Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Apr 23rd 2010
Ryuugamine Mikado is excited to move to Tokyo. Having lived his life in the boondocks he's raring to get out and experience life a little. Not an easy task when all you've got going for you is a spectacularly conspicuous name and a spectacularly conspicuous best friend, both of which get you into a fair amount of trouble. Which, unfortunately for the timid boy, is not in short supply in Ikebukuro, the ward of Tokyo in which he now lives. First off there's the Dollars, the new and secretive gang that rules the area. Then there's the various punks and bullies, the other gangs, the gangsters, and a few choice individuals so scary than none of the aforementioned dare anger them. There're are also teams of opportunistic human traffickers, to say nothing of the Slasher, a sword-wielding psychopath who stalks the city's back alleys, and the Headless Rider, a mysterious female transporter who, well, has no head. Before you can say "freaky milieu" Mikado is neck deep in it all, including some seriously hinky business involving a seriously hinky pharmaceutical company. And a disembodied head.
It's impossible, while watching Durarara!!, to avoid comparing it to Baccano!. Not because they are similar, though inevitably they are, and not because they both have nonsense names punctuated with exclamation points. Rather because Durarara!! is the closest thing Baccano! has to a sequel. It's adapted from the novels of the same author by the same screenwriter for the same director working with the same animators. Heck it even has the same composer and a very similar opening sequence.
The comparison isn't exactly a flattering one. Everything that made Baccano! an unforgettable attack of cinematic anarchy is toned down in Durarara!!. Its characters are less outrageously fun, the pace more relaxed, the humor lighter and more understated. The violence is less extreme (not that it could be anything else), the sex more or less gone, and the cutthroat 30's gangsters traded in for a milder modern underworld of the show's own peculiar design. Consequently it doesn't pack the same freight-train punch. The shocks are smaller and less frequent, and the fates of its characters less viscerally satisfying. It also dispenses with Baccano!'s dual interlocking storylines and temporal trickery, effectively discarding the dazzling narrative choreography that made Baccano!'s final stretch such a thrill.
But it isn't exactly a fair comparison either. Trying to match Baccano! for daring energy is like trying to wrestle Mount Everest. Which is to say, futile. And Durarara!! doesn't really try. It instead directs its efforts into creating a world all its own, unique and complete; a whacked-out version of modern Tokyo in which students, psychopaths and mythical monsters unknowingly rub shoulders. It is, in its own way, even more ambitious than its Tarantino-esque predecessor: larger in scope, calmer yet more complex and textured, and less cartoonish in its extremity. It is, to be a tad simplistic, Baccano! grown up. Looser and more relaxed, confident in the power of its cast and setting to entertain; less a shock-obsessed rollercoaster than an unhurried road trip through the weird underbelly of Ryohgo Narita's twisted take on Ikebukuro.
An Ikebukuro populated by a huge cast of delightfully bizarre people. People like Heiwajima Shizuo, a monstrously strong kneebreaker with a nuclear temper and a penchant for doing the right thing the absolute wrong way. Or Orihara Izaya, an information broker with a Gestapo-sized sadistic streak, or Simon, a tower of foreign muscle who works for a suspicious Russian sushi shop. There is also a quartet of unhinged otaku vagrants, a trio of inhumanly incompetent kidnappers, a cheerfully illegal underground surgeon, a deceptively happy homeless couple, and most importantly, Celty the Headless Rider, an Irish ghoul with a heart of gold. All of whom the series juggles about until their secrets come bouncing out, slowly accumulating before gaining critical mass and precipitating a climax that is as surprising and smile-worthy as any in Baccano!.
As you'd expect given the artistic overlap, Durarara!! looks an awful lot like its elder cousin. The same sharp-edged, just-this-side-of-messy character designs, a similar level of anal detail in the settings, the same attention to body language and expressions, the same sleek animation with its unobtrusive shortcuts. Though the latter isn't as crucial, what with the action quotient reduced to something approaching human levels. It is, simply, a vibrant and attractive series; atmospheric at times, acrobatic at others, and never less than alive. The reduction of background characters to gray silhouettes is troublesome, but even that is used to the series' benefit, with stunning results, in the climactic episodes.
Makoto Yoshimori composes another jazzy score for Durarara!!. Which might seem a mistake, seeing as the setting is modern Japan and not Jazz Age America, were it not for the entirely appropriate sense of unreality it lends to the series' unreal world. The sonic disjunct also subtly undercuts some of the uglier scenes, adding dark humor to what might otherwise have been merely disturbing.
There's something almost careless about Durarara!!. For all the labyrinthine coiling of its plot—which involves a severed head, a missing stalker, an evil pharmaceutical company, human experimentation, Celtic mythology, and a gang that may or may not exist—most of it comes about almost as a byproduct of the characters and the perverse romanticism of their lives. In a lesser series that might be a sign of laziness, but in Durarara!! it's a sign of casual confidence, and even if it was laziness, who could hate a series that looks for charm—and structure—in the love lives of murderers and headless women... and manages to find it?
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : A-
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Complicated and screwily romantic reimagining of Ikebukuro as a fantastic world of supernatural forces, slightly mad outcasts, and dark, all-too-human powers.
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