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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Baccano!

A few days ago, I received the recently released Baccano! complete series boxset and thought I’d reacquaint myself with one of 2007’s best shows. At the time, Brain’s Base was (and in fact could still be considered) a budding animation studio and most people were expecting just another forgettable action extravaganza that wouldn’t even be able to set off a measly spark. In an unpredictable twist, Baccano! ended up being such a tremendous runaway success story that it ultimately earned its rightful place among the legendary anime of our time. That’s right, not only the one of the best shows of 2007, but of this entire decade.

What makes Baccano! so fantastic? To start, the series knows how to cast that crucial initial hook. Right off the bat, it’s pitched as high-octane mafia brawls in the 1930’s mixed with a timeless feud over immortal alchemy. To follow that up, Baccano! sports a cool, jazzy opening tune that stacks up to Cowboy Bebop in terms of irresistible catchiness. That saxophone is a killer!

Then there’s the plot, which is ambitious and intriguing. It’s the 1930’s and turf wars are erupting all over gangster-riddled America. It is during these tumultuous, Great Depress-ing times that an age-old struggle for an ancient secret breaks out. It’s a traditional gangster yarn in the sense that there are separate mafia families all vying for power. The story kicks off in full force, however, when a crew of motley, colorful characters from all walks of life, each with their own burdens to bear, crosses paths aboard a speeding train known as the Flying Pussyfoot. Yeah, they have no idea they just booked a one-way ticket for an unforgettable night on the Demon Express. All the while, sinister forces are at work in the shadows, but even these manipulative masterminds may find themselves thrust into conflict with one another before long.

Accompanying the zany premise is a frantic and schizophrenic opening episode that is actually composed of events taking place at the end of Baccano!’s timeline. Hey, it worked for Haruhi Suzumiya and it does wonders for Baccano! by imparting the haphazard nature of the show onto the audience right from the get-go. Part of the fun comes from trying to figure out how every one of the characters’ stories are intertwined as the series likes to jumble events from different points on the timeline (spanning about three years) together and present the story in a very fragmented fashion.

Our heroes: Isaac and Miria
Assisting Baccano!’s aberrant antics is the series’ unbridled energy. It’s encapsulated quite nicely in the form of two plucky, Cloud Cuckoo Lander criminals known as Isaac and Miria who never miss an opportunity to steal the show. The two share a predilection for coming up with absurd schemes that have no grounding in conventional logic whatsoever (such as stealing the door to a bank because the entire bank would be too difficult to steal) and then pursuing said plans with infectious, Speedy Gonzales-esque gusto. Crazy and hyperactive does indeed sum up the series perfectly.

Speaking of the characters, another huge strength that Baccano! leverages is its kaleidoscopic cast of scatterbrained lunatics. Besides the lovably wacky Isaac and Miria, there’s psychopathic sadist Ladd Russo, who I would consider to be anime’s answer to the Joker. His unrivaled love for killing and guns is blown ridiculously out of proportion, ensuring that the audience gets as much of a kick out of watching him slaughtering everyone around him as he does. He approaches every encounter as if he were meticulously sculpting a masterpiece, relishes every ounce of blood he spills, and favors killing unsuspecting victims because “it’s much more fun when they don’t see it coming.” Oh, Ladd, how I adore thee.

As joyous as Ladd is to watch frenetically tap-dance on the top of fresh corpses, kicking up quarts of blood, it’s hard to say that he alone owns the spotlight. In fact, no one does as Baccano!’s overall cast is quirky and strong.

For example, the shirking Jacuzzi Splot (what an awesome name) is prone to expelling a fountain of tears at the slightest misfortune, yet is someone who is not to be messed with. He’s accompanied by Nice Holystone, a badly-scarred, yet sexy delinquent with a fetish for big explosions. Then there’s Firo Prochainezo, a brash, arrogant child prodigy poised to succeed his family with a lightning-fast blade-arm and a penchant for flashy footwork. A number of other dysfunctional kooks round out the cast such as a hammy psycho-for-hire with an incomparable lust for melodramatic bloodshed, a devilishly creepy child whose very presence chills to the bone, and a beautiful mute assassin out for revenge. To bring it back to Ladd, however, there’s Lua Klein, a meek masochist that Ladd has understandably fallen head over heels for.

Jacuzzi and Nice

Firo

The visuals aren’t actually anything glamorous themselves but the animation (specifically the gleeful action sequences) boosts them up to favorable standards. While the fight scenes are a blast, I feel it necessary to point out that the series has an unusually strong fascination with violence. The sheer amount of gore and on-screen mutilation will catch most viewers off-guard and have them questioning whether or not this is the same series that occasionally trains the camera on the happy-go-lucky Isaac and Miria. Aside from lots and lots of blood, for example, the sight of bones gruesomely cracking backed by a melodiously sickening crunch is all too common.

Don't tell me you honestly think that's face-paint.

The very fact that Baccano! can indeed successfully transition from fluffy and fun to sadistic and spooky at the drop of a hat speaks volumes about how seamlessly the series is strung together, despite all appearances to the contrary.

Baccano! is a non-stop thrill ride. It manages to be irreverent, screwy, and soaked in gratuitous amounts of blood while remaining classy and sophisticated. Highly appropriate, considering the era and setting. What is disjointed at first slowly becomes intelligible by the end in a stroke of storytelling genius. Above all else, however, it never loses sight of having a good time. It’s like a kid wildly thrashing around in a sandbox; messy fun, but still controlled by loosely-defined boundaries. And at times, the mounds of sand may even roughly resemble artistically masterful sculptures if you look closely enough.

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