Durarara!! is set in the Ikebukuro sub-district of Tokyo, Japan. When country boy Mikado Ryugamine moves to the city to attend school with his childhood friend Masaomi Kida, he hopes to find the excitement and adventure that eluded him back home. This isn’t a difficult task as Ikebukuro is bustling with all kinds of amazing personalities, including a quartet of misfit otaku, a Russian sushi seller, a super strong loan shark enforcer and a self-serving genius information broker. But possibly the most incredible is a so called ‘Headless Rider’ looking for her lost head, weaving through the streets on a black bike that makes only the sound of a horse. Sparks fly as the lives of these varied individuals entwine in unpredictable ways.
When I read the premise myself, I wasn’t fully sure if this series was going to work for me. It sounded exciting enough but not really too out of the norm for anyone who’s seen enough anime content. Japanese teenagers get mixed up in urban fantasy weirdness…same old, right? Wrong.
One of the greatest choices Durarara!! makes is the layered approach it takes to storytelling. Although we indeed spend the first episode with Mikado and Masaomi, the show instantly takes the approach of rotating the focus character every episode. The result is that after a high-impact introduction to this cast, we get to explore each of them in focus and have our perceptions challenged. At the same time, each episode has the various characters interact in various ways and form an engrossing narrative with a mystery at its heart. The central mystery is the question of who or what is the headless rider. We get a general answer pretty quickly, expanding to the question, ‘Then just where is the rider’s head?’ Not a beat is wasted delving into this and answers sometimes come from surprising places. Like any good mystery story the narrative trusts the viewer to start piecing things together and even jump ahead, keeping things lively in turn.
Sadly, the second half of the show does drop mildly. After initial episodes about a ‘slasher’ who is stalking the back alleys at night, the focus is put firmly onto Masaomi, Mikado and their female class mate Anri in a storyline about gang warfare. This is an element that the show introduced from the beginning and a logical next step for the story but it simply isn’t as engaging as the more varied fantasy horror ensemble the show led with. Perhaps most damning is it relies on that old writing chestnut of characters suddenly not talking to one another, creating dramatic powder-kegs as each acts on assumption. Luckily, we do still have the well-established and likeable wider cast to check in with.
One minor concern is that, like many anime series based on a series of books, the ending isn’t quite as complete as one might hope. A lot of well-done build up for the wider plot at hand goes without resolution. There’s an episode set after the final one but as this itself was intended simply as a bonus for buying the DVDs in Japan it’s more of comedy piece than a resolution. However, this is the rare time when a show like this actually gets a continuation. New episodes have only recently been announced, and as such this set is perfectly poised to get the new and the curious up to speed. Though although plot threads are left dangling at this point, there is fulfilling general closure for the characters who are the heart of the series.
An inherent piece of the show’s logic also raises my eyebrow. Very early on we’re presented with the opinion that everybody has secrets so it’s apparently immature to be upset by betrayals or learning of them. Although the show does a good job of subtly exploring this notion, the way it’s brought up and in short order affirmed by the story and later plot twists isn’t completely solid with me. Feels like taking a truth of human nature and twisting it to absolve people (and select characters) of blame.
The show is presented in a choice of Japanese or English and it’s hard to choose a preference as both casts include some of the best vocal talent of their respective languages. Japan’s Hiroshi Kamiya, Mamoru Miyano and Daisuke Ono are matched by talent including Crispin Freeman, Steven Blum and Johnny Yong Bosch. Both entire casts shine but I’d like to single out Kari Wahlgren’s work as Celty. She delivers a pitch perfect performance which really sells a character it could be possible to be weirded out by. Either track is a winner here though I generally stuck to watching the dub with subtitles on. From this it’s possible to see that the dub does take occasional liberties with translation but pretty much only to word dialogue in a way that sounds more natural in English, especially the trash talk in the gang war story. Clearly the dub actors had a lot of fun with this show, as these gag reels show (SPOILERS WITHIN, BE CAREFUL)
Takahiro Kishida’s character designs have sketch-like traits similar to his designs for Madoka Magica and somewhat fitting for characters who originated in a series of novels. Indeed animation and art design is strong in general, with lots of detailed backgrounds and use of lighting tones to produce a show that is just as enjoyable visually as it is in terms of writing or emotion. Even a few familiar anime animation cheats come to be cleverly subverted for dramatic impact.
Extras are limited to clean versions of both openings and endings, housed on the first of four discs. A bit minimal but I’m not sure what else could be offered as the two DVD exclusive episodes are included and even slotted into their correct chronology within the main show. The retail release will however come packaged with 4 art cards.
So yes, Durarara!! really did win me over. It might lose some steam with the last arc but not nearly enough that I can mark it down for it. The narrative structure is refreshing, the mysteries intriguing and by the end I’d challenge any viewer to not have at least one character they’re rooting for. Get caught up now and look forward to that second season.
Durarara!! is available to order on Blu-ray from Amazon UK.