One thing I promised myself when I started this document is that I’d write about this series. After all, I love Baccano so much, it shouldn’t be that hard to just continue that same thread of language, right? Those words are the ones I put down in 2018, after I finished putting the first draft of my Baccano document together, thinking it would be swift and simple to follow up with words about Durarara!!
Durarara!! is a light novel series, still ongoing, by one Ryohgo Narita, the author of Baccano! that brings his same style of interconnected, high-concept fantastic urban fantasy together that made that series hum. While the light novels afford a narrative to be densely packed and explored from a dozen angles, an anime has not the same luxury. In Baccano! this was dealt with by framing the story as a reconstruction of disparate history by a third party trying their hardest to put all the conflicting elements of a story together, and the freewheeling, achronic order of the narrative as it bulleted around these points was more about showing the ways characters’ behaviour contrasted across time, then showed the ways those differences could be resolved. Durarara!! instead, as an anime, is a much more sensibly, a sort-of-linear story that instead handle its cast of sixteen jillion characters by ricocheting around them at high speed and making the ways they bounce off one another more about short, sharp impacts and momentary insights into characters than long, steady progression in any one character’s life.
An upshot of this is that you tend to really only see the inner life of a character once or twice in the season; Celty, for example, even while clearly a main character, is only the focal narrator for an episode or two, and most of the rest of the time you see her, it’s because other characters are focusing their attention on what she’s doing while they are the narrator. This creates a wonderful sort of constant dual-lensing, where characters will often express an opinion of another character, and both what they express and how it jives with other things we’ve heard other characters express all weave together. Sometimes it’s exactly what you think: Celty is pretty much yes, an actual fucking Dullahan, and she’s a very cool, slightly sweet monster catgirl. On the other hand, other characters are seen by people who aren’t paying attention to them, and then they reveal hidden depths when that gets contrasted with their own self-image when they narrate their own story.
Really, identity, and chosen identity is one of the things that makes this whole series tick. When you have a cast of thirty characters or so, each of whom gets some degree of focal attention, you have a lot of room to look at how those characters express their identity and how that relates to them. This also means you have characters who have very specific, very striking affect that is then referenced in subsequent examinations of who they choose to be or how they look relates to that. The most normal looking characters are often the characters with hidden depths, of course, because what’s the fun otherwise, but there’s an extra dimension here of a shared anonymised narrator.
Holy heck I’ve gotten a good way through this without explaining just what Durara!! is about.
It’s an urban fantasy story that ‘focuses’ ha ha, on a single prefecture and things that are prominent there. This includes a turf war between two gangs that gets interrupted by a third gang, a Dullahan on a motorcycle with a scythe made of shadows, the strongest man in the universe who dresses as a bartender, someone trying to cause Ragnarok to avoid his own fear of dying, at least two people obsessed with Sexualised Safe Decapitation (giving), a back-alley doctor who overshares his porn habits, a mind-controlling sword that turns people into psychic zombies, and then framing all of this is semi-regular conversations on an anonymous message board between all the characters in the show, where one of the details is they don’t know who they’re talking to.
This means you have this layering of identity. First, you have a character; then you have the way that character describes themselves; then you have that character, described by another character from the outside, based on the same information; then you have that same character expressing their opinions on a message board anonymously; then you have you, your interpretation choosing which of the anonymous characters passing these opinions on the character at base.
Naturally, this can mean a lot of what’s going on with a character that’s never explicitly stated can be incredibly obscure! That’s really interesting! It means that a character may have a very well-recognised behaviour from the outside, but until you see them from the inside you may never realise what their reasoning is. Are they withdrawn? Are they extroverted? Do they control their identity, or is it controlled away from them?
There’s a little thing, like, I wouldn’t use it as a thesis point, and I understand it’s more prominent in the books than in the anime, but where the issue of identity, performance and control comes up, there are a few characters who explore the ways that our race is projected onto us by others. Simon, who is Russian and black, explains ways that he has very limited work opportunities, and how that makes him care more about the jobs he’s got, because losing them is a big problem.
Similarly, there’s Walker, and Erika. Walker is biracial – he’s a part-American, hence his name being Walker, which is shown in the text to be in katakana, not hiragana. Basically his name, as depicted, is depicted in ‘foreign language letters,’ which for those not versed in Japanese racism, means that there are whole ranges of jobs he can’t get or apply for and expect to succeed, which further pushes him into the marginalisation of the gang life. Erika is not biracial – she’s Japanese, and her name is not just represented by hiragana, but by kanji. She’s his best friend, and she’s really into shipping and manga (and in a gay way) and so is Walker. These two characters just can’t move in conventional circles the way that other characters do, but you need to be aware of the identities of the fujoshi and the way Walker is ‘white’ to Japanese readers, and once again, we’re dealing with characters who have an identity that isn’t under their control.
There’s more to it of course; Izaya’s grappling with his fears that shape who he is, while trying to convince everyone he’s not afraid, Shizuo’s identity is determined by outbursts of his temper at the unfairness of the world, Kida’s unwillingness to represent himself honestly results in a lot of the fundamental difficulties of the whole plot, and Anri is seen as being a very normal girl, and you find out just how much she isn’t, not just because of what’s happened to her but because how she’s neuroatypical.
This series owns bones and this is done without even mentioning the extremely cursed sentence that the Dollars are if gangs were a blockchain.
Durara!! is a great series, more straightforward than Baccano! with a lot more examination of the same theme over and over in a large cast of characters. The designs are nice, the characterisation is engaging, the content warningy stuff isn’t used to leap out and surprise you like ‘BOOM SQUICK!’ and the music rules.