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Durarara Midpoint: I Officially Love This Series

As much of a fan of Baccano as I am, I will admit to skepticism that Durarara could possibly live up to the bar it set. I did have a fair amount of confidence, however, that as it rolled into the endgame of the first season (meaning the midpoint of the series) that it had the wherewithal to actually do something with the giant pile of characters and potentially-intersecting plot threads.

I’m an anime fan, so I’ve grown used to disappointment when it comes to the coup de grace in series with massive amounts of potential and complex plots—there are far, far too many series that just plain blow it at the end. Not just Evangelion-style “the creator had a breakdown” disasters. Or Escaflowne-style “We’re trying to wrap up an entire season’s worth of material in four episodes” disappointments.  Or Strange Dawn-style “I’m pretty sure there was supposed to be another season in here, and we just attempted to close every plot thread in the space of a single episode” catastrophes. Even far more coherent, together, well-planned things often just don’t quite pull it together when it comes to the finale.

So it’s telling that I had a great deal of faith in the first-season plot arc wrapping up in a satisfying way in Durarara. Which it did, in beautiful fashion. It was not quite the mind-blowing, multi-layered magnificence of the Baccano finale, but then it’s only halfway through, and expecting another five-way Crowning Moment of Awesome the likes of which the trope takes its name from is sort of unreasonable. It was, however, tremendously entertaining, twistedly heartwarming, and entirely satisfying as halfway points go.

Two episodes into the second season, and Durarara has just moved itself up from a merely great series to oh wow, I love this show. I was sort of expecting Celty—my favorite character by far—to take a backseat role now that she’d had her big moment. Nope. The series appears to know perfectly well how golden she is every moment she’s onscreen, and shows no intentions of holding back just how much potential there is for crazy-incongruent beauty.

The first episode of season two is sort of spectacular. The quirky, sweet, cute, funky, hilarious section that opens the second episode, however, is magic.

What has me surprised is that I don’t know exactly what made it so awesome.

It’s not the Matrix-action-scene, Project A-ko fully-automatic-missile-launcher, “That was awesome!” kind of awesome, to be sure. It’s pretty darned funny, but it’s not the  laughing-so-hard-you-can’t-breathe level of hilarious-awesome, either. It’s marvelously weird, yes, but not quite the sort of deranged “What just happened?!” madness kind of awesome. There’s definitely some of the Lelouch-sytle, magnificent-twist, Crowning Moment of Awesome stuff elsewhere, but that’s not it in this case, either. It’s sweetly romantic, yes, and appeals to my sense of unlikely romance, but not so much so that it’s going to set whatever part of my brain that controls “having fun” on fire.

What I’m basically saying here is that it’s one of the best half-an-episodes I’ve ever seen, and I’m not entirely sure why that is other than a sense of so many lovably and marvelously incongruent things intersecting perfectly it’s hard to believe.

Other asides:  As a fan of character animation, Celty’s body language alone is easily worth the price of admission—you’ve got someone literally without a head making it entirely clear what she’s thinking and feeling just based on the way she moves. Not to mention incredibly cute. Yes, this series makes the headless horseman incredibly cute, and it fits. That’s what I’m talkin’ about. Also, there are some seriously bat-poo crazy characters in this show. Not all of whom are the villains. And they’re not clones of Vino, either—an entirely different sort of nuts. The second-season opening song isn’t nearly as good as the first, but it ups the named character count to an even twenty, besting even Baccano on that count. The end has the same twenty if you count the shadow as Celty, plus three color gang guys, which ties Baccano’s 23.

Anyway, while it’s always possible that Durarara will screw up the very end, if ever there was a series that I’m looking forward to every moment of the ride, up to and including the climax, this is it.

I’m watching it on Crunchyroll, but if there’s ever a series worth adding a physical version of to your collection, it’s this one. I’d already have ordered the rather-expensive (but worth it) DVDs if I wasn’t holding out hope for an eventual Blu-ray release. (Speaking of which, it appears that the Japanese BD of Baccano is just upscaled, so there’s apparently no point in waiting for that, although I’m still holding out hope for some Spice and Wolf goodness.)

Durarara Impressions

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.

Bacca-yes? Bacca-wow!

I further apologize for following up on the previous awful pun.

I managed to convince my friends (who have an inexplicable masochistic desire to create self-induced cliffhangers by watching things in small doses—seriously, who intentionally cuts the finale of a good series in half?) to go on a minor binge and finish up Baccano proper. (There is, apparently, a 3-episode bonus chunk—no idea whatsoever who or what that will be, though given the series structure the three episodes could easily be concurrent with the rest of the series, postlogue, prologue, or about completely different characters.  Looking forward to finding out.)

Wow is that a finale.  Even though you can see 90% of where it’s going by the time the final episode comes around (since you’ve already seen half the epilogue already), the final two (or three) episodes are possibly the most weirdly-touching, violent, exciting, jump up and cheer, gasp-for-breath hilarious, intertwined mess of concentrated awesome that I have ever seen. No, really, stuff like that is why I watch anime. Hell, stuff like that makes owning a TV worthwhile.

Pure, unadulterated entertainment, in nearly every sense of the word.

Unlike Boogiepop Phantom, the puzzle does not come together to form an intricate, finished picture. Really, by the start of the climax you had enough pieces to guess more or less what the picture on the box looks like. In this case you sort of know where things are going—it’s the ride that makes it worthwhile. Heck, some of the time the fact that you can suddenly see where a particular plot thread is leading is half the fun.

Other notables are the world’s creepiest conductor, several spectacularly sociopathic yet oddly sympathetic characters, several more spectacular villains, one of the best Big Bad denouement assists ever (two entirely separate ones actually, both by the same people), immortals good-natured enough to make up for every angst-soaked, “pain of living forever” vampire movie ever (no, seriously, immortality is sweet), and one of the most conceptually hilarious post-credit epilogues of all time.  I mean that about the vampire movies, too. Also, some fantastically messed-up family relationships, but only when you actually think about what’s going on objectively.

Incidentally, I’d say that the main characters actually turned out to be comic-relief duo Issac and Milly. Not the heroes, and not the central characters by a long shot, but if you look at all the major events through the story, they’re the only characters consistently present for all of them. They also directly made two of the three denouements possible and saved the lives of nearly every major “good” character (everybody is some level of grey) at some point along the line.  All through a combination of ebullient kindness and crazed incompetence coupled with the simultaneously worst and beset luck in the world. These guys make Vash look like he’s got it together. (Note: comparison not a coincidence—Issac has the same voice actor, and while Milly’s voice is different from her Trigun namesake, she’s even higher pitched and just as likably ditzy.)

Anyway, bottom line is, that’s a TV series. Not often something I watch bummed off others is good enough to make me want to buy my own copy, but this is in that category. (How about a Blu-ray version, guys? The PS3 and set-tops are actually within the reach of mortals now!)