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Baccano! – Review

by Miguel Douglas

@isugoi

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In the year 1711, a group of alchemists are granted an elixir of immortality, with the stipulation that they must kill each other until there can be only one. The now-immortal group unanimously decides it wasn’t worth it and destroy the elixir; but one of them, Slizard Quates, starts to kill off his fellow immortals. To reduce the risk of Quates tracking them all down, the group separates and goes their separate ways. Neither of them crosses paths again till 1930, Manhattan, when Quates manages to create a new elixir of immortality. However, he loses it and it ends up going around town, taken to be a bottle of alcohol and unknowingly drunk by many residents. The drinkers of this new elixir include Isaac and Miria, an eccentric pair of thieves; the Gandor brothers, a Mafia family; and their associates in the Camorra, the Martillos (who employ some of the original immortals). Now, not only are a new group of immortals created.

Stemming from the light novel and manga by author Ryohgo Narita, Baccano! is perhaps one of the most original anime series in years due to its complex narrative structure. Its presentation is certainly one to be admired, as it expertly weaves between the past and present, establishing keen insight to the series’ substantial cast of characters and their backgrounds. With the first episode consisting of a delirious collage of sadistic imagery, humorous situations and perplexing character interactions, it is certainly a confusion introduction for any viewer. But once Baccano! settles into a considerable pacing after its initial episodes—a notion that could easily be taken as an understatement—it slowly builds and centers its narrative around a singular night on a railroad train entitled The Pussyfoot. It is here where the series constantly returns to focus on key characters, intersecting their roles to one another amidst the backdrop of mafia warfare, serial killers and supernatural immortals. Using that night as a focal point, Baccano! implements a series of sizable flashback sequences that take us ever deeper as viewers into the bizarre and twisted view of a Prohibition-era America and beyond, intermixing the harsh reality of that period with otherworldly ancient occultism.

With such mature themes expressed throughout Baccano!, it is definitely not for the faint of heart. With its brutal depiction of death, torture and mutilation, the series does an excellent job in portraying the frenzied nature of an era where violence was perceived as a nature solution to most problems. With the aspects of violence being heavily implemented throughout the plot, the series also inserts various moments of humor and drama to offset it. While some of the violence may certainly be deemed over-the-top for some viewers, it delivers a refreshing outlook to an already creative approach, mainly because of the series’ diverse cast of characters. This is where Baccano! works incredibly well. Given the rather large cast of characters, the series takes its time to explore their pasts and motives. Alongside the rather fluctuating narrative structure, the series doesn’t introduce characters only to have them dissipate as the series advances—rather, the opposite occurs. The cast of Baccano! each get their share of character development, mostly reserving an entire episode to showcase their history and involvement up to the point of that fateful night on The Pussyfoot. This approach allows the characters to seem less archetypical in nature and more individualistic, allowing us as viewers to get to know their mannerisms and personalities. Granted, while some of the characters do in fact seem rather superficial at first, their confrontations and interactions redeem their perceived lack of individuality, thus showcasing just how contrasting they truly are. In essence, Baccano! doesn’t necessarily have a “main” character in a tradition sense. The series moves from character to character at such a rapid pace, that a viewer isn’t given much time to adjust to any one overall character. This again cements the unconventional approach offered consistently by the series, delivering a plethora of characters that complement the its encompassing plot.

Concerning the animation, the look of the series is somewhat inconsistent at best. While many of the highlights of animation stem from the action sequences, some episodes do look better than others, with noticeable drops in animation that seem oddly out of place at moments—which is often the case with series over twelve episodes in length. What the series does do an adequate job on though is envisioning a gritty Prohibition-era New York City and Chicago. While being one of the few anime series to be situated primarily within America, the series brings an authentic look to its surroundings—from the architecture of buildings to the attire that characters wear; the series establishes itself visually pertaining to that specific time period. This artistic choice brings about muted and gray colors that permeate throughout the series, giving it a shabby vintage appearance that plays well into developing its world and also playing upon a realized nostalgic factor.

But considering the creative approach that Baccano! strives to deliver in terms of narrative, the series will perplex some viewers because of such an approach. In fact, the initial episodes may appear to be chaotic in nature considering that the plot does constantly leap back and forth, let alone allow the viewer to accurately absorb what’s occurring on screen. This is certainly not a series where one should not pay attention to details or skip any of its episodes; it would be a huge disservice to do so. There is so much plot compacted into each individual episode that it’s remarkable to see just how well everything ties together as the series progresses. There are narrative leaps that literally span a century or more within certain episodes, which may utterly baffle some viewers expecting a logical narrative structure to easily guide them along the way. This is not to say that Baccano! is inefficient in terms of coherently providing a narrative that is easy to follow, but it’s just an approach that requires a viewer to acutely observe the time leaps and motivations behind a character’s actions. If adhere to, the series delivers a superb plot that reflects upon the notion of life, companionship and even the very structure of conventional storytelling itself. The non-linear atmosphere of the plot is both intriguing and at times frustrating, but the series has a magnificent way of slowly unveiling elements of the plot, only to resolve them in a cross referential fashion in later episodes.

Despite the rather complicated yet engaging nature of the plot, Baccano! is still a relatively interesting and creative premise for an anime series. It’s this adherence towards an element nonconventional storytelling that truly establishes the series as one that can stand out amongst many of the anime series within the last decade. It has a refreshing cast of characters that don’t necessarily come off as individuals we’ve viewed in previous series, with considerable time given to each for character development. While not certainly for everyone, the series delivers a mature form of storytelling that doesn’t easily attempt to portray characters in a rigid dichotomy between good or evil. In many instances, our initial perception of characters change substantially throughout the course of the series, each time introducing us as viewers to a new an interesting facet of their lives. Admittedly, the violence is certainly graphic at times, and this may be the deciding factor in certain viewers wanting to continue watching the series, but for those who don’t mind such choices, it plays an integral part in showcasing the psyche of some of its characters. As such with its narrative, Baccano! is a series that may require multiple viewings to completely understand its intricate plot and necessary connections, in turn also making it one of the most compelling anime series within the last several years.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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