Anime Programming in the US
Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
You'd think clearing a city of human-trafficking pharmacists would make a celebrity of a kid, but Mikado Ryuugamine, shadow shogun of Ikebukuro's largest gang The Dollars, prefers to remain anonymous. His life with best friend and resident weirdo Masaomi Kida remains largely unchanged. The two go to school, hang out with mutual crush Anri Sonohara, and just generally live like teenagers. But Mikado isn't the only one with a secret life. Masaomi hides a massive darkness within, and when Anri is apparently attacked by The Slasher, he lets it loose. With Orihara egging them on, he and his friends move inexorably towards a war that will drag all of Ikebukuro into its depths.
Durarara!! whittles its focus down to the central trio of Mikado, Anri and Masaomi as its second half takes flight. Like Baccano! before it, the series braids their stories into a deadly narrative confluence, but this time it isn't about the hidden order of chaos, but rather the chaos beneath order. And in its study it finds, not bloody exhilaration, but bittersweet redemption.
Of course, whittling down your focus means whittling away at the roles played by some of your favorite characters. In this case, pretty much anyone with more than their share of charisma. Celty is no less the sensitive Old World nightmare she always was, but she's no longer the focus of the series, more a convenient device to be brought out whenever someone needs extraction from a tight spot. Likewise Shizuo Heiwajima is brought in whenever someone really, really needs to be smitten. In the Old Testament, lightning-bolt-from-the-sky sense. No delving into his life, or past, or reasons here, just pure deus ex machina intervention. Even lesser—though thoroughly engaging—lights like Celty's dissection-mad boyfriend Shinra or Dollars heavy-hitter Kadota and his crew of otaku psychopaths get less screen time than they really deserve.
The reduction is a calculated risk on the series' part. Part two of Durarara!! is far more tightly structured than part one. In the midst of the escalating intersections of its three factions, there's little room to dwell on the life and times of anyone but the trio of protagonists. So the colorful supporting cast gets their plot-presence curtailed—in exchange for slowly winding tensions and artfully orchestrated climaxes. It isn't as unfair an exchange as it sounds. Brief and infrequent as the supporting cast's appearances are, they are unfailingly and gloriously cathartic—thrillingly violent rewards for enduring the slowly accumulating pressures of the plot. Heiwajima battling a giggling herd of brainwashed knifemen, Kadota turning a traitorous weasel's own stratagem against him, Celty riding to the rescue astride what can only be called a night mare—few individual moments in the series, or any other, can compare for pure satisfaction. And when they aren't cathartic...well, they're still involving in their own, quieter way. A peek inside the heads of Kadota's two otakupathic partners, for instance, reveals a worldview twisted in unique and disturbingly enticing ways.
With a tradeoff like that, you could forgive the series for far more egregious flaws than shortchanging side-character screen time. Good thing. Because there is one: Part two of Durarara!! doesn't just reduce the roles of its best characters, it hands itself over to Anri, Masaomi and Mikado—far and away its least interesting ones (though given the extremity of the others, that isn't saying too much). Again, though, it's an exchange. While least interesting, they are definitely the most sympathetic. This is a function of their (relative) ordinariness. The fear, the regret, the desperate affection that pushes each, drawing them into an uncontrolled spiral of violence, will be familiar to anyone who underwent adolescence. Unlike Baccano!, Durarara!!'s aim is the heart, not the gut, and to that particular aim no one is better suited than Mikado and company. The power of the final episodes would be unthinkable without Anri and her horror of discovery (yes, she too has a secret), their aligning of self-destructive redemption and the series' sneaky romantic underbelly impossible without Masaomi and his black past. Mikado...he isn't given much to do, but as a bone he is allowed to instigate the series' most brilliant sequence: a crowd-sourced rescue that alternates between funny and terrifying.
One character that remains unchanged throughout is Ikebukuro itself. Or more accurately, Ryohgo Narita's peculiar take on it. Takahiro Oomori and Brains Base continue to give the ward a believably detailed urban surface, a veneer of sleek modernity that thinly disguises the brewing madness of its underworld, a shell of normality through which the deeply abnormal stride. It's very much a character unto itself, and a mercurial one, as apt to menace as it is to reassure. It is also very much at home housing Takahiro Kishida's somewhat rough-hewn designs, and makes a wonderful and highly interactive stage for some stunning action sequences, the best of which is probably Heiwajima's man-to-man fight with a speeding car on a freeway underpass.
As ever, Makoto Yoshimori's appropriate-in-its-inappropriateness jazz score adds a sometimes ironic dimension to the action and the city, while the relegation of the series' most brutal acts to off-screen sound effects evokes the hidden nature of the city's depravities in a manner that makes them all the more disturbing.
As satisfying as specific portions of the show are, there is something vaguely unsatisfying about Durarara!! as a whole. The quality over quantity approach to the supporting players certainly has a bit to do with it, as do the plot threads left dangling at the end—namely Celty's head. More important, however, is the coldness of its deliberation. Unlike Baccano! the show feels calculated, in no small part thanks to the control that Orihara's scheming (cue the evil chuckling and rubbing of hands) has over the plot and characters. That calculation opens a space between us and the series that it never fully closes, even at its most emotional. (That Orihara doesn't get beaten to ground chuck as he so richly deserves doesn't help things either). That said, as cold and distant as it can be, the series is too well written and executed, to say nothing of entertaining, to dismiss...or miss.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : A-
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B
+ A tightly scripted, highly intelligent, and often powerful conclusion with some mighty interesting revelations and rest-stops along the way.
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