Monday, 29 August 2016

Baccano! (2007)

Director: Takahiro Omori
Screenplay: Noboru Takagi
(Voice) Cast: Masaya Onosaka (as Isaac Dian); Sayaka Aoki (as Miria Harvent); Akemi Kanda (as Czeslaw Meyer); Atsushi Imaruoka as (Dallas Genoard); Chiwa Saito (as Carol); Daisuke Sakaguchi (as Jacuzzi Splot); Eri Yasui (as Lua Klein); Hiroyuki Yoshino (as Firo Prochainezo); Keiji Fujiwara (as Ladd Russo); Kinryuu Arimoto (as Szilard Quates); Marina Inoue (as Eve Genoard); Masakazu Morita (as Claire "Vino" Stanfield); Mitsuru Miyamoto (as Maiza Avaro); Ryou Hirohashi (as Chane Laforet); Sanae Kobayashi (as Ennis); Yu Kobayashi (as Nice Holystone)

Synopsis: Surrounding a select number of years in early thirties New York and the East Coast of the USA, Baccano! chronicles an incident involving a train from Chicago to New York called the Flying Pussyfoot where a massacre takes place, the gangsters, miscreants and terrorists on the train connecting to other events before and after in time. From the younger daughter of a wealthy family Eva Genoard searching for her older brother Dallas, a ruffian who has vanished, to an elixir of immortality which makes it incredibly difficult for someone to stay dead, everything connecting to the train incident as a group of journalists try to collect as much information on this as they can.

Baccano! - Italian for ruckus for anyone who was interested in knowing what the title means - is a prime example of how a television series can be inventive just in terms of its structure and how it tells its story. A Japanese animated series that pays tribute to American gangster films by way of its own fantastical spin, it throws the viewer into an off-beat world full of exceptionally colourful characters. Thieves Isaac Dian and Miria Harvent, who are so blissfully stupid that most people immediately love them on first meeting. Firo Prochainezo, a young man being introduced into the world of organised crime by way the older and wiser Maiza Avaro. Ennis, a mysterious suited woman Firo meets whose existence is conflicted and connected to the sinister Szilard Quates, an elderly man with malicious intents. Ladd Russo and his timid fiancée Lua Klein, a sociopath who loves to kill people and decided to take his men onto the Flying Pussyfoot in white suits to slay the passengers only to bump into a gang wearing black suits, terrorists who want to hijack the train to release from jail their leader,  whose mute daughter Chane Laforet is amongst their mission. Czeslaw Meyer, a young boy who is acts being innocent and naive. Jacuzzi Splot and Nice Holystone, romantically connected leaders of a pack of good anti-heroes attempting to steal cargo from the train, and countless other characters including the Rail Tracer, a legendary monster that haunts the rail lines that turns out to be real, only seen as a streak of red flash before picking off figures violently.

The plot could easily become complicated but a huge advantage to Baccano! is how carefully structured it is. Instead of a chronicle structure, including Eva Genoard 's search for her brother and other time periods, including how characters got onto the train and how some can't even die, the show shuffles the situations out of order, the end of the train massacre shown in the first episode but the events within that situation amongst other time periods shown in more and more detail throughout the series. Based on a light novel series by Ryōgo Narita, the result is a puzzle box which expands incidents with greater amounts of information as the story is deepened. Baccano! is a series that was clearly planned from the beginning to its end; unfortunately anime series can be effected by not planning out the endings or issues that can alter a production as they go along, particularly when the source material hasn't ended when the adaptation starts, leading new material being written quickly, leading to shows becoming very erratic as they reach their final episodes, and a lot of disappointed viewers who are heartbroken by shows they're getting into failing by their endings. With the show only covering a small arch of the original light novels that was already completed, Baccano! is incredibly organised and manages to keep an eye on every little plot point carefully, playing games with the viewer even on rewatches because of how planned out its storytelling clearly was.

Bookended by the man who runs the journalist group, with him discussing in the first episode with a very young female assistant about who the lead character should be or whether one is actually needed, the show has no qualms with usurping one's expectations with events and characters in each episode, dripping feeding the missing parts of the chronology as it goes along. The show even goes as far as dropping a major plot conclusion in the opening credits sequence which plays in all the episodes just to mess with viewers, taking a complicated story and purposely plots it in a way that's clever when you carefully examine it all. On rewatches, information still appears in ways in terms of plotting that you didn't expect, which helps you come to appreciate how economic the show is for such complicated storytelling, simple and to the point when it covers the information it needs to. Thankfully the show makes sure one is never confused as long as you're alert, recapping pieces of information in fact for episodes which specifically adds more to that plot point, and making sure each time change has a chapter page of the year its set during every time to make things easier to follow.

It helps as well how memorable the characters are. Even if some of the names are utterly silly for what are supposed to be mainly Italian-American or at least American characters - Jacuzzi Splot and Nice Holystone the most extreme - it helps greatly that everyone is distinct visually, and in their dialogue and mannerisms. With this show in fact this is some of the best voice acting from Japanese cast I've probably heard in a television programme, particularly when you get to the more flamboyant characters like Ladd Russo (voiced by Keiji Fujiwara) who get some of the most memorable dialogue, the script for this (if the English subtitles are accurate translations) one of the best I've also seen for an anime show in terms of having personality and fun to it alongside the characters' behaviour, its more flamboyant dialogue and monologue far from the stereotype of exposition and bland dialogue that can plague other anime but with artistic and funny flourishes to it that gives all the characters memorable things to say, allowing them to steal scenes from each other as actors in live action films can.

In terms of subverting expectations as well, the show does so as well in terms of the viewer's moral compass. Baccano!, in a warning for some readers of this, can be gruesomely violent at points especially when you have characters who can come back from death constantly; moments in the show are absolutely not for the squeamish, justifying the 18 certificate it has for UK physical releases and its emphasised by the show getting away with making its outright sociopaths in the cast charismatic and even likable. For characters who are absolutely pure - Isaac and Miria more likely to steal the door off a museum than rob an innocent bystander, or target a bad person in their childish view of heroics - there's plenty like Ladd Russo himself whose twisted view of the world manages to make them fascinating even if they are sadistic to an extreme. One even gets a romantic subplot alongside a skewered high moral code to enforce this, leading to one of the strangest moments in an anime, out of a rom-com, where they ask a female character on romantic advise despite the other having seen them previously cover in gore. The series manages to get away with this especially as, in terms of the plot, the true villain of the piece Szilard Quates is shown to be even more evil especially in what he does throughout the plot.

Technical Details:
Tonally, despite its fantastical story and absurd characteristics, Baccano! is depicted as realistically as possible with certain flights of fantasy allowed. Researched locations of old New York are depicted with realistic looking character designs populating them, an exaggerated take on American culture but one that gets the vibe right for classic gangster films right down to the classy jazz score. The only issue is the visibility of some of the animation's seems at places, particularly where CGI is used for dimension, which can be distracting once you notice it, but the rest is beautifully depicted, fitting the tone with its back alley streets and the claustrophobic nature of the Flying Pussyfoot train. As well with the complicated plot structure, the style helps in terms of making sure everyone sticks out as unique, alongside their personality quirks, and keep the viewer from becoming confused in terms of where each event that takes place is located.  

Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Low
Story wise, Baccano! is normal. It's a peculiar take on American gangsters which brings in fantasy tropes into its plot, going as far back as a few centuries in the plot for one episode; the kind of genre mixing I can fall in love with easily, but it's not strange in terms of a plot choice in terms of the overall tone, fitting its logic and never coming off as strange. What's more significant is the way this plot is structured, causing it to be extremely difficult to talk about without spoiling too much but also leads it to having abstract qualities. The structure leads to a constant shifting in time back and forth, and even leads to the reality of two different places being compacted together - Chane's father able to communicate to her telepathically from his jail cell a far way away - purposely wrong footing viewers as a result as it drip feeds new details in what you see, replaying scenes from different angles or purposely clipping parts of them off until later in the episodes. What makes this style work is that Baccano! makes sure all its plot points are covered; even if it takes three bonus episodes to finish it all, introducing the memorably deranged character Graham Specter for a tiny story, it covers all the main plot points fully in the first thirteen and uses the straight-to-DVD episodes brilliantly to cover every small detail to could've lead to plot holes and allows full closure for the world (something that could benefit quite a few anime television programmes, Kill La Kill (2013-4) another greater example of a show using one bonus episode to wrap a tiny bow around everything).  Because of this perfectly made structure, it qualifies as abstract because it's able to undermine expectations of what a plot should be chronologically with its unconventional tone and makes it rewarding in its presentation.

Personal Opinion:
Viewed as a gem of late 2000s anime, Baccano! is a very rewarding work. Unconventional even next to a lot of anime series - anime that's western set and influenced is more of a niche even if Western fans have a habit of celebrating the best of them - its mix of an unpredictable plot style and its extreme moments of violence does make it stand out. A lot of why it succeeds as well is its charisma not only in terms of the characters depicted themselves but the tone, always even when someone's head gets pushed into moving railway tracks to have a jaunty, playful style to it able to get away with its unconventional presentation. Particularly now as the original light novel series is getting translated into English for release, I hope that the fan base Baccano! starts to grow over this next year or so as it's an inventive, even innovative, work that's an absolute riot to view.

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