Durarara!! (preview)

If you've poked your head around enough of my website, you'll realize that I'm a creature of habit. Reviews have a certain way of unfolding. They usually start with a paragraph or two of setup, another couple on the actual content of the anime in question, some lines about whether the show has any technical merits, then a critique and a wrap up. Sometimes something creative sneaks in, and occasionally I find some way to really shake it up, but you know what to expect when you stop by. It's not intentional laziness, but I do sometimes get into a rut. It's the nature of the beast.

The same is true of anime and entertainment in general. You start off with a clear protagonist, obstacles to be overcome, and a linear progression from uncertainty to victory -- whether the victory is defeating the bad guys, getting the girl, stopping the runaway train, or whatnot. There are always variations and surprises, but it's kinda rare to find a program that changes the formula. When it does -- whether by messing with timelines or making the antagonist the main character or something else totally unexpected -- we're thrown off base. Some of us love it; others who want an easy-to-follow storyline and a hero to root for don't. Personally, I like it when a show throws out the rules as long as what it presents is compelling and still makes sense.

In the first five episodes of Durarara!!, we find a program gleefully willing to challenge our notions of main characters and straightforward plotting while still being remarkably entertaining. While Aniplex only provided me with the first five dubbed episodes of the series, it was enough to leave me hankering for more...and since the whole sub is available free online through legitimate streaming sources right now (as of April 2011), the curious don't have any reason not to check it out. Honestly, had my recent car accident not happened when it did, I would have likely tracked down and watched the rest by now.

The show ostensibly presents its leads in the first episode, Mikado and Masaomi. The two were best friends for a long time, but then Masaomi moved to the big city. A few years later, longing for adventure and his BFF, Mikado transfers to a school in Ikebukuro. As Masaomi shows Mikado around the city, he warns him about all the local dangers and usual suspects, from the street gang called The Dollars to the black Russian down the street hawking the best sushi you'll ever eat. As they conclude their tour, they witness the tail end of a failed kidnapping and the appearance of a local legend -- a motorcyclist called the Headless Rider. Maybe city life is a bit more exciting than Mikado wanted after all!

But before you can say "protagonist," the show shifts gears entirely. While we do return to our young teenage friends eventually, the show makes a U-turn to tell the real events behind the kidnapping and introduces us to several more players, including the Headless Rider and her roommate, an unlicensed doctor who happens to have a thing for his noggin-less companion. Time frames flip back and forth as we get reeled into this neighborhood of unique, strange, and occasionally psychopathic individuals.

For a television show, I was very impressed by the look of Durarara!! itself, and not just because it was a top-tier production with a real budget. The show has its own aesthetic shaped by modern media that creates a surprisingly disturbing atmosphere. A great deal of the show is seen through the lenses of camera phones; characters spends a lot of time in Internet chat rooms discussing the latest gossip on the street or sitting side by side texting. The visual choices make you feel the lonely disconnection that modern technology creates. It emphasizes just how much the main characters need each other, not just to stay away from the city's threats but simply to have human connections. What's unique is how this is portrayed not so much via the plot but through the visual choices of the director. I was impressed.

I also found this strange world exciting, harrowing, and mysterious. While I've seen many anime try to manufacture tension and suspense, Durarara!! just has it. Because it is not plot-reliant, the show creates in just a few episodes a whole cast of intriguing individuals. No, you wouldn't want to meet many of them in a dark alley, but we've already begun to unravel their secrets and realize why they are the bizarre people they've become. Some of the cast members, like the Russian, play completely against type. In the case of the Headless Rider, the show manages to make us feel compassion for a bizarre creature who, in any other anime, would be yet another monster of the week. It's weird, all right, but in a very good way.

But is the show going somewhere? I believe so, but I can't tell you where yet. Unfortunately, a preview can only tell you so much, and this type of show has the potential to do a belly flop in the shallow end of the pool. While there is most definitely a plot, there's no telling whether Durarara!! will finish nearly as intriguingly as it begins. But the show exudes confidence; it seems as if the creators are certain they can deliver the goods, and I don't get the sense that the show is being obtuse in its use of a non-linear narrative. If it turns out to be a mess, it's at least going to be an intriguing one. (And speaking of a mess, I think the dub that I previewed was quite good, and it eliminates some of the problems of Durarara!! being a text heavy show that requires umpteen subtitles at any given time.)

I can say this with confidence:Durarara!! has the potential to be a great anime and shows strong signs of it in its opening. I'm looking forward to watching the rest of the misadventures of this wacko troop of social misfits; from all appearances, it looks to be even more fun than Ichabod's wild ride...

Durarara!! (preview) -- profanity, graphic violence, adult content -- A