Baccano! originally ran on Japanese television for thirteen episodes in 2007. FUNimation then started distributing it in North America at the beginning of 2009, in the form of four staggered, overpriced four-episode DVDs. It was one of the last releases to follow that doomed distribution model, before the current phase of legal online streaming and more affordable "season" box sets. Since its arrival here coincided with the collapse of the North American anime industry, Baccano! might easily have been overlooked by American consumers. But the show is good enough and unique enough that it should endure against the normally high turnover of television anime. In fact, I think it's one of the best anime TV series of the last decade.
Based on a series of light novels by Ryohgo Narita, Baccano! is set primarily in Prohibition-era America as it follows a large and varied cast of unrelated characters through a number of interconnected storylines. In 1930, amid a turf war between rival crime families, an innocuous-looking package is incidentally fumbled back and forth into the hands of thugs, thieves, and gangsters, none of whom realize its true value. In 1931, characters separately board a train that gets hijacked by multiple different interests. And in 1932, everyone is looking for a small-time hoodlum who has seemingly vanished without a trace.
This is a story without a protagonist, or rather one where, as FUNimation's website states, "Every Dick and Jane plays the lead." The opening credits sequence highlights no fewer than seventeen named characters. Too many faces in the opening credits is often a sign of trouble for a series, especially one with only thirteen episodes to spend on all of them. Remarkably, in Baccano!, almost none of these characters feels underutilized or extraneous. Granted, neither is every character as major as their prominence in the opening credits might suggest, but, among the eight or so viable leads that still leaves us, we've got the fearless young camorrista, the compulsive crybaby with the unconquerable heart, the flamboyantly sadistic hit man, and the Bonnie and Clyde couple that seems as much inspired by Bugs Bunny. These then have their own supporting casts, and the story shifts back and forth between these different characters and factions. There are even a few major "sleeper" characters not named in the opening sequence.
What makes Baccano! so uniquely compelling is that all of these protagonists hold their own. To have so many charismatic characters existing within the same story and without compromise is truly a rare accomplishment. It is nothing out of the ordinary for a show to feature multiple characters and angles, but, as paths inevitably cross, you figure usually that someone is going to have to defer, and that will be the story's way of letting you know who the real main character is. That is how ensemble shows like Lost and Heroes typically operate. The other characters may be more than traditional supporting cast, but, no matter how strong they may be in their own feature episodes, at the end of the day, each of those shows has a single unquestioned main character. Or have you ever noticed how Superman's IQ seems to drop several points almost any time he's in the same story as Batman? It happens because the writers don't know how to make Batman useful in those team-ups unless he's smarter than Superman, and the easiest way to make Batman seem intelligent has always been to make those around him stupid. Or even in a self-contained novel or film, so often is it the case that a story will build to an epic showdown between two characters, only to have the conflict ultimately resolved by one of them acting just ever so slightly weaker, slower, or dumber than they had been up to that point. Few things in fiction annoy me more than when people are made to act out of character in order to write the story out of a hole or satisfy a nonsensical plot twist. When the characters are portrayed inconsistently, the spell is broken for me and I can no longer believe anything that happens. Baccano!, on the other hand, is a case where the personalities are so starkly established from the outset that characters seemingly take on lives of their own, and it is the story, perhaps even the writer, that becomes subservient to their wills. These characters never deviate from who they are, and, when paths collide, they do not budge an inch unless a decisively stronger force makes them, and still it never happens easily.
Despite its constantly shifting perspective, Baccano! is not an anthology show. Although the characters' stories are separately fascinating, each only forms part of the whole. You do not watch to follow specific characters, but to witness the fateful incidents that bring them together and the explosive results of their interactions. The feel is vaguely evocative of the classical Chinese novel Water Margin (AKA Outlaws of the Marsh), which tells in turn the unrelated stories of 108 heroes who become outlaws for different reasons, only later to be assembled for a common cause. It might even more accurately be compared to Joseph Heller's Catch-22. As in Heller's great work, it is not only the perspective that is constantly shifting but also the setting, both place and time in a nonlinear, puzzle-like narrative. Characters often refer to events before they are depicted, and watching the picture gradually get filled in is the other addicting draw of the series. It even makes for a great second viewing, to spot all the connections you would have missed the first time.
The format can be intimidating at first, and the show is not helped along by its first episode, which focuses on two oddball characters, not among the main cast, examining the events from the outside and deliberating on how to present them as a story. Ironically, their attempt to dissect a story that the viewer is not yet familiar with only makes the show seem far more confusing than it actually is.
Also, there is admittedly a degree of redundancy to the cast, maybe because the subject matter limits the range of personalities, maybe because the author leans toward certain types, or maybe because there are just more main characters than there are archetypes to build from. As a result, we have more than one aloof female, more than one mysterious wild card, and more than one bloodthirsty psychopath. This doesn't harm the show too greatly. While similar in personality, they are given different backstories and actions, and the show moves quickly enough that you aren't likely to be distracted by any redundancy unless the characters are placed side-by-side, as when the two psychopaths engage in a philosophical debate that was a little much for me.
Packed as it is, the show is over all too quickly. It does have a reasonably satisfying ending, but something's gotta give when you're talking about adapting a still ongoing series of novels into thirteen twenty-minute episodes. The major storylines do all come to some kind of resolution, but it's also clear that there's more story left to tell. For the home video releases, three bonus episodes were produced and tacked onto the end of the run. Taking place after the train hijacking scenario, these highlight some of the more neglected characters and threads. For fans still wanting more past the original thirteen episodes, these are a welcome extension, but they feel almost more like DVD extra features than full-on episodes. They basically depict the characters unwinding between more climactic events. But Baccano! is a show full of big personalities meant for big situations. Removed from the life-or-death scenarios of the original thirteen episodes, a lot of these characters simply aren't that interesting. It would be like a Batman story that focused only on Bruce Wayne's love affairs. He may be the hero that Gotham City needs to fight crime, but his madness would, at best, be unacceptable in civilized society. At worst, it would be boring.
Episode 16 does, however, provide a nice bookend for the series, and the first thirteen episodes alone make Baccano! essential viewing. I would recommend that any anime fan give it a try, keeping in mind that the first episode is not a great representative of what the series has to offer.
(Baccano! can be viewed online at FUNimation's site, at Anime News Network, or even at Hulu. Hulu only has it subtitled, however, and this is one of the rare anime that I think sounds much better in English.)