I wasn't drawn to "Baccano" because I'm a huge anime fan, when in fact, I'm not. What made me catch my eye was the premise. I love gangster films of all varieties, with a particular affinity for those from the Golden Age of Hollywood. When I heard of this anime called "Baccano" that was set during the Great Depression and was deeply immersed in the world of period gangsters, I was sold, sight unseen. What I wasn't prepared for was a cast of characters that approaches "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" proportions and a non-linear narrative that would make the most devoted "LOST" fan raise an eyebrow. While I was a third of the way through the premiere episode and a gangster's fingers magically reattach themselves after being sliced off seconds prior, my mind was blown. "Baccano" was not what I thought I signed up for.
Released throughout 2009 in four volumes, all sixteen, half-hour episodes of "Baccano" are collected on this three disc set. The only easy aspect of this show I can explain is why I watched the series in it's dubbed form. I know many anime purists out there will cry heresy, but after watching the premiere episode and portions of the second in both native Japanese and dubbed English, it was no contest that the English dub was filled with far more emotion than the Japanese one, which is critical when a pair of characters are, to put it lightly, animated in more than one way. Likewise, the variety of the English accents really helped pull me into the story's timeframe, so my trek through this set was in English.
Easy stuff aside, where do I begin? While "Baccano" has a beginning and ending in the traditional sense, handled quite nicely with the use of two outside parties attempting to sum up the events of the story themselves, the story is in constant motion. The events occurring in 1931 on a train called "The Flying Pussyfoot" make up the backbone of the story, serving as a place where nearly all the paths of our main characters cross. As we get snippets of each character's actions on the train, the story often jumps back in time to provide necessary back-story for why they end up on "The Flying Pussyfoot." In some episodes, a four-minute scene may be broken up by 20 minutes of multiple flashbacks (or sometimes flash forwards). If it sounds confusing, believe me, it is. "Baccano" is a series that demands to be watched in two or three sittings, and then re-watched, to fully piece every thing together.
While this may sounds like an ambitiously brilliant maneuver, it is also "Baccano's" biggest downfall. It tries to do way too much, in a far too miniscule amount of time. The 16 episodes don't waste a minute telling the epic tale, but you are bound to find yourself attached to storylines that either never fully develop or wind up concluding too abruptly. This becomes very evident near the end of the series where the writers show signs of burnout, managing to slow things down to a more manageable pace; they undermine this, by doing a 180 and introducing new elements to the story, with precious, little time to give it the justice it deserves.
So far, I've managed to tell you the general idea of how the series unfolds, without telling you a single thing about exactly "what" unfolds. Short of writing a spoiler filled novella, I can only introduce you to a few standouts that make up the cast of characters. If there is a scene-stealer in the show, surely it is Ladd Russo, hit man for the Russo crime family, led by his uncle. Ironically clad in a white suit, Russo has a psychotic worldview that makes the most fearsome Western super villain seem tame in comparison. Bryan Massey's vocal talents bring the boastful, arrogant, madman to life in every scene, not missing a beat, even when Russo is murdering someone in his way.
Russo crosses paths on more than one occasion on the train with Jacuzzi Splot and Nice Holystone's small band of petty thieves. Splot is in every way as brutal and deadly as Russo when the situation calls for it, but in stark contrast, often bursts into uncontrollable crying fits, often leaving Nice to solve things with her speciality: explosives. In flashbacks, we see early on, Splot likes to rob mob fronts, and his path crosses with the Camorra and Gandor crime rings. Just how these crime families, specifically certain members, play a role in events on "The Flying Pussyfoot" can't be explained, as they would rob viewers of one of the series' most interesting plot threads. What I will say is things at times do take a turn to the supernatural as alchemy and immortality quickly factor into various situations. To complicate matters for all onboard "The Flying Pussyfoot," a murderous beast known as the Rail Tracer threatens the lives of those unfortunate to cross it's path. It's all very weird and all very vital to making "Baccano" stand out.
With many more characters coming in and out of the limelight over the course of the series, there are two that I would be cruel not to mention, as they may be deal breakers. I speak of Isaac and Miria, the two "animated" individuals I referred to above. Like Jacuzzi and his gang, they share a love of thievery, but exactly what they steal depends on whatever bizarre idea runs through their minds at the moment. They are filled with a manic energy, often brought to a screeching halt by melodramatic breakdowns over trivial occurrences or bold assumptions. At first glance they appear to have no place in "Baccano" as each interaction with the other characters causes a drastic shift in tone. However, as the series progresses and their roles become more apparent, they become a bright spot as storylines take dark turns and serve as a reminder of the goodness that makes up the vast majority of the world. J. Michael Tatum and Caitlin Glass deserve special recognition for some flat out, insane voice work. They never falter one bit and really help sell Isaac and Miria. That said, it's very possible they will annoy viewers beyond belief, but if you give "Baccano" a chance, give Isaac and Miria one too, trust me they get better.
The end result of "Baccano" is a truly unexpected, sometimes rough ride. I went in expecting animated tales in the vein of "Little Caesar" or Howard Hawks' "Scarface." The art design all reflects this era of film and is another solid selling point for the series; likewise, the majority of the characters are hard-edged archetypes from the gangster film genre. The stories in "Baccano" use this basis though to examine themes of honor, loyalty, insanity, love, family, and mortality; the supernatural element weaving its way into everything is mandatory icing on the cake. For the most part it works very well and where it does falter, I attribute it to the limited run of the series.
Under "Baccano's" surface, its core audience is very narrow. At times the show is incredibly violent, I'm not talking your standard mob-style Tommy gun assassinations, there are poor victims that meet their end by slowly getting their faces ground to pulp off the back of a moving train. While very gratuitous in execution (no pun intended), fortunately the series doesn't use this a selling point or a crutch, the violence is 99% of the time there to move the plot along. My point being, "Baccano" isn't for kids, but in reality, the intricate nature of the story is evidence enough of that fact. If you've made it this far and you're still intrigued, give "Baccano" a shot.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is fortunately free from glaring technical errors such as poor compression or aliasing, that can make animated features a disappointing venture. There is some noticeable grain as well as a soft look to the picture. I'd attribute the latter to a style choice, while the former appears subtle enough to be unintentional. The Depression era color palette is reproduced well and quite a nice stylistic choice.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital English audio track is very well mixed, with the dubbed voices sounding natural and in good balance with effects. The surrounds could have been used to stronger effect during the outdoor scenes, but are not forgotten, roaring to life during major action sequences. A 2.0 Japanese track is present, but sounds quite flat, both in vocal performance and presentation. English subtitles are included.
The meat of the extras consist of four audio commentaries on episodes four, seven, nine, and fifteen. They are very lighthearted, gathering members of the English production and it was obvious everyone had a good time on the show.
On disc three we get the 10-minute "Baccano! Propaganda Program" which is what appears to be the Japanese equivalent of an electronic press kit. You get some scenes from the series and then the creators share their comments about the product. A trailer for series is present as well as several trailers for other series.' Last but not least, are two text free openings of the show's very inventive opening credit sequence and more conventional end titles.
If you're a "Baccano" fan you likely have the four standalone releases. If so, this set isn't for you, unless you want to have everything on three discs, in two slimline cases. However, for new fans and interested parties this is the way "Baccano" should be viewed. All sixteen engaging and strange episodes of Depression era gangsters mixed up in petty theft, long standing rivalries, and immortals are here for your consumption. "Baccano" was a great experience and an unforgettable one to say the least. Recommended.