Another post that exists due to talking with our teen librarian Rachel! She mentioned that she’d watched “This show that starts with a B, and it’s got immortals,” to which I replied “. . . Starts with B, immortals…and it’s not Black Butler? Huh. I don’t think I know omg do you mean Baccano?” “Yeah, that one.” “See, if you’d said ‘starts with a B and has a train, I’d've known exactly which you meant!” “Oh, yeah, I guess there’s a train, too.” “…So you’re not very far in.” “Well, no, the first episode was kind of weird….”
As you may have guessed, Baccano involves a train. And some people who are immortal. And the first episode is definitely weird! But there is a very good reason for this. Like some of the other series I’ve described, the Baccano anime is just a small part of a larger fictional universe; it began as a light novel series. The story that the anime covers was lifted from one part of the novels, so the first episode is more like a box frame (i.e. that old English trope, like in Wuthering Heights where the story of Heathcliff and Cathy is couched within the story of Nelly telling their story to Lockwood) that sets up the rest of the tale, and it gets pretty highfalutin with philosophical arguments to do so. I wouldn’t say you could skip the first episode, because the non-philosophy parts introduce a lot of the characters and settings; but if you power through it, like the first couple eps of Princess Tutu, the payoff is tremendous.
So let’s set the first episode aside and move into the rest of the series. Baccano is an action/fantasy comedy, with three primary storylines and therefore three main locations. The first is, perhaps not surprisingly, on a train. The second is in 1930s Manhattan, and the third is on a ship in 1711. I’m going to try and break this down as much as is humanly possible without spoilers, but the storylines are so interwoven that even the episodes will jump between them.
Let’s start with the ship in 1711, because it’s from there that the rest of this tale spins out. A group of alchemists aboard the ship are seeking the secret of immortality, as alchemists are wont to do, and clasp on to the brilliant plan to summon a demon to give it to them. What can I say? It was the 1700s. The secret is granted in the form of an elixir, but it comes with a downside; the only way to end their immortality is by being “devoured” by another immortal, a process enacted by placing a hand on the other’s head and thinking I want to devour, which transfers all the touched person’s memories and knowledge to the touchee, and kills them in the process. One of the alchemists goes power-mad, pulls an Orochimaru, and starts murdering the others for their knowledge; the survivors manage to stop him long enough for the boat to reach port, but once they’ve realized the danger to themselves, they scatter across the globe and rarely come into contact with each other. As Highlander has taught us, with great immortality comes great paranoia.
Fast forward to Manhattan, circa Prohibition era. Because the formula of the immortality elixir was only given to one person, the one who summoned the demon (who was not the one that went on the murderous rampage), the latter alchemist has spent the last 300+ years trying to create it. Good Lord, this is starting to sound like a logic problem. I should probably be using names up in here, but I wanted to avoid that because 1) spoilers!, and 2) for serious, the Japanglish on this show is some of the most astounding I’ve ever seen. You’ll have perfectly normally named people like Eve and Dallas and Isaac running alongside people with names like Jacuzzi or Czeslaw or Szilard. I had to rely on Wikipedia to spell those last ones. Anyway, in 1930 he finally recreates the elixir–but then it promptly gets stolen by one of his minions, and then moved across the city in a series of comedic errors and turf war battles involving two startlingly bad thieves and some warring mafia families. I’m not going to say who drinks the elixir in the end (that would require names), but I will say that the alchemist never gets it back.
A year after this, another turf war has escalated to the point that one of the families involved summons home their most infamous assassin. Here’s where the train comes in. The transcontinental line he takes to travel from California to New York is also boarded by an original immortal (one from the 1711 ship), some more immortals, a reporter, a gang, the aforementioned terrible thieves, and a group of hijackers, who proceed to do what their name implies. There then follows an extensive battle between the hijackers and several of the above mentioned people; and then, like it wasn’t bloody enough, the mythic “Rail Tracer”–a monster who reportedly eats railroad passengers–joins in. It’s around this point that you think the old woman at the start of the series who pronounced that the train was cursed was definitely understating.
Writing all this out, I’m seeing where Rachel was coming from. If any of that sounds ridiculously complex, just think, this is me breaking down the storylines into their separate parts. In the anime, they’re all smooshed together, and not necessarily in order timeline-wise, either. And I just discussed the plot! This completely leaves out all the amazing characters and their interactions and complicated relationships.
The tl;dr version of this post is that Baccano! is hilarious and awesome, but you might need a flowchart while you’re watching. Or you could just rewatch it a few times! I did mention it’s hilarious, right?
I touched a little on the series’ expansive universe above, so I’ll just do a drive-by description: in addition to the original light novel series (16 volumes since 2003 and still going) and the anime, there’s an untranslated 2-volume manga, a couple drama CDs and a DS game which, alas, is also not translated. Basically the anime is the only part of the series available over here, unless you know Japanese (since, unlike DVD players, the DS is region-free, meaning you could play the Baccano game if you bought a copy from Japan). It comprises 16 episodes that ran in 2007, the last 3 of which are separate from the prior 13 and are more similar to an OVA, and was licensed for English by Funimation. The English voice acting is really good!
We don’t have Baccano! here at the library, and it’s not available in Evergreen Indiana, either (it can get pretty bloody, after all), but Hulu has all 16 episodes in the subtitled version, and Funimation has both the subtitled and the dubbed ones on its website!