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Anime Review: Durarara!! August 11, 2014

Posted by navycherub in Anime, Review.
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Durarara!! is pretty addicting urban legend suspense stuff. It intimidates at first by having such a large cast, but each and every one of the characters is cool in a modern, hip way and also not at all complex, making them both easy to digest and to quickly like. This works in its favor for the most part, because Ikebukuro is not only the setting for Durarara!!, it is also essentially the story and the main character. So, the show presents the city to you in pieces, specifically, the cast, whose stories mingle, collide, and combine in an interesting and exciting fashion, but it eventually loses itself in the struggles of only a few, when the beauty lies in its many. This review contains spoilers, so heads up.

Despite the large cast, we can start with a single character. If I had to choose one character who does a good job embodying these ideas, it would be, beyond a doubt, Orihara Izaya. Izaya spends the entirety of the show manipulating the people around him. His troublesome presence is known to every single character in the show, so his reach clearly goes far and his actions connect him in one way or another to everyone else. This works in small ways – Izaya gave Kyohei the nickname he hates – as well as larger ones – Izaya enables Namie’s control over her brother and the situation that implies. He works creating chaos in the shadows just as often as he parades around on the street causing trouble. This succeeds in multiple ways. First of all, it makes it completely believable that he would have enough intel to work as an information broker of sorts. It also keeps him as a looming, tangible threat that is always looming in any given situation. And, despite this great power he seems to wield, he is pretty grounded as yet another person, yet another player in the big game, albeit the one who is best suited to manage such a hub of life. This makes him a great villain who really takes full advantage of his role, but he also embodies the ideas that hold Durarara!! together as a narrative – the meaning and consequences of a large, intertwined series of relationships.

The way the show opens up is with this premise close to heart. The first character we are introduced to is Mikado, who is the new kid in town – he knows next to nothing about the city, so he spends the episode learning about it. Who does the teaching? Well, none other than an old friend of his, Kida, who has definitely been changed significantly by living here. In fact, that’s how we are introduced to him – not by who he is, but how he definitely isn’t the same after living in Ikebukuro. The unique experience of living in Ikebukuro is expressed in the episode through everything that occurs. The color gangs can be seen loitering in the background, Simon’s unique personality accidentally intimidates and confuses Mikado, and of course the more experienced Kida is able to control the situation. Even characters themselves are established as parts of Ikebukuro before people – Mikado sees and hears Shizuo’s rampage and sees Celty with his own eyes but as the resident urban legend-turned-real and not as a person. And the episode goes on like that, moving from set piece to set piece really characterizing nothing except for the city itself. It happens in the second episode, but when Izaya is taunting Kamichika as she contemplates suicide, the strongest imagery given in the entire episode is the blood stain on the ground – a permanent fixture of Ikebukuro, forever marking more pieces of the wide and untold story of the town.

Ikebukuro itself, though, is a smaller, mostly self-contained way for the show to express information culture, and Durarara!! takes full advantage of that, too. Rumors, for example, are a huge, common way for the plot to move and for characters to learn about their surroundings, such as the Headless Rider and the Dollars. Technology, therefore, works in Durarara!! as both a stylistic choice and as an extension of its theme. Having more information leads to secrets becoming even more important: Kamichika finds out about her father’s cheating, Mikado doesn’t know Kida was the leader of the Yellow Scarves (and vice-versa for the Dollars), Seiji doesn’t know that his sister is lying to him about where Celty’s head is, and so on. Izaya as a villain works simply by relaying and manipulating information to cause chaos. The characters talk and exchange information on the internet with each other, most of the time not even knowing that they know each other outside of the internet, creating both an interesting dynamic between them and giving them each yet another persona to adopt. This, by the way, is the coolest part about combining both the setting of a single city and the plot device of gangs – the characters can use technology to interact without knowing it, and it isn’t at all far fetched that they just happen to all know each other one way or another because the Dollars as seen in the show are exclusively an Ikebukuro “gang”.

What all this means for the characters is that keeping them simple is very much an effective choice. If they tried to have too much complexity, they would stop being pieces to manipulate and instead become the story itself, and the show would lose focus. For the most part, Durarara!! avoids making this mistake. Instead, they are each crafted to be natural elements of their environment that don’t need much explaining to believe. We learn about their pasts, but this is used to explain how living in Ikebukuro has affected them, which is completely in-theme with the rest of the show since Durarara!! wants to paint Ikebukuro and contemporary culture as being a powerful, unique experience, and that no one who experiences it stays the same, for better or worse.

However, this isn’t to say that they aren’t entertaining in their own right. The stories and drama that holds Ikebukuro together are, after all, caused by the clashes and conflicts of the characters. On top of that, television is a serial medium tends to find success by offering characters and situations that draw in the viewer and give them a reason to come back for more. Durarara!!’s quickfire style of introducing characters and establishing their personalities and roles to the viewer works very much in favor of capturing the viewer’s attention. The thing that really captures the viewer, making Durarara!! a truly addictive show, is how it never lets your first impressions match reality. In other words, a character’s immediately apparent traits are met equally with the growing sense of suspense that come with the secrets you know they have.

The theme of secrets works wonderfully in how the show manages to successfully pull off suspense and surprise. Successful suspense doesn’t work by trying to set things up and eventually reveal them to be true, which is where a lot of stories go wrong. The viewer is aware enough to put the pieces together themselves and so they won’t be surprised when it turns out that they were right. It just isn’t a satisfactory experience when so much time is wasted on a surprise you saw coming from a mile away. One of the real tricks to suspense is for the writer to understand this, though – the viewer isn’t stupid. They put things together for themselves long before you can surprise them. This leads to some solutions to the problem, some good, some bad. Here’s a good solution: trick the viewer into thinking they have all the answers and pull the rug at the last moment. You meet Celty – she doesn’t have a head. Very quickly after that, you meet Mika, who mysteriously has a scar lining her neck. A bit later, you find out that Celty is in Ikebukuro because she can sense that her head is there. Mika has Celty’s head. The show gives you just enough information to draw your own, completely logical conclusions about the way things are, but the funny thing about information is, you can’t really ever have enough of it.

Mika never lost her head. It isn’t Celty’s. You’ve been onboard Shizuo’s ruse cruise all along. On top of this, the viewer is rewarded with more information about other plot points and is in general satisfied by their reward for all that build up. Even if you somehow aren’t surprised by this reveal it is still creative and uses the plot elements built up to it very efficiently. It’s a good moment and shows understanding of the relationship between the viewer and the creator. Durarara!! has a good amount of that relationship attention, too.

By this point, the choice to only give detail to the foreground characters is something the viewer is very aware of. It is noticeable in almost every scene, after all. Using that as a launching pad, director Omori Takahiro’s understanding of the style and ideas behind Durarara!! is really shown off. Throughout the entire show, background characters are portrayed as grey silhouettes for the most part. This, of course, plays the role it always does when used well – it saves some time and money, keeps the visuals uniform, and guarantees focus on the foreground characters. But in the scene in question, when Mikado raises his phone and sends the mass text to the Dollars, the grayed out characters fill out a few at a time in a wave of color, getting the message across without a word: from a plot sense, everyone is in the Dollars, the Dollars are actually Ikebukuro itself, but also, the main characters aren’t special in their secret keeping and information lifestyle. It almost makes up for episode 2 being the only other episode where that idea is given the time of day, too.

Speaking of Omori, his sense of timing in this show combined with Yoshimori Makoto’s excellent soundtrack makes for some very stylish and striking moments, and it is easy to see why this show is so easy to love in that sense.

Durarara!! doesn’t stop at the drama in finding useful ways to utilize the characters in getting across its message and style, though. It also gives quite a few characters the chance to narrate episodes, switching characters between and occasionally even during episodes. This is a simple yet effective way of expressing that the whole picture of Ikebukuro can’t really be seen by any one individual. There are some repeats, but all in all most of the major characters get a shot at narrating. It is unfortunate, though, that most of the narrators are omniscient, knowing plenty of information their matching character really shouldn’t be privy of, so having different narrators rarely actually changes the way things are seen or interpreted.

Unfortunately Durarara!!’s most satisfying moments in the last two episodes of the first half are also the point where it drops the ball and seems to lose its grasp on what made it special and fun. This reveal is executed near perfectly and feels as good as it should considering every episode before it was straight build-up without many if any real chances for the viewer to feel the weight of suspense lifted even for a moment. However, the sense of mystery and mystique is abandoned in the second half. The idea of slowly leaking a mix of legitimate and misleading plot points is thrown out in a fashion much like the scene where Izaya burns his board game.

That board was shown many times and pretty hyped up as eventually meaning something greater than “the three kinds of games are the three teenagers!” so literally burning it is pretty symbolic in a bad way. Remember how I mentioned there are a few ways to deal with knowing that your audience is smart enough to play connect the dots with your set pieces? Well, in the second half of the show, Durarara!! loses its edge and the suspense becomes both less interesting and less satisfying. About half of the second part of the show is spend on the Slasher, something that was briefly brought up earlier in the show as yet another anomaly of Ikebukuro.

A good place to start; not a sudden new scenario, yet not enough is known about it to make it uninteresting. The problem lies, of course, in execution. The show spends a lot of time talking about the Slasher, showing her killing and terrorizing citizens, but none of it actually points us to anything else we know except for a vague sense that the person behind the incidents has issues with their parents. And we wouldn’t even get this impression if it wasn’t thrown at us unceremoniously that the spammer in the Dollars chat room uses a handle that matches the name of the blade the Slasher uses. That leads us to Anri, who is lonely, mysterious, and in general an enigma as far as the viewer is concerned And we’re pretty sure it isn’t Kamichika, because while she did have issues with her parents, we got a good look at her daily life before, and she seems to have come to terms with her situation. So the episodes go on and on, eventually leading us to the unsurprising and uncreative reveal of, yes, Anri was the slasher. Not very gratifying from the slow and uninteresting beginning to the whimper of an end.

Now, there is one nice thing this arc includes, which is the subplot of the reporter Shuji Niekawa. He and his story are well crafted to both match the themes of the arc and the style and purpose of Durarara!! itself. His job gives him an excuse to interview the many denizens of Ikebukuro, giving the only real showcase of community and being in the Slasher story that made the first half of the show special. His concerns about his family also provide for useful tone complimenting drama without introducing more than a single character and without deviating from the ongoing plot even an inch. It really works, and I wish there was more of it.

Unfortunately, as the Slasher arc ends, the writer decides there is no way to hide the final reveal of the three teenagers and simply dumps on the viewer the cruel fact that Kida used to be the leader of the Yellow Scarves. Now, to give credit where credit is due, this was actually nicely set up. The early episodes link Kida with the gangs in noticeable ways. Kida has an unnatural hatred for the color gangs, yet he is never truly afraid of them. He has also had a lot of troublesome run-ins with Izaya thanks to his impressionable girlfriend Saki. Also, he is frequently associated with the color yellow. Even the most obvious instance of this, his hair color, isn’t a coincidence – upon the reveal of his connection to the Yellow Scarves it is pretty reasonable to look back at his comment about dying his hair since being in Ikebukuro and seeing those things as connected events.

So, before this reveal, it is pretty easy to come to the conclusion that Kida was once involved with the gangs before Mikado moved to the city. The kicker here comes in his position as the head of an entire gang. This is all good and would have totally worked, but it was missing a pretty important part of suspense – the suspense. Kida’s past was given a touch of focus in the Slasher arc via his past with Saki, but it was hardly the focus, meaning that there was not a substantial enough of a tonal buildup to the reveal to make it feel like it meant anything. Really a sad waste, considering the good amount of effort putting into foreshadowing it.

This problem means that the second half of Durarara!! loses a lot of charm, namely, the excitement that comes with suspense and the satisfactory twists that comes with them. There is no longer the sense that you have to see the next episode to find out more, and also, the atmosphere of Ikebukuro being some grand, dangerous, mysterious place is given way too little focus. The show just plops along slowly and without flair until it finally ends, without fanfare or a solid return to its roots. Even so, the sense that Ikebukuro is a big place filled with charismatic, interesting people meeting and interacting never completely leaves the show, which is why it keeps its charm and keeps the viewer coming back until the very end.

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