Monday, July 24, 2017

Baccano! 1931 The Grand Punk Railroad: Local

Baccano! was a rare find for me to stumble over in anime. I watched all 12 episodes (and the 3 bonus ones) in about three days in Japanese, and then I rewatched it immediately afterwards in English. While I often do my second viewing in English, usually the second viewing, if it happens at all, it's months or years down the line. Baccano! scratches a very particular itch I have though.

Namely, period piece mafia and magic. In this case, the magic part is centered around alchemists and immortals.

For a good long time I despaired of ever reading the rest of the Baccano! series. The anime only covered the four books, and the first one had been published in 2003, so it wasn't the hot new stuff anymore. But I loved the setting, the nutty characters, and especially the way the anime made everything happen at once. I was crazy jealous of the writers on that show. They managed to braid together three different time periods across four books so that revelations in one time had an impact on the viewer's understanding in another, even if chronologically they were taking place earlier.

Fortunately, though it took thirteen years, Yen Press picked up the Baccano! series for translation and I've slowly been grabbing the volumes. They haven't passed the threshold of the anime yet, but I'm hoping they're successful enough to do so. Amazon has at least volume 6 set up so far and they're very lovely hardbacks.

Author Ryohgo Narita's work is not quite as crazy as the anime. He does do incredibly short scenes from time to time so the reader knows everyone's positioning before all hell breaks loose, but each of the three main time periods in the anime is one book (with the exception of the Flying Pussyfoot storyline in 1931, which is two books) rather than jumping across time periods in the same book.

That's not to say everything is told linearly, he loves to jump around, but the jumps are more localized.

I'm currently in the middle of Baccano! 1931 The Grand Punk Railroad: Local, which is the second book and the start of the two-part journey of the Flying Pussyfoot train. In pure Ryohgo Narita fashion, it starts with the epilogue to give the reader a viewpoint of the two minor characters who have clean up the mess everyone else has left behind, and has five prologues to set up all the different factions that are about to get involved.

Some of it is over the top ridiculous, but that's part of the appeal. If the premise is that four different parties (five if you consider the hidden character in the fifth prologue) board the Flying Pussyfoot train, each with their own agenda, then from there it's just a matter of watching all the chaos play out. All the parties are miscreants of some kind or another and naturally fall into conflict.

But part of the fun is in the details that slip in.

The thing is, Ryohgo Narita is a Japanese author writing for a Japanese audience, so he does spend some time explaining things that probably come off as pretty obvious to an American reader, but then at the same time, it's clear that Narita has done his research and he likes the time period. One of the characters, while beating someone to a pulp, compares himself unfavorably to Jack Dempsey, who was popular boxer in the 1920s.

Narita isn't blind to the fact that there were minorities all over the place during the time either. Though there aren't any in the main cast, unless they show up after the anime, there are multiple Chinese supporting characters and Jacuzzi Splot's gang includes a Mexican member.

There a good line where two of the side characters (one Chinese, the other Irish, and totally on board with each other) take a minor character to task on the train for belittling them as immigrants. While manhandling him out of the dining car, they tell him that one half of the transcontinental railroad was built by the disenfranchised Irish and the other half by the disenfranchised Chinese, so between the two of them, they have a claim to everything on the railroad, including that guy's life. (And considering they're also gang members, that's not a point the guy really wants to be arguing about.)

I doubt Jon and Fang will ever be regulars in the series, but this totally made me laugh. It's a nice bit of history that not only educates the readers (because I expect the average Japanese person wouldn't know that), but also defines the characters. It's a pity this part never made it into the anime.

I'm about halfway through so far, and then I hope to move on to the next volume. The series isn't always realistic, but when it isn't, it's usually in the service of fun so I'm inclined to forgive. It's clear when Narita is doing his research so if he wants to start with off with a three way battle between cultists, a mafia gang, and a band of delinquents while throwing in a couple of delusional ne'er-do-wells, I'm not going to argue. It's half the fun.