Baccano! — Perfectly Paced Chaos or Go-Nowhere Pile Of Gimmicks?

So if you’ve been paying attention to my MAL profile, you notice I ditched that godawful scoring system and just made a list of all the anime I liked on the thing. That way, if people were curious about what sort of anime I enjoyed that’s not in my top 50 – which I should probably expand to include the rest of what’s on that list – they can quickly browse it and assume that if I didn’t list an anime that I completed on there, I probably think it’s downright atrocious. But shortly after I made that list, I’ve been getting people (well, probably just one person) asking me why Baccano! isn’t on there. And then when I tried to explain myself, I just got more questions in return. You know, I’m starting to regret making that account.

But anyways, the main reason I left Baccano! off the list because I didn’t think it would hold up to a rewatch. Sure there was a time when I would marathon the series over and over again until I was sick of it, but I also watched Shakugan no Shana willingly back then, so I wouldn’t trust the opinions of my past self. More importantly though, even when I was big into the show, there were alot of things I didn’t really like about it and I was afraid that if I revisited it now, those faults would become too numerous for me to enjoy the show. So when I finally got to rewatching the show, I’ll freely admit that it has everything I love about exploitation, gangster films, and alchemy stories, which entertained me on a conceptual-level alone. The only problem? I was right to think that what I didn’t like about the show would overwhelm my goodwill towards it! Always trust that devil pulling on your muscle memory whilst weeping at his very existence, people.

Now I’m fully aware that a main criticism of Baccano is that the characters are boring and come off like tools, hence why even my own friends prefer Durarara. I don’t really agree with that – even though I’m pretty sure the dub is a large reason why – because in addition to the fact that I don’t consider “character drama” the end all to all of how to make a good character, I think the majority of Baccano’s cast is funny. What can I say? I love my violent psychopaths and I love them even more when they’re allowed to have fun by blowing shit up, which is the main reason why the Saints Row series resides as probably my favorite video game franchise of all-time. So just to get it out of the way, no the characters are not boring. It’s everything surrounding them that’s the problem.

I’m sure most of my readers are fully aware in this decade that Baccano is a tale of three stories told in different timelines that are told all at once through a combination of Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino’s styles. Each story is largely self-contained, but some of the same characters are present in each story (ex. Isaac and Miria in the 1930 and 31 stories) and/or related to characters from a different story. As the first half of the introductory episode states, Baccano is a story with no beginnings, no endings, and no main character. It’s just pure undiluted chaos the entire way through, constantly jumping from different points of the three stories in order to showcase this fact. So style-wise, it works really well in showcasing that. It’s when you actually start looking at the substance that more cracks start to show in Baccano’s perfect presentation than your mother’s cooch when she hits her 50s.

Even with Baccano’s overall message being a big “fuck you” to traditional storytelling, it is still an anime at the end of the day, and still has to following some basic rules less it turn out like a Kawamori product when he gets it in his head that he can write. My overall way of judging an anime – and other products – at the base level is the reason why I ditched the traditional scoring system: because numbers are not a good way to judge whether something successfully balances the three key aspects simply known as context, pacing, and fan-pleasing. They may seem like separate categories at first, but they affect each other in big ways when you look at them closely and it really depends on the individual product. For example, Legend of the Galactic Heroes is an anime praised as a masterpiece for its rich universe and it’s true that context-wise, few products can match it in general. The problem is that it’s a 110-episode series that is said to not get “good” until the 20-episode mark, so that’s a big mark against its pacing. However, said pacing level could potentially be counter-balanced if the fan-pleasing elements – which are partly provided by the context – are at a good level. That depends wildly on the individual and how much they like lore and space battles and such, though.

Instead of giving my own opinion on LoGH, I’m going to move on and apply that ranking system I just described to Baccano. And even back when I adored it as a masterpiece in late 2009, I found the context kind of meh, the pacing kind of slow, and the fan-pleasing turned up way too high. That time-jumping gimmick that people love about the show so much came off less “clever” early in and more like a way to pad out the 1930 and 32 stories so that they’d end at the same time, and it doesn’t help that the 1932 story is incredibly dull on its own due to its simplicity, both in context and in violence. The fan-pleasing elements of the 1931 Flying Pussyfoot story was enough to sustain me in the past – although I always found it silly that Firo would be absent from the show for five episodes and how reliant the 1930 story was on cliffhangers that we knew the resolution of in its final stretch due to the first episode starting at the f*cking end of everything – but it doesn’t anymore. Why? Because as of present time, the 1931 story – and Baccano on the whole – comes off more to me as Saints Row The Third than Saints Row 2.

Despite the constant craziness happening every second, it fails to distract from the fact that the Flying Pussyfoot arc is as artificially padded as its brother stories, let alone Saints Row The Third. There are too many characters involved in what is ultimately a very simplistic mess – whether they’re on the train or not – and way too much time is devoted to showcasing each and every single one’s actions without really providing “context” to the overall situation, which prevents “as much plot as you can get from a disjointed narrative” from ever progressing. No matter what style it’s going for, I like character and plot story to go hand-in-hand, ala something more in the vein of Saints Row if you ignore the requirement that you have to play diversion mini-games for 20-30 minutes where you spray poo at people’s houses. Instead, I have to sit through character actions that whilst cool to see at times in their comedic violence, add f*ck all to the plot, could have easily been told through 1-2 second flashbacks, and it doesn’t help that the 1931 story has to share time with the weaker stories that it doesn’t really have much in common with. So by padding out those stories, it ends up padding its own story as well. Can you spell irony? I sure can.

This problem gets fixed a little in the second half when things start getting revealed, but the connection between the three timelines still remains a little too loose to really fix the feeling of “artificial padding” I get from Baccano completely. And it also doesn’t help that the show has a bad tendency to jump to the actual aftermaths of each story really early on (especially the first episode), hoping the audience would care more for the destination than the end. I wouldn’t mind so much if it wasn’t for the fact that alot of time is devoted to the aftermaths before I have any real reason to care about the aftermath. Yeah, it’s nice that Claire is hinting at a later reveal by stating to his brothers that he has a woman waiting for him, but I barely got to know the guy. Why should I care what lady he’s wooed during his exploits? I’m having enough trouble caring for out-of-nowhere scenes “during” the entire mess where the context isn’t exactly at B-level, let alone A-level.

Which brings me to my final blow towards this show – and the final similarity it has to Saints Row The Third – and that is this: Baccano isn’t as over-the-top as it thinks it is. It may have crazy elements and cool aesthetics, but the substance underneath all of that is predictably shallow and lacking in bite. Even the more villainous characters like Ladd Russo come off more as an anti-hero fighting off people much more evil than him, and it doesn’t help that the truly evil people are not very charismatic. Szilard sort of is, but the way he gets taken out by surprise is just pathetic. See, I would have expected a climactic fight between him and the Martillos to be full of karate moves and gunshots leading to his ultimate weakening before he gets sucked up. But no, he gets surprised by a fire and then 1-hit KOed by a boy we didn’t get much focus on. At least SR3 ended with a protagonist we’ve known for so long taking down a fighter jet with nothing but a mini-gun. Not only was Goose not an interesting villain, he just gets tripped and tackled. That’s it.

So at the end of the day, whilst I can still enjoy Baccano for its rampant fun tone alone, it’s nowhere near being a favorite of mine and I honestly don’t have much motivation to watch it again in the future. The way all three stories end at the same time in a way that does connect them decently is cool, but the buildup to get to there is just too much of a mixed bag for my taste. I’m not even going to bring up those epilogue episodes and how painfully anticlimactic those were in tying up loose ends, nor am I going to expand on how I think the first episode raised my expectations too high because it gave me the impression that the story would be about immortal gangsters trying to survive in the 1930s rather than their origin story, because this rant is long enough as is. It basically is an old-school anime version of Saints Row: The Third at heart in that it has a lot of things that appeal to me, but it does it at the sacrifice of slowing the plot down too much and not providing enough support towards said things to make up for that. I wouldn’t say it does it as badly as Code Geass or its other “are you not entertained? Is that not why you are here?” imitators, but that’s like praising Ted Cruz because he’s not as evil as Ted Bundy. Or is it the other way around?

PS: Saints Row The Third doesn’t have the time-jumping gimmick, but given how you choose the order of when to do missions, it comes close enough.

PPS: Yes, I’m aware that Milky Holmes 1 and Milky Holmes 2 represent the difference between Saints Row 2 and Saints Row 3 better.

8 responses to “Baccano! — Perfectly Paced Chaos or Go-Nowhere Pile Of Gimmicks?

  1. I don’t really don’t see the comparisons to SR3,which was a satirical piece on everything compared this which feels like tribute too those old WB gangster films( with the former based heavily on interactive story telling).Ladd Russo for example really reminds me of James Cagney’s role from White Heat. Hell I thought the first episode was a terrible hook since it just showed you all these different events and characters which didn’t mean anything to you yet.

    The only characters who I felt didn’t really do anything were Czes and Claire who really didn’t do anything. I thought the time jumping gimmick was a great way too see all those characters,which I don’t believe would’ve been as engaging with a generic adaption.The level of detail to the era was excellent(Grand Central for example).

    • SR3’s ultimate story is different from Baccano’s (and I prefer SR3’s story as a whole), but they share enough similarities in both aesthetics and how said story is told that I felt the comparison was apt. Too many cool set pieces that weren’t properly paced. Too much focus on character stuff that doesn’t really advance the story, nor even tell us much about them (still frustated at Zimos’s stuff, considering he drops out of the game after the second act). The protagonists come off more as anti-heroes rather than true villains, and the actual villains are kinda generic. Etc. etc.

      The time jumping gimmick frustrated me after a while because I knew how the 1930 story was going to end and yet they dragged that simple finale out over three or more episodes, only for Szilard to go down like a chump. 1932 story was just plain dull because Eve was never an interesting character (light novel version of her was a little better from what I remember). Plus, as I said, I remember the first episode hyping me up for immortal gangsters taking on the world, only to be let down that Baccano would focus more on how they became immortal. That was such a disappointment.

      • I guess in that regard you could say that,but I still find it pointless comparing a videogame which is an interactive experience to a tv show.That spacing of the setpieces in SR3 and 4 with dumb minigames was a way too pad out the game length.That and am pretty not sure no one played SR3 or 4 for it’s amazing thought-provoking story telling. All the characters were just over the top caricatures.I personally think it tried a bit too hard at points at being edgy(gameplay is solid).

        Now i do think the show wouldn’t had the time jumping gimmick if it was given a full season,but am pretty sure the production committee didn’t want too considering the level of violence,hence the time jumping story telling(smart move on them,since it was a bomb sales wise).

    • If people can compare LA Noire to LA Confidential in terms of story, I can do the same for Baccano and Saints Row.

      That and am pretty not sure no one played SR3 or 4 for it’s amazing thought-provoking story telling. All the characters were just over the top caricatures.I personally think it tried a bit too hard at points at being edgy(gameplay is solid).

      Well I obviously disagree with you regarding Saints Row, but let’s not elaborate on that.

      Now i do think the show wouldn’t had the time jumping gimmick if it was given a full season,but am pretty sure the production committee didn’t want too considering the level of violence,hence the time jumping story telling(smart move on them,since it was a bomb sales wise).

      It was 13 episodes. That’s a full season in my book. And if you cut out the 1932 story, you could have easily told Baccano in that amount of time with a straight adaptation, although that’s not exactly a big part of my problem with the show. I don’t mind the time-jumping gimmick in theory, but it kept interrupting stories I wanted to see go forward to the point that I got frustrated.

      • Well L.A. Noire was more focused on telling a story than being a game so that comparison works(remember this was being at aimed at people who didn’t really play games with the whole skipping action scenes feature). That and the whole game was just one big tribute to the genre(a whole case was based on the film The Naked City). Hell you could really compare it to a lot since the Noir genre has so many interchangeable pieces.

  2. The chief problem with something like Baccano! is that the gimmicks work exactly once (maybe twice, of thrice in a pinch). That is, they don’t age well. Also see just how big Sixth Sense was, but now EVERYTHING has to have a twist in it, so the gimmick is too obvious (and everyone has heard about the gimmicks enough that they’re not as impressed as audiences of the time).

    That’s not really a black mark against the “innovator”, but it doesn’t help it feel as bombastic and strange as it once did, so without the novelty all you’re left with is the feeling that it’s an alpha product, and we’ve moved on through the betas and are in the final release stages. I’m seeing quite a few people make similar complaints about how Durarara season 2 isn’t quite as thrilling as the first season was… chiefly because five years have passed and other stuff has come and gone since then that cheapens it somewhat.

    So what do I take home from this? I think it’s that Baccano has already succeeded to help mold modern anime, so it hardly matters if it’s become obsolete. If we can’t enjoy it as I once did, we still had that experience once. But newcomers will sadly probably never be to experience as we did back then. And that’s fine.

    • Sure, I understand how our own personal experiences shape our judgment. Star Wars was a part of my childhood, so it’s no wonder I love it so much despite the story being kinda basic in theory, and I wouldn’t blame someone who didn’t for not enjoying it. And then there’s the Clannad movie, which depends heavily on my experiences with VN adaptations and seeing it when it first came out (although I still think it still gets a really unfair treatment from the VN community in general).

      I’d never state that Baccano is objectively good or bad. And I won’t blame people for thinking the time gimmick is actually a great pacing method. I just happen to disagree.

      • Heh.. I wasn’t being critical of your perspective, don’t worry. I happen to agree that the gimmick is a tiresome conceit, at best. But damn if it doesn’t kill the first time you experience it done properly. Novelty is a force to be reckoned with… just not in hindsight.