Well, I’m finally back in the saddle with anime reviewing. And to commemorate my triumphant return to form, I’m tackling one of the most overhyped anime in recent years. Don’t believe me? Just take a look at what’s on the back of the DVD case:
“Don’t let nobody tell you there’s no future in the life of crime, because some rackets last forever. But we’ll get to all that immortality jazz later. A mafia turf war is raging on the mean streets of the Big Apple, a place where regular joes bounce between backdoor booze joints and the breadline. But this caper ain’t about a simple gangland brawl, it’s about hoods who can’t seem to die proper after catching a bullet of five between the eyes. Sadistic hit men and the dames they love, mad bombers going boom, monsters going bump, and soul sucking alchemists bootlegging an elixir of eternal life! Just remember, Baccano! ain’t about beginnings and ends. It’s about twists and turns, bub. Paths don’t cross in this story, they collide. Every Dick and Jane plays the lead and it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.”
If you’ve ever seen a movie by Quentin Tarantino, Guy Ritchie or Christopher Nolan, then Baccano! should be familiar territory. What separates it from other anime is not just its western setting, but its non-linear style of storytelling. I would start from the beginning, but the truth is that there is none. Like most anime, Baccano! tells a coherent story. Actually, scratch that. It tells three coherent, interwoven tales, but it’s told in such a jumbled, piecemeal manner that it’s almost like a collection of newspaper clippings that have been scattered across the room and put back together in random order. The beginning is the end, the end is the middle, and those who don’t know any better would do well to hit the ground before the bullets start flying. The title comes from an Italian phrase meaning ruckus, racket, loud noise etc., which is the perfect way to describe the series, particularly with the way it’s told. Like most Tarantino and Guy Ritchie movies, it seems like a mess at the beginning, but completely unwinds over the course of time, and becomes fully realized when things come full circle.
Basically you have three stories to keep track of. First we have a train robbery and massacre aboard the transcontinental express Flying Pussyfoot (yes, that’s its real name) where a mysterious entity known as the Rail Tracer is rumored to leave bloody bodies in its path. Then we have another mafia war on the streets of New York, where a gang of immortals barter over an elixir that grants eternal life. Finally we have the young heiress, Eve Genoard, on the search for her missing brother Dallas, who has gotten in trouble with the notorious Gandor family. If you count the last three episodes, there’s a fourth story that kind of serves as an epilogue, where survivors of the Flying Pussyfoot fiasco reunite under unusual circumstances. With the exception of a few plot points and characters, these four stories have very little to do with each other, and you could separate them from each other and they would all make great stand alone OVAs. Of course they would still be out of order, but like I said, they all come together in the end. Not only does it keep hopping back and forth between stories, but the chronology of each episode is completely backwards, showing the end at the beginning. While technically they’re all big spoilers, they’re not told in context so they mean nothing. We know that there’s a guy who can magically reattach his fingers. We know that there’s a guy with a missing arm lying beside the train tracks. We know a young girl found a body encased in concrete at the docks. Do we know why, do we know who, do we know how? No, so they don’t mean anything, but they keep the audience drawn in and wondering how things got that way.
But what’s a story without characters? And Baccano! has too many characters to properly function. Each one plays the lead role and each one is so endearing and memorable that you’ll definitely have a favorite by the end of its 16 episode run, whether it be Isaac and Miria, Jacuzzi Splot (yes, that’s his real name too), Nice Holystone, the Gandor brothers, Ladd Russo, Graham Spector, Ennis, Firo Prochiazeno, Chane Laforet, Gustav St. Germaine, Claire Stanfield, Eve Genoard, Maiza Avaro, Szilard Quates, Czeslaw Meyer, hell, even that loathsome thug Dallas Genoard has a hint of likability in him. Whether you want them to blow someone’s head off or have their own head blown off only for it to regenerate, each one is guarantee to evoke a reaction from you.
Of course, these characters wouldn’t be as lively as they are without some great voice actors to bring them to life, and let me tell you, Baccano! has one of the single greatest English dubs EVER, and is one of the few that actually exceeds the original Japanese. Because the anime takes place in 1930’s New York, it only makes sense to throw in accents and dialogue that reflect the time and setting. So there are a lot of New Yorkand European accents blended with some old time gangster slang, but it never sounds phoned in or offsetting. Both the script and the accents seem authentic and feel very natural in a way that could never be accomplished in Japanese, and is especially impressive when you consider the whole thing was done in Texas. The dub was done by Funimation and features a few of their regulars like Todd Haberkorn, Colleen Clinkenbeard (who does the sexiest New York accent I’ve ever heard), Jerry Jewell, Chris Patton and Brina Palencia, but they also show off a few of their lesser-knowns here as well. Actors like Brian Massey, Joel McDonald and Maxey Whitehead all play their parts just as well as the big boys, and they were a great deal of fun to watch, particularly Brian Massey who knocked it out of the park as the psychotic assassin Ladd Russo. But my two favorite performances, hands down, have to be J. Michael Tatum and Caitlin Glass as Isaac and Miria, the lovable and eccentric yet dimwitted thieves who are the only characters to appear in all four storylines. Every time they appear onscreen, I am in amazement. Every time they open their mouths, I am in stitches. Every time they do anything, and I mean anything, I’m either rolling on the floor, cheering them on excitedly, or facepalming until my forehead is red. Truly the most lovable characters I’ve come across in years. But don’t take my word for it. See for yourself.
As far as animation goes, it’s pretty exceptional, but I must give it a tip of the hat for its attention to detail. You see, anime done in western settings, particularly historical ones, can be hard to watch because of how much they get wrong. (This is the country that retold The Count of Monte Cristo in a future where everyone wears neon wallpaper after all.) Baccano! did a really good job of preserving things and making it as authentic as possible. They really did their research here. Not only is this reflected in the backgrounds and animation, but in the dialogue as well. I already talked in great length about the accents, but the speech and slang of the time is well preserved too, or at least what we think of when we think of 1930’s dialect. So if you’ve seen an old time noir film or any movie with Humphrey Bogart in it, I don’t think I really need to tell you what’s in store.
Because this is a gangster story, there’s obviously a lot of violence and oodles of blood. But because half the characters in Baccano! can’t die, there aren’t that many deaths, at least not with the main cast anyway. Characters get slashed with knives, beaten bloody, blown to smithereens by shotgun blasts, there’s even one incident where a character gets his head ground against the speeding rails. And nine time out of ten they’ll regenerate like the cheerleader from Heroes and come back for more. So if you like a good gangland brawl with more bullets flying than you can count, then this show should be enough to wet your appetite.
So what it all comes down to is that Baccano! is one of the most fun anime to come along in a long time. The action is thrilling, the dialogue is engaging, the voice acting is top tier, and the colorful cast of characters will find a place in your heart when you least expect it. The unconventional storytelling method might make it seem like a disaster, but bear with it and the payoff will be well worth it. I guess that’s all I really have to say about it. Do you have anything to add, Dallas?
My thoughts exactly. I give Baccano! 9/10