#1 The 1930s gangster setting
Baccano! is largely set in prohibition-era America and acts as an anime love letter to the traditional mafia story. Tommy-gun wielding thugs in fancy suits, hidden speakeasies, dinky old-timey cars, those gorgeous 1930s streets, it has it all and more.
As a fan of mafia stories, I felt right at home in Baccano!‘s shot at one. I was similarly into the first half of Gungrave, but I feel this show does it even better; thanks to a sublime dubbing effort that makes the characters very convincing and the jazzy soundtrack that fits the era perfectly. While both anime have a supernatural twist to them, the one in Baccano! works much better in conjunction with the gangster theme, whereas Gungrave famously plunged headfirst into edgy sci-fi drama for the second half of its runtime.
Baccano! does some time-hopping of its own, but generally stays in and around the 1930s with only a few, brief exceptions that make sense in the context of the story.
#2 Narita’s philosophy on storytelling
Narita’s storytelling isn’t exactly the easiest to follow and it certainly convinced me to put off watching Baccano! for a long time. To put it simply, Narita is obsessed with non-linearity and meta-commentary.
The story is framed as the vice-president of a newspaper and his assistant discussing the events of a 1932 train robbery. They are trying to ascertain where the story of this robbery truly begins and who is its main character. It soon turns out that neither question can be answered.
In practice, this that means the story of the train robbery is told disjointedly. It switches between the perspectives of 3 different criminal organizations trying to rob it at the same time, the wife and daughter of a senator, a spy for an information broker, a mythical monster slaughtering its way through the train, a duo of hapless burglars, and a little, immortal boy who tries to manipulate all the others.
This comes on top of flashbacks to various earlier points in time that come with entirely different characters, as well as a series of plot-important specials that also feature new cast members. It wouldn’t be amiss to call the story labyrinthine and it’s daunting to start on, but the thing with Narita is that there is a special kind of satisfaction to seeing the story click into place. Seeing the same events trigger from different perspectives also make the story easy to keep up with and you soon get a feel for what storylines are important and which are just set-dressing. This, in turn, also makes the anime very rewatchable, as you then get to pay more attention to characters and events that you filtered out the first time through.
I honestly don’t know how the man does it. Bacanno! is such a complex, non-traditional story, and yet he manages to tell it in such a way that it just naturally starts making sense. That alone makes it worth studying for any budding writers out there.
#3 The quest for immortality
An important throughline for the story is an event back on a ship in the 18th century. A cult of alchemists was granted immortality by the devil, but only one man walked away with the knowledge of how to reproduce its effect. The eldest man in the cult was enraged by his unwillingness to share it and dedicated his life to discovering the truth.
Several of the people onboard the train in 1932 are either these immortal alchemists 200 years later or people who have gained immortality themselves, which is a fun little mystery to uncover. It also plays a major role in the flashbacks to 1931 and 1930, wherein the elderly alchemist comes close to creating an elixer for immortality only to run into trouble with the mafia.
It’s a whole story that plays out besides the main storyline on the train, which is great for providing backstory as well as bringing in some variety. It’s nice to jump around between the claustrophobic battle on the train, the streets of Chicago, and the boat back in 17-something.
#4 A suitable amount of violence
While the animation style seems pleasantly atmospheric and inviting, Baccano! wastes no time in establishing that its mafia theme is more than just set-dressing. Already in the first episode it shows implied torture and a character having their fingers cut off with a knife, and it only intensifies from there.
Emphasis is on the “suitable” part of this argument. The gore is depicted very visually and shows more than many other anime would, such as a fistfight where one of the fighters keeps punching way beyond the point where the other guy is little more than a mangled corpse. Another scene that really stood out was a beheading with actual bone showing, but these scenes are not too frequent or in your face. This helps it maintain the shock value while also making sure that gore doesn’t become too much of a focus, as with Elfen Lied or the heavily-censored Umineko.
A cool effect is the way the immortal characters mentioned above spring back to life. They get torn to ribbons, but then all the blood slithers back into their bodies and dismembered parts click back into place. It’s a neat little spectacle and leads to some very memorable scenes.
#5 Isaac & Miria
Contrasting the rough criminal life and frequent bloodbaths, we got Isaac and Miria. Two romantic thieves who have wild justifications for why their crimes are fantastic acts of benevolence.
They are comedic relief character that have gotten tangled up into the very core of the story, making them major players in a conflict they don’t understand at all. It’s very amusing to have these very serious events unfold, only for Isaac and Miria to pop in and wildly misinterpret everything.
These are honestly some of the best comedic relief characters in anime. Their energy and antics constantly catches you off guard and they hilariously set some of the most important plot twists into motion without ever realizing it.
#6 Fantastic character designs
The look and feel of anime draws a lot of people to the medium, but it doesn’t always fit with every setting. A 1930s mafia drama would look strange with a standard assortment of pretty anime boys and girls as its stars, but an anime full of old geezers wouldn’t be appealing either. Baccano! manages to strike a nice balance and benefits from both the great character design, as well as Narita’s fantastic characterization.
There are certainly some pretty anime boys in there, most prominently Firo and Jacuzzi, but this balances out against a cast of likable (young) adult characters. Their eccentric personalities keep these older characters appealing and anime-like, most prominently Isaac & Miria, but special mention also goes to Maiza, Gustav, Jacuzzi’s underlings, and Claire. You even got fantastic adult villains like the elderly alchemist Szilard or the psychotic gangster Ladd Russo.
The show also features interesting characters of color that are, in spite of the historic era, treated with dignity. Especially the newspaper employee and secret information broker Elean. It even does child characters well, with the curious assistant Carol being the trigger for the entire story to be told, and young Czesław being a major player during the train robbery.