It's a critically acclaimed anime from Brain's Base, so I had to watch it. I was surprised. It's different, I'll give it that, but I don't know if I'd recommend it without some careful screening of who I was talking to. Conventional narrative and likeable characters are two things it's playing with. I hated the entire cast for a long time, but eventually came to like some of them. Tomoko disliked them all throughout.
Firstly, the set-up. It's Prohibition-era America, usually, and a large cast of crooks, madmen, psychos, gangsters and killers are doing a bunch of stuff in a narrative that jumps at random around different plot threads from the 1920s and 1930s. Most stories have a plotline. This has a plot cloud. At first, you won't know what's happening and you won't care, because they're all scum who seem to be just doing whatever the hell they want. Dramatic motivation? Don't ask me. And you can't remember who's who anyway.
This is deliberate. The word "baccano" is Italian for "ruckus" or "commotion".
Eventually, one starts getting things straight in one's head. A key piece of information is that some of these people are immortal, although they really don't deserve to be. (The writer of the original light novels had been going to include even more supernatural elements, e.g. a succubus, a magician, but eventually cut it back to something more closely resembling realism.) How the immortals got that way is something you'll learn, naturally. There are lots of plot threads, but the main one involves a train called the Flying Pussyfoot and bad guys trying to hijack it, or worse. This goes wrong to such an outrageous extent that the ensuing carnage takes almost the entire show to resolve. Imagine you're pulling the Great Train Robbery. Now imagine that you find in mid-heist that you're just one of half a dozen criminal gangs pulling a job on this train tonight, that you're probably the wimpiest of them and that some of them aren't even human.
It looks and sounds amazing. The 1920s incidental music is to die for. The clothes, cars and other period details are so evocative of gangland America that it almost felt wrong to be listening in Japanese. It's cool, awesome and has lots of gangsters killing each other. I can see how it would be popular.
I'd better turn to the characters, though. At least half of them are mafia and I never managed to make myself care about them, or even sometimes to distinguish them from each other. They're scum. They kill each other. Good. Even characters I ended up liking are introduced off-puttingly, but for me the memorable characters included:
(a) Isaac and Miria, who are stupid. Apocalyptically stupid. Tomoko couldn't get past their lack of common sense or self-awareness, but I ended up finding them wonderful. You'll never find anyone happier than them, always either gobsmacked or in raptures about the most ridiculous things. They enjoy every millisecond of their mad, mad lives. They turn the world upside-down. One wonders how they were lucky enough to meet, because it's as if they were each born with half of a single defective brain, joyously agreeing on all things and mirroring each other's body language. They're gloriously funny. They're the nicest people in the show. I wish the world could know that much joy, although it's possible that insanity might be a prerequisite for it.
(b) Ladd Russo, an insufferably cocky mafia hitman who loves killing. He'd murder everyone in the room just because he thought they weren't expecting it. He also can't stop talking about himself and his killing urges, in an even more florid, over-the-top delivery than Isaac and Miria. He's an appalling person, obviously, but you can't say he's not memorable. (Episode four's title is "Ladd Russo Enjoys Talking A Lot and Slaughtering A Lot.")
(c) Jacuzzi Splot and his gangsters. We eventually learn that he's noble and heroic, even if he's also a blubbering crybaby.
It's as if the show's set itself a challenge. We'll meet someone repellent and be given a profusion of reasons to hate them, but then they turn out to be mesmerising, capable of unexpected depths or even (gasp) sympathetic. Warning: some or possibly even all of them will fail to get past your own personal filters and you'll just want to see them dead all the way through. My interest in most of these episodes was basically defined by who was going to get murdered next, but then in ep.13 to my surprise I realised that the show had grown a heart and we had people doing brave things.
...and that's the season finale. If I hadn't been watching this on DVD, that would have been the end. It's a thirteen-episode TV series, with three DVD episodes bolted on. This works better than you'd think, because of that non-linear storytelling and all the plot threads left merrily hanging. (Tomoko says the picture quality is much worse in the final DVD episodes, by the way, but I didn't notice.)
The voice actors are a big deal. It's not a Cute Girl Show, instead being full of character parts and opportunities for veterans. The Japanese cast is full of huge names, including people so famous that Tomoko was waiting the entire length of the series for them to return. Norio Wakamoto. Great Scott. He's the one who can give the name "Carol" about seventeen syllables and more ham than a pig farm. Alternatively, compare Isaac and Miria in the two dubs. In English, they could be anyone. In Japanese, you know they're glorious freaks after hearing their voices for even two seconds. Isaac and Miria are the main reason why I'd never contemplate watching this show in English, although that dub has other problems too. (It can feel less natural, with the actors capable of struggling to match the mouth movements.)
I think it helps to be Japanese if watching this show. Even if you can't remember who everyone's supposed to be, at least you can often remember them by their famous voices. On the other hand, though, Tomoko found the character names hard to remember, whereas I liked them. My favourite is Jacuzzi Splot.
The show's not pulling punches with its violence. This is for you if you want to watch a small boy being tortured by having his hands mashed against the rails under a speeding train... and to approve and want to see worse. (There are severe obstacles to liking Czeslaw Meyer.)
Baccano is part of a universe, incidentally. Ryogo Narita has also written Vamp, Durarara!! and Etsusa Bridge, of which Durarara!! has also had a Brains Base anime adaptation. Isaac and Miria also appear in it. I'm still wondering whether or not to buy the discs. 26 episodes like this. Hmm.
This is a very impressive show. As I said, it's a glorious technical achievement, from mood to incidental music. It has amazing characters. It's cool. Lots of people have gone crazy for it. Everyone agrees that you'll need to stick it out for the first few episodes, mind you, although I hear that it's a very different experience on the rewatch. However avoid it like the plague if you dislike the idea of a cast of gangsters, hit men, thieves, psychos and spree killers. There's only one pure-hearted, normal non-criminal in the cast (Eve Genoard) and she comes across as so feebleminded in her purity that Tomoko hated her too.
I admire it. It's a striking artistic achievement. In the end, I even enjoyed it. However I don't know if I want to watch more (Durarara!!).