Review for Baccano! Blu-ray Complete Set
What a difference four years and a new TV make! Baccano! was a show that I simply had to have when it was first released, having fallen in love with the show through online streaming. I did manage enough patience to wait for a complete series collection, but certain that its edgy story and uncompromising visuals would never pass BBFC muster, I imported the show from the US. It did eventually get an uncut UK DVD release, but by then I had watched the US discs, and loved them. It was a great way to watch a great show, with no significant problems with the transfer... on a CRT TV. That’s how I watched my anime back then, and a 28 inch widescreen SD set is designed to show SD material, and it’s even forgiving to NTSC content. Everything looked smooth and problem free to me then.
By the time I came around to watching the show again, I had upgraded my home cinema to a large flat HD panel with Blu-ray player. This time I’d get to see what Baccano! would look like up-scaled. It does not look good at all. What may be invisible on a CRT set is glaringly obvious on a larger screen, especially when it turns out that Funimation didn’t encode the show progressively. Interlacing artefacts abound on those DVDs, and as Baccano! is a show with a lot of period detail, a fair amount of misty, dusty, and dark scenes, and a general overall haze to the show, the compression artefacts that I missed on the smaller screen are immediately apparent on a larger screen.
Baccano! is an anime of the old school, in that it is animated in SD resolution, but when I heard that Aniplex US was re-releasing the show on Blu-ray, I was more than interested. Aniplex US do premium releases of anime, selling at prices that make Western anime fans feel faint, but still look ridiculously cheap to Japanese fans. It’s a compromise to cater for the Japanese idea of a show’s value, a seemingly fair balance. They sell comparatively small numbers to a niche within a niche audience, those who will pay a premium for the shows that they really want, and where selling just a few hundred copies is still enough to turn a profit. Baccano! was released on Blu-ray in Japan, in both English and Japanese, with English and Japanese subtitles, and Aniplex imported those discs and repackaged them for the US market. They actually sold out of the big, chunky premium edition, and I wound up picking up this ‘budget’ edition instead, which collects all three discs into just one Blu-ray Amaray case.
But it is still just an SD anime, right? It can’t look much different from those DVDs, right? You’d be surprised... My opinion on the show hasn’t changed, so that text is recycled from my DVD review and presented in italics.
You’re probably expecting a narrative at this point, an explanation, summary, or brief précis of what this show is all about. You should be so lucky. It’s a continuity nightmare, a fractured narrative set across several years, featuring countless characters. It has a back and forth, piecemeal approach to storytelling that makes Tarantino movies look simple and straightforward. On the face of it, Baccano! is a Prohibition era crime story, broadly concerned with three events that link a cavalcade of characters together in unexpected ways. There is a mafia turf war in 1930, there is the Flying Pussyfoot incident a year later, and then there is a young girl’s search for her brother in 1932. Added into the mix are a bunch of immortals, and alchemists searching for the secret of eternal life, stretching all the way from the 18th Century to the 21st. And the way the narrative twists, turns, jumps back and forth, and generally has an anarchic life of its own will probably leave you breathless. But it’s a good sort of breathless.
Some of the characters you will encounter in the show are described hence.
Isaac Dian and Miria Harvent – The crazy glue that somehow holds the story together. These two petty criminals wander in and out of the narrative, always the wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time. They are thieves with a strong sense of their own importance. Isaac is the brains of the outfit, coming up with outlandish schemes and he applies his unique take on the world to all situations. He knows everything about everything, and he’s eager to share his knowledge, but Miria Harvent is the eager young space cadet who dotes on his every word. They are undoubtedly the heroes. Because they say so.
Ladd Russo and Lua Klein – Ladd is a psychopath. No really, the guy is fruit-loops, nuts, insane, one chimney short of a stack. He’s the scion of the infamous Russo crime family, but the only position he’s suited for is as an assassin, because he likes killing so much. And he does it as flamboyantly and verbosely as possible. Lua is his meek, shy and retiring girlfriend. She’s with him because he’s promised to kill her last of all. They and their group of white-suited killers are aboard the Flying Pussyfoot, non-stop from Chicago to New York, because Ladd has a hostage ransom plan that will reap the Russo family major rewards. Actually he’s on board to turn the train into a bloodbath.
Jacuzzi Splot, Nice Holystone, Nick and Donny – Jacuzzi is the head of a small time street gang, making their money by making bootleg liquor, but in a town full of mafia, that attracts the wrong sort of attention. In this case it’s the Russo family, who by killing eight of Jacuzzi’s gang invite a whole lot of vengeance. It’s why they’re on the Flying Pussyfoot, although they get more than they bargained for. The thing about Jacuzzi is that he’s afraid of everything, terrified, prone to burst into tears and cringe from the slightest provocation, and when push comes to shove, he has a set of steel balls that has him leading from the front no matter what the danger. It’s why Nice Holystone (scarred explosives fanatic), Nick and Donny are so devoted to him.
Luck, Keith and Berga Gandor – These three brothers run the Gandor crime family, and are currently having problems with their rivals, the Runoratas. It’s a small town turf war, bloody and brutal, but things spiral out of control when a ruffian named Dallas Genoard happens to wind up in the wrong place at the wrong time. With him come two bottles of hard earned and long sought after elixir, and those who want that water of life back.
Szilard Quates and Ennis – Long ago, Szilard and his fellow travellers and alchemists called forth the devil and made a bargain. They received the elixir of life, and gained immortality. The problem was that only one of their number received the secret of the elixir. The actual problem is that Szilard wasn’t the one. Since then, he’s been devoted to recreating the magic potion, stopping at nothing to achieve his aims. Ennis is the homunculus that he has created to serve him, and now, in New York 1930, he’s tantalisingly close to realising his dreams. It’s just that now is a damned inconvenient time for Ennis to start exploring her individuality and free will.
Czeslaw Meyer – An innocent looking, ten-year-old boy that is on the Flying Pussyfoot. Except he’s not so innocent, and he’s not ten years old. He’s more like 210, having been one of the travellers who made that bargain with the devil. Ever since then, he’s been wary of his fellow immortals, having seen what the lust for power leads them to, and there may just be another aboard the train. And Czeslaw will do anything, use anyone to keep himself safe.
Huey and Chane Laforet – Huey Laforet also made that original bargain, but in 1931 he’s locked away in a prison. But such a strong, powerful, and influential man has followers. The Lemures group also want to be immortal, and clad in black, disguised as musicians, they have boarded the Flying Pussyfoot, upon which the family of an influential senator are also travelling. Chane Laforet, Huey’s daughter reluctantly joins them, even though she is opposed to the hostage plan. She holds one of her father’s secrets, a secret that has literally left her dumbstruck, but once the Lemures group free Huey, they won’t need the daughter anymore.
Maiza Avaro and Firo Prochainezo – Another of those mysterious alchemists that made that dread deal with the devil, Maiza Avaro is now a member of the New York underworld, associated with the Martillo family. But he’s been keeping a secret for 200 years, a secret that many will kill for. Firo Prochainezo is his protégé, the up and coming young gangster who is about to join the Family in a big way.
Dallas and Eve Genoard – Dallas Genoard is a small time, petty, vindictive thug of a man, heir to the Genoard family, but more liable to trade on his family’s notorious name than try to make his own. He and his petty gang act as if they own the city, which would be the sort of thing that would have the real owners in stitches of laughter, were it not for his unerring ability to stick his nose just where it doesn’t belong. Eve Genoard is his kid sister, and like many kid sisters thinks her brother can do no wrong, is the perfect gentleman, and why 2 years later she is so desperately searching for him after he vanishes. It must be genetic, as even though she has the best intentions, she also winds up sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong.
The Rail Tracer – There is a legend on the railroad, of a mysterious beast that stalks trains across the length and breadth of the United States, and once it catches up to a train, no passenger is left alive. It’s a spooky ghost story of the sort that makes those lengthy trans-continental journeys just fly by, and ideal for making someone like Jacuzzi Splot cringe in terror. Except this ghost story is real, and the Rail Tracer is about to reap his way through The Flying Pussyfoot.
16 episodes of Baccano! are presented on three dual layer Blu-ray discs from Aniplex.
1. The Vice President Doesn’t Say Anything about the Possibility of Him Being The Main Character
2. Setting the Old Woman’s Qualms Aside, the Flying Pussyfoot Departs
3. Randy and Pecho Are Busy Getting Ready for the Party
4. Ladd Russo Enjoys Talking A Lot and Slaughtering A Lot
5. Jacuzzi Splot Cries, Gets Scared and Musters Reckless Valor
6. The Rail Tracer Covertly, Repeatedly Slaughters Inside the Coaches
7. Everything Starts Aboard the Advenna Avis
8. Isaac and Miria Unintentionally Spread Happiness Around Them
9. Claire Stanfield Faithfully Carries Out the Mission
10. Czeslaw Mayer is Forced to Rework His Tremble-Before-the-Spectre-of-Immortals Strategy
11. Chane Laforet Remains Silent in the Face of Two Mysterious People
12. Firo and the Three Gandor Brothers Are Felled by Assassin’s Bullets
13. Both the Immortals and Those Who Aren’t Sing the Praises of Life Equally
14. Graham Specter’s Love and Peace
15. The Delinquents That Arrive at the High Class Neighbourhood Are the Same as Always
16. Carol Realises That the Story Cannot Have an Ending
Baccano! gets a 1.78:1 widescreen transfer at 1080p resolution. Going from 30 interlaced frames per second to 24 progressive frames per second is an instant improvement, especially as the Funimation DVD wasn’t encoded progressively in the first place. You don’t have to worry about combing and judder in this release. As you would expect from an HD presentation, the colour depth is stronger than that of the DVD, although Baccano’s palette does tend to the autumnal colours, and can be drab and muted. But the colour depth and the lack of visible compression do bring out more detail in the animation, some of the background furnishings and fabrics really do show up well in this release.
Also Baccano! tends to have locations and settings that don’t deal well with compression, there’s use of a lot of hazy light, while episode 2, which introduced the Flying Pussyfoot at the platform enveloped in steam, or episode 7, set aboard the fog shrouded and rain soaked Advenna Avis, really broke the DVD compression algorithms. But the Blu-ray format handles that kind of particulate motion very well, and you don’t have to deal with compression artefacts here. Baccano! may be an SD show up-scaled to HD, but the difference between it and the DVD version, is still as drastic as the difference between a native HD show presented on DVD and Blu-ray. It is an SD show, but the upscale is sympathetically accomplished, detail maintained, while presenting character artwork with smooth lines, without aliasing or visible compression. This is the best SD upscale I have yet seen. The only nitpick might be a little digital banding around point light sources, such as candles, but even that is far less than in many native HD anime on Blu-ray.
You have the choice between PCM 2.0 Stereo English and Japanese (the English is the Funimation dub), although you may be disappointed at the lack of the 5.1 English audio from the DVD. There’s also no signs only track, not that Baccano is a show that needs one with its US setting. What you do get for the dual territory release is the choice between English and Japanese subtitles. As usual, I opted for the original language track, and was more than happy, not least because of the distinctive voice of Masaya Onosaka as Isaac Dian. Onosaka played one of my favourite characters, Vash the Stampede in Trigun, and hearing him up the anarchy and insanity for Isaac was a joy.
I sampled the dub, and personally, I thought it was something of a missed opportunity. Baccano! is set on US turf, the gangster movie is an American trope, and with such localisation in terms of accent and slang, the dub really ought to shine. And Baccano! does indeed go the extra mile when it comes to the accents and getting the slang of the era right. Except that I found it to sound like every other anime dub that Funimation produces; nothing special. Baccano’s music however really does find the tone of the period well, and it really suits the show. I did notice this time that the subtitle translation for episode 7, the one set in the past aboard the Advenna Avis wasn’t up to the subtitles for the rest of the show. It has to be written to capture the tone of the 18th Century, but the result doesn’t flow as well as the rest of the show’s subtitles.
You get three discs in a Blu-ray sized Amaray; a little fatter than normal and reinforced, one disc on a central hinged panel, and one on either face of the Amaray. The inner sleeve has some attractive art which is a little obscured behind the blue plastic. There’s a four page inlay booklet , with twelve pieces of character art on three pages, and the disc contents repeated on the rear, along with the English and Japanese credits.
The front of the sleeve art is presented on the front of the o-ring card, but the back of the sleeve carries more art, whereas the back of the o-ring has the show’s blurb and disc specs.
Each disc boots up with a page asking you to select your audio language of choice, English or Japanese. The discs then launch straight to the episodes, and you’ll have to turn on your subtitle stream at that point. Top Menu takes you to the menu screen, where everything is labelled in English and Japanese. The pop-up menu merely repeats these options.
The sole extras are on disc three, and simply amount to the show’s textless credit sequences. One more Blu-ray for which I have to hang on to the DVD version for the audio commentaries and the featurettes.
For my money, Baccano! has to be one of the best anime series to come from Japan in recent years, and given the enthusiastic raving I have applied to shows like Welcome to the N.H.K. and Darker Than Black, and more recently Princess Jellyfish, it’s really saying something. And like many of the most outstanding anime, Baccano! is surprisingly short, with a television run of just thirteen episodes, and this Blu-ray collection running to sixteen. It barely scratches the surface of the Ryohgo Narita novels from which it is adapted. As usual this gives me a dilemma, as I am a firm believer in the keep it short and sweet principle, yet would love to see more of this story in anime form.
Baccano! is also a strikingly brutal and gory anime, it’s certainly comparable with some old school titles in the level of violence and gushers of blood. When the first episode has a ten-year-old boy have his head blown off, you know that you’re in for a rough ride. Unlike those exploitative pieces of yesteryear though, Baccano! has the story and the characters to back it all up. It’s a show that doesn’t let go once it has you ensnared, and the difficulty becomes tearing yourself away. I’m still surprised that it manages to get through the BBFC unscathed, and found its natural home at Manga Entertainment.
Baccano! tempers that violence however with an interesting story and a fair amount of comedy as well. Although some might say that it makes the violence stand out to a starker degree. At the heart of it though, Baccano! is a character piece, which is why I concentrated on the characters in my introduction, rather than try to grapple with the narrative. Again, they are a fascinating bunch, with even the most reprehensible of psychopaths compelling and bizarrely attractive. Ladd Russo is a case in point, an elegant thug of a man who revels in killing, and is verbose about his predilections. This is a man who skips like a schoolgirl down a train corridor on his way to a slaughter, a man who dances in blood. It’s an over the top, freakish characterisation that really shouldn’t work, but fits right in the menagerie of freaks that is Baccano! The same sort of rationale applies to the Rail Tracer, the reaping force of nature that haunts the Flying Pussyfoot.
At the same time, we have the pure comedy and light-heartedness of Miria and Isaac, the good-natured thieves that are as dense as lead when it comes to intelligence, but with hearts of gold and a flamboyance that somehow endear all to them. They have their own little world they inhabit, and somehow this odd view of life seems to warp all that they interact with. They are very much a Laurel and Hardy pair, and as such provide the light touch that is needed to contrast Baccano’s darker moments. Then there are characters like Ennis and Czeslaw Meyer, who are much more understated and realistic in tone. Their emotional arcs stand out more than their narrative arcs, and it’s characters like these that make the show so compelling. While the psychopaths will thrill you with their extreme violence, while the comic relief will ensure that you have a smile on your face, it’s these understated characters that will put a tear in your eye.
As for the narrative structure… It’s complicated enough to tell three story arcs at once, but time is fluid here, and we jump forward and backwards within those arcs, as well as jumping from arc to arc, seemingly at random. Baccano! isn’t restrained from going further afield as well, hopping forward a few decades, and spending an entire episode back in the 18th Century as well. That single episode is no simple narrative either, as that story starts in the middle, goes back to the beginning and back and forth several times in its own twenty-minute runtime. It’s a whirlwind of information and events that you have to put together for yourself, but it is a remarkably rewarding experience, and the replay value of this set is infinite. There’s something new to appreciate every time you watch it. It’s so easy to get this sort of approach wrong, but Baccano! gets it absolutely flawless.
I just saw the television run of Baccano! originally, and this set has the three bonus episodes that were released straight to disc in Japan. The first time I saw them on DVD, I was curious to see where the story would go after being wrapped up in the first thirteen. It turns out that it wasn’t as wrapped up as I thought, as there were still plenty of loose ends to tie up. The back and forth of their earlier episodes is gone now, or rather much reduced, although there are still twists and turns and surprises. A little disappointing was the introduction of a new character, Graham Specter, who appears to be Ladd Russo redux, similarly verbose and psychopathic, and prone to swinging a skull-crushing wrench around with abandon. But it was worth it to see Chane and Rail Tracer’s story arcs resolved, to see more of Jacuzzi Splot and his gang, and of course more Isaac and Miria. Best of all is the ending, an ending that while not as punchy and memorable as the end of the television run, instead had me laughing out loudly and heartily at the appropriateness of it all.
There’s something about the Prohibition era of the US that is eternally appealing. It’s an era of the plucky urban hero against the monolithic government, the dubious romance of organised crime, and the fashion and style of the period. Apparently The Untouchables inspired Baccano’s creator, and it’s an example of cross-cultural fertilisation in that now Japan gives its own take on that era back to the US. The level of detail and authenticity makes this a rich and lush experience, although ‘Grando Central Terminal’ will haunt me for years. Baccano is one of those rare anime series that stand out from the crowd to a stunning degree. This isn’t just great anime, it’s great television as well.
I had thought that the DVD was good, but in this HD age, it really doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Even in these financially straitened times, with George Osborne’s grubby fists picking our pockets, this is one title that you really should double dip on. The Aniplex Blu-rays are still available on import, and are Region AB compatible. They look and sound sublime, and you’ll never watch those DVDs again. And if you like this style of storytelling, this particular niche within a niche of anime, then watch out for the Durarara!! Blu-rays coming this Spring. That’s another show really worth double dipping on, especially given its underspecced DVD release a few years ago, and I for one have already pre-ordered.