Judge Steve Power often wonders what's up with the Japanese and their lust for Alchemy.
A life of crime can last forever…
What looks like it could be a great take on the typical gangster genre from an anime point of view turns out to be anything but. Is Baccano! for you? Well, that all depends on the state of your psyche.
Facts of the Case
Don't let anybody 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. Also, it's about sadistic hitmen and the dames they love, mad bombers going boom, monsters going bump, and soul sucking alchemists bootlegging an elixir of eternal life. Baccano! ain't about beginnings and ends. It's about the twists and turns. Paths don't cross in this story…they collide.
If there's one thing the world of animation has going for it, it's the fact that creators are only limited by their imaginations. Baccano! is something that could only have come from the sometimes darkly twisted world of anime, and not for the reasons one might think.
It's not that Baccano! is loaded with perverse sex or demon powered rape machines, nothing so coarse and vulgar, but it certainly does entertain the anime tradition of being batshit crazy to a fault. The narrative flow is about as jumbled as a 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle of the Amazon rainforest fresh out of the box. Things happen in somewhat non-linear fashion, with the emphasis being on the colorful cast of characters (with awesome names like Jacuzzi Splot!), and how they all wind up on a Chicago to New York Express train called the Flying Pussyfoot. No, really! There's no real central character per se, and the show always skirts within inches of the fourth wall to remind us of that fact. Included are a pair of hapless thieves who never fail to illicit a smile, two separate gangs of Mafioso goons, a crazed hit man, and a cowardly rogue and his female accomplice. Then there's the alchemy, homunculi, and immortals. It's crazy; it doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but damned if it ain't entertaining.
The biggest attractions for Baccano! are definitely the colorful cast and the setting. The depression era is wonderfully visualized in a more traditional anime style, and the overall quality of the animation is fantastic, occasionally crossing into theatrical quality for the genre. The series oozes 1930's gangster flick pastiche, to the point that one could almost forget the foreign origin of the material, until one of the immortals pieces himself back together after a particularly bloody kill.
Funimation brings their A-game to the proceedings, spreading the 16 episodes out to three discs and giving us a stunningly crisp transfer. The show looks great, with the muted color palette and hazy visuals rendered near flawlessly. The audio rocks as well; Tommy-gun fire booms with aplomb, and the English cast deliver some fantastic line-readings complete with over-the-top New Yawk via Hollywood accents that sound like something out of a Robinson or Cagney flick. The Japanese track sounds dull and boring by comparison. The jazzy period influenced music also sounds great throughout. Even better is the relatively massive slate of extras spread across the three discs. You'll find some entertaining commentary from the English cast and crew, a decent promotional video, and the usual textless opening and closing sequences. It's pretty stacked as far as anime releases go.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I hope you're prepared to sit down and plow through this sucker more than once. Baccano! is a hard story to keep straight, with a non-linear plot that collides and repeats and runs away from itself more times than I could count. It doesn't take a colossal amount of effort to piece together, but it does take some effort. The show is about as close as I've seen to "Lynch-ian" narrative in an anime series, and those looking for a straight up gangster romp will probably be sadly let down. It's a sort of depression-era slapstick version of Twin Peaks, only it isn't.
With all of the madness going on, the plot does manage to run into a few problems. Some of the characters are given the short end as time wears on, and some of the threads that felt essential early on are dropped as new threads pop up; which did knock the feverish enjoyment I had for the early episodes down a peg or two as time wore on. It's not that the show goes bad, it just sort of shifts gears and forward momentum slows. When the final episode rolled around, there was a pang of disappointment in how the storytellers wrapped things up; it's as though the show could have used a little more breathing room. It doesn't completely crash and burn or anything though, and I still recommend Baccano! to fans of the medium who are looking for something a little new.
Baccano! will wreak havoc on the weak minded. There is nothing conventional about the storytelling in this monster. You'll know from the start whether you're cashing out your chips or going all in, but don't blame me if the show steals your ability to form complex thought. It's worth the time, if you can front the patience and attentiveness required. Being a touch insane also doesn't hurt.
The characters might be the guiltiest bunch of sinners to pop up in anime,
but the show is a-ok.
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