(Note: the synopsis on ANN is kind of contradictory, so you get mine. Neither are particularly great, but...)
Baccano! is a collection of stories, most of which take place in America (primarily Manhattan) during the early 1930's. The series follows the seemingly unrelated stories of alchemists, mafias, and street gangs as they intertwine, until they become inseparable.
So, if you read my Mushishi review, you may remember that I said it was one of only three animated series of the one's I've seen that I would give a 10/10 (the other two being Kino's Journey and Cowboy Bebop). It seems apparent to me that, when I said that, I underwent a few seconds of momentary insanity (only momentary, I meant everything else I said in that review), because I didn't include Baccano! in the list of shows that would get a 10/10 from me. Baccano! is one of the best series to ever grace the Earth with its existence. A masterfully told story, a large, interesting cast of characters, great sound, fantastic visuals, amazing atmosphere...the list just goes on. Also, because it feels like my last few reviews have all contained spoilers, I wanted to point out that this review is virtually spoiler free.
The first thing about Baccano! I'm going to talk about is the best thing about it, the story. Though, stories would really be a better word. Baccano! has four major stories going on in it, one taking place in 1711, and three taking place in 1930, 1931, and 1932 (one each year). This is what is so amazing about Baccano! Each if these stories interconnects with the others, often in surprising ways. Every plot and nearly every character are all connected in one way or another, and the way the goals and motivations of those characters interact and perfectly co-exist is simply astounding to behold. Perhaps the most surprising thing of all, however, is the way the stories are structured. It's interesting, because there is no structure to the story. The first thing you should realize about the series is that it does not progress chronologically, nor by sections. It doesn't tell one story completely, then move on to the next and tell that story, but instead tells them all at once. The story is not a straight line; it's not simply pieces that fit together to form a larger whole, either. Rather, it's something like both. Think of it like this; each story in Baccano! is like its own puzzle piece. That piece has its own line (plot) that goes through it. Now fit all those pieces together. The lines in each fit together perfectly, as do the pieces themselves, and yet each line and piece is distinguishable from the other. If that example is to hard to understand, here's another, more visual example:
|This is a line, representing time in the series, moving from left to right.|
Though this is somewhat crude (I just did it quickly in Microsoft Paint), please bear with me. This picture represents the chronological order of this. The black line represents the time before the story, the things we don't see in the series itself. The red line represents the 1711 story, while the green, blue, and purple lines represent the 1930, 1931, and 1932 stories, respectively. Each story moves back and intersects the other stories at some point, even as they continue on with their own story (line). The way the series tells the story is essentially by focusing on one section of any given line at a time. Each story has its own chronology (the complete line), which it mostly follows, but the story as a whole has none. Really, I can't think of any better way to explain then in one of these two ways. The bottom line, however, is that the stories are all interconnected with each other, and the way the show interconnects them is brilliant. Although you will assuredly be confused with the story by the end of the first episode, and you'll still be a little murky by the end of the second episode, after that, you will have no trouble at all understanding what is going on. I should also mention that you will never need to rewatch an episode to understand the overall story. This is something that's really surprising to me. Normally, for the audience to try to understand what is happening in an episode when the story is jumping around from place to place and time to time, the story creators need to put in large, cumbersome flashbacks and recaps to denote what time the story is now in and the events that happened previously. In Baccano!, there is none of this. With a single image (from the last time we left that story) on the screen for a maximum of 5 seconds, the audience immediately knows what, when, and where things are going on. In fact, most of the time, they don't even need an image, and just by establishing the immediate setting (e.g. a specific building the characters are in), the context is instantly clear. Another great aspect of this, which directly ties into what I'm saying, is the pacing.
I'll start with how this ties in. In addition to single images and no images at all, the story creators have another method to announce story changes at their disposal, one which they use more than the other two; year numbers.
The above image obviously sets off a change in time periods (and subsequently stories). So what is so great about this? I mean, anybody can just rattle off a date, but that doesn't mean that it denotes what story is happening without confusing the audience. And that is where the pacing comes into play. So first, I just want to mention the most general, most basic rule of plot pacing: don't do things so slowly you bore the audience, and don't do things so quickly that you confuse them. Now, this isn't a particularly easy rule to follow, as I'm sure all of my readers have seen firsthand at one point or another in their lives. That said, pacing is generally only considered totally acceptable (regardless of "good" or "great") if it follows this rule. Baccano! follows this rule perfectly. Things are exciting, the viewers are almost always engaged (the exceptions are the first two episodes, because they're confused), and yet the viewer isn't overwhelmed by all the things happening (again, the beginning is the only exception). So how does all this relate to a simple date being perfectly acceptable for denoting which story is happening? Well, as I said, the answer lies in the pacing. Each story has such good pacing that even if it doesn't appear for an episode or two, you can still remember and understand what events took place, and how they relate to the events taking place right then. Just from seeing what year it is, you can go "Alright, it's 1991, so it's on the train, and..." From there, your brain's ability to remember what has happened takes over. Again, this is just very surprising to me, because when I see this kind of approach used elsewhere, it usually ends up being "Okay, so now it's [whatever year], so, uh...what's been happening?" Again, as I said, I attribute this contrast to the excellent pacing in Baccano! I don't think that trying to explain it any more would be helpful, so I'll leave it at this. If you did have trouble understanding, then just simplify it to "The pacing was awesome, as was the way the stories intertwined." Moving on to the sound.
The sound in Baccano! is really amazing, though you won't realize it unless you're listening carefully. First, we'll look as the sound effects. The sound effects in this show are great. The sound of Tommy Guns spraying bullets, trains racing over the tracks, store doorbells ringing, glass breaking, and even the meaty sound of someone punching another person's face in (this does actually happen once in the show, though there's a ton of punching that doesn't result in deformed faces as well) are all done fantastically. As I've said in a number of my other reviews, there's not really a lot to talk about with sound effects. They can be high or low quality, complete or incomplete, and they can be used to help further the mood and story. In the case of Baccano!, they are of acceptable quality, high quantity, and while they aren't used very interestingly, they do compliment the mood, the music, and the visuals quite nicely. Overall, good.
Onto the music. The music in Baccano! is something you will probably not even consciously acknowledge on your first view. However, to take the words of one of my favorite reviewers, "You may not have noticed it...but your brain did." The music is implemented superbly; whether it was tense or upbeat, you heard it (even if you didn't acknowledge it) and it changed your view of the scene. I think to really understand how much the music affected you, you have to listen to it on its own. When you realize how much emotion and atmosphere is conveyed just through it, without the use of visuals or stories, you start thinking "There's no way this couldn't augment my viewing experience." And then you watch it again and you realize that you were right, and that the music did help create the mood. Primarily atmospheric smooth jazz and mysterious, tense classical music, the soundtrack is great to listen to on its own, and is used wonderfully in the series. There is one thing I should point out, though. Unlike the music in El Cazador De La Bruja (for example), the music in Baccano! is background music. Your attention is not brought to the music, your attention is brought to the events happening onscreen. The music simply serves to enhance those events. I wouldn't be surprised if you don't even remember a single track a week after finishing the show. I just wanted to point out that this is not because the music is weak or forgettable, but simply because it is meant to blend into the background, because you are not meant to remember the music, but the story and characters. And lastly, we have the voice acting.
The voice acting in Baccano! is done by some pretty big players in the Japanese voice acting industry, including Takehito Koyasu (Takasugi from Gintama, among others), Daisuke Takaguchi (Shinpachi from Gintama), Hiroyuki Yoshino (Bossun from Sket Dance), Keiji Fujiwara (Ali from Gundam 00), Masakazu Morita (Ichigo from Bleach), to name just a few. While I'm sure the above plethora of foreign names and parenthesis is quite confusing, all I'm trying to illustrate is that there are a lot of fairly prominent VA's in the series. And it payed off. The voice acting in Baccano! is great. It feels like every character has a unique voice that is theirs and theirs alone, and the delivery of lines is usually quite superb. It's hard to get into a deep analysis of voice actors and how well they matched their characters without getting nerdy, and as it happens that particular area is out of my nerdy expertise. That said, the voices are great, the line delivery is great, the non word delivery (that is, grunts, screams, shrieks, etc.) is great, and overall, the voice acting as a whole is great. All in all, the sound in Baccano! is quite well done. Viewers rarely notice sound effects, and the music in this series is also quite low key, so you'll notice the voice acting more than anything, but really all aspects of the sound are of high quality. Next is the visuals.
The first thing to talk about with the visuals is the animation. The animation in Baccano! is quite well done. The movement and motion is less smooth and fluid than in shows like Break Blade, and is more fast, almost "curt," and snappy. That doesn't mean it's bad, however. In fact, it matches quite well with the rest of show and the art style. Movements are sharp and choppy, but not clunky. It works well for a show where action is fast, quickly over, and shockingly brutal. The action is really the place the animation stands out the most. It is decent elsewhere, but you don't notice it. It just looks like movement, and that is that. With the action, however, you start to notice much much more. When someone throws a super quick punch that occupies the frame for less than a second, you notice it. When someone gets their fingers torn off, you notice it. I mean, with animation, you really need to see it to fully understand it, and Baccano! is no exception. Still, it does cultivate a very interesting visual style, one that works very well.
|A nameless thug.|
The thug's face, arms, and hands are almost Picasso-like in the way they're drawn. Foreshortening is barely used, and if you try, you can actually look at the image so it appears that there are arms coming out of his chest. But then, you look at the rest of the image. You see the well drawn backgrounds of the train interior, the clear use of foreshortening on the window, and the night sky outside, and you know that the weird drawing of the thug wasn't because they couldn't do better, but because they wanted to use a specific art style. I should also note that these two images are examples only of the extremes; the character art style doesn't always stand out so much. They just exemplifies some of the minor aspects of the art style, so I wanted to present them. Overall the art is certainly unique. It is almost - almost, mind you - so departed from the anime art style that it looks like a western cartoon. I don't want you to be shocked or repulsed by this, because it in fact lies somewhere in between the two. But the above two images are good examples of this. It's rare that you would see that kind of art in an anime, not so rare that you might see it in a western 'toon. Overall, this art style actually works excellently. Remember, most of this series takes place in America. It seems only fitting, then, that the art style would have hints of western art in it, no? Aside from the character designs, though, the rest of the art is undisputably well done. The cramped interior of the train, the crowded dining car, the faded colors of the city back alleys, the chandelier lights of the mafia bootleg bar, and everything else creates a wonderfully moody physical setting, one that matches the atmosphere it helps create quite well. Overall, the art style is good or bad depending on your preference, but the animation is wonderful, and the backgrounds are excellent.
The next point I want to bring up is quite brief, but worth a mention. Baccano! is extremely violent and bloody. In the first episode alone, two and a half fingers get cut off, a guy is beaten to a pulp, a kid's head blown off, the aftermath of a brutal torture is seen, two people get their bodies torn apart by a hail of bullets, a guy is missing his left arm after the elbow but retaining most of his main arm bone,and someone gets their face punched until it's bruised, broken, and bloody. Again, that's one episode. Is it scary? No, not especially. Is it brutal, even gory? Yes, without a doubt. I just wanted to make you aware that, if you're squeamish about blood or harsh violence, you should probably avoid Baccano! until you've done something about that. With that said, the violence does help make the setting clear. Most of the characters are mafia. And when you hear or read the stories about how real life mafia (at least, back in the day) would put people through meat processors or drown them in rivers, the violence in the show gives it a feel of authenticity. You'll get use to it by the end of the show (though you'll never really be desensitized by it), but it's still worth a mention.
And lastly, there is one more thing I want to discuss: the characters. I saved this for last because the characters are simultaneously the best and...not the "worst", but the certainly the most "interesting" thing about it. The cast is large, varied, intertwined, and memorable. However, about 80-90% of them are static and/or flat. Many characters have only one specific character trait that really stands out, and very few of them go through a character arc or change. In addition, as the story itself mentions, there is no clearly defined protagonist, and thus there is no single clear character we are supposed to relate to or gravitate towards. Is this a bad thing? Well, the question you have to ask yourself is really "can a flat [one or two traits], static [unchanging] character still be a good character?" My answer to this question is, "It depends on the story being told." For example, in an action movie about a secret agent fighting foreign spies, does the secret agent need to feel like a real person, and does he need to have some kind of epiphany in order for the movie to be good? Probably...not. And that's what I'm talking about. If Baccano! were a story that focused on philosophical questions and how characters dealt with answering those questions, then the characters would be unacceptable. However, Baccano! is a story (stories, really) about a large group of unique characters who take part in interesting stories, cool fight scenes, and interesting premises. Thus, the characters are fine as they are. They are certainly unique and memorable, as I said. Even if they have only one trait, that trait stands out enough for them to be good characters. Even if they don't change, they don't need to; and quite frankly, with a cast as large as this show's, having characters change would probably just be confusing. Overall, the characters are, like I said, interesting. They are still good in spite of their seemingly poor construction qualities, and the interactions between them (or rather, between their goals) is quite good.
Overall: Baccano! is an amazing series. The story is fantastic, the sound is wonderful, the visuals are unique yet good, the characters are anything but uninteresting, and it's really moody and atmospheric.
Plot/Story: 10/10 (Again, "stories" would have been a more appropriate word.) The story Baccano! is one of the best you'll find anywhere, the way the four plots intersect and converge is pulled off excellently, and the stories themselves are interesting in and of their own right.
Characters: 8/10 If you were to take one single character from Baccano! at face value, then you probably wouldn't think much of them. However, if you take everything about them - the way they interact and fit into the setting, the massive number of them, each individual character's uniqueness, and so on - then they become surprisingly good. Perhaps the most surprising thing is how enjoyable and engaging the characters are in spite of them being flat and static. Overall, what was so great about the characters had to do with how they were fit into the story, but they were great for that reason nonetheless.
Sound: 8.5/10 The sound in Baccano! is excellent, though you almost don't even realize it. The music is superb and fits the setting (and the stories) well, the sound effects are good, and the voice acting is great. Really, the characters wouldn't have been nearly and interesting if their voice actors weren't as good. Overall, great sound.
Visuals: 9/10 The visuals in Baccano!, at first glance, aren't anything special. However, when you realize that the character designs help fit the mood and setting, the backgrounds are all superbly done, the use of visuals to create an atmospheric setting, and the angles used to show events from, the visuals are actually very well done. Even the animation was used to enhance the overall style of the show, and it is good in and of itself. Wonderful visuals.
Rewatchability: 9/10 Baccano! is a pleasure to watch, and rewatch, and rewatch again. It seems to never get old watching how the story unfolds, unless of course you've memorized how it does so, and even if you have, it's still just refreshing to see a story told so wonderfully. Excellent rewatching value, especially if you space out your viewings.
Anime Rating: 10/10 Baccano! is a series truly worthy of the 10/10 rating. The way the stories flawlessly connect, the cool setting, the memorable characters...everything about it is, at least in it's own way, amazing. I highly recommend this series to anyone and everyone who doesn't have an aversion to blood and violence. If you get past your initial confusion and stick with it after the first two episodes, you won't be able to stop. Go watch this the first chance you get.
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