Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Baccano! Quality/Content Review

The logo of Baccano! and a selection of characters.
Baccano! isn't the easiest thing to assign a genre to, so I'm going to go ahead and call it a "period action mystery." I mean, it's set in Prohibition-era New York, there are crazy fight scenes in every episode, and you have no idea what the heck is going on for the first half of the show, so it seems fitting. This is one of the shows that I've heard about for many years, but just hadn't made the time to actually get around to watching it until now. It's a critical darling, for sure, and now that I've seen it, I think I can understand why.

The show aired in 2007, and was animated by Brains Base. This was really their first major work, though nowadays they're known for Natsume's Book of Friends and Durarara!! as well (the latter of which is often compared to Baccano! since both of them are adapted from light novel series by the same author, Ryougo Narita). The Baccano! novel series has 21 books, and the first 4 are covered by the anime. Sort of. There were 13 episodes that aired on TV, and those cover the first 4 books. An additional 3 episodes were released on DVD later, which cover the events of book 14, which was released after the anime. So maybe that book adapts the anime... These three episodes are basically a coda to the rest of the series; the main plot wraps up in episode 13.

Story - 5

The year is 1930. A new kid is about to be inducted into a New York mafia family. A rich family's son is going around stirring up trouble. A couple of free spirited thieves start out on a quest to rob as many targets as possible. And a group of old men have gathered together to discuss ancient secrets.

The year is 1931. The Transcontinental Express train Flying Pussyfoot is on its way from Chicago to New York. A group of mafia goons are about to hijack it. A group of cultic fanatics are about to hijack it. A group of street thugs are about to hijack it. And passengers start disappearing one by one, leading some to believe that the "rail tracer" has appeared.

The year is 1932. Rival New York mafia families are shooting up each others' turf. A rich family's daughter is looking for her brother, who has been missing for years. A mafia family is looking for the same man, to exact there revenge on him. And reporters at the Daily Days are looking into the strange events that happened over the past several years.

All these three story threads are woven together throughout the course of the show, with the story's focus jumping from one year to another multiple times per episode. Slowly, all three plot lines converge towards their respective conclusions, and prove to be more interconnected than it seems... Baccano is apparently the word for ruckus in Italian, which is shockingly fitting. Not only is there quite a bit of commotion going on in each storyline, but the show itself causes a bit of a racket in your mind as you watch it being told so out of order.

This show is probably the finest example of achronological storytelling that I've seen since Memento. The stories from 1930, 1931, and 1932 are separate from each other, yet still completely dependant from each other. I haven't read the source novels, but from their descriptions on Wikipedia it looks like the books were told in chronological order, which would explain why each of the stories has their own distinct climax and conclusion. However, the achronological way the anime presents the stories is so exquisitely crafted that I would bet it transcends the books. The show has extraordinary pacing, with the lulls in one story broken up by the high action in another. And when they all reach their climax at the same time, it has three times the impact. It can't be easy to plot out three stories at once, but Baccano! never drops the ball.

Characters - 5

Most of the main cast of Baccano!, standing around, goofing off.
I love these characters. They're brimming with personality, they're visually distinctive, and some of them have awesome names. Like Jacuzzi Splot. How cool is that, right? It's really hard to pin down who Baccano!'s main character is, and the show knows it. At the beginning of the show, a couple of outside characters discuss who the main character of this story might be, and come to no conclusion. I tend to agree with them. The cast is quite large (which is immediately evident upon watching the opening), and everyone gets their moment to shine.

I suppose some of the characters do end up with more screen time than others though, so I'll give a brief rundown of them. First up, we've got Isaac and Miria, the happy-go-lucky thieves. They're not really the brightest, but they're very successful as thieves for some reason, and love dressing up in costumes. Next up is Firo, the up-and-coming mobster. He's good at fighting, and he's someone who's willing to put himself on the line to protect those he cares about. Ladd Russo is a psychopath with amazingly blue eyes. He enjoys murdering people in the most gruesome ways possible, and consistently threatens his fiancee with death. And finally we have Jacuzzi Splot, the really, really nice leader of a group of street thugs. He's also quite the crybaby, which only makes it easier to like him.

I'd just like to take a moment to discuss the background and secondary characters as well. Honestly, I think they're what contributes to the show's realism the most in my eyes. Plenty of people on the internet have asked "Why do all anime characters look like they're white?" and it's not entirely unwarranted of a question. Baccano! laughs at that trend, and then slits its throat. There are characters who are very clearly African-American, and who are very clearly Caucasian, and who are very clearly Asian even. The show is set in Depression-era America, and the racial diversity of the time and place is fairly accurately portrayed. It was nice seeing an anime set in America that looked like it was set in America.

Visuals - 4.5

Like I just said, I really like how the characters are portrayed as being from a realistic variety of ethnic backgrounds. On top of that, I'm just  a fan of the character designs in general. Jacuzzi has a tattoo of a sword on his face, which actually comes from an awesome backstory. Ladd is shockingly blond with Elijah Wood's blue eyes. Isaac and Miria have their costumes they wear to do their thieving (mummies, priest and nun, etc.). Firo has his fedora and suit. The passengers of the Flying Pussyfoot are all fancy in their three piece suits. Everyone looks good, and most importantly looks like they belong in the 1930s. Even with the large cast of characters, it doesn't take too long to recognise them all by sight.

As for the backgrounds, there's nothing too exciting. They're certainly not bad, but there's no eye candy, that's for sure. Most of the show takes place either in the alleys or mafia dens of New York, or on the Flying Pussyfoot, usually at night, so any shots of the outside terrain have no detail, because it's so dark out. Brick buildings and wooden floorboards aren't that interesting. There were no problems with the background art; it got the job done. The major compliant that I have with it is how dark the lighting was throughout the show. I imagine that it was a form of minimal censoring, since bloodstains don't show up as well in a dark room as they do in a well-lit one, but it often made it hard to see what was going on.

On the flip side, the animation was phenomenal. For a show that can't go a single episode without a blowout action scene, they certainly never let the quality drop. All of the fights were smooth and (save for the aforementioned lighting problem) easy to tell what was going on. The hits felt powerful, and they weren't afraid to show them connecting. The everyday motion of the characters was nothing remarkable, but I never found it lacking. But man, I've just got to go back to those fights. I placed this show in the "action" genre for a reason. This is a violent show, and the animation really helps convey that. There's not very much CG used, and it doesn't stand out too much. The only time that I remember noticing it was when the Flying Pussyfoot was featured, so it can be forgiven.

Sound - 5

It's the 1930s, and it sounds like the 1930s. So much jazz. I mean, it sounds exactly like how I would expect the 1930s to sound. For some reason, the music that it reminded me the most of is from the Professor Layton series of games. I guess they use similar instruments or something. It's heavy on the brass and the piano, which is fitting for a jazz score. I don't think that there were really any standout tracks on the soundtrack as far as background music goes. I can't really picture the soundtrack very well by itself. I'm sure it's not bad for listening to, but I found that it wasn't very memorable aside from the general jazz aesthetic.

The opening of this show far outstrips its ending. Unlike most shows, Baccano!'s opening is entirely instrumental. The song is "Gun's & Roses" by Paradise Lunch, a band that I've never heard of before (though I guess that's not all that surprising, since I don't listen to instrumental jazz very often. Or ever). The accompanying visuals are quick shots of the various cast members doing their things (like Isaac and Miria dressing up as Santa and robbing a candy store). As the characters go about their business, the scene will pause and the character's name will appear next to them. A couple of characters get left out, but most everyone gets their time in the spotlight. The ending is "Calling" by Kaori Oda, which does have vocals. Unfortunately, it's really boring. The song is very chill, especially compared to the tone of the series, and the visuals are just the camera going down empty train tracks at night with headshots of the characters appearing. The episodes are so high energy, it just feels out of place to me.

Another place where this show really shines is the sound effects. Yes, I suppose they're subtle as well, but I feel like they're really effective, especially during the fight scenes. Like I've mentioned already, this is an action show with several fight scenes in every episode, so they really needed to put the effort in there, and they did. The sound design matches the animation very well; almost unnaturally so. Because they show attacks without cutting away, the sound has to make the listener feel the power behind each connecting hit. Not only do the punches and jabs and kicks and headbutts sound like they really deliver the pain, but the various weapons that are used sound great too. The guns sound deadly, the knives sound sharp, and everything sounds like it will deliver instant death. If you can't already tell, I was quite impressed.

Now of course we come to the question of dub vs. sub. Is the dub any good? Well... yes. It's actually very good; one of the best dubs that I've ever listened to. I think what really makes the dub for me is how in English, they're able to convey accents much better than in Japanese. At the very least, I can pick up on them better. It's the same reason that Hetalia should be watched dubbed. It's set in 1930s New York, so the characters should sound like 1930s New York mobsters. Major props to Todd Haberkorn as Firo for nailing the accent and to J. Michael Tatum for giving Isaac the necessary energy and insanity. The dub does struggle with casting for little children, as per usual, but it's not too much of a problem. I don't really have any complaints about the dub performances or script, and I actually prefer it quite a bit to the sub. There aren't really any problems with the sub, but the show is set in America, so the characters should be speaking English in my opinion.

Content - 4

USA Certification Level: TV-MA

Violence - 0
Let's just get this out of the way right off the bat: Baccano! is a very violent show. It got its TV-MA rating for a reason. Just to give you a brief rundown of what to expect, here a some examples. Someone's fingers are cut off on camera. Human bodes in various states of mutilation are featured. Someone is beaten for information on camera and threatened with bloody torture instruments. Someone is shot in the head on camera. A shop is shot up, and people riddled with bullets on camera. Someone gestures around with their bloody stump of an arm. And that's all just from the first episode!

The violence only gets more intense from there, somehow. A man is beaten to death on camera. A man is choked to death on camera. A man's throat is slit on camera. A man's body is ground away by the swiftly passing rail ties as he is dragged along by the train. A room is quite literally painted in blood: all four walls and the ceiling. This show is steeped in death and murder and pain.

Sexual Content - 1
There's pretty much no sexual content. A female's dress is almost pulled off, but it stays on and nothing is seen. Lecherous males ogle at the "dolls" around them. A couple kisses. There's even very little romance.

Drug Usage - 1
Several people are injected with a mysterious serum. Quite a bit of alcohol is consumed.

Coarse Language - 1
All language used is TV-14 appropriate. S***, H***, D***, that sort of thing, nothing stronger.

Other - 1
The main characters are all unabashed mobsters and rum runners and murderers during Prohibition. Most characters lie to each other, and a fair amount of extortion goes on as well. Ancient alchemists draw cultic symbols in order to summon a demon to gain immortality  A character talks about the coming judgement day of God. One character tells another to "stop that stupid praying" because "only stupid children believe in God."

Conclusion - 78

Baccano! is a solid show. Its chronology is an art form, its pacing is beautiful, and its characters feel like they're alive. Unfortunately, despite all my praise for the show, I can't give it a universal recommendation because the violence is just too much. There's a lot of death in this show, which is not inherently a problem. No, the problem arises when all this death is shown in graphic detail, without the camera blinking. This level of violence is not for everyone, and that's perfectly alright. Squeamish need not apply.

Reserved Recommendation
Positives
  • Achronological Story
  • Strong Characters
  • Jazz
Negatives
  • Too Dark to See Sometimes
  • Extreme Violence
Dub: ★★★★★
Sub: ★★★★

I watched the streaming version on Funimation's website, both sub and dub. In America, the show can be found on Hulu as well.

To learn more about the Quality/Content Review, check out this introductory post.

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