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