Reviewby Gabriella Ekens,
A headless rider on a jet black motorcycle haunts the streets of Ikebukuro Tokyo, where information brokers negotiate deals between the yakuza and foreign mafias, illegal immigrants frequently go missing, and a new organization – a “colorless” color gang – has taken root, exerting untold influence over the urban center's busy streets. At least, that's what the rumors say. This is the world Mikado Ryuugamine enters when he moves to Tokyo for high school. Born and bred in Hicksville, Mikado is lured there by the desire to escape his boring life. The city grants his wish, and Mikado is promptly swept into its web of intrigue. Soon, he learns that a headless horsewoman (aka dullahan) does prowl the night, looking for her stolen head... while also trying to carve out a life for herself with her kinda-sorta-boyfriend. Also, that guy in the butler outfit really is strong enough to chuck around vending machines – he's just not very happy about it. And in the midst of all this, that smooth-talking, dark haired man may really be the most dangerous person around.
In Ryohgo Narita's fantastic portrait of a modern metropolis, sadistic otaku, teenage gangsters, and enchanted blades are the stuff of “everyday life.” Does Mikado have a place here? And could he have brought something fantastic of his own to Ikebukuro…?
If you've been an anime fan for any amount of time, you're most likely already familiar with Durarara!!. First airing in 2009, it's about supernatural (and just plain weird) events going down in Ikebukuro, one of Tokyo's busiest districts. When it first came out, Durarara!! was hyped as another show by Ryohgo Narita, the creator of the cult hit Baccano!. Durarara!! looked like more of the same – a cast of dozens of colorful characters getting into riotous, ultraviolent adventures in an urban metropolis. The main difference is that while Baccano! is a period piece set in Prohibition-era America, Durarara!! takes place in contemporary Japan. Also unlike Baccano!, Durarara!! stars a bunch of nerdy teens, much like the assumed audience. Fans looked forward to a version of Baccano! that they could relate to more directly, and by and large, that's what they got.
While it was never a major hit, Durarara!! has maintained a steady presence in Western anime fan consciousness. I'm surprised that the original novels didn't come out earlier, only getting an English release last year. By that point, the anime was almost over, and a manga adaptation had been in print since 2012. With that much Durarara!! already available, the question becomes – are the original books still worth reading? Or do they just retread ground covered well in other adapted formats? Three volumes in, I'm happy to report that these novels not only still have plenty to offer, they may in fact be the ideal way to experience this story. While solid in their own rights, these adaptations have only diluted Ryohgo Narita's vision as seen in these light novels. I found that these books seek to explore ideas as well as entertain. Narita has a unique perspective on humanity, which draws me in as much as the characters' antics.
The first thing to know about Durarara!! is that it's less a plot-driven story than an immersive environment. These books don't have much of a through-line besides revealing what crazy circumstances the story's previously peripheral characters were secretly up to. They're all linked, however, by their residence in Ikebukuro, which is framed as a point of coalescence for all sorts of improbable happenstance. A headless horsewoman rescues illegal immigrants from human trafficking. A lovestruck schoolgirl uses a magical katana to build up a personal army. An information broker ignites a gang war in an attempt to ascend to Valhalla. These are all treated as a natural outcome of 'Bukuro's status as an urban center. It's the Japanese equivalent of the New York-centered urban fantasy novels that we get in the USA. The idea is that when lots of very different people start living in close proximity to one another, stuff gets out of control fast. These spaces are a popular subject for narrative because they're filled with possibility. It seems like anything can happen there, so in fiction, anything does happen.
It helps that Narita is a sociological writer. While he's good at creating individual characters, his real talent comes from drawing conflict out of the different ways that groups can be organized. The conflict in each of these books is based around the strengths and weaknesses of different group dynamics. For example, the Dollars are an Anonymous-style group with no membership requirements, leadership structure, or stated goals. Anyone can use the group's name for their own purposes. It's a uniquely online phenomenon, and after three books, the characters are only just beginning to understand what they're dealing with – much like the real world at the time when this was written (2006). Saika (a firmly top-down organization) and the color gangs (with their easily faked and fluid membership) are also both explored in their respective books. Beyond just using the city as a convenient setting, Narita has an eye for the social ramifications of urbanity and how that intersects with technology. He understands well how online friendships affect “real life.” Right now, fiction is struggling to understand what the internet does to people, but Durarara!! just seems to get it and uses this understanding to create an entertaining narrative. This will be brought to the forefront in later books, but right now, it's all kept to thinly connected vignettes that are eerily accurate to how people form friendships online.
Of course, this mostly comes through in the anime too. What do these books provide that's new? Overwhelmingly, the biggest difference comes from POV. Prose lets you directly access a character's mind in a way that film can't, and Narita relies a lot on interior monologue. Sometimes the anime manages to compensate for this via voiceover. For most characters, however, their inner lives are totally lost. As a result, quite a few characters end up coming off as less complex than they were in the novels. This affects everyone to different degrees, but the biggest victim is everyone's favorite pain-in-the-butt, Izaya Orihara. The books make it clear from the get-go that he's motivated by a desire to be “special.” He's a normal guy in a town filled with all sorts of supernatural nonsense, so he tries to stand out by pretending to be a cartoon psychopath. That doesn't mean that Izaya is secretly a nice guy or anything, but his actions come from a place of insecurity rather than confidence, making him an interesting take on a common character type – the mugging, ultra-competent schemer. Narita's take on this archetype is realistically human in a way that I rarely see accomplished.
The anime, by contrast, takes more of his behavior at face value. It's not a disaster, but considering his centrality to both the narrative and theme, it's a significant loss. Minor versions of this same thing happen to a number of characters, from Mikado to Anri to Seiji Yagiri. In particular, the anime's first season misses out on clarifying Mikado's identity as a sort of proto-Izaya, a person at risk of walking down the same edgelord path. The anime fails to make this clear until much later arcs, when it comes across as more of a shocking twist than a natural extension of the decisions he's made since the beginning. It also ties directly into Durarara!!'s biggest theme - that the freakiest people can be surprisingly normal, and the most normal-seeming people can be secret freaks. Either way, if you can just accept yourself, you can find people who care about you for who you are. While on the surface, Narita seems to deal with cartoonish antics, he has a lot of sympathy for how different people approach the world. To him, human nature is like a big kaleidoscope – difficult to sum up, but always colorful.
Other than that, these books are a bit raunchier and more violent than the anime. If you could stand Baccano!, this'll be a walk in the park, but compared to Durarara!!'s tamer anime version, there are some fairly harrowing descriptions of torture. In terms of sex, pretty much every time Shinra flirted with Celty, there was also lewd innuendo. It's worth noting that the anime contains some original material – Rio's story, for example, or Celty's encounter with the artist who draws dullahans – and that it's mostly quite good. Overall, however, I'd say that you're missing out on more by not reading the books.
The translation is adequate, but it has a few issues. The prose is a bit clunky, overusing adjectives and adverbs, along with some awkward passive voice. I don't speak Japanese, so I can't tell whether these flaws are native to Narita's writing or the result of translation. Either way, I wouldn't read these books just to admire their style. However, I can say that they only rarely interfere with my ability to enjoy the content. Considering that Japanese-to-English translation is notoriously difficult, I'm content with this. The worst it ever gets are during Masaomi's jokes, which can rely on some complicated inter-lingual wordplay. At one point he makes a pun between Japanese, English, and Russian. My ideal version of these scenes would be something less literal and more adaptive. Still, they're infrequent enough to not be a big issue. The art is rather plain. There are occasionally some awkward proportions (check out Namie's coat in the third volume), but otherwise it's mostly competent. Suzuhito Yasuda has a flair for sinister expressions, which is most of what he ends up drawing.
These three books equate to the anime's first season in content – meaning the “Dollars,” “Saika,” and “Yellow Scarves” arcs. Each arc spotlights someone in the main trio of teenagers (Mikado, Anri, and Masaomi) while setting up the older characters (Celty, Shizuo, Izaya, etc.) for later books. No one book stands out as the best, although I'd have to call the third the weakest, because it stars one of the least interesting characters. Masaomi has normal teen problems in a world where people are trying to initiate Ragnarok, plus he never really becomes plausible as this ultra-charismatic gang leader. It's also significantly longer than the rest, so it drags a bit, but at least it caps off the “three teens” saga so we can move onto the cooler adult characters.
Ultimately, I strongly recommend the Durarara!! books to fans of the anime. They're also worth checking out if you've never seen it, or if you dropped the show sometime around the lackluster second season. They probably feature some of the best writing to come out of light novels as a medium. Underneath the headless lady fixations and Bludgeoning Angel Dokuro-chan references, Narita's stories are pretty smart. I'm excited to see how these books approach later material, where the anime really gets rocky.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : C+
+ Fun adventures in a unique setting, contains characterization that was left out of the anime, sharp understanding of human behavior and the internet
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