TV Review: Durarara!!

Durarara!! is the latest anime addition to [adult swim]’s Saturday night, a relic of a bygone era when anime was a powerhouse and InuYasha and Cowboy Bebop aired two or three times every night.  Since those halcyon days, [adult swim] has pared down their anime offerings to proven hits like Bleach and Fullmetal Alchemist and ambitious, higher production series they think they can sell.

What is Durarara!! about?  That’s kind of difficult to say.  It’s described variously as a slice of life series, an action comedy, a supernatural/psychological thriller, but it’s not exactly any of these.  Let’s start with the premise.  Mikado Ryugamine is a shy, soft-spoken boy from the country who transfers to a prep school in Ikebukuro, a glitzy commercial district in Tokyo.  He hangs out with his wisecracking childhood pal, Masaomi Kida, and Anri Sonohara, a cute girl and fellow class rep.  We follow them on their adventures in not-super-safe Ikebukuro, running into punks and street gangs, including one called Dollars, an internet-based gang that’s like if Anonymous actually did things as opposed to posting gross pics on Scientology websites.  Oh, and there’s a headless ghost girl with a scythe.

That’s right, one of the other supporting characters is Celty Sturluson, a Dullahan who has literally lost her head and is working in Japan as an underground courier for gangs and crooks in exchange for leads on where to find it.  For an ominous folkloric spirit, Celty’s not too bad though, and the first couple episodes have her foiling an attempted abduction.

The show has a large cast of characters, and it tends to show events from a lot of different perspectives.  It’s like a soap opera, but without an intense focus on relationships.  It’s like a mystery, but without clues or an overarching conflict.  It’s a lot easier to say what Durarara!! isn’t than to say what it is.  Hopefully the plot will become more clear as it unfolds.

The character designs are varied and appealing.  The show looks kind of like Trinity Blood or Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, in that it’s top shelf animation work with a muted color palette.  Prep school uniforms are always fun to look at, and the decision to give the aforementioned headless girl, Celty, a cat-eared motorcycle helmet was an inspired one.  The dub voice cast also features a number of veterans, which is always a nice touch.

Durarara!! is reminiscent of two very different shows [adult swim] has aired before, Paranoia Agent and FLCL.  All three shows focus on the trivial and mundane experiences of Japanese daily life to set up a contrast for the more surreal and fantastic elements they introduce later.  But while Paranoia Agent used this set up for dread and horror, and FLCL for whimsy and absurdity, it’s unclear exactly what Durarara!! is going for.  There are fun high-school bits, but there’s also dark stuff like suicide pacts and gang abductions.  While anime series often trade subtlety for well-defined premises (Kekkaishi is a particularly good example of that, for better or worse), a few more obvious genre set pieces wouldn’t hurt it.

I didn’t write this review as an Animation Wednesday because I’m not sure if I’d recommend Durarara!!– yet.  The potential is there, but frankly, there’s not enough there yet for a solid judgement one way or the other.  There’s plenty of individual things to like here, but so far it lacks the kind of hook that pulls me back weekly for a show.  It also includes sequences involving online discussions of events, presumably between the characters, but the various screen names and unclear levels of understanding of how well those involved know each other render them nigh-impenetrable.  All in all, it’s an interesting start, and I hope it goes somewhere good, because the potential is there.

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