Ink & Paint XIV: Baccano!

“Now begin in the middle, and later learn the beginning; the end will take care of itself.”

—Harlan Ellison

A hoodlum gets into a knife fight in a New York back alley and loses a few fingers. They grow back.

A newspaper editor hidden behind a mountain of papers covering his desk asks his underlings for their report on a mass murder aboard trans-continental luxury train The Flying Pussyfoot.

An old man administers a mysterious liquid to a white rat, then kills it. The rat comes back to life.

Two idiots spend months digging for gold in California, then decide it would be more profitable to head for New York and steal from the Mafia.

What the heck is going on here?

It’s an anime about Mafia gangs, con artists, alchemists, delinquents, information brokers, cultists, psychopathic killers, monsters, and the elixir of eternal life–it’s Baccano!, and it’s one big, hot, infuriating, confusing, horrifying, hilarious, bloody mess.

The Harlan Ellison quote above pretty well summarizes the plot structure, what there is of it. We’re dumped into the middle of a story in progress, then are yanked back and forth in time as the series progresses, gradually collecting all the pieces necessary to make sense of what’s happening. Well, most of it.

Some of it.

Maybe.

The lion’s share of the action takes place aboard the aforementioned train, which both literally and figuratively carries us through the tale.

It’s hard to say too much about the story itself without spoiling it all, but for me, it became sort of an extended case study of what happens when immortality is bestowed on a random collection of people. It begins as a literal deal with the Devil, and as you might expect, there’s a huge catch. What will they do with it? How will it change them? Is it a gift, or a curse?

Don’t expect many answers, definite or otherwise.

The characters, and my curiosity about their fate, were what kept me engaged. The ensemble cast is a diverse collection of fascinating, distinctive people, each driven by their own peculiar motivations and history. Some are noble, some are selfish, some are sadistic, and a couple are blissfully moronic. A few are driven mad by their draught of the magic elixir, whose gift of immortality is a decidedly mixed blessing. Others are caught in the crossfire among gangsters, immortals, and immortal gangsters, just trying to survive. The various locales capture the spirit of an America in transition between the Roaring ’20’s and the Great Depression. The artwork is pretty and detailed–maybe a little too detailed when the mayhem begins aboard The Flying Pussyfoot.

In the final analysis, Baccano! is mostly about style, as evidenced by the rollicking and deceptively lighthearted opening sequence. There is a lot of comedy sprinkled throughout the series, but there’s even more bloody violence (which doesn’t lose its impact when a bullet-perforated or dismembered victim reassembles himself, even if we know he’s an immortal), a few harrowing scenes of cruelty and torture, and several gangland-style executions. The violence quickly began to feel gratuitous, and while some of it was necessary to the story, I think it could have been toned down considerably, particularly in the case of one immortal “frozen” at a very young age who is repeatedly killed and reanimated, although his part of the story ends on an uplifting note. This is not a kids’ show, and if graphic violence bothers you, steer clear, whatever your age.

There are 16 episodes in all, but the story is pretty much wrapped up in episode 13. The last three installments serve as a sort of epilogue that ties up some, but not all, of the major dangling loose ends–and I gave up trying to count how many of those there are. Baccano! finishes with a meandering reflection between two characters about whether or not it’s good for a story to have an end, concluding that perhaps it’s better to leave the outcome to the reader/viewer’s imagination and not worry about it. In this case, I think that was the best of all possible choices.

Baccano! is based on a Japanese light novel written by Ryohgo Narita and illustrated by Katsumi Enami. The anime series is available on Netflix and also via the Funimation website at http://www.funimation.com/baccano.

Wikipedia provides a plot summary of the original light novel, which differs somewhat from the anime, particularly toward the end, but is no less confusing.

I’d rate this at an R for scenes of intense violence and grue. Not for kids. Some mild swearing, no sexual content.

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6 thoughts on “Ink & Paint XIV: Baccano!

  1. Fred
    I enjoyed this. Thanks for helping me to understand more of culture, U.S. and world, than I’d dare step into. This sounds like a Faustian theme gone berserk; also interesting, that this theme crops up in the East as well as West.
    Maria

    1. Hi, Maria!

      Yeah, this is one of those reviews where I expect people wonder “what on Earth possessed him to watch that?” And I actually did enjoy a lot of it. The premise was interesting, the setting was very unusual, the characters were fun, and the artwork was a cut above the average. But there were some very dark moments, and it’s jarring to be laughing one moment and aghast the next. It helped that the characters who were trying to do the right thing came out on top, but I would have appreciated more restraint in the violent elements.

      The Faustian element was there, but it mostly served to explain where the immortality elixir came from. At the end, we discover that the devil’s influence was defused by the selfless act of a noble character. It was one of those subplots that was left dangling throughout the story. Things moved so fast that a lot of opportunities to dig a little deeper into the implications of the situation were lost.

      This isn’t something I’d recommend as an introduction to anime–a better place to start is just about anything by Hayao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli. They’ve released several films dubbed in English in cooperation with Disney, such as Kiki’s Delivery Service and Spirited Away, They’re very well done, beautifully animated, and suitable for all ages. You’ve probably seen the recent ads for The Secret World of Arrietty (http://disney.go.com/arrietty/), an adaptation of The Borrowers, which is also from Studio Ghibli.

      Fred

  2. Fred, I hadn’t seen the ads for The Secret World of Arrietty. But thanks to you, now I have. Thank you for your willingness to explain all of this too.
    I understand about the Faustian theme — just a ploy to be used then forgotten. With your family, you probably are exposed to more of the interesting younger pop culture things.
    I didn’t think, why in the world are you watching? Just thought, here is something else he knows about that I don’t.
    Have a very good end of your week!
    Maria

  3. Hmm Faustian bargain eh? I was expecting the Philosopher’s Stone or some derivation thereof. I suppose I will have to give this a view…been thinking about it for a while.
    I am slightly surprised to find you reviewing anime, but primarily because I’m always surprised to find someone in the writing community doing anything with anime, since most of the folks I meet therein are quite derisive of it, not understanding that all anime isn’t like Pokemon or DBZ.
    The anime/Asian cinema influence in the US has been going strong for some time now, and not just among the young. The Matrix series is, to a large extent, live action anime and the same can be said for a lot of Quentin Tarrantino’s stuff.

    1. Well, it’s something I’ve been interested in since I was very young. I was watching Astroboy on a black and white TV when I was six years old and there were only three channels available in our area, when reception was good. No idea why the local network affiliate decided to broadcast it.

      I’ve always loved animation, but the stuff coming from Japan was different from anything else. It seemed more intense, and there was more emphasis on telling a story than most of the U.S. Saturday-morning fare. It’s been fascinating to watch it grow in popularity here over the years and see its influence on our media culture. Like anything else, the genre is a mixed bag, but there are some real gems in there, and it’s easier to find them now than its ever been.

      I actually find myself paying more attention to the landscapes and background art now that I’m older and have traveled a bit in Asia. It’s fun to see reminders of the places I’ve been.

  4. I think part of the trouble is, in the West people think animation=for little kids, but that isn’t the case in the Far East. Also…while there are certain “anime aesthetics” and a lot of anime blurs and combines genres with wild abandon, it also comes in all genres…there’s slice of life anime, science fiction, fantasy, romance and all the other varieties any other movies come in.
    For a while now I’ve been enjoying the stuff coming out of East Asia more than a good deal of what we produce; it’s unfettered, in a number of ways, and comes at things from various fresh and unusual perspectives, and tackles things in, I feel, often a more balanced and realistic fashion.

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