Baccano! Anime Review
US Release By
Supernatural period crime drama/comedy/thriller/adventure
16 25-minute episodes
2007-07-26 - 2007-11-01
It's hard to say where the story starts--could be on an ill-fated ship in the 1700s, could be aboard an even more ill-fated train ride in 1931, or it could be a series of seemingly-unrelated events in 1930. It may not have an end, either, but there's no shortage of players--from immortal alchemists seeking the secret to bootlegging the elixer of eternal life, to three crime families in a brutal gang war, to a girl looking for a lost brother on the wrong side of everyone he knew, to two thieves whose cluelessness is equaled only by their good cheer. The only certainty is that there's a lot going on, a lot of people are going to end up dead, and not all of them are liable to stay dead.
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Baccano! (appropriately, "ruckus" in Italian) is a lot of things: Character-dense, fiercely non-linear, unflinchingly violent, challenging to piece together, darkly tragic, flat-out hilarious, and confusing to put it mildly. Like a pile of jumbled puzzle pieces without the box to look to for a hint, you be halfway through the series before you have any idea what the overall picture looks like. Have faith: It not only fits together at the end, the result is as entertaining as anime can be. The character animation is fantastic, the beautiful art captures abundant Prohibition-era flavor, and the huge ensemble cast gives life and energy to all of it.
Baccano! effortlessly weaves together character-driven comedy, a dark, multi-layered story, rip-roaring adventure, merciless violence, and twisted romance to create something entirely unique and, above all else, massively entertaining from the first scene to the post-credits parting shot. Trust me when I say taking the time to let it get going is worth your while--put simply, shows like this are why you own a TV.
Full ReviewSwitch to Quick Review
Baccano! (appropriately, "ruckus" in Italian) is a lot of things: Character-dense, fiercely non-linear, unflinchingly violent, challenging to piece together, and confusing to put it mildly. More than anything, though, it is fantastically entertaining. You probably won't have any idea what's going on until it's half over, but it's about as much fun as you can have watching anime. If Baccano were a question, the answer would be a resounding Bacca-yes.1
Watching Baccano! is like getting doled out handfuls of puzzle pieces with no box to use for reference. It's frustrating at first, but fitting them together is fun, it's satisfying to see the finished picture come together, and it turns out the picture is awesome.
Unlike most shows this good, the first episode is the weakest by far. Not because of the overdramatic narrator explaining to his young pupil, and indirectly the audience, that there is no single main character or hero in the story. (It is, incidentally, the only episode with any exposition--they're about the only characters who aren't in almost every episode.) No, it's because you won't have the foggiest idea what's going on. Nor will you until about halfway through the series (when it finally offers a single episode of background).
The reason being that Baccano! consists entirely of a dense knot of interrelated plot threads scattered across several years of time, and it constantly cuts--without segue--from one person, place, and time to another. You will, in fact, have seen about half of the epilogue by the end of the first episode, though you will have no idea that's what it was, who any of the characters are, what's going on, or what events lead up to that point until nearly the end.
That's the only problem with the series--it starts out in such narrative chaos that you just have to trust that it's going to come together eventually, and won't betray you by falling apart at the end. Believe me, it doesn't--not only does it all fit meticulously, the end is flat-out spectacular on multiple levels. Exciting, hilarious, twistedly romantic, you name it.
As if keeping track of when and where the scene is weren't enough, the number of characters is staggering. You'll see no less than seventeen named people in the intro, and a montage of twenty three during the end credits, and that still doesn't include everyone. Those aren't just single-episode faces, either--most of them appear in every episode at least briefly. Not even mentioning the three crime families, two cults, and several other shady groups with their hands in things.
None of them, as the series states in no uncertain terms, is the main character, or the hero. Several could be, but Baccano! staunchly refuses to give anyone enough focus or screen time to rise too far above the rest. Somewhat surprisingly--again, as the series says explicitly--the main-est of them are probably the comic relief duo Issac and Miria, who through chance and luck just happen to be around during almost every major event. They're also even more clueless than the poor viewer as to what's happening (to hilarious effect).
The lack of focus doesn't make the huge cast any less intriguing. On the contrary, there are a half-dozen different people who you're likely to get attached to, and the majority of the remainder are interesting in one way or another.
When I say none are the hero, I mean it; the cast inhabits the morally-ambiguous underbelly of Chicago and New York in the Prohibition era, and nearly all of them are attached to organized crime in one way or another. It does, however, have definite villains, including one of the more flamboyant ones in memory: Ladd, a gleefully psychotic killer who literally jumps up and down with excitement at the opportunity to commit mayhem. In any other series he'd have stolen the show, but here he's just another colorful, blood-soaked player. Elsewhere we have everything from cheerful young crime initiates, to brooding alchemists, to a professional killer as chilling as he is appealing.
Further, you get double your money's worth out of Baccano!--it's one of those rare series that demands a second viewing. I was, frankly, shocked by not just how much more I caught the second time through, but how much I'd flat-out forgotten was even there. I suppose when you have no framework into which to put the flood of random scenes you start with, your brain doesn't even bother to store half of them. Think of it as a bonus--it's so good you're going to want to show it to someone else when you've finished, and you may well enjoy it more the second time through. Just try to resist the urge to spoil the surprises.
Speaking of which, I'm trying not to say much about the details of the plot or characters, since part of the fun is piecing everything together, and Baccano! serves up some magnificent little twists. Periodically, you'll realize that you know what's about to happen, and the new perspective on old events gives both the satisfaction of finding where a puzzle piece fits and an unexpectedly entertaining answer to previously asked questions. Elsewhere, some of the most uproariously funny moments are that way precisely because they're so unexpected.
Indeed, I can't think of another series willing to overlap flat-out comedy and entirely serious situations so heavily, much less one that succeeds so completely with the technique. It's not a parody, either--the drama is real and the comedy comes from context, not exaggeration. Baccano! just has an incredible confidence in its ability to juxtapose serious characters and situations with silly ones without ruining either. Confidence that is entirely warranted, I might add.
Trigun and The Irresponsible Captain Tylor might come to mind as genre-mixing parallels (Issac, in fact, shares Vash's Japanese voice and some of his character). Both of those series, however, lay a humorous face on serious philosophy, where Baccano! cares more about dark drama than philosophy and, at its heart, is all about pure entertainment.
On the topic of voice cast, given the setting the reasonably good English dub is theoretically the better fit, but the Japanese cast is so good I wouldn't even consider switching. The range is huge--from Issac and Miria's unwaveringly cheerful, high-pitched, energetic insanity courtesy Masaya Onosaka and Sayaka Aoki, to a collection of brooding alchemists, to Keiji Fujiwara dishing out Ladd's frighteningly unhinged swings between blithe violence and gleeful, bloodthirsty madness. There's even Norio Wakamoto playing his trademark overacting to the hilt in the introductory episode. Every character's voice is memorable and perfectly-suited, which is saying something with a cast this large.
Baccano!'s visuals, by top-notch studio Brains Base, are just as good as everything else. Decadent speakeasies, grimy back alleys, smoke-filled gangster hideouts, and the streets of New York and Chicago--all are painted with ample detail and moody 1930s flavor, in a slightly soft-focus style. The detailed character art is gorgeous, and the appealing character designs are varied and recognizable (good thing, too, or keeping track of who's who would be even harder than it is). Best of all is the character animation--smooth and natural, it gives life and variety to the wide range of personalities. Ladd, in particular, monopolizes attention every time he's onscreen, with his wild gesticulation being as much a part of his character as his voice. Action isn't the focus, but the brief flares are also impressive, both for the extreme style and bloody realism. (On that note, if you're squeamish, be warned--Baccano! pulls no punches when it comes to brutality and gore.)
After the fittingly frenetic jazz opening Makoto Yoshimori's background score is less of a spectacle than the rest of the production, but is nonetheless well-suited. Moody piano solos and gangland-flavored horn flourishes accent or punctuate scenes, although as often as not the action is left to speak for itself. The melancholy outro is the weakest part of the whole production; not bad, but unremarkable, and it lacks the otherwise uniform period flavor.
A final note on the dual ends. After the 13-episode series proper wraps everything up in spectacular fashion and punctuates it with a perfect after-the-credits exclamation point, there are three more episodes. These are less an epilogue than some extra time with characters who got less attention, plus a little flourish to close the story where it began. Extra, yet not the least bit superfluous--the series doesn't need them, but they add to it and are thoroughly entertaining.2
In all, Baccano! is a lot of different things all at once, and that's one of the reasons it's so special. Nothing else puts together the back-to-back combination of hilarious situation comedy, merciless violence, rip-roaring adventure, brooding tragedy, and all-around entertainment that Baccano! maintains from the first scene to the post-credits parting shot. Trust me when I say taking the time to let it get going is worth your while--put simply, shows like this are why you own a TV.
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To start with, Durarara! is another series set in a different time and place in the same world, and while the material is drastically different and it's far more linear, it has an equally large and incongruent cast, and maintains a similarly unexpected mix of drama, funky humor, and action; pretty much a must-see unless your only reason for liking Baccano was the setting. In terms of the overlapping, nonlinear, puzzle-like plot, Boogiepop Phantom is by far the most obviously similar series; its relatively down-to-earth take on supernatural things that go bump in the night is also similar, and the darkest parts of Baccano! aren't too thematically different. Trigun mixes wacky characters with heavy themes, and the sillier half of Vash's personality is very similar to Issac, but it's both broader and more philosophical. In terms of genre mixing, Cowboy Bebop (and its cousin Samurai Champloo) is the closest match, though even there the lighter and darker parts aren't quite so close together.
Notes and Trivia
Baccano! is based on an ongoing series of light novels of the same name by Ryohgo Narita, with illustrations by Katsumi Enami; they're not available in English as of this writing. There is also a short manga adaptation by Narita, with art by Ginyuu Shijin, that focuses on the events on the Flying Pussyfoot; it is disappointingly linear.
The similarly-nonsensically-named (and similarly-wild) series Durarara!! is set in modern Japan in the same world, although the story has no connection apart from a brief cameo by Issac and Miria.
The original TV run of Baccano! in Japan was limited to the "main" 13 episodes. Episodes 14 through 16 were included as bonuses on the Japanese DVD release. They could be considered a separate OAV series, due to being direct-to-video, but on account of the numbering and being entirely consistent in style, they're usually counted as part of the TV series.
At last check all 16 subtitled episodes of Baccano! are available streamed, free, from ANN and Hulu, so if you live in the US you have no excuse at all not to go watch it right now. The first two episodes are also streamed dubbed.
"Baccano" is an Italian word, meaning "din" or "ruckus." The phonetic Japanese (バッカーノ！) makes it clear that the correct pronunciation is with an Italian accent, stressing the middle syllable--"ba-kaah-noh."
The outro is composed by Yuki Kajiura, the woman behind some of the most spectacularly creative (and memorable) anime songs you'll hear outside Yoko Kanno's repertoire. Which makes it all the more disappointing that it's just not that interesting. She did not, however, compose the music for the rest of the series.
Footnote 1: The management sincerely apologizes for this awful pun.
Footnote 2: I don't think the three "extra" episodes (14-16) are distinct enough to merit reviewing separately, but do have a few additional comments. Given the nature and nonlinearity of the story, there isn't exactly an "end" to any of it--a significant percentage of the action takes place after the finale, chronologically--but the series has two definite conclusions. The first comes in episode 13, and a slightly more final-feeling one in episode 16. (Actually, depending on how you count independent plot threads, there could be a least six "ends.")
It's not accurate to call the extra three episodes an epilogue, although most of the action does take place after the previous 13 episodes. Rather, they develop some of the characters less central to the main plot threads and provide some additional (and entirely satisfying) follow-through on things left open.
Although these episodes are, due to their position in the story, considerably more linear in construction than anything previously (apart from the Advenna Avis episode), the quality and style are consistent and they fit seamlessly. I'm impressed that the series manages to end conclusively, then start right back up, without giving the sense that the addition is anything but an integral, continuing part of the story--or that the previous end had been left open. You could walk away from either end feeling like the story had wrapped up in a satisfying manner.
The closest thing I have to a complaint is the addition of one extra villain. His purpose is obvious--a flamboyant, insane counterpart to stand in for Ladd. Unfortunately, that's what he feels like--a stand-in who isn't 100% comfortable in the series (in particular, he's a little more over-the-top in terms of abilities without any particular reason). He's still impressive, memorable, and entertaining, and is nowhere near enough to significantly damage even the three extra episodes. I would just say you'll probably enjoy them more if you go in prepared.
US DVD Review
Funimation's DVD box set puts together the entire series, bonus episodes included, in a 3-disc set packed neatly into two thinpak-style cases (with reversible covers) in an attractive slipcover (it features a wrap-around group picture of twenty major cast members). The anamorphic widescreen video looks good even in the sometimes quite-dark scenes (no significant banding or mottling I could see), the episodes have a standard set of chapter stops, and the audio is in your choice of English Dolby 5.1 or Japanese stereo (sadly, no 5.1 Japanese track), plus an accurately translated subtitle track. (Actually, maybe a little too accurate--they include occasional Japanese name suffixes in the subtitles, which aren't particularly significant to the dialogue and are a little out of place given the setting.)
Extras include commentary on four episodes (4, 7, 9 and 15) with some of the English staff and dub cast, a Japanese promo video, a ten-minute Japanese "propaganda" (making-of, more or less) video, and creditless opening and endings. My only complaint about the set is that it doesn't appear to have the Japanese cast listed anywhere.
Aniplex (not Funimation) also briefly offered a limited-edition US-release Blu-ray set of the series. On the plus side, it's Blu-ray and comes in a two-case, 3-disc set with attractive artwork. On the negative, the series wasn't actually mastered in HD resolution, so the video is just upscaled to HD. That's unavoidable; what isn't is that it only has stereo audio in English and Japanese (no 5.1 English) and lacks the promo and propaganda videos that Funimation offered as extras. The box also isn't as high-quality as Funimation's nicer Blu-ray box sets, but unlike some of Aniplex's limited edition sets, the price is quite reasonable. Also uncharacteristically, they've re-issued it at least once.
A variety of graphic violence and torture, generally sketchy morals, and some adult themes put this in the 16-up range.
Violence: 4 - While the violence ins't gratuitous, it's graphic, brutal and realistic, including some explicit depictions of torture.
Nudity: 1 - There's surprisingly little nudity.
Sex/Mature Themes: 2 - While there are adult themes of all sorts throughout, there's no explicitly sexual content.
Language: 3 - Funimation's translation has a modest amount of rough language.
Available in North America from Funimation on a bilingual DVD box set of the full series and extra episodes. Prior to that had been released on four individual DVD volumes. At last check Funimation also offers the entire series, subtitled, streamed to North America; two episodes of the dub are also available streamed.