Durarara!! Anime Review
US Release By
Supernatural Urban Comedy-Drama
24 26-minute episodes + 2 26-minute bonus episodes
What's In It
- Evil Pharmaceutical Corporations
- Not-at-all-evil Headless Horsemen
- Creepy Couples
- Underaged Gang Leaders
- Three-Way Angst-Fests
- Cursed Swords
- Incongruent Romance
- Illegal Immigrants
- Violence: 2 (moderate)
- Nudity: 1 (mild)
- Sex: 3 (significant)
- Language: 3 (significant)
Mikado Ryuugamine is a small-town kid with a name much more interesting than his life. That's going to change in a big way when he finally works up the nerve to escape the familiar and move to the lively Tokyo district of Ikebukuro. Along with his flamboyant online buddy Kida Masaomi, Mikado is about to get a crash course on the various movers and shakers of the territory: The thuggish street gang Yellow Scarves; the inhumanly strong and notoriously short-tempered Shizuo Heiwajima; his nemesis, the slimy, incredibly well-connected back-room dealer Izaya Orihara; the friendly black Russian sushi hawker Simon. Most mysterious of all, though, is a black-suited rider on a silent motorcycle occasionally spotted racing through the streets like some sort of modern-day phantom on unknown business. And then there's the Dollars--a colorless color gang that many people belong to but nobody seems to know the purpose or meaning of.
What do all these folks have in common? Nothing obvious, but there are dark things afoot behind the scenes that will eventually pull all these players and more together into a tangled web of intrigue.
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Durarara!! is a quirky, genre-defying yarn set in hip, urban Ikebukuro and well-versed in Internet culture. It starts out at a much more leisurely pace than its Prohibition-era cousin Baccano, although it's still packed with characters and loosely-intertwined stories. This slowly builds to a dense knot of twisted relationships, crazy backstories, wild plans, and all-around entertaining comedic-dramatic-exciting-adventure. The mix of genres defies easy categorization, but it's all kinds of fun to watch. And then the series launches into its second season with some of the most hilariously, lovably, jaw-droppingly incongruent stuff imaginable, the sort of thing you have to see to believe. This is quickly overlapped with what looks to be an even crazier cacophony of intertwining plots building to an even wilder finale.
It's something of a slow-motion shock, then, when the closing third devolves into a three-way sea of brooding adolescent angst with some additional scale and weirdness added for flavor. It's not that the shoujo-style tragedy of errors, full of dark pasts and misunderstandings, can't be entertaining. It's not even that Durarara!! does a bad job of it. It's just that the show had been roaring along with such magnificently warped, sporadically-hilarious gusto that the lead-in to the finale feels mundane, bleak, and downright slow in comparison.
Durarara!! is still a roundly entertaining and thoroughly memorable show that I highly recommend, it's just a shame the end doesn't live up to the incredibly high standard it sets for itself.
Full ReviewSwitch to Quick Review
Durarara!! is a heck of a show. A mix of genres that defies easy categorization, it's packed with characters and loosely-intertwined stories that slowly build to a dense knot of twisted relationships, wild plans, supernatural goings-on, and all-around entertaining comedic-dramatic-exciting-adventure. Its only fault is that it sets an exceedingly high standard for itself in the first two thirds, then fails to live up to it in the final story arc, but it's still a wild--and wildly entertaining--ride.
Durarara!! is sort of a cousin to the Prohibition-era spectacle Baccano!--also written by Ryohgo Narita and set in a very different time and place in the same world. It's very much its own series, though; rest assured that familiarity with Baccano! is by no means necessary (or expected).1
Things start out at a relatively leisurely pace; the first episode is a a who's-who tour of the huge cast of colorful Ikebukuro movers-and-shakers from the perspective of a small-town high school kid destined for big things. The second episode is a solid downer that establishes the villain by having him spend an entire episode literally trying to talk a depressed girl to death. Do not let that turn you off--it foreshadows the final story arc a bit, but is otherwise out of place in this cheerfully crazy series.
Once it gets underway, Durarara!! has a quirky, offbeat sense of humor that won't quit, and manages to feel approachable and unpretentious despite its hip, urban locale and comfortable familiarity with Internet culture. It's also very human--for all the crazy stuff going on, it's heavily character-driven and full of heart. The genre-defying blend of magnificently warped romance, crazy backstories (everybody has a skeleton in the closet), and deadpan hilarity just keeps getting better--every time the show does something so marvelously incongruent that you think it couldn't possibly top it, it proves you wrong, right up through the introductory part of the second season, which is pure entertainment magic.
It's something of a slow-motion shock, then, when the closing third devolves into a three-way sea of brooding adolescent angst with some additional scale and supernatural seasoning.
Not that there's anything inherently wrong with adolescent angst--Durarara!! plays the somewhat shoujo-style game of tragic misunderstandings fairly well. It even does a good job of making something entertaining of what is essentially several straight episodes spent investigating who's doing what, and why--stuff the viewer already more or less knows.
Part of the issue is pacing, or lack thereof; it sprints gleefully through the first two thirds only to peter out and mope around for most of the incongruently down and slow-moving closing third. Mostly, though, it's that something so straightforward and, frankly, un-awesome comes as a catastrophic letdown after what Durarara!! had just finished pulling off. Merely good isn't nearly good enough for this series. The finale does leave a decent taste in your mouth, but it's way too long in coming.
Phrased more colorfully, Durarara!! demonstrates conclusively that it's on a first-name basis with Awesome and his buddy That Did Not Just Happen, but decides to hang out with Adolescent Angst for almost the entire endgame.
So that's what Durarara!! does wrong. Now I'll back up to the beginning and explain what it does oh-so-right.
The real beauty of Durarara!! starts as soon as it's done with the introductory episodes, when it declares that it has every intention of defying expectations and giving you about as much anime entertainment as is possible.
Now, it's hard to say too much more without spoiling some of the surprise, which seems a pity since the quirks are so deliciously unexpected. So, if you haven't already seen it and want to fully savor the experience, just take my word for it, stop reading right now, and go and watch at least through episode four. If you haven't started to fall in love with the series by that point, forget it. If you have, you're welcome. As for those who don't care about spoilers:
It turns out phantom motorcycle rider Celty--occasionally-spotted urban legend of Ikebukuro--is a modern-day headless horseman.2 Cool. And one of the good guys. Even better. At that point, I found myself musing--as I sometimes do--"Wouldn't it be awesome if the headless horseman was a main character?"
Well, Durarara!! is one of those rare shows that hears the audience thinking that and answers, "Yes, yes it would." Not only a main character, arguably the main character for the entire first half. And you know what? It is awesome. In both the literal and colloquial sense--awe-inspiringly wild, incongruent, hilarious, and endearing,3 and flat-out, jaw-droppingly awesome.
There are plenty of other wonderfully quirky characters, too: A cheerful, geeky back-alley plastic surgeon, a mafia enforcer with a sense of justice whose conversational repertoire mostly consists of hitting people with street signs, a troupe of slightly unhinged hardcore geeks with a minibus and an in-joke anime reference for every situation, and two of the most clinically insane lovebirds you could hope to never meet. And that's just a start.
On that note, one of the less dramatic things that distinguishes Durarara!! is its willingness to let people talk. It's refreshing to see dialogue given priority over action when appropriate, and it has the added twist of a lot of the conversations going on in an internet chat room that many of the characters frequent. This is more entertaining than it sounds--the face-to-face conversations are almost always colorful (plus look for hilarious unrelated stuff going on in the background), and the chat sessions are succinct and flavorfully-written.4 The only flaw in this (apart from the slow endgame, which has more to do with structure than dialog-focus) is the tendency to let insane villain rants go on a little too long, but that doesn't happen often.
The series is character-driven, but the plot is a nicely-intertwined cacophony involving one evil pharmaceutical corporation, several street gangs, a legendary cursed sword, local organized crime, and a scheme to bring about Armageddon. For all that's going on, it's not unnecessarily difficult to follow, and makes for a satisfying yarn.5
The spectacular visuals, by auteur studio Brain's Base (who also gave Baccano! its look), are beautiful and unfailingly creative without seeming pretentious or unnecessarily flashy. There's an artistic flair to the camera work that gives even the most straightforward scenes a distinctive feel--slightly-off angles and perspectives subtly play with the viewer's sense of balance and place. It also cleverly embraces the anime tendency to draw unimportant background characters crudely; in the many crowd shots unimportant passerby are grey sketches. Rather than being distracting or feeling like a budget-induced cop-out, this does a remarkably good job of drawing the viewer's focus without resorting to artificially empty streets, and captures a bit of the alienation of city life.
The backgrounds are utterly gorgeous. Full of realistic urban detail and Ikebukuro flavor, the deft use of rich color and beautiful lighting set the ever-changing mood. This is quite a contrast with the simple linework and flat coloring of the character art, which gets its own life from the exceptional character animation. The characters have so much personality in no small part because of the distinctive ways in which they move, mixing lifelike gestures with some extra pizzaz. Then there's Celty; despite the lack of a head, she has every bit as much emotion and personality as the rest of the cast. As a fan of good character animation, she alone was worth watching the show for.
Speaking of Celty, she has a voice (though only we get to hear it--she communicates via PDA), one of the better ones in an all-around stellar Japanese cast. The comic timing is sharp, every one of the characters has a distinctive and memorable voice, and the acting is as good in the dramatic parts as the swaths of deadpan comedy. The acting also tells much of the story in a more literal sense; many episodes are narrated by one character or another, adding a great deal of personality and variety to individual sections.
Makoto Yoshimori's music is the final component, and, for a score with a relatively small number of unique tunes, it does an exceedingly good job of holding scenes together. The series has several funky musical cues--most memorable a cute little schoolyard-style piano and recorder tune--that it pulls out at just the right moment to complement (or juxtapose amusingly with) the onscreen action. The opening and end themes--two each--are a nice selection of punchy rock. The first opening is particularly catchy.
Each of these individual elements--clever musical score, cleverer visuals, exceptional acting, a cast of characters as large as it is varied and fun, a sense of humor by turns wacky and deadpan, and a twisting, multi-layered story--weave together into a unique and tremendously entertaining whole. Even if the final story arc isn't as much fun as everything up to that point has you craving, Durarara!! is still entirely worth watching.
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As different as Durarara!! is from Baccano, that's still by far the closest series in terms of multi-genre, massive-cast entertainment. Samurai Champloo is also quite similar in some ways, although it's set in a less-concrete, urban-hip take on the Edo period. Cowboy Bebop is another slickly-produced series that takes a different approach to the multi-genre thing (every episode is a different genre, rather than the whole series being all of them mashed together). You might also have a look at Eden of the East for a series that is set in a roughly-real, but very different-feeling modern Japan, has very high production values, and, while much more serious on average, also dabbles in comedy and drama mixed closely together.
Notes and Trivia
Durarara!! is based on an series of light novels by Ryohgo Narita with illustrations by Suzuhito Yasuda; they're not available in English as of this writing. The stories are set, indirectly, in the same world as the Baccano! light novels, and Miria and Issac even make a couple of cameo appearances. There is also a manga version, written by Narita with art by Akiyo Satorigi.
The show as-aired consists of 24 episodes in the main storyline. There are also two full-length, full-budget bonus episodes included with the video release (in both Japan and the US), episode 12.5, and episode 25.
As of this writing, the entire show is available streamed free (subtitled only) in North America on both Hulu and Crunchyroll. The video quality is better on Hulu, but only Crunchyroll has the two bonus episodes. It also aired, dubbed, on Cartoon Network.
The animation is produced by Brain's Base, a slowly growing studio that only takes on a couple of projects a year, but does a very good job with them. They were also responsible for Baccano and the second season of Spice and Wolf.
Speaking of which, Durarara!! is full of references to other anime. Most directly, the show's resident anime and manga junkies mention several other stories under the Dengeki Bunko label (of which which Durarara!! is one); to name a couple, we see a life-sized Holo cutout from Spice and Wolf at one point, and they quote Bludgeoning Angel Dokuro-chan's catchphrase.
The movie marquees often seen in the backgrounds are also in-jokes--many feature characters or scenes from Baccano! (Given that Issac and Miria appear in the show, we can probably assume that Baccano! does not exist as fiction in Durarara!!, so they are in-jokes and not just references.)
The title is technically Durarara!! (or Dyurarara, in the phonetic Japanese), but the number of "ra"s varies considerably on eyecatch and title cards. It's also abbreviated "Drrr!", occasionally written that way in the show itself and frequently by English-speaking fans on the Internet.
Footnote 1: It's hard to avoid comparing Baccano! and Durarara!!, so for those interested, here's mine: Pedigree and exclamation-pointed nonsense titles aside, they both feature a similar juxtaposition of comedy and drama, a huge cast of diverse players and overlapping plotlines, and a mix of the mundane and wildly supernatural. Even so, Durarara!! is not Baccano! I mean this in two different ways, one of which is positive and one decidedly not.
In the positive sense, Durarara!! is its own series. It has its own unique blend of Internet-savvy, pop-culture-soaked youth, the underbelly of city-never-sleeps Tokyo street life, and an entirely different supernatural twist. The personalities are fresh, and the tone and style aren't quite like anything else. Durarara!! is also drastically more linear and comparatively easy-to-follow, though it still has plenty of non-sequential bits and ample mysteries to unravel. And it's nowhere near as violent--Ikebukuro is dangerous, but hardly Chicago in the '30s.
In the negative sense, Durarara!! is not Baccano!, in that after a solid start and fantastic middle segment it doesn't seem to have enough fun and excitement left for the finale. It honestly feels like it has about the same sixteen episodes worth of dense, manic entertainment that Baccano does, but twenty-four episodes to fill with it.
Footnote 2: Technically a Dullahan, harbinger of death from Celtic faerie mythology. Not something like a Dullahan, literally a Dullahan. Wow.
Footnote 3: Yes, I just called the headless horseman endearing, and I meant it.
Footnote 4: A nice touch is that it's a while before you figure out which handle goes with which actual person; that adds an amusing twist once you figure out who's who. In particular, I started having a lot more fun once I figured out who the grey chat bubbles belong to.
Footnote 5: This is a rather huge spoiler, but my only complaint other than the endgame one I've beaten to death is that writer Ryohgo Narita seems to be a little too fond of his villains (a trait also on display in Baccano). There's nothing wrong with sympathetic villains, or with so-bad-you-love-to-hate-them types (or, heck, even so-bad-you-just-plain-love-them villains), but here, evil mastermind Izaya crosses the line into villains you just plain hate but the writer apparently loves. Letting him rant for way too long on occasion is forgivable. What's not is that after setting him up as such a completely unsympathetic, annoyingly overconfident, viciously annoying slimeball that the only satisfying comeuppance was going to be watching him murdered in a very painful way, the show then proceeds to let him just walk away from his failed evil plan. This is probably because there are more books after the section the anime covers, but it makes for a rather unsatisfying denouement in this stand-alone anime series.
US DVD Review
The DVD release by Aniplex America, like their other sets, is targeted at a relatively narrow (and relatively wealthy) market. It is spread across three sets, each containing eight or nine episodes (including the two bonus episodes, one on each of the second two sets) with bilingual audio and anamorphic widescreen video. They come packed in attractive boxes with a clear slipcover, and include clean openings and endings plus some postcards.
There is no US-release Blu-ray version as of this writing.
Although there's not much blatantly mature content, generally mature themes, very twisted relationships, and bits of violence push it into about the 13-up range, 16-up if you're particularly strict.
Violence: 2 - Brief bits of bloody, realistic violence on occasion, plus some more cartoony brawls.
Nudity: 1 - A few bits of partial undress, very little direct nudity.
Sex/Mature Themes: 3 - Nothing more than romance onscreen and a bit of untoward talk, but there's a lot of inappropriate behavior and generally mature content.
Language: 3 - Some of the gangster types have foul mouths, which the subtitles generally stuck to.