Sunday, September 9, 2012

Anime review: Durarara!!

Mikado Ryugamine recently moved to Ikebukuro to attend school with his longtime friend Masaomi Kida. The two kept in contact with one another via a chat room during the years they were apart, and now that Mikado is living in the big city, Masaomi lets his fun-loving side off the chain as he gives his friend a prime tour of the area. He points out all the different people in Ikebukuro that Mikado should consider either befriending or staying as far away from as possible. When a girl named Anri Sonohara catches Mikado's eye, the two boys sport a friendly rivalry over her. Much of what is covered in the first episode seems relatively normal; akin to slice-of-life anime. But it quickly becomes apparent that there are greater forces at work in Ikebukuro - some human in origin, others not.

There are two major story arcs in Durarara!! and one minor one that comes into play during the last few episodes as a means to wrap everything up. The first arc is primarily centered around Celty, the headless rider, as she is viewed by nearly everyone in Ikebukuro as a sort of urban legend. Many have seen her for a brief moment as she speeds by on her motorcycle, but only a select few like Shizuo Heiwajima and her love interest Shinra know anything about her. While Celty is concerned first and foremost with recovering her lost head, her actions indirectly influence those around her. This formula allows the main trio of Mikado, Masaomi, and Anri to round out effectively, and also introduce the supporting cast including Russian sushi chef Simon, former Blue Squares gang members Kadota, Walker, Erika, and Saburo, as well as the complicated relationship shared between Mikado's classmate Seiji and Mika, a girl who is obsessed with him.

Whereas the first story arc sprinkles the fantasy elements throughout, it primarily presents a fictional look at life in Ikebukuro, with a gradual shift from the everyday school and work routine to the influx of gang activity. The second arc explores said gang activity more in-depth, and things eventually come to a head between the Dollars, the Yellow Scarves, and a third group tied to an elusive slasher. There is a much heavier emphasis on dark fantasy elements, and Celty becomes less of a plot device and more of a fully realized character as she wrestles with letting go of her past to lead a relatively normal, human life with Shinra. The pacing slows down, but for the benefit of storytelling. The pool of characters shrinks a bit, with most of the supporting cast taking a backseat to Mikado, Masaomi, Anri, and Celty.

Throughout the entire series, Izaya, an information broker, is shown playing a hodge-podge board game that combines Shogi, Checkers, and Chess onto a single board. Izaya never plays against anyone but himself, and the pieces are clearly meant to represent the major players and gangs in Ikebukuro. Izaya prides himself on his ability to manipulate people and relishes in the results of their interactions. Early on, it is implied that he is at the center of everything, but just what he hopes to accomplish is never fully explained. Near the halfway point of the series, the story seems to direct the focus toward one valuable interest, but as this point is reconciled shortly thereafter just what exactly Izaya gained from the whole scenario is not so much as even hinted at. Thankfully, the other characters see impressive development and stories that come full circle. While some are written out long before the final episode, there is a sense of satisfaction that comes with the closing of each of these individual subplots.

Durarara!! has some solid animation throughout. Environments tend to be heavily shaded, while character models are bright and colorful. Crowds in the background are usually rendered as grey silhouettes with black outlines, unless a large gathering is important to a scene. While this might seem a bit lazy on the part of the animators, it keeps the focus on the main events at hand. As a whole, the animation presents a nice balance of realistic and stylized views of Ikebukuro. The soundtrack is nicely varied, with some loud and jazzy tunes accompanying Shizuo's fights and quiet themes of suspense building the atmosphere of uncertainty about Izaya. A few of the songs are used a tad too frequently, and it would have been nice to hear some variations of songs like the slasher's theme.

Durarara!! does well to balance a number of different genres and as a result carries a unique air about it. There are so many characters at play, but each has their own important place in the big picture, and for the most part they are all quite likeable. Though the story is paced well and most plot points are resolved before the finale, there are a couple of major points left ambiguous, and it feels like the creative staff could have made one more episode to clear those off the record. Still, Durarara!! is a nice blend of real world issues and fantasy elements, and never loses its identity as a fun-filled series.

My rating: 8.25 (out of 10)

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