Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, May 19th 2011
Blu-Ray Disc Box Limited Edition
America, 1930: Prohibition and the criminal empires it spawned are still going strong. Gang wars are a matter of course, violent death just a part of life. Even in these brutal times, however, certain atrocities stand out. What happens on the soon-to-be-retired train the Flying Pussyfoot is one of them. The fate of several warring bootlegger factions in New York is another. That they involve undying monsters is only part of the reason why.
Baccano! begins as a shattered series of unconnected fragments delivered with a big meta-fictional wink by a mismatched pair of journalists. That there should tell you something. Baccano! is pure chaos, anarchy delivered with a sneaky underlying structure that eventually brings all of its fragments together to form a thrilling, blackly humorous whole that makes perfect sense so long as you don't probe too hard for meaning. After all, as those journalists make clear from the beginning, meaning is subjective and therefore meaningless. What else did you expect from a series whose title literally means "ruckus?"
And what a ruckus it is. Baccano! replaces your standard main character with a huge cast of criminals, lowlifes, adventurers and psychopaths who bounce off of one another like balls in a lottery drawing. It has not one but three main plots. Depending on how you count it can be more. One involves the search by mafia killers and a young girl for the girl's ne'er-do-well street punk brother. Another features a rogue's gallery of underworld types knocking around the back alleys of New York: inept thieves, immortal alchemists, petty hoods, beautiful homunculi, ruthless perhaps-Irish bootleggers, a celebration's worth of big-time mafiosos—all connected by a pair of wandering wine bottles.
The third, and most important, takes place on the final transcontinental trip of the improbably-named steam engine the Flying Pussyfoot. Boarding it are a pair of would-be thieves-for-justice named Isaac and Miria, a creepy little kid named Csezlaw Meyer, a tight-knit gang of delinquents led by tattooed crybaby Jacuzzi Splot and his scarred gal friday Nice, a Senator's wife, a spooky gang of black-clad terrorists who swear allegiance to an imprisoned immortal, and a throng of white-clad psychopaths spearheaded by psychopath among psychopaths Ladd Russo. Disembarking are...well, a lot fewer than embark. Particularly given that a blood-red monster known as the Rail Tracer is preying on passengers in the unattended galleys at night.
There are a few other subplots mixed in: a snapshot of Eve Genoard's (the girl searching for her brother) home life that explains how she got where she is today, some cryptic stuff about imprisoned immortal Huey Laforet, and an account of the Advenna Avis, an 18th century ship on which a group of desperate individuals summon a demon—with predictably dire consequences, among others. It all takes place in the fictionalized Prohibition-era America of films like The Untouchables and Bonnie and Clyde, though none of it is presented in chronological order or without an impeccably modern veneer of dark irony, making it in reality a closer cinematic cousin to the modishly fragmented gangster tales of early Tarantino and Guy Ritchie (whose Snatch the opening sequence pays obvious homage to).
Though it takes the temporal trickery and especially the violence of even those films to fevered new heights. It rockets with neck-kinking speed between timelines, resolutely refusing to settle into any pattern, and within each timeline fragments itself even further with overlapping viewpoints and elliptical editing. The show drenches this temporal obfuscation (and nearby characters, walls, upholstery and everything really) in deranged violence so extreme—Ladd at one point literally dances in a tide of gore—that only its darkly funny synchronicity prevents it from being genuinely sickening. The series' knack for creating (and disguising until just the right time) plot confluences that turn the villains' own brutality against them makes the gore satisfying as often as it is stomach-turning. The series' finale in particular is an orgiastic exercise in audience satiation, a beautifully orchestrated triple dose of bloody schadenfreude that'll have even the most jaded viewers cheering to the rafters.
Fans of the series are of course aware of this. The real question isn't the series' quality but whether we're justified in paying for it again. It's a tricky question. The box, while beautifully appointed with original art by original artist Katsumi Enami, is a fairly flimsy cardboard affair, and the set has no extras. On the other hand it includes (as did the DVDs) the series' three-episode OVA sequel, which provides a well-earned follow-up on the fates of the Flying Pussyfoot's survivors. Plus the series has never looked better. Full HD may be a tad excessive for a series originally aired on TV, but it still shows off Takahiro Kishida's rough-edged, sharp-lined, and unspeakably sexy characters to their best advantage, as well as revealing every ostentatious detail of its anally-rendered replication of the 1930's America of our collective pop-culture imaginations. Takahiro Omori and Brains Base's stubbornly shortcut-free animation also looks great and Makoto Yoshimori's era-appropriate jazz score has never sounded better.
And neither has Funimation's dub, which Aniplex of America has retained for this re-release. The key to the dub's success lies in its often uncanny reproduction of the original cast's colorful (to put it very, very mildly) charm. The show is its characters. Quite literally in some ways; original author Ryohgo Narita allowed them to run the plot rather than vice-versa. Isaac and Miria's unbounded idiocy and enthusiasm aren't just essential to their characters; they're essential to the very existence of the series. Without them, their monkeywrenching ways (oh the things those two can do to a well-planned plot), or any one of their many demented comrades, the series wouldn't be what it is. So capturing them, and the rest of the outlandish cast, is essential. And the dub does, with unerring accuracy and the kind of verve that can't be faked or forced.
The slangy rewrites (obviously more influenced by movie versions of 30s slang than by actual 30s slang) and geographically appropriate (though highly variable) accents are more a bane than a boon, but they can hardly dent the series' steamrolling entertainment value. Like the train that the bulk of it takes place in, Baccano is an unstoppable engine of death, destruction, and black laughs. Secretly driven by cosmic justice and underwritten by twisted romance of course. If you haven't joined the party yet, this is a perfect chance to get on the train. If you already have, then it's up to you, and your videophilia, whether you want buy a second ticket or not.
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : A
+ One of the best, and certainly the most cleverly written series in recent years; lethally fun.
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