I am inordinately fond of Baccano, so Durarara, being from the same writer and set in the same world, was a no-brainer.
Durarara is not Baccano; it’s set in the modern, energetic urban center of Ikebukuro, Japan and feels quite comfortable with its hip, funky setting. There are online chats interspersed with the action where pseudonymed colored bubbles talk about the urban legends or unusual occurrences of the day, there’s less casual violence, and (so far) no alchemists or immortals.
Some of its geekier cast members even supply lots of specific and unashamed references to other Dengeki Bunko series, from a life-sized Holo cutout to specific discussion of “that angel who says ‘pipirupipirupipirupi.'” Theater marquees are always fun for seeing how many posters you recognize.
So Durarara is very much not Baccano, but the style is easily recognizable—a huge, loosely-interconnected cast running the gamut from normal high school students to adults inhabiting the seedier side of Ikebukuro to the occasional supernatural being going about their business in unexpectedly close proximity, a lot of appealing but morally ambiguous characters, a quirky, perfectly-timed, wicked sense of humor, and what will presumably develop into an overarching plot that will tie the myriad strands of unrelated fates together.
The biggest difference, though, is that it’s massively easier to follow. Not easy, to be sure—there’s still a glut of characters and a lot going on—but the storytelling is way more linear, and each episode focuses relatively consistently on one or two characters. You see most of the cast in passing every episode, but by revealing the backstory of each one in turn, and in a fairly straightforward way, you can keep track of who’s who and not need to remember details from several episodes back. By no means simple, but after the nonlinear train wreck that was Baccano, I had no trouble at all keeping track, more or less, of what was going on.
A nice bit of assistance is that unimportant characters are not colored in. So if there’s a huge crowd shot, 90% of the bystanders will be vague grey silhouettes—enough to tell that they’re normal folks trying to snap a picture with their phone or diving out of the way. The remaining handful who are colored are the ones you know you should be paying attention to. Interesting willful embrace on the standard of poorly-drawn background characters, and the rest is so funky it works.
As for the most important thing? Don’t worry—Durarara is all kinds of funky awesome. The first episode is an overview of the major players in town, and the second a bit heavy and introspective, but after that things get rolling in the most entertaining of ways. Hard to say exactly how awesome it will build up to, but after a half dozen episodes it had already pulled off a few moments that had me laughing breathlessly as much for how magnificently incongruent they were as how outright funny.
This is a spoiler you’ll probably want to skip if you have any intention of seeing it, but my favorite character so far by a wide margin is masked rider Celty. The first episode shows us a faceless woman in black on a silent motorcycle who appears occasionally around town; shortly after we see that in addition to a courier for very shady folks she is not human, but something dark and supernatural. I was expecting Rail Tracer from Baccano, if not something even more mysterious—a character to be hinted at until some big reveal late in the series. Any normal story would have done that.
And then, up comes episode four, in which we’re introduced to her private life by her roommate. Turns out she’s a Dullahan, Celtic spirits of legend who appear when someone is about to die, in the form of a headless woman carrying her own head, on a carriage pulled by a headless black steed. And no, she’s not something that’s being explained in general terms as being like a Dullahan, she is a Dullahan. Who, for various reasons, has been in Japan for the last 20 years doing odd jobs while searching for her head.
Now, I don’t know about you, but the image of the headless horseman—literally—lounging around the house in slippers, watching TV, and chatting online (as soon as I found out who the black chat bubbles belonged to, those scenes got so much more entertaining) is 100% pure awesome. I love that sort of incongruent mix of the supernatural and mundane humanity, and oh, boy does Durarara run with it. Her conversations, held entirely via messages typed on her PDA (she can’t talk—no head), are just as fun. But that’s not the best bit—the best bit would be when she has a run in with some other supernatural being wielding a cursed sword. Out of all the reactions I expected when she described the unnerving experience to her roommate, just about the last on the list would be what happens: she was totally freaked out and worried that it might be an alien. Because she’d been watching this show, you see, and aliens scare her.
An ancient Celtic headless horseman, harbinger of death, being afraid of aliens—which in all likelihood don’t exist—is pretty much the most conceptually hilarious thing I’ve ever seen.
Celty is in general the most pleasant and, frankly, normal character in the series. To make the conversations flow more smoothly, and get across her emotions more clearly, we get a voiceover accompanying her PDA-communication, although notably, her body language is often more than enough on its own. Again, the headless horseman getting the willies is rank awesome. Or for that matter a juxtaposition of two completely normal humans with a ripperdoc and the specter of death, with the humans being way, way creepier and the two freaks being pleasant and well-adjusted is the sort of thing that made Baccano as marvelously entertaining and twisted as it was.
Approaching the end of the first season and its overall story arc, it all looks to be coming together fabulously. In any other series, I’d be highly skeptical that it wasn’t going to completely screw it up—there are so far somewhere in the vicinity of about five separate plot threads, involving a dozen or so major characters, on a collision course. Yet given that Baccano managed to align twice as much narrative chaos into a crowning moment the likes of which most series can’t even fantasize about pulling off gives me a fair amount of confidence that Durarara knows exactly where it’s going with this mess, and has the wherewithal to pull it off.