Review: Durarara!! – Season 1 (2010)

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A comic action-drama about disparate groups of larger than life characters and their interwoven fate, it’s very difficult to talk about 2010’s Durarara without comparing it to its much loved prohibition-fantasy predecessor, Baccano.  Such comparisons are not entirely fair, however, as having finally finished it after a long, long hiatus, I can attest to Durarara being a very different kind of show.

Based on the books by Ryohgo Narita, Durarara‘s multi-threaded narrative overlaps a number of increasingly bizarre stories set in the urban jungle of Tokyo’s downtown Ikebukuro district.  Amongst many others, we chop and change between the three high-school students looking for a missing classmate, to the escalating rivalry between a superhuman bartender and a puckish informant, to (perhaps most iconically) the Irish Dullahan faerie reduced to working as a motorcycle courier while she searches for her missing head.

While Baccano was a period piece with a more reflective outlook, Durarara creates an idealised vision of modern Tokyo where life moves fast and excitement waits around every corner.  While the story touches on some fairly dark themes (stalking, gang violence and even vivisection gnaw at its edges), its boundless joie de vivre seems to ooze from every pore, never dwelling on anything heavy for too long, smoothly integrating its obvious fantasy elements and coping well with its ever shifting viewpoints.

Characterisation is well handled throughout, although a few quirks of Narita’s soft-hearted worldview do become apparent as the show wears on.  There is no obvious main character, but it’s the group of three teenage students who provide the ‘outside viewpoint’ for the audience to identify with. Unfortunately, they aren’t massively interesting in their own right.  While nebbishy everyman Ryugamine and retiring love-object Anri have a few unexpected skeletons in their respective closets, they, along with bleach-blonde punk Masaomi, feel like a very familiar presence and parts of the story focused mainly on them can begin to drag.

The real standouts from the sprawling cast are headless horsewoman Celty and unhinged barman Shizuo.  What could easily have been tiresome gag characters are here elevated to something rounded and likeable, with the surprisingly sociable and expressive Celty relying on text messaging and internet chatrooms as a means of communication, while honourable nutter Shizuo laments his inability to contain the Incredible Hulk-like outbursts of violence he is so prone to.

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Antagonists, however, have a slightly more awkward role in the series.  If Baccano was anything to go by, Narita clearly believes that sometimes even horrible people deserve a chance at happiness, but without that show’s darker atmosphere, the sudden redemption awaiting some of Durarara‘s less savoury characters can feel a bit undeserved.  It’s not ruinous by any means, but the sudden leap from evil to loveable is rather jarring.

Visually, the show is pleasingly crisp and bright to look at; its spiky character designs having aged well in the years since its release.  Animation is also generally good, although some of the later episodes do show an occasional lapse in quality, perhaps due to budget saving measures or use of different production studios.  Be aware as well though that, despite never showing anything too explicit, the series does contain moments of graphic, bloody violence, albeit never placed in close proximity to its more overtly comedic passages.

Part of the reason it’s taken me so long to finish Durarara is actually the reputation hoisted upon its second half.  Possibly because it draws on three separate novels for material, it has an ‘ending’ of sorts at about the half way mark, and complaints are rife that the latter part never quite recaptures the same giddy highs as the first.  This is true, as with the three teens to the forefront and a bitter gang-war brewing in the background, the story seems to lose its lightness of touch as it approaches its conclusion.  Yet, the series does still manage to coast along more than adequately on the innate charm of its cast as, even when it falters, it’s still a far more entertaining ride than many other shows are at their best.

By design, Durarara does not have the tense atmosphere nor the emotional depth of Baccano and, as such, I wouldn’t consider it an outright classic in the way that series was.  If you can accept it for the wild, yet whimsical ride it is, however, there is much to enjoy here, with a diverse array of characters and stories that should appeal to a very broad audience.

The first series of Durarara is available on UK BD from Anime Limited or can be streamed legally (along with the belated second season) via Crunchyroll.

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