Wednesday, November 19, 2008
or This Reviewer Embraces the Fact that there is no Main Character
Baccano! is a show which has taken parts of the anime community by storm, while simultaneously remaining relatively unknown to the larger whole. The series is frenetic and has more energy than perhaps any other anime. Each scene, while displayed with no heed for chronology, is nonetheless structured to introduce questions and answer them little by little, even if the answer is chronologically first. This is an interesting and ingenious structural choice, and also is in many ways responsible for the series' undeniable style. Baccano! does a good job of offering a little something for most everybody, without watering any of it down.
Baccano! is a show that defies description. Generally speaking, it's about a number of people and a spattering of events which are connected, sometimes loosely and sometimes directly. More specifically, it is itself a story about these things and about stories in general. It, in some ways, comes close to breaking the fourth wall with its acknowledgment of the place of human subjectivity in any story. The framing of the series with the exchanges between Carole and the Vice-Director put the entire show in this context, and the re-telling of specific events from multiple perspectives provide examples as basis for the overall framework.
Baccano!'s placement in the American prohibition era and embracing of this setting lends it a taste of the exotic. Even to American audiences, a unique take on the prohibition era such as this one seems foreign and wild, despite the familiarity of many of the places represented. Anyone who has ever seen a mafia movie feels at home, and yet at the same time it is made foreign to us. Unlike many other series which utilize a unique setting or particular aesthetic, Baccano!'s use of its setting, its powerful aesthetic, does not come off as heavy-handed. Baccano! oozes style without ever feeling the need to shove it in your face, allowing for someone to not connect with the aesthetic yet still enjoy the series overall.
The animation in Baccano! is definitely a strong point, even though it is a little rough around the edges. Stationary art in the series is certainly good, but nothing especially worth noting. In motion, though, the style of the series comes to realization with its somewhat flashy, rough animation style. Colors are bright and vibrant, matching the characters' flair and the feel of the setting. Despite some remarkably over the top designs, everything meshes very well within the series, and there is nothing which visually feels out of place, even the occasional CGI section.
Sound plays a unique role in Baccano! in reinforcing and bringing to life its setting. In this, through the use of primarily jazz and swing tracks with unique twists, the soundtrack is remarkably successful, lending a credibility to the endeavor without being vestigial or overbearing. The soundtrack is solid even without considering the above, and is definitely good enough to warrant listening to on its own. Within the series, it never really takes center stage—aside from the dramatic string piece that closes each episode—but instead achieves a healthy balance with the other aspects of the show, unlike many series with strong, aesthetically-driven soundtracks, such as Cowboy Bebop or Samurai Champloo. While not as strong on its own as those two, it does a better job of navigating its place within the overall work.
The voice-acting in Baccano! is unique in the anime world. It features few, if any, big name seiyuu, and, possibly as a result, is superbly cast. It is common for big name seiyuu to be included in a project for publicity and increased viewership, even where their voice does not fit the character, or where the show must be altered to accommodate the actor. In Baccano!, though, each voice actor fits their character extraordinarily well, and their performances overall are definitely solid, naturally bolstered by clever writing and a supporting soundtrack. As far as stand out performances, I must point out the seiyuu of Isaac and Miria, who managed to make what could have been very irritating characters enjoyable and fantastically entertaining. Ladd Russo's voice actor is also remarkably good, making a character who sounded simple and uninspired in description great in practice. As far as main characters are concerned, it is difficult to pinpoint a weak link, and the supporting cast is solid, if not as exemplary.
It is difficult to speak much on that plot of Baccano! without spoiling the mystery and the fun of it all, so I'll be brief and general. Baccano!'s plot is an evolving mystery which fills out completely the 13 episodes it inhabits. There is no idle time in Baccano!, and each scene fits very well into an overall picture. While this frenetic pace is paramount to the impressiveness of the series and to further its very postmodern style, at times it can be somewhat jarring. This, of course, is most likely intentional, considering the mindset of the rest of the series, but it does irk some, especially those less interested or familiar with postmodern literature. The plot itself is fairly straightforward if laid out chronologically, but the way it is presented makes it somewhat extraordinary. It does a better job of engaging the viewer in the plot, making them an active participant, than perhaps any other series I have seen.
If I had to point out a primary flaw of Baccano!, it would be the voluminous cast which limits the characterization of each. Each character is a larger than life, highly-stylized figure, but as a general rule there is little more to them than that. There is some nuance to each, but it is only in the relationships between the characters that they achieve depth, keeping this from becoming a crippling weakness. Even so, the aesthetically-charged character design is worth noting, differentiating each character powerfully from the others even in keeping with period attire—or at least a stylized, egalitarian version of it.
Baccano! takes everything you know about anime and shows you that there is another way, all the while engaging you with a flashy mystery full of action and suspense. Flush with style and ripe with content, Baccano! manages to give the audience a little bit of everything, without feeling rushed or particularly shallow, although its biggest weakness is the lack of complexity in its characters and plot. It offers unforgettable characters, powerful aesthetics, and a great soundtrack to frame a frenetic narrative which challenges notions of narratives themselves. The series challenges you as a viewer, interpreter, and active participant.
Final Score: 9/10