Sunday, April 11, 2010


As to more current anime, the only winter series that I followed through to the end of the season was Durarara!!, which is now beginning its second half. It may well end up the only spring series that I watch, now with the simulcast experiment an evident failure, going by the much reduced number of new shows on Crunchyroll this season compared to last. But enough dreary talk about the demise of (legal) localized anime, which can probably be attributed back to the concurrent decline of the industry in Japan itself as much as anything else.

Durarara!! is another work based on an ongoing light novel series by Ryohgo Narita, author of Baccano! Again, I can't comment on the source material, it being unavailable in English, but the animated Durarara!! is courtesy of Brain's Base, the same studio that adapted Baccano! It must be a good fit, and, at first glance, Durarara!! seems exactly like Baccano!, only younger and more Japanese. Like Baccano!, the series has no single main character, instead shifting perspective in overlapping episodes starring a large number of equally eccentric characters, which the opening sequence highlights in freeze frames. It's clear right off that director Takahiro Omori wants Baccano! fans to recognize Durarara!! as the next show from the same staff and creator. It even does the same trick of integrating the "previously on" segment into the middle of the opening animation.

Within a few episodes, however, it becomes apparent that, for better or worse, Durarara!! is not simply Baccano! with high school students and a present-day Ikebukuro setting. I previously insisted that Baccano! was not an anthology show but a puzzle show. Durarara!! may be both, with a format perhaps more comparable to Boogiepop Phantom or Paranoia Agent. Many of the early episodes act as vignettes, with the connecting thread somewhat in the background. Whereas Baccano! focused on a few specific key events as the nuclei for every episode and every character involved, Durarara!! seems just kind of vaguely about the day-to-day craziness that goes on in this fictionalized Ikebukuro. There's a headless rider who can't remember who she is, a bouncer with superhuman strength and anger control issues, a giant black guy selling "Russian sushi," and any number of wicked schemers and psychotics, yet because it is not consistently about any one thing, it often feels as though it is about nothing at all. Perhaps because it is getting nearly twice as many episodes, Durarara!! also proceeds at a much more relaxed pace than Baccano!, at times maddeningly so for someone who loved the manic energy of that series. I suppose it's rather reminiscent of the extra episodes of Baccano! that were added just for the home video releases, where, removed from drastic scenarios, many of the characters turned out to be, not only uninteresting, but rather unlikeable. So it is with Durarara!! for much of the first half, but the story does eventually reward viewers who stick with it, and as all the pieces finally come together, its content and subject matter may have more in common with an ostensibly unrelated anime: Kenji Kamiyama's Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex.

Following in the footsteps of Masamune Shirow and Mamoru Oshii, Kamiyama presented in Stand Alone Complex a hard science fiction story of a future where rapidly advancing technology had completely and irrevocably transformed society and our established ideas of life, human, and the individual. Kamiyama's take questioned how the state was to cope with a formless enemy, in a world where cyberbrain networking had led to a parallelization of thought, resulting in movements without need of leaders or organization and composed of unrelated individuals who were operating independently yet somehow in concert. Kamiyama pursued the idea further with a second Ghost in the Shell series and, most recently with Eden of the East, he brought these ideas nearer to the present with a less ominous vision of a connected society.

Back to Durarara!!, a recurring motif in the show features just a computer monitor displaying an anonymous chat room dialogue that serves as a cryptic sort of chorus to the action of every episode. The thematic significance of these segments is not initially entirely apparent against the supernatural stories of the headless rider and whatnot, and at first it could almost be taken as just a cheap/clever trick to save on the animation budget. By the end of the first twelve episodes, however, it becomes clear that it is not destiny, not coincidence, and not some master planner that links all the characters, but rather, as in Kamiyama's stories, in a society so run on technology and online networking, people cannot help being connected. But whereas Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex takes place in the near future, and even Eden of the East features technology that verges on fantastical, Durarara!!, grounded in simple texting and chat, seems utterly plausible in its depiction of today's wired world. I was frankly startled by how feasible the idea of a headless network consciousness superseding the state, which I had mostly shrugged at in Kamiyama's fairly ponderous works, became in my mind as I watched the more vital Durarara!! In fact, I look at 4chan and Anonymous and I think that this might already be starting to happen all around us. A society as simultaneously alienated and connected as young Japan may just be further along in this transition.

I consider how social networking sites grow ever more prevalent in our culture at the same time that democracy seems to grow less meaningful. I picture a post-politics, post-religion world, where Facebook is the state and Twitter the church. At the end of this flow perhaps lies the destruction of the individual, as the network's coalescing of all our ideas into one collective consciousness diminishes discreteness of egos. Where Internet forums once seemed the domain of geeks, it is now those who consciously resist assimilation into the network that appear on the fringe. I don't know that it's necessarily a good or bad change, to be feared or fought, or rather just society working itself out, but I am beginning to truly believe that that is where we are headed.

Perhaps I'm getting carried away. There are certainly other stories in Durarara!!, and I suppose we'll see in the second half how pertinent my reading even is to the whole. There is also still plenty of time for this show to fall flat on its face, but I'll keep watching in the meantime.

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