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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.)

Mission E Post-Viewing Notes

Wrapped up the final episode of Mission E, and I’ve got to say, that was aggravating. If ever a series needed 13 episodes instead of 12 it was this one; the last episode omitted both the opening and ending credits, and still cut it down to the absolute bare minimum. Honestly, the series should’ve either cut several less-vital episodes out of the middle or gone into a full second season; the only legitimate reason I can think of for a finale that rushed is that they’d planned on stretching the plot out over two seasons but only got one funded.

There are sub-plots and loose ends left lying all over the place, including some hints at substantial backstory with one of the villains that don’t even appear until the final episode. Even the main plot feels like it got shoved into conclusion mode way before it was ready. Oh, it tried to give an in-story reason—the main villain’s backers decided to get uppity and forced him to play his hand early—but the series just didn’t feel anywhere near ready to wrap up.

Or rather, it didn’t wrap up. Even if you accept the rather abrupt, massively unsatisfying, and left-wide-open main plot, it does nothing to conclude such major things as what happens to Milis or anything resembling a satisfying progression of Chinami and Kotaro’s too-shy-to-get-anything-going-without-being-forced relationship (though you have to love Chinami’s flat-out order in the next-to-last episode in an attempt). Don’t even get me started on the fact that we never even get to meet Sonomi’s husband and kids, Yuma (the shrine maiden) not getting anywhere near enough screen time and her significant other showing up for all of five seconds in the last episode, or the whole Brimberg background hinted at earlier going nowhere at all. I’m also rather disappointed that after Code E had such a prominent role for Chinami’s family that Maori’s family is a complete afterthought. If she’d been a little older that would have been forgivable, but she’s not, and initially it made motions about doing something in the same area that it never delivered on. Heck, they didn’t even pay lip-service to the fact that they’ve got a minor playing secret agent without letting her parents in on any details whatsoever.

That last one is particularly bad since they established Oz as pretty much the worst secret organization ever. Worst as in they’re just plain too nice—they invite their captive enemy to the Christmas party and have picnics with the lackeys. Having them go out of their way to give report cards or something to Maori’s parents would have been fun and funny, instead of having Oz come across as being far sketchier than there was any indication they were. Ignoring their poor parental consent policies, however, that was one of the things that was fun about the series—Oz and the heroes are terrible superspies, and the bad guys aren’t afraid to point it out. But, they’re ok with that—that’s what you get when people like Chinami and Kotaro try to go badass, and that’s how they run things.

I also liked that the evil organization is neither all that evil, nor all that secret—they’re just a big corporation with some mildly unacceptable science experiments going on to try and get a competitive edge. Turns out they really don’t want to take over the world, or even do anything too illegal—they just happened to hire a mad scientist rather more malicious than the board intended. I found it particularly amusing when one of those sinister conversations between shadowy corporate backers pulling strings behind the scenes takes place, and you realize that they’re actually trying to stop the mad scientist from doing anything too bad. Ends up they’re greedy and shadowy, not evil. Again, amusing for the relative low-key-ness of it (Mission E retains some of Code E’s mellow groove, just in an entirely different way).

Other strong points are some decent character development with initially-dead-to-the-world Type E Maori coming out of her shell, unexpected romance, and entirely expected if completely incompetent attempted romance with Chinami and Kotaro. One of the best scenes in the whole show—practically worth the price of admission—is about halfway through when Chinami gets asked about her plans for the evening—nudge, nudge, wink, wink—and smiles blankly for far too long before realization slowly creeps across her face, and then she nearly boils herself to death in the bath she’s sitting in thanks to her inadvertent Type-E microwave effect.

Speaking of which, while the Type Es in this series have much better control of their abilities than Chinami did in high school, the show still does a great job of dropping hints as to mental state by the side effects of them. Everything from an excited Chinami sparking a code red panic on the loading dock as the minions frantically try to get the expensive hardware away from her to a great little bit that goes by so quickly you might miss it—a gunshot startles Maori, causing the lights in the room to flash for an instant.

It’s not that the series couldn’t have told its story in 12 episodes, it’s that it seemed to be going out of its way to introduce sub-plots and drop hints about backstory for many of the secondary characters, which it proceeded to follow up on exactly none of. Still, as bizarre a follow-up to Code-E as it was, and for all it blew at the end, it’s still a lot of fun, and I did enjoy it. I just really, really wish they would make a sequel. Maybe a prequel that fits between Code-E and Mission-E, for that matter.

Aside: I’ve finished my fansub of the final episode, which I’m a bit surprised to note took approximately as long as I expected—about an hour and 45 minutes to do the timing, about four and a half hours translation and on-the-fly touchup (I just translate directly onto the subtitles to save time), and another 30 minutes tidying up. I’ll probably spend another hour tweaking, but that’s not too bad. Had Akemi actually watched the rest of the series it might have gone a little bit faster, as would it have if I wasn’t rusty working with the software I was using.

If somebody wants to help distribute it drop a note.

The Sword of Length (aka “Why US TV series are doomed to failure.”)

So as I mentioned with Code Geass 2, when you try to take a good idea and drag it out to cover four full seasons (52 episodes), you may have lots of time to layer on the intrigue and tragedy, but you have just as much time to run yourself off into a ditch trying to keep things going.  Honestly, there are precious few series that can sustain any kind of real momentum through even 26 episodes.

This ties into a thought I’d had on why I don’t like US TV shows for the most part, and do like anime ones.  (And no, not just because I’m an anime fan.)  To preface, I’m generally a fan of well-constructed stories that are going somewhere.  There are exceptions, but the more tightly-built the better, in my mind.

The thing is, standard US-style TV shows are doomed to fail.  Let’s say you start out with a great idea, and one that’s going somewhere.  Basically one of two things can happen:

  1. The series gets cancelled prematurely, and the viewer is horribly frustrated.   Example: Firefly.
  2. The series is popular enough that they keep making it until it eventually jumps the shark, at which point even fans lose interest and it gets cancelled.  The X-files comes to mind.

So basically you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.  Shows are literally doomed to failure—because of the way the system works, they will be kept on the air until they start to suck, however long that takes. If they’re not, then almost by definition they were ended prematurely, and most likely with unfinished business.

The few exceptions are shallow sitcoms (though even those can get somewhat impenetrable to non-fans after a while), and inherently open-ended ideas (detective shows are a good example, since they are almost by nature episodic and the stories self-contained).

I’m not saying that there aren’t good long-running series, and there are of course the newer high-budget cable series that break the mold somewhat, but the system just isn’t designed to allow for a tight story with a beginning, middle, end, and a minimum of filler.  If you try, you’re doomed to fail, and if you don’t, you’re left with something treading water from a broader narrative perspective and/or heading for soap-opera-syndrome of exponential plot layers.

Contrast this with the way TV anime is usually produced:  You get the series signed on for a single, 13-episode season that you know will always be shown in order (Japanese TV just doesn’t do reruns the way the US networks do).  There is no syndication as the US knows it to cash in on after the series is done.  There is the potential for a sequel, but it’s a sequel, not another season.  If you’re lucky and have the material, you might even get two seasons financed, but anything longer than that is exceedingly rare outside of the shounen-mill (and Rumiko Takahashi,who is unabashedly in the “treading water” camp).

This is a fundamental advantage that anime TV series have, and the main reason I’m a whole lot more likely to commit to watching one than a US TV series that will either be cancelled early or will drag on so long I’ll eventually lose interest in it.  And it’s why I’m extremely wary of any anime series that’s more than a couple seasons long.