"Baccano!" Vols. 1 & 2: One Noisy, Bloody, Confusing, and Entertaining Ruckus
The new anime series Baccano! feels like the bizarre love child of Miller’s Crossing and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with an added touch of seriously weird humor. Set in 1930’s-era America at the height of the Great Depression and supposedly inspired by the feature film version of The Untouchables, Baccano! is a gangster story with a twist. There’s a whole lot to like about Baccano! It’s a gorgeously designed show of sassy dames in slinky dresses and tommy-gun toting tough guys in stylish hats and big coats, all playing their parts on a stage with a swinging jazzy soundtrack, a real sense of style, more than a little arterial spray, and new spins on old clich√©s arising from the mashup of genres that don’t normally cross paths.
I’d probably love this show if I could only figure out what the hell is going on.
At least part of the confusion about Baccano! is intentional. The show seems to hinge on two separate but interrelated mysteries: one about gangsters who seem to have attained immortality, and the other about a murderously bloody incident on the luxurious passenger train “The Flying Pussyfoot,” which becomes a claustrophobic nightmare once the shooting, stabbing, disembowling, and forced de-training begins. The mystery would be intriguing enough all on its own, but the show uses both a highly non-linear storytelling style and a truly immense cast, throwing you in head-first with no warning. This raises two different kinds of confusion: the good kind, because the setting and the mystery are plenty intriguing all on their own, and the bad kind because you spend way too much time early on asking, “Wait, when is this event happening again?” and “Who is that guy and why is he important?” I don’t mind working a bit to fully enjoy my entertainment, but I object when it feels too much like work.
The show signals what you’re in for right from the start, as the opening credits name 17 main characters; adding in the supporting characters probably pushes that number to 30 or more. Split them up into groups of 2 to 3 and spread the story across at least 3 different time periods, and you can do the math. It doesn’t help that the show will change time periods with no warning, as though it were edited by chopping up each individual story into 7-minute chunks and re-arranging them in seemingly random order. I can say from experience that re-watching the first episode repeatedly in the belief that you must have missed something important is futile, and may in fact just leave you more confused. The first scenes are with a mysterious “Vice President” who speaks in cryptic riddles to his youthful assistant Carol. These characters are the show’s slightly pompous indulgence in meta-fiction, as their discussion of past events is clearly meant to alert us to the great number of highly interrelated narrative threads and the fact that there isn’t really a main character. In the end, you’re better off powering through the first episodes and then circling back afterwards.
The show demands your full attention, and I’m pretty sure it does eventually reward you for it. After watching 8 episodes over 2 volumes in a slightly confused haze, re-watching the first episode (again) makes a lot of events and story threads clearer and reveals hidden meanings behind the throwaway incidents. If nothing else, re-watching the series will increase your appreciation for its excellent design work, which strives hard to give each individual character a distinctive look and attitude to make it easier to tell them apart (although it must be said that the few black cast members look more like white people in blackface, unfortunately). Of course, things are still horribly confusing—by the end of volume 2, it seems that the leading characters are the dim-bulb thieves Isaac and Miria; the deeply psychotic mob assassin Ladd Russo and his moll Lua Klein; and the rakishly charming new capo Firo Prochainezo. But even when you can start telling the characters apart and teasing out their story threads, there are still mysteries piled on top of mysteries, like what Firo’s friend and aide Maiza has to do with everything or why the seemingly cowardly and ineffective Jacuzzi Splot (no, really) has such a big bounty on his head. Add in the mysterious and seemingly supernatural Rail Tracer brutally murdering its way through the Flying Pussyfoot and the revelation of an honest-to-goodness deal with supernatural powers in episode 7, and you’re left with a pleasingly entertaining head-scratcher where any answers you get just end up raising more questions. I’m still not sure what’s going on, but I’m definitely intrigued enough to want to find out.
Baccano! is presented in an anamorphic widescreen that highlights the excellent design work beautifully. The middle-range animation by Aniplex and Brain’s Base is functional but unimpressive, on a par with shows like Emma or Kyo Kara Maoh. Baccano! is also an anime where the English language soundtrack seems more fitting than the original Japanese. This is no slight on the original Japanese actors, but one expects American gangsters to speak Italian and Noo-Yawk or Chicago-accented English just as one expects samurai to speak in Japanese. Much credit must also go to the excellent dub casting that mixes the expected anime voice-over veterans with a number of relative newcomers, if only to populate the show’s immense cast. The rich and detailed sound on these DVDs is in 5.1 Dolby Digital in both English and Japanese. Extras are limited to clean opening and closing credits and an English voice-actor commentary track for one episode per volume, both of which are highly entertaining but not terribly informative. The insert of each DVD case also include brief character descriptions, nicely using the back-side of the DVD artwork.
If nothing else, it’s nice to find a series that over-estimates the intelligence and attention span of its audience rather than pandering to the lowest common denominator. The storytelling decisions, pacing, and offbeat sense of humor may take some time to get used to, but it still seems worth the effort. In Italian, “Baccano” means ruckus, commotion, or “the noise of a party, of people having fun.” It takes a bit more work to enjoy this party, but so far it seems worth the effort if you have the time, the energy, and the attention span.