Reviewby Theron Martin, Jan 30th 2009
Baccano! + Artbox
Aboard a ship in 1711, a group of alchemists summoned a “demon” that gave them an immortality elixir, but they quickly realized that they posed a threat to one another and dispersed across the world. In Depression-era New York City the immortals gradually gather together again over attempts by some to replicate the original immortality formula, in the process accidentally either directly or indirectly involving numerous other individuals, including robbers, made men, Mafia bosses, cultists, psychopaths, and the female homunculus servant of one of the original alchemists. Events come to an early head in late 1930 on board the new transcontinental train Flying Pussyfoot when the crossing paths of the robbers, psychopath, cultists, other thieves, an immortal, a senator's wife and daughter, and agents secretly escorting a special bomb create a potentially grossly bloody situation, while in 1931 and 1932 a girl seeks information on her missing ruffian brother.
The above synopsis only hints at how convoluted this series actually is, and indeed, the synopsis explains more about what's really going on than the first four episodes actually do. Knowing the basic outline about the immortals and the Elixir of Life goes a long way towards helping make sense of the first volume, but in the end it does not really matter much. The first volume is so much fun to watch that making full sense of it is not (yet) necessary for enjoying it.
In any lesser production the approach of jumping haphazardly around between the stories of nearly two dozen named characters (18 of which are introduced in the opener) and three different years (1930, 1931, and 1932) would come off as scatterbrained, but Baccano!'s producers show a deft talent for managing all of the disparate threads by hinting at ultimate results while showing how things developed in that direction and how these threads are all gradually becoming entwined. (Given that the director-writer team for this also produced the masterfully-written Koi Kaze, the quality level should be no surprise.) Watching the first four episodes is an experience in gradually assembling the story piece by piece in a vertical as well as horizontal direction, and it can be a fascinating exercise.
Treating this series as a primarily intellectual exercise misses its point, though. It is meant to be an entertaining romp, and that is precisely what it delivers. Like bloody fight scenes? These episodes won't disappoint. A fan of gangster action? Plenty of that going around. Enjoy watching whacked-out psychotics and their masochistic mistresses, or people coming back to life after being riddled with bullets? They offer that, too, as well as lively characters running the gamut from whiny scaredy-cats to the toughest of Mafia punks to everything in between. The most entertaining characters are the brains-light robber duo of Isaac and Miria, who offer much of the series' comedy relief in their silly dialogues, amusing costume-themed robbery schemes (they pull off one robbery dressed as Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb where they use bats for weapons, for instance), and Maria's tendency to agree with Isaac no matter how lamebrained his comments are. Their glee in just about everything they do is infectious. The loopy psychopath Ladd, who skips down a hallway as he eagerly anticipates upcoming gunplay and promises his fiancée that he loves her so much that he will torture her to death last (as in, only after he's killed everyone else in the world) offers an entirely different kind of appeal, and there are many other options, too. The way much of the cast crosses paths on board the Flying Pussyfoot assures that future episodes will show an even livelier experience than the first four episodes, as that plot element is only starting to heat up as the volume ends.
For all the fun factor, though, this is actually a pretty brutal series. Its TV-MA rating is well-earned through occasional displays of intense graphic violence, including scenes of a seeming child's head being blown off, a rat smashed with a hammer, a man's face literally pummeled into a bloody pulp, characters riddled with bullets, and a man waving around an arm whose forearm has been reduced to its bones. Granted, these scenes are only flash points and not constant representations of content, but the series' ability to smoothly mix ugliness and light-heartedness without either seeming forced or awkward is amazing.
The style and plotting alone might carry the production, but the storytelling also finds support from a great jazz-based musical score. The opener “Gun's & Roses” by Paradise Lunch, whose visuals include key scenes from the previous episode starting with episode 3, is an up-tempo jazz number so much in the spirit of Cowboy Bebop's “Tank!” that it has a similar potential to be an anime classic. Closer “Calling” is a melodic Yuki Kajiura arrangement with more ordinary visuals. In between the score liberally sprinkles period jazz themes with harmonica pieces and more intense numbers to create a balanced, easily adaptable sound.
The artistry may not represent the finest of achievements in character or background design, but its style serves its purpose well, as it has little trouble crafting an easily distinguishable cast or depicting convincing blood splatters. Brain's Base, whose other work can be seen in titles like Demon Prince Enma, Innocent Venus, and Shin Getter Robo, gives its characters and setting a distinctive look heavily influenced by classic caricatures of mobsters and American Depression-era cities and mostly devoid of anachronistic elements, unlike the similar time period Chrono Crusade; it looks like character designer Takahiro Kishida (also from Koi Kaze) actually did his homework on appropriate period costuming. The artistry also uses a lightly muted color scheme that avoids any hint of typical anime garishness. The animation stands on the high end of the scale as TV series go, including a couple of impressive point-of-view shots in certain fight scenes, some nice fight choreography, and minimized short cuts.
Funimation's English dub cast represents a mix of long-time Funi stand-bys and fresh voices, as several important cast members are doing only their first or second prominent voice role. Aside from an occasional shaky accent, though, the dearth of experience in some roles does not hamper the dub at all. The casting is surprisingly close in sound to the Japanese originals and the performances follow the delivery styles of the originals while infusing them with accents and speech patterns more appropriate to the settings and time period, the lack of which are the biggest weaknesses in the Japanese dub. J. Michael Tatum and Caitlin Glass steal the show in every appearance as Isaac and Miria, but theirs are not the only good performances. The dub script also sticks surprisingly close to the original (by Funi standards) everywhere except in the Next Episode previews, with most modifications involving use of appropriate period/setting slang and even a couple of tricky translation issues being handled smoothly.
The first volume can be obtained separately or with the cardboard art box, with the cover of the DVD case offering an amusing attempt to use period speech patterns in the advertising. The inside liner includes similarly-styled brief profiles on four prominent characters, while textless songs and an audio commentary for episode 4 constitute the on-disk Extras. The latter features the English ADR director and English VAs Caitlin Glass and Brian “Ladd” Massey in a discussion mostly about series content, performance style issues, and inspirations for this effort, which include the mobster movie Miller's Crossing.
Sometimes humorous, occasionally brutal, and nearly always fun, the complex plotting and voluminous casting, combined with strong dubbing, animation, and musical score, make this a must-see series for fans of American mobster stories. If the remaining three volumes (space in the art box suggests that there will be four total, which presumably means that all three bonus episodes from the Japanese DVD releases will be included) are as sharp as this one then this could be one of the year's best series.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : A
Animation : A-
Art : B+
Music : A-
+ Lots of fun, good animation, soundtrack, and English dub.
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