By Chris Dahlberg

Published on Sunday, July 27, 2014

I tend to be fairly picky when it comes to anime that is focused around action, as the familiar shonen formula has become a bit too predictable. This is one of the main reasons that Baccano! was so appealing when I watched it a few years back. The 2007 series was set in 1930s New York City and told the story of a ragtag cast of criminals and misfits who were seemingly unrelated to each other, but due to the discovery of an immortality elixir became intertwined in a series of chaotic events. Baccano! stood out with its non-linear series of events and sudden bursts of intense violence, and I’ve returned to it several times since. With that in mind, I decided it was time to check out Durarara!!, an adaptation of a light novel series by the same author that finds much of the same production staff at Brains Base contributing. Like Baccano!, Durarara!! is about characters that seem completely unrelated but all have ties to a darker, seedier side of the city they are in and it maintains the same type of frantic pace. It may use a lot of the same elements, but it tells an engaging story with a genuinely interesting cast of characters.

It’s entirely possible to watch Durarara!! without having seen Baccano! as the two are set in entirely different worlds, but if you have seen it you will notice that this series feels very familiar (and there is also a nice little mini-cameo in one of the episodes that should make you smile). The story begins with Mikado Ryūgamine moving to Ikeburo to attend school at Raira Academy with his childhood friend Masaomi Kida. Mikado has not seen Masaomi in many years, but has kept in touch with him via Internet chat. The two meet each other in the middle of the city and as Masaomi shows him around he warns of the shadier side of the town and tells Mikado to try and stay away from those types of people. From there the show switches gears and proceeds to introduce us to several of those people, including information broker Izaya Orihara, the extremely powerful and violent Shizuo Heiwajima, and the mysterious headless motorcycle rider Celty. For the first half or so Durarara!! uses the same type of quick cuts as Baccano!, often transitioning from one scene to an entirely different cast of characters. It’s not quite as non-linear and there are fewer primary cast members to keep track of though, so I did find that this show was a bit easier to follow.

There are a lot of different things happening throughout the first half of the series, and while a lot of them seem completely unrelated as one might expect things began to overlap as the story progresses. The first three characters that viewers get to spend a decent amount of time with are Mikado, Masaomi, and Anri Sonohara. Initially they seem to be the “normal” side of Durarara!!, as they go through their daily lives as high school students and even fall into an awkward love triangle of sorts after Mikado becomes interested in Anri. All around them, crazy things are happening in the city. There’s the potential for a gang war between two groups, the Dollars and Yellow Scarves. A mysterious motorcycle rider haunts the night, said to have no head. And there’s also a mysterious “slasher” going around at night attacking people. The three high school students seem to be on the peripheral of this chaos, and yet each one has some secrets that lands them right in the thick of everything.

I have to admit that at the beginning, the scenes focusing on Mikado are probably the least interesting. Once you’re introduced to characters like Celty, who is the aforementioned headless motorcycle rider, and the overly violent Shizuo it can seem like a bit of a drag to get thrown back into the typical high school life/awkward love triangle. But the payoff later in the series is worth it, and once you start to see that these three aren’t nearly as normal as they first appeared and in some ways are just as scary as the others everything starts to click. What drew me in was the amount of emphasis that was given to Celty and Shizuo. Rather than merely being supporting characters, they get enough screen time to really be considered part of the main cast. Celty is a Dullahan (a headless horse riding woman from Irish folklore), and has come to Japan looking for her missing head. She’s a really interesting character, as she communicates through text messages and online chats and is in a relationship of sorts with the underground doctor Shinra Kishitani. What really worked was the fact that such a supernatural character had a real human side, and as you watched it was surprisingly easy to relate to some of the struggles Celty was going through as she tried to figure out her purpose and what to do without possession of her head.

The other main focus is on Shizuo and Izaya. Though they both initially appear to be fairly normal characters, there is something slightly unnatural to both of them. Shizuo is dressed like a bartender (as that was the last job he was able to hold), and while he claims to dislike violence whenever someone makes him angry he gains superhuman strength and is able to throw items like vending machines and highway signs at whoever the unfortunate person was that picked a fight. He also hates Izaya with a passion and will attack him whenever he sees him. Izaya’s a more enigmatic figure, as he’s an information broker who seems to manipulate every character in some way and is involved with almost every event that happens in Durarara!! It’s interesting to watch him pop up where you least expect it, and adds yet another layer to the storyline. There are also plenty of additional supporting characters, and like the rest of the works from this author each one has a role to play in the overall story.

Although you can tell a lot of the same production staff from Baccano! worked on this, Brain’s Base was able to give Durarara!! a feeling of its own. Even though the show is four years old now, I would argue that it is on par with some of the more recent anime I have seen. The level of detail showcased in Ikeburo is impressive, and it made the city feel alive as I watched all of the different events transpire. While both works were originally written by Ryōgo Narita they were not illustrated by the same person, so Durarara!! has characters that have a very different style than Baccano! But each one does have recognizable traits, and even though there are often so many different people being showcased in a single episode it’s easy to tell them apart. Even with the frequent cuts and emphasis on fast action in between the slower drama, I never noticed any major dips in animation quality and each episode consistently captivated me with the stylish look and feel. It’s also worth noting that while Durarara!! isn’t quite as gory as Baccano! on a regular basis but does have some surprisingly violent moments, and these stand out because they don’t happen quite as frequently.

The music is an area where Durarara!! really shined, which makes sense considering that Makoto Yoshimori was the composer. Yoshimori does a fantastic job on creating music that perfectly matches any given scene in a series, and Durarara!! is another perfect example. When the series is at its calmest point and has the characters walking around the city the music is much softer and adds to the atmosphere as the emphasis shifts to Ikeburo itself, and when the action kicks up the music whips up into a frenzy and adds to the intensity. Although it’s background music, there are a number of different tracks that were still stuck in my head for a few days after I had finished watching, and that’s a sign of some well composed material. The opening and ending themes are also noteworthy, though they have a fairly different feel from the rest of the music as they are closer to traditional J-pop. Voice acting is another strong point, as the actors and actresses are able to reflect the hidden side of their characters perfectly and deliver fairly dynamic performances. There are plenty of familiar voices you should recognize as well, as the production team got quite a few veterans involved. One of my favorite roles was Celty, as although she communicates via text/chat message she is still given full voice acting as the viewer gets to hear her inner thoughts and what she’s typing. It was an unexpected addition, and another small detail that helped the series to feel genuinely different.

I know that I’ve spent quite a bit of this review comparing Ryōgo Narita’s two series, but that’s because watching Durarara!! after Baccano! makes it easy to see that the two are from the same author and production staff. But even if you haven’t seen Baccano! this is an anime worth checking out. It may be a little hard to follow all of the different storylines at the beginning and some of the sections focusing on Mikaido and the high school can be a bit slow, but once everything starts to overlap and the mysteries of Ikeburo I think most viewers will be drawn in and find themselves attached to many of the characters. Durarara!! has many familiar anime elements, but pulls them together in a way that feels unique, and as a result it’s one that will stick with me for some time. A second season is currently in the works and should hopefully be out sometime next year, and I am excited to see just where it will take these characters.


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