have no problem with the music, but it’s just kind of there to me. It doesn’t add much more than its contribution to the time period feel.
I hold one thing against this series. The random nature of the characters’ traits or psychoses add greatly to the quality of each character, but at times are egregiously monstrous. Ladd Russo is the best example, simply delighting in killing. While this distinguishes his character, it doesn’t really add to it, nor does it contribute to the story. It plays a subtle role with Claire’s conversation with him, where Claire declares he can’t die (despite not being an Immortal), but not enough to warrant such an overtly monstrous character trait. Czeslaw was originally held captive by a man named Fermet after they both gained immortality, and this Fermet experimented on Czeslaw against his will to test the limits of that immortality. This took the form of torture, dismemberment, and other such heinous acts, all against a child. Sure it plays a role in Czeslaw’s bleak outlook on the world, but this doesn’t play even a minor role in the story. It feels like such egregious character traits are included just for their shock value. I always disagree with including such things in stories for simple random shock value. Shock value can play a role in a story (Made in Abyss, Tokyo Ghoul), but just including it for the hell of it has little artistic or entertainment value. It’s no different than authors including excessive scatological jokes or fanservice. It lessens the quality of the work overall.
But that’s the only thing I don’t like about this show. Everything else is very entertaining. It can appeal to the novice anime viewer as much as it does to the stiff-ass critic, no offense intended to the stiff-ass critic (myself at times included). Often works are really entertaining but might not have a lot a critical eye can find interesting (Fairy Tail, Akame ga Kill!) or they can be academically interesting but lack impactful entertainment value (Kiznaiver, Bloom Into You to an extent), but usually you don’t see both together. Monogatari, Madoka, and Lain are a few of the best examples in this category. To be so brief and go by in such a whirlwind (watch it, you’ll see), Baccano! finds itself in good company in that category!
As there’s more material remaining from the manga, I suspect we’ll get another season of this show at some point. I kind of like how this stands alone as it is—even the explanations we received in the three special episodes took away a bit of the shine from the mystery of this series—but I wouldn’t mind sacrificing some of that impact to see these characters interact again. Hey, we already saw Isaac and Miria in 2003. I definitely wouldn’t turn down any chance to see those two again! So here’s hoping, after 14 years as of today (May 2021), we get a second season of Baccano!