REVIEW: DVD Release: Baccano! - The Complete Collection

Series: Baccano! - The Complete Collection
Release date: 11th October 2010
Certificate: 18
Running time: 406 mins
Director: Takahiro Omori
Starring: Masaya Onosaka, Sayaka Aoki, Akemi Kanda, Atsushi Imaruoka, Chiwa Saito
Genre: Anime
Studio: Manga
Format: DVD
Country: Japan

Plotted over just one season, and consisting of sixteen short episodes, Baccano! is not only an ambitious adaptation due to the amount of source material - the graphic novel series boasts as many as fifteen issues and counting - but also due to the unconventional storytelling methods and a plethora of protagonists.

United States, the Prohibition era. Wracked by the robberies, shootouts, heists and assassinations that dictate the lifestyles of the unscrupulous, the crooked and the downright dangerous.

But while many lack moral fibres, no-one is without their story and, as their shady lives intertwine on the streets, in the bars and aboard the famous transcontinental train, The Flying Pussyfoot, the true extent of these vagabonds' histories - some spanning centuries - comes to suggest that there is more to their lives than death…

From the beginning, Baccano! (the word for 'row' or 'din' in Italian) acknowledges and makes a virtue of its staggered narrative and abundance of main characters. "Who is the hero of this story?" asks Carol, the first of many characters we are to meet in Baccano! and one of two that introduce the events which make up the bulk of the series as a mysterious, paranormal story that needs piecing together. This we are left to figure out for ourselves, as before too long the world that the pair discuss becomes the focus of the story, without Carol - or her boss, the vice-president of the local newspaper - to define it as perhaps a director less confident than Takahiro Omori (Halbane Renmei; Durarara) would have been inclined to attempt. The audience, here, is left to watch and trust as, particularly in the opening episode, they are subjected to a disjointed affair - based around a multitude of equally emphasised characters not at first clearly linked - that they have to simply watch and believe will acquire fluency.

It does not take long for things to start taking shape, with the context of each story strand allowed to develop by the second episode, during which the characters' paths begin to cross and more of the overall story - albeit somewhat superficially to begin with - becomes coherent. Not only does this choice of structure suit the overall context ("Who is the hero?") but it also proves to be a very gratifying and fun way to tell the story, even if a certain degree of patience and trust is required to allow the time that the puzzle needs to put itself together.

Once in its rhythm, this cross-genre portmanteau, which blends in its lavish thematic palette otherworldly mysticism, bright humour, convincing horror and shocking violence, rewards those that give it a chance with a pastiche so confident in its ability to justify its ambitious genre-splicing and narrative unconventionality that it seldom fails to convince. The expectations of the gangster genre with which this has obvious links are ingeniously subverted, with Baccano! involving a paranormal element that grants characters immortality, and throws a spanner in the dynamic of the violent setting, while making effective use of its diverse range of characters - all given a significant say in proceedings - to derive romance, mystery and, most surprisingly of all, a brand of impulsive but well-considered and witty comedy from the short, snappy episodes.

It could, perhaps, be argued that the economy and slickness of the storytelling coupled with the consistently intriguing premise renders Baccano! a little bit too edible, and many will find it fairly easy to get through an entire disc or two (each containing four episodes) in a single sitting. However, this is not something that is easy to hold against it, with the fleeting, fast pace of the series serving to add to the charms of this unique and gleefully fitful romp. Most of the time.

With action spread so thickly across such a broad collection of characters, it becomes almost impossible for Omori to keep tabs on the consistency of tone, and there are occasions when simmering tension is derailed by misplaced light-heartedness (usually in the form of chirpy but dim thieves, Isaac and Miriam, whose comic presence admittedly serves as a very welcome relief for the majority of the time), or when the propensity of Omori to detail the violence in great length distracts from the emotional draw or trivialises the intellectual or theoretical significance of a scene. The feeling that the characters need to acknowledge and justify at length their rationale and behaviour in such a short amount of time too often brings them to soliloquise, drawing out scenes that grow more tired than they do inspired.

The best example of this is in the character Ladd who spends far more time talking to himself about his own misfiring morality than justifying his screen time that could be better spent exploring the emotional and physical connotations inflicted on those bearing the immortality protecting them in this fast-paced portmanteau. He is, at times, a compelling character, but the disproportionate amount of screen time allotted for his self-referential nattering begins to irritate when - particularly in the parts onboard The Flying Pussyfoot - there remains so much mystery yet unsolved.

There are also slight issues with the voice acting when it comes to achieving the accents of the eras in which Baccano! is set, but, for the most part, the characters ring true, and some excellent chemistry between the actors brings great colour to proceedings. The same can be said for the soundtrack - reminiscent almost to that of Cowboy Bebop for which Omori worked in the animation department - which makes great use of jazz and blues in particular to strengthen Baccano!'s connection to its gangster genre roots that, through pioneering narrative endeavour, immense ambition in general and a colourful cast of characters, it more or less reinvents in territory it’s far from typically associated with.

Tremendous fun throughout, Baccano! is short but very sweet. Although perhaps inhibited by the sheer amount that it tries to shoehorn into its relatively modest running time, and requiring patience for the jumbled nature of the story to take shape, this adaptation does plenty to charm with its extraordinary take on a familiar genre and immense ambition to blend but also defy conventions expected of its vast range of thematic elements. DWS

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