Imagine the love child of Robert Altman and Quentin Tarantino directing a mashup of Highlander, The Untouchables, Silver Streak, and Pulp Fiction. That's as close a sentence-long description as you're going to get for Baccano!, a 2007 TV series with a three-episode OVA follow-up packaged together in America. Italian for "ruckus," Baccano! is a non-linear mind-bender that's at turns exciting, funny, gory, and clever as hell. It demands careful attention; miss five minutes and you could lose a key plot point that will help the puzzle pieces fit together. And yet it's well worth the effort. Despite misgivings about the casual brutality of the whole thing, it's also one of the most breezily enjoyable anime for adults I've seen in recent years.
Unlike most opening animation bits, Baccano! starts off running when the jazz comes on the soundtrack. We are whisked through a number of characters and their names. At first, this seems somewhat superfluous, but pay attention: by the end of the first episode, we realize that this is the only way we're going to be able to keep track of the large cast quickly enough to keep up.
When we settle into the plot, we find ourselves drawn into a world of Prohibition-era gangsters. Infighting amongst mafioso families has reached a fever pitch. In the midst of all this, at least three different factions take to a transcontinental train known as the Flying Pussyfoot -- some intending to kidnap a senator's family, others there to gain loot, and all armed and very dangerous. There are a couple of wacky, good-hearted thieves who seem too stupid to get caught. There are strange bottles of elixir floating around. Oh, and there are some people who get gunned down in a hail of bullets who nevertheless refuse to die. And a mysterious creature who's looking to slaughter the train's entire passenger manifest. And a homunculus. And a devil. Kidnapping, murder, extortion, alchemy, immortality...you ain't seen nothin' yet, friends.
Despite hearing its praises sung, I held out on watching Baccano! for a while due to being underwhelmed by the studio's followup series, the engaging but ultimately disappointing Durarara!!. Thankfully, there's little of the latter's problems in Baccano! and just a shared artistic style, a somewhat angular, goofy look when character faces and bodies aren't the lead focus. The artwork is enjoyable throughout, and the action sequences are almost all done in full motion. The soundtrack is wildly catchy and reminds me of Cowboy Bebop's similarly styled pop jazz. (While the import CD is about $60 on Amazon -- and yes, it's good enough that I looked for it -- a quick search will find you the whole thing to listen to on YouTube.) Other than some mild deja vu, as certain character designs reminded me a little too much of FullMetal Alchemist of all things, the technical aspects are great. If anything was surprising, it's that the last three episodes that were officially OVAs look like TV episodes they simply didn't have time to air; they aren't a step up in terms of animation quality.
Baccano! demands your attention from the moment it comes on, and it needs it. Its twisting plot that arches across centuries would be boring in linear time but comes alive chopped up as the series presents it. While there's little character development -- and indeed, too many characters for any one to become the central protagonist -- the players themselves are very strong. Clear personalities make each individual unique, and as others have noted, it's the characters you hold on to when the plot gives you vertigo. As I made sense of what was happening -- and what had already happened, really -- I found myself drawn to this person, entertained by that one, disgusted by another. And if you can't relate to one lead, wait a couple minutes and a new one will appear.
In many ways, the Flying Pussyfoot is a metaphor for the show itself. Baccano! is far more about the journey than the destination. The show can officially end with episode 13 (and did, for those who did not pick up the OVAs in Japan). Strangely enough, the last three episodes continue the journey but again do not bring us to a true conclusion. The show is well aware of that and breaks the fourth wall to let us know. The best way I can describe the last three episodes is that they are not unlike the extended editions of The Lord of the Rings. There are new scenes; new characters; a couple new endings, perhaps. Do you lose anything? No. You gain a fuller picture of what's happened before and a couple more things are resolved, but life goes on. It's not truly an ambiguous ending, but very much the kind of closure we find at the end of films like Magnolia. The people still go on after the credits roll. That's kinda cool, though it will frustrate those who like clear conclusions.
Keeping track of plots and character lines sounds dull, but Baccano! is actually great fun. There's more action than you can shake a stick at and even a romance or two, and certain roles really shine. Our two idiot robbers, Miria and Isaac, lighten the mood whenever they appear, and unlike many other comic relief figures in anime, they never become tiresome. Others, like the kind criminal Jacuzzi Splot (and no, that's not a typo), can make the over-the-top moments seem human. Baccano! bobs and weaves and spins like a prizefighter, but it also knows its cards like a master gambler and never overplays its hand.
Well, almost. On pure adrenaline and wit, Baccano! plays a royal flush. Because of its style, I can forgive the lack of true character maturation. But what draws my score down a bit is the sadism, which really is a bust. At least three of our antagonists are out and out psychopaths, and perhaps more depending on your point of view. They get off on violence and killing. And while not every death in Baccano! is exactly permanent, some are. The casual attitude of certain characters towards torture and death is not something I enjoyed.
Combine that with what is gruesome and brutal violence at times, and it can be a bit much to stomach. The sensitive should stay away because there is a ridiculous amount of gore -- faces punched in and brains exposed by gunshot, for example. I can't explain why a show that would probably draw in a massive audience from its otherwise cheerful tone and clever spark would include such sickening violence. Elfen Lied, I get. This I don't. It is a misplay, in my opinion, but not one that will spoil the affair for the discerning viewer prepared for what lies ahead.
Baccano! may not be to everyone's taste; a lack of straightforward heroes and a whole lot of villains, combined with a supply of gore that would make George Romero queasy and a plot that takes effort to understand, will chase away some. Yet I haven't seen something quite this thrilling in a long time. If you've got the iron constitution and a mind that craves quality anime that's more than a simple time-waster, you've got the right show to put in your queue.
Baccano! -- gruesome graphic violence, sadism -- A-