Akemi's Anime World

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Baccano? Bacca-yes!

I offer my apologies for the irresistibly awful pun. No idea what the title of Baccano means, but as of the 3/4 mark it is a series both completely crazy and crazy-awesome.  Kinda like a really cheerful Boogiepop Phantom crossed with The Untouchables and a stiff dash of Highlander thrown in for good measure.

On one hand, I’m enjoying the story and mood a lot—interesting characters, brisk pace, dark setup, savagely violent, yet has a very strong sense of humor at the same time.  Looks great, too—sweet ’30s flavor of Chicago streets and gangland speakeasys.

On the other, MAN is that a confusing series. 17 characters explicitly named in the intro alone, an indeterminate number of whom are immortal, at least a half dozen more who make repeated appearances, four crime families, one cult (or two, depending on how you count another group of villains), a club of psychos, at least one monster, two cities, and as if all that weren’t enough the story is spread across at least four different time periods (1930, 1931, 1932, a doomed train ride with about half the cast on it, and an episode of backstory from 1711).

Still not confused enough?  All of the time periods other than a train look rather similar, and are only introduced with maybe a year at the very beginning of an episode.  The scene then jumps back and forth constantly between time periods, particular cast members being followed, and location throughout every episode. You could spend a week just re-editing this thing into chronological order, and half the time would be just figuring out what scene fit where. (Fanedit, where are you?)

When I say there’s a lot going on I’m not kidding; after every episode the three of us that’re watching it spend a few minutes comparing mental notes to make sure we have at least some idea what just happened and where it fits in. Usually we also go back and check things of particular interest (sometimes in much earlier episodes), though the cuts are so frequent it’s surprisingly difficult to even find a particular scene. There’s always at least a few important things that one or the other of us flat-out missed, and that includes someone who already watched half of it once.  This series would make so much more sense the second time through, when you actually knew what was going on or being alluded to, not to mention saw things you totally forgot about by the time they became relevant on the first viewing.

It’s not even that it’s working at obfuscating things; people are usually pretty direct in their motives, and very little of what’s going on is vague.  It’s just that there’s so much going on that, compounded by the violently non-linear form it’s presented in, it’s a mental challenge just to keep up and put the pieces together. Heck, around the midpoint it actually relents and gives you one solid episode of backstory that only jumps around a little bit within its own timeline; this explains a whole lot about the mechanics of what’s been going on, but you still don’t have any idea what’s up with at least half the characters, and the rest still have all kinds of secrets left, too.

On the other hand, much like Boogiepop Phantom, the challenging puzzle aspect of it all is part of the appeal—like getting a stack of pieces without the picture on the box to help—and certainly keeps you paying close attention. Also like Boogiepop, it appears to be going somewhere very concrete and specific, so I expect (or desperately hope, rather), that it’s going to be satisfying once all the pieces have been laid out. There’s no time to get bored, that’s for sure.

(Note, by the way, that when I say “part of its appeal,” I mean “part of what makes it very, very awesome.”)

Plus, the comic relief duo of Milly and her partner Issac:  They are so completely self-centered, unwaveringly happy, blissfully oblivious due to rank stupidity, and completely insane that you cannot help but love them.  That they find themselves bumping into vast deadly conspiracies due entirely to awful luck makes it even better, and they basically give the whole thing a sense of humor about itself that makes it all work. The episode focused on them as they prance around the edges of the story through its timeline is brilliant (and a perfect counterpoint to the previous exposition episode and subsequent one, probably the two darkest of the series)—the musical flourishes that accompany their crazed plans and incoherent attempts to help people are flat-out perfect.

It’s not just them, either—most of the cast leans toward brooding or mafia grit (or complete, raving, bloodlust-crazed psychopaths—one guy in particular makes Heath Ledger’s Joker look mentally stable), but there are other characters with a sense of humor as well, particularly one kind-hearted leader of a gang of bootleggers who is basically a jelly-kneed pacifist who’s afraid of his own shadow when he’s not being driven by his nature to try and help people in the face of near-suicide. With bombs and tommy guns.

Other unusual things are the mix of immortal and not-so-immortal characters; you don’t know exactly who is even capable of dying by normal means, but either way being listed in the opening credits is no guarantee that you’ll survive even the first few episodes. Of course, given the non-linear nature of it all, just because you see somebody die in episode 2 (or 1) doesn’t mean you won’t see them again later.

Basically it’s a series that has done everything right so far; all it has to do is hold it together through the end and it’ll be a raging success. Series I like (anime in general, really) have a tendency to fall apart at the last moment, but I’m optimistic that Baccano won’t.

Also, for reference, it’s somewhere around episode 8 or 9 where you finally get enough of the pieces to start to guess what the picture on the box might be. The point, I assume, is more about the picture than the ending, since you already saw a lot of what will probably qualify as the epilogue, or at least post-climax, in the first episode.

Maria+Holic Post-viewing Notes

Well, 12 episodes done and I did enjoy the series quite a bit. It stopped before the joke (there’s really only one) got old, and served up enough variations to keep it entertaining throughout. Full of non-sequiturs uniformly, and nearly every episode (including the last) ends on a random cliffhanger that’s never followed up on, but generally satisfying.

The crazy, near-abstract art didn’t turn out to be a liability (no Soul Taker, that’s for sure), though at times I felt like it would have been funnier, or at least more engaging, if the continuity had felt a little more coherent. This may be because I usually prefer more solid worlds and sense of space (both literally and metaphorically) in my comedies, including the wacky ones.

Then again, maybe not—the one episode that did try to do a relatively normal, not-particularly-funny schoolgirl plot was probably the weakest of the series. It was incredibly generic, though; seems like the series could have managed somewhere in-between, with some actual substance to the characters in addition to the humor. They sort of forgot several characters who could have had a bit more to them as soon as they were introduced, for example, and the setup (despite frequent 4th-wall-breaks) was solid enough to support actual character development were it so inclined.

Strong point is the nosebleed-prone protagonist—she remains, from first scene to last, brick-stupid, lust-blinded by anything female (looking), and violently allergic to anything male. A solid half the humor in the series consists entirely of her rather incoherent brain trying to process things around her, usually breaking thoroughly in the process or getting distracted by fanservice before she comes to a conclusion. Certainly, her usually-futile preparation to prevent terminal anemia from nosebleed blood loss through various means of increased iron intake are good stuff, as much as anything because she’s still desperate to get into situations that will result in said nosebleeds despite risk to health and consciousness. Leaving aside the implication that she doesn’t have many brain cells left to kill.

The last episode and one a couple earlier also feature an exact male parallel of her, a priest-teacher who replaces irreperable perviness with burning desire to be a good teacher and being dumber than a box of rocks with being far too well-read. When the two are in the same room her incoherent babbling and his attempts to make sense of it in encyclopedic internal monologue result in a sort of black hole of random free-associatitive logic. Which is amusing for how extreme it is but also just plain weird. He does push it a little too close to Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei territory, I think, for my taste (not that that series didn’t have its strong points). Speaking of which, there are a couple of those patented “Zetsubo Sensei Dramatic Triple-takes”, an amusing nod to this series’ spiritual predecessor.

In all it didn’t seem to quite live up to its potential, but it also doesn’t fall apart and manages a lot of very, very funny stuff right up to the ende.  Also too random to be predictable.

And I still think that the character designs, despite the almost complete lack of noses, are some of the most attractive I’ve ever seen.

Aoi Hana Midpoint Thoughts

I’m a sucker for unconventional romance and forbidden love stories, so same-gender romances usually pique my interest. Being male, given the choice between yaoi and yuri, I’ll take yuri. Unfortunately, while there’s loads of decent yaoi across a wide spectrum of genres, the fact that most quality romance is apparently targeted at women who’d prefer looking at two pretty guys than two pretty girls means it’s surprisingly tough to find a decent yuri series anywhere in the zone between “florid shoujou schoolgirls” and “testosterone-blinded hentai.” Stuff presumably exists, but I’m apparently bad at actually locating it, and usually sorely disappointed by stuff I check out.

Enter Aoi Hana (Sweet Blue Flowers).  A half-dozen episodes in, and I’m liking it quite a bit.  The setup is relatively simple:  Fumi, the main character, had a mostly-one-sided relationship with a relative that didn’t end well. She rekindles a friendship with spunky Akira, who provided moral support when they were very little. A second couple, cool Yasuko and emotional Kyouko (both lean toward the bifauxnen mold), broke up, with Yasuko asking Fumi out on the rebound.  There’s a relatively easy-to-follow chain of she-likes-her-but-she-still-pines-for-him that sets up the very low key drama.

Things that are the same: There’s a Catholic girls’ school. Of course. Thanks a lot, Maria Is Watching. (Incidentally, I know someone who went to a Christian girls’ school in Japan, and I have it on good authority that they are in fact not hotbeds of lesbian romance). There’s a cool stud/bifauxnen type that everybody is chasing after (she even plays Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, for some Takarazuka flavor). There are long, pregnant pauses, blushing galore, knowing, wordless stares, and it’s all very low-key.

Things that are different:  The Christian girls’ school is not laden with random French terms, and in fact ins’t particularly unusual-seeming apart from being upper-class. The protagonist, rather than being cute, clumsy, and clueless, is tall and fragile (literally and emotionally), for at least a little bit of variety. Some people are bi or straight. There are males around. It does not exist in a fantasy world in which there’s a lot of weird intra-school politics, random French terms, and it is completely acceptable to have raging lesbian romance at all-girl Christian schools; they actually use the words “bisexual” and “lesbian,” there are some coming-out scenes, and not everybody is accepting and supportive—comparatively quite realistic in most ways.  (Side note: While Japan has always had something of an accepting nature of cross-dressers and same-sex crushes in some contexts, acceptance of homosexuality is not nearly as widespread as anime and manga might leave you thinking.)  They even mention Takarazuka specifically in reference to the cross-dressing stage performance. The physical aspect of things is at least somewhat addressed, rather than raging ambiguity or interrupted feints—the first kiss comes explicitly and early. In general, they actually talk about things, friend-to-friend, in specific terms on occasion, rather than being in a fog of ambiguity. The sempai dynamic exists, but not the oneesama one, for once. Also has a sense of humor.

Also, parents—for once everybody lives at home, has normal parents and in some cases annoying siblings, and has to deal with things like their family showing up to the school play and insisting on a tour, having to call home, getting a ride to school, and so on. The parents are also appealingly realistic—Fumi and Akira’s moms are old friends, and we get to see them acting a touch girlish when they get together.

Things I’m loving: The character animation. It’s not obviously high budget, but the attention to detail is commendable—it has an amazing number of little, incredibly natural things that I absolutely love to see. People using hand gestures instead of saying something, body language (not just romantic—in fact, mostly not romantic), the way people hold or close a cell phone (friends actually talk on the phone and occasionally text, but not so much it’s annoying), Fumi’s movements when laying around her room alone, that sort of thing. Some fun stuff with the camerawork also—split-screen shenanigans during a phone conversation, particularly. The realistic setting—it’s set near Kamakura, if I’m remembering correctly, and although the art isn’t great there are very nice bits of pretty suburbia. The level of drama—satisfyingly meaty without being too weepy or full of overwrought angst.

And, Akira. Specifically, she’s an energetic normal girl awkwardly trying to be a supportive buddy in the middle of adolescent angst that’s a little over her head (thus far not at all a romantic interest in any way, though that will presumably change based on the opening). More specifically, there are several scenes when someone she’s hanging out with (as a friend) is suddenly overcome with emotion and breaks down crying—she gets this “Oh crap, what am I supposed to do now?” look that I can totally empathize with, and her reaction is basically “I’m not entirely sure what’s going on here, but please stop crying?  Pretty please?” Funny, real, unusual, good stuff. Elsewhere when somebody is unintentionally hitting a nerve with a friend, she clumsily dives in to try and diffuse things. She’s fun to watch and basically gives a nice streak of lively humanity and a bit of humor to an otherwise introspective story and introverted set of characters.

I’m also liking where they’re going with the humanity of the super cool girl, starting from an early stage—she obviously has issues (of the normal teenage sort, not crazy anime stuff), and really isn’t dealing with them particularly well despite outward appearances. Not sure how much of the standard seme/uke dynamic (or tachi/neko, top/bottom, whatever) it will stick to, but so far so good.

So far, definitely keeping my attention, and despite it being characteristically slow for the genre, it’s got enough plot motion and low-key drama to hold it all together. I also have some unrelated thoughts about the way it handles that first kiss I mentioned, which I will save for later.

The series is streaming legally and free in subtitled form at Crunchyroll, or if you’re willing to pay even in 720p.  The subtitles are relatively accurate (though no song subtitles) and of decent quality, and it actually looks (and sounds) pretty good in the free SD quality even on my 1080p TV and home theater system. The ads, if you’ve never used Crunchyroll, are repetitive, but mercifully short—one 30-second spot at the beginning, one at the mid-episode ad break (yay for putting it in the right spot!), and one before the credits or at the end.

(Aside: Between Yasako/Yasuko, Fumie/Fumi, Akira, and Kyouko I can’t help but notice the unusually large name overlap with Dennou Coil. They’re all common names, so it’s probably just a coincidence, but amusing nonetheless, particularly given the rather different nature of the stories.)