Baccano! and the unfortunate paradox of innovative storytelling

I had planned to write about Chihayafuru for the next two weeks…but the last few chapters of the manga (specifically, 90-92) have thrown a spanner in those works…

Well, that’s one of the reasons I’m tackling Baccano! first – the other being that it’s been on my backlog for way too long. Baccano! had slipped under my radar until I watched the adaptation of creator Narita Ryougo’s other notable series, Durarara!!, whereupon almost everyone who’d seen the former lamented that the latter had not quite lived up to the high standards it had set. And now, more than two years later, I’ve finally sat down to find out why.

"You must throw it away, the illusion that a story must have a beginning and an end."

But where to begin? That is a brilliant question. And one that cannot be answered. As Gustave Saint Germain intones in the final episode

Stories have no beginning, nor do they have an end. All they have are people connecting with each other, working with each other, affecting each other, and the expansion of those connections throughout the world. Stories must never have an end.

Similarly, there is no main protagonist. Or perhaps, you could say that everyone is potentially the main protagonist, for the perspective of any story changes depending on the the position one views it from.

But let’s give it a shot anyway.

In 1930s New York, Carol tries to make sense of a series of incidents connected with a group of people, a group that shares a strange secret. To do so, however, requires piecing together stories that span more than 200 years, stories of a ship crossing the Atlantic, of feuds between families, of a search for two bottles of a mysterious elixir, and of a train crossing the continent of America…

Do we start with that incident in 1931? or do we go back to 1711?

Baccano! is a fascinating show to watch. It’s strength lies primarily in the way it is written, in the skillful manner in which its writers weave together seemingly disjointed stories into a vibrant canvas of intersecting lives. Each episode reveals a few pieces of the puzzle, a glimpse of each story from the perspective of one or more of its participants, and draws the viewer deeper into the canvas that it is slowly painting. It was extremely difficult not to sit down and just watch it all in one go…and to the end, I just caved in and jumped ahead. A mistake perhaps? Well, I personally don’t think it mattered all that much. The innovative storytelling reminded me of how good Pulp Fiction was the first time I saw it. Of the genius of Memento, of the brilliance of Eternal Sunshine of the Sunset Mind. Perhaps even a little of Love Actually. Innovative storytelling is fun, though I can only imagine how frustrating it would have been to wait out each week as it was airing!

Two crazy robbers? Or the main character-ish Firo?

Unfortunately, there within also lies Baccano!’s main flaw, at least from this viewer’s perspective. Others may beg to differ – there seem to be quite a few viewers who love Isaac and Miria, after all – but the huge cast of characters that were involved in all those stories made it difficult to become emotionally connected to any of them. Isaac and Miria may be the entertaining airheads who arguably bring everyone together; Czes someone to sympathise with; there may be something deeper hiding behind Luck Gandor’s cool exterior; and Firo may indeed be cool, just like an ideal protagonist. And sure enough, their stories within the canvas were interesting while the ride lasted. However, now that it’s over, I’m not particularly interested in finding out more. Their stories continue, but I don’t need or even want to see more about their pasts or futures, for I never really connected with any of them. The one exception is perhaps Chane (and by extension, the man formerly known as Vino, or Claire, or whatever else he decided to call himself…except that I really hated what he did on the train – I’m not a fan of gratuitous violence). But even then, I’m just not desperate for more.

I still can't make up my mind about that guy...

Come to think of it, that’s probably the problem I have with Pulp Fiction too. Brilliant storytelling…but I don’t really remember any of the characters, just the music and a few great quotes. I’m more inclined to rewatch Eternal Sunshine and Love Actually because I actually care about the characters, because I actually think of them as people. And it’s the same with Baccano! and Durarara!! – I actually care enough about Celty to want to know how her story will continue; Izaya’s unique viewpoint was fascinating enough that I want to know whether he’ll be able to keep manipulating the chessboard, or whether someone will somehow manage to stop him; I want to see what becomes of the Dollars, especially…well, no, I’d better leave novel spoilers out of this. In contrast, there wasn’t anything about the Immortals that made me want to see more…

Perhaps that is a good thing. After all, it’s frustrating when loose ends are left hanging – as a number of people keep complaining with regards to a lot of Japanese storytelling. But given that this was precisely what Baccano! was trying to promote, as so boldly stated in its final DVD-only episode, I’m not entirely sure they succeeded in reflecting that particular theme. That said, I quite heartily recommended the viewing experience. And perhaps even a rewatch – I’ll be going for one myself, if only to watch the dub.

About karice
MAG fan, amateur translator and political scientist-in-training. I also love musicals, travel and figure skating!

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