Sometimes you have to wonder if anime is getting just a little too clever for its own good. After all, its basic function is to entertain, and I’ll be the first to argue that being entertained should not necessarily preclude having to think. But Baccano!, based on an award-winning novella by Ryohgo Narita, is entertainment that not only demands thought, but seems to do almost everything in its power to make that as challenging an undertaking as possible.
Taking its inspiration from the Italian word for ‘ruckus’ or ‘din’, this series is a riot of narrative arguing for the apparent capriciousness of fate, and for the first few episodes (possibly the first few discs) you’ll probably feel like it’s all you can just to keep up with who’s who, what’s going on, and how it relates to everything else. That is, if you aren’t just stunned into submission by the flashy gangster movie violence and deranged characters that populate the show, in which case you may just decide that whatever kind of ride you’re on, the best bet is to just hold on and pray.
It’s not a bad idea. Summarising the plot of this series is an exercise in chaos theory. There’s Firo, a member of the Camorra about to become a made man; the fact that he and his friend Luck are riddled with bullets in a bookshop barely makes a dent in his ability to attend his promotion. There’s Isaac and Miria, an ambiguous couple of Robin Hoods with a penchant for terrible disguises and about as many lives as a cat (believe me, they need them). There’s an Old Boys Club working on not dying, and a newspaper that may or may not be redefining the concept of news. There’s a missing brother, a train from Chicago with a killer on it – well, several killers – and a monster on the loose and in love. There’s terrorists and politicians and white mice and if you’re confused now, then you’re starting to get the picture. Baccano! is a Tomy gun in a Prohibition era back alley. It’s William S. Burroughs in an editing chair, taking what might have been a perfectly decent storyline, chopping it up into little pieces and then mixing them all around and splicing them back together again with little regard for the usual linear view of time as a necessary factor in constructing meaning. It’s frustrating, wtf-inducing and it’s utterly fantastic.
Why? Particularly when you have to work so hard to make sense of things? Well, that’s perhaps one of the story’s main points: there is no point, or at the very least trying to force a single point is an exercise in pointlessness. This clue is made explicit in the first episode, where the seemingly omniscient Vice-Director of the Daily Days asks his young (very young. Surely that kid should still be in primary school?!) assistant not where the story does start, but where it should start. This is a comment on the observer’s power to construct meaning through observation, and the responsibilities peculiar to the storyteller. Baccano! defies the usual narrative conventions, ignoring a single point of reference and a normal chronology, in order to tell a different story. Events unfold like a web, paths crisscrossing in every direction, seemingly at random, with no meaning past the impact generated from one line intersecting another, and perhaps that’s the point; meaning – or truth, as the Vice-Director puts it – is only as stable as we make it.
It might seem like a lot to have to grasp just for entertainment’s sake, but luckily Baccano! has a more going for it than merely a certifiable psyche. Its purely pulpy, 1930’s Prohibition America is all dirty, muted colours and sparkling upper-class luxuries, splashed joyfully with blood, bullets, crime and characters. The music is awesome, tripping light-heartedly along in an evocation of the era not often attended to in anime, and the American ADR, with all those wonderful wiseguy accents, is almost worth ignoring the Japanese for; the team at FUNimation sound like they were totally in their element.
And to top it off, the sheer genius of how the story is in fact put together makes all that effort – trying to work it out or just hanging on for dear life – one surprisingly rewarding endeavour.