The 2nd Dimension

Friday, December 03, 2010

Viewing Journal: Durarara!! (complete)

Series Overview
Watch It Now
Expected DVD release January 2011

Overall= B+
Story = B+
Video = B
Audio = A-


Ryuugamine Mikado is a boy who longs for the exciting life of the big city. At the invitation of his childhood friend Masaomi, he transfers to a school in Ikebukuro. Masaomi has warned him about people he doesn't want to cross in the city: a champion fighter, an informant, and a mysterious gang called "Dollars." Nervous from Masaomi's stories, Mikado witnesses an urban legend on his first day in the city, the Headless Rider astride a black motorcycle. From then on, the existence of supernatural cases and a gang called the Yellow Turbans will rise to the surface, and Ikebukuro will pushed to the breaking point. (Source: ANN)
There are some anime series that you know from the first episode that they have bitten off more than they can chew. They will introduce so many characters and concepts that by the end they are either frantically attempting to tie up multiple plot threads or they end the story abruptly without resolving anything. Then there are other shows that can skillfully bring such a complex story to a logical and satisfactory conclusion. Durarara!! is none of those. In this series, plot is a minor concern compared to the joy of just watching the characters do what they do, making for a fun ride where the destination doesn't matter.

Durarara!! adapts the first three volumes of an eight-volume (so far) light novel series. It tells the story of an adventure-seeking teenager named Mikado Ryugamine who, at the invitation of his childhood friend Masaomi, has transferred to a high school in Ikebukuro, Tokyo. On his first day there, Masaomi shows him around, introducing him to some people around town and warning him who to stay away from. And at the end of his tour Mikado even crosses paths with the town's urban legend, the headless motorcycle rider dressed in black.

Probably the most impressive thing about Durarara!! is that it successfully introduces so many characters without feeling underdeveloped or disjointed. A lot of anime series that have an extensive cast will start by introducing different characters individually so you can get an idea of what their basic conflict is but it usually takes a number of episodes to develop them to the point where you care what is going to happen. Durarara!!, however, does something unique with its first episode. As Masaomi shows Mikado around town, seemingly random stuff happens -- like a pop machine flying up in the air -- without any further explanation. Then the following episodes will go back and show what was happening in those seemingly random moments, while at the same time showing even more events or characters in the background that are explained in other episodes. And as the show progresses the characters gradually become more directly involved with one another. So it is feels like the story is continuous instead of having a bunch of separate stories that eventually converge. The result is that it is entertaining from start to finish and each episode leaves you excited for more.

Of course, it's not just the narrative style, but the eclectic cast of surprisingly strong characters that makes this show so fun to watch. The city has everyone from an irritable, super strong butler, to street gangs, to seemingly average school kids who turnout to be not-so-average, to otaku who are gleefully part of a dangerous gang, to the headless biker Celty, and tons more. What makes them so intriguing is that they each one is multidimensional. You see their surface personality, then there is a side that is hidden but which you know is there because of how their personality contrasts with their situation. For instance, there's the prize fighter who is calmly passing out fliers in front of the sushi shop. You know he can kick ass at the drop of a hat just by looking at him, but for the most part he is always calm. So you wonder where he came from and how he ended up in the sushi shop. It's cool to see each characters' true nature gradually rise to the surface, and builds excitement for what is going to happen to them next.

The funny thing is that when I started watching the first episode -- not having any idea of what the anime was about -- it seemed like the story was going to be mostly realistic with maybe a subtle hint of the supernatural. But by the end of the second episode it becomes apparent that the supernatural element is pretty blunt to the point of being comedic or downright awkward; although I'm not sure whether the awkwardness is intentional or not. Specifically I'm referring to Celty the headless Dullahan/Faerie/Mortorcyclist/Underworld delivery girl. When she first shows up in the first episode, before you learn she is in fact headless, she seems like a total bad ass, beating up criminals and slicing them with her ghostly scythe. Then at the end of that episode she removes her helmet to reveal that she does in fact have no head, and a black smoke emanates from her neck-stump. At that point I'm thinking, "Hm. That was weird. Maybe it's just an illusion or there's some logical explanation for why she appears to not have a head." But, no. We learn that she is in fact something called a Dullahan from Scotland -- a headless faerie that visits those who are about to die. Someone stole her head and now she's come to Japan to look for it. Then we learn that she is shacking up with this scientist guy and a good portion of Celty's screen time involves her and the scientist hanging out in the apartment. So you have the scientist and the stump-neck girl casually sitting on the couch chatting in regular street clothes like it's a situation comedy. It even tries to make her appear all sexy including a scene with her in a bikini. And sure she has a nice body, but she has NO HEAD! It's really really weird -- like she's a walking, headless mannequin -- and I was never able to get used to the oddness of it. And the head thing aside, she is also never quite as bad-ass as she was in that first episode. She ends up being more emotional and concerned than tough. She does end up fitting in well with the rest of the cast as the story progresses; but still, she never quite meets the expectations established in that first episode.

Even if Celty doesn't kick quite as much butt as anticipated, there are plenty of other strong characters to fill in the void. The most obvious is Shizuo Heiwajima, the gangly, super-strong butler with a temper that flares up at a hat drop. But I was most surprised by the main character Mikado Ryƫgamine. When he first shows up, he seemed to be the person that the audience was supposed to relate to as he learned about the goings-on around town -- a shy, weak character who is maybe a little too naive for the big city. And that may be true to an extent, but it isn't long before we find out that he whole-heartedly embraces and revels in the action of Ikebukuro as he has an insatiable craving for new experiences. He is one of the most interesting characters because the more you learn about him, the more he defies expectations, while maintaining a consistent personality. It's another example of how the characters' contrasting personality traits and narrative style rise above the plot as the main draw of this show.

The only major disappointment is that we don't get to learn more about each character. While there is an impressive amount of development and revelations about their backgrounds, there are simply too many characters to go in depth about all of them or to come to a conclusion about all of the story lines they are involved in. So we never we never learn the full story behind Celty's missing head or Simon Brezhnev's past in the Russia. Even more surprising is that mid-way through the series more characters are introduced only to be dropped after one or two episodes. I assume that these characters have more face time in the original novels, and I can only hope that those books are either adapted into a second anime season or translated into English so we can learn more about the rest of the cast. But even if not, the anime is still well worth watching in its own right.

As for the art and animation, the character and setting designs are slick and the animation is decent, but there are a couple of visual details that contribute significantly to story itself. There are scenes scattered throughout the series involving internet chat sessions. They are simply avatars and pop-up dialogue bubbles, but somehow the simplicity and the way it shows the computer screen at odd angles makes those scenes visually engaging as well; plus they are a great way to show how the characters know each other online before they ever meet face-to-face. The other -- somewhat more subtle -- visual detail is the way in which color is used to bring focus the things happening in the background. For instance, you will have two people talking as they walk through the crowd. The crowd will be all gray and then you will suddenly see a person or two walk by who will be in color. It may last for just a second but it is enough to catch your attention. Then in the next episode it will explain what those background characters were doing. It's a cool and creative way to keep the viewer on their toes and show how the characters' lives all intersect; and this technique becomes even more significant later on in the series.

The music also gives the show a unique feel. It is an impressive blend of moodiness and quirkiness and seems somehow retro, though I have no idea what it would be a throwback to if anything. The opening song for the first half of the series is awesome, with a quick beat that -- along with the dynamic animation and smooth transitions -- really gets got me energized and excited for each episode.

So yeah, awesome show. The progressive development of the characters, and the casual, effortless narrative transitions makes it seem more like you are hanging out with the characters instead of just following events in a story. I'd recommend this both for those who want something a little different as well as those who enjoy the comfort of anime cliches, because this show does definitely use tried-and-true character types but adds unique twists that gives it a spark of originality. So definitely check it out; and then keep your hopes up for season two...

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