We suspend our disbelief every single day. I am writing this review on a machine that can make millions of calculations a second -- a machine that most science fiction authors could not imagine even 100 years ago and people 2500 years ago might have worshiped as a kind of god. We grew up with it. Stories about exploring strange new worlds and hobbits and terminators don't stretch us to our limits. We can imagine worlds in which these things are possible. The only time our disbelief gets stretched to the fault line is when the rules of the universe -- physics and causality and probability and logic -- get broken. We can even accept universes with different rules...but those rules gotta apply, or we're going to stop believing in the world that's been created.
Durarara!! is a series that fascinates, delights, and deeply frustrates. It breathtakingly combines supernatural fantasy and an ultra-modern urban setting. It has feats of non-linear acrobatics that makes the timeline of Pulp Fiction look like child's play. It looks and sounds beautiful, and its setup is nothing short of spectacular. But just as spectacularly, the whole thing sags under its weight when the show stops playing by the rules and becomes too hard to believe. As important plotlines disappear into nothingness, I began to wonder just what was the point. Did I like it? Mostly...but it should have been considerably better. (And please note that I wrote a review of the opening episodes a little while ago, which can be found here...this review borrows from that one on occasion.)
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 (named Celty) 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.
Interestingly, when I wrote my original review, I said, "I like it when a show throws out the rules as long as what it presents is compelling and still makes sense." That's true to a point. Some rules, like linear storytelling, are made to be broken. But the rules that Durarara!! breaks along the way go beyond the rules of cinematic language. Durarara!! breaks down when it throws a number of serious McGuffins at us. For example, we find out about Celty's complicated past and her lost head. We get pulled into the idea of an evil corporation that might have had use for her brainy parts. But ultimately, that storyline goes absolutely nowhere. It fizzles out and is forgotten. Multiple plots wind up lost in the vortex.
To make matters worse, the law of probability gets beat up nine ways to Sunday. I can accept that people aren't what they seem at first. Peter Parker is Spider-Man and Bruce Banner is the Hulk, after all. But when the three least assuming characters in the entire series wind up centrally connected not just as friends but major players in the world of Ikebukuro, it defies reason. Sometimes, a new unexpected revelation makes you perk up and go "aha!" But if you're like me, one unexpected revelation too many winds up making you feel jerked around. The final third of the show simply has too few "ahas!" and too many "gotchas!"
That's unfortunate because Durarara!! can also be a load of fun. Not an episode went by where I didn't get a really good guffaw -- it's darn funny at times. At times, the enjoyability factor maxes out. Some of the characters, while quirky, genuinely get under your skin. It says something that the program can make an uncomfortably headless woman with black smoke rising from her neck not only compelling but even bizarrely sexy in a sweet way. There is plenty of charm in this series, enough that if it doesn't drive you bat-crazy, you can get a smile plastered onto your face by it. Despite being rather violent at times, the show doesn't take itself too seriously, even becoming self-referential at times, and that too makes the plot holes easier to swallow.
Another part of the charm is the animation itself, which is beautiful. I'm a sucker for cityscapes, and by the time the show is over, you feel like you have been in Ikebukuro. From the neon lights to the damp pavement to the subway, it's a beautiful urban sprawl. While modern animation techniques have made it easier to make cheap shows look pretty, Durarara!! definitely shows off its budget, which was worthy of its slot on Adult Swim.
I also stand by what I said before about Durarara!!'s aesthetic. This show is very much 2010 Japan with all its cell phones and chat rooms and texts taking the place of genuine interaction. 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. The show doesn't judge technology, but it does make you realize how tied to it we have become.
When I wrote up my preview, I talked about how the show had the potential to "do a belly flop in the shallow end of the pool." I don't think that the show did that. However, it's nowhere near as good as it promised to be. If you go into Durarara!! to meet some fascinating characters - -as well as some boring ones who turn out to be more than meets the eye -- you might enjoy it. But if you're looking for a plot that makes a ton of sense or has any sense of fulfillment, you're not going to find it here.
It says a great deal that 24 episodes of the program were shown on TV and then a bonus 25th episode was released as an extra. Episode 24 ends the core storyline and brings a sense of closure to a couple central themes. Episode 25 is more of a goofball addition that doesn't add much of anything to the series except some truly hilarious sequences. I'm not really sure which ending works better. One was plot-driven; one was character-driven. Neither was completely satisfying. Yet I enjoyed both. I just hoped for more. That's kind of my feeling on the whole.
I'm not sure my rating is particularly fair. I liked parts of this show much more than some others I've rated higher, but it just doesn't add up to something spectacular. I love much of the storytelling, I like the inhabitants of Ikebukuro in all their zany nuttiness...but my limits were stretched way too far to think that this was a superb series, despite all the things I genuinely liked. It's not that the journey wasn't fun...it's that I'm not sure we really went anywhere.