Light Novel Corner – Baccano! Vol. 1 The Rolling Bootlegs

     To start from the very beginning, on this blog I’ve been mainly sharing my thoughts on various anime and just occasionally glossing over some manga. Recently this trend was challenged by a random post about a JRPG. Still the main focus remains anime and it only happens that sometimes I feel a need to share my opinions not about a particular anime itself but about its sources. It’s no secret that nowadays it’s almost exceptional to get an original anime – manga adaptations have been an ongoing trend for a long while but another similar tradition hasn’t been represented on this blog in the slightest, and that is the popularity of light novels. Without much search it seems to me that light novels aren’t that widely talked about, so there’s a niche that could be filled. On the other hand, reading isn’t something you can do easily while eating your breakfast or multitasking in other ways so the audience of light novels isn’t that big. Usually the interest declines once the anime adaptation ends (more often than not in not the most satisfying way) and a statistical person even with the best wishes to know “what happened after that?” gets his hopes smashed by unavailable (or available but in a pretty bad fan-translational way) and often enormously long series that keeps growing every second month or so. Recently there has been some quite convenient improvements in the sense of availability but it’s still a big investment to get into any light novel series. So yeah, the niche seems to be here and as someone who doesn’t shy away from a decent read, I thought that giving an opinion or two about some quite well known (or not) light novel series book-by-book wouldn’t hurt, especially if you as myself want to know what really happened next, even more so if an anime adaptation left you unsatisfied. And even among rather well-received anime adaptations I doubt there has been many series that fans craved to be translated more than Baccano!.


Author Ryohgo Narita
Illustrator Katsumi Enami
Genres Action, Historical, Supernatural
Published 2003 (JP) / 2016 (EN)
Pages 224
.

     The first volume of the series, subtitled The Rolling Bootlegs, wastes little time to throw the reader right into New York City of 1930. As expected, gang business takes a prominent place in such a setting but on the other hand it’s balanced by other elements, such as unexpected inclusion of things like an elixir of immortality. Probably a third of the appeal of the story comes from the fact that such a weird combination of ideas actually was made to work. The Rolling Bootlegs basically examines the idea of what would happen if alchemy truly existed in the Prohibition era.

   Still, it’s not the story that makes Baccano! unique. The Rolling Bootlegs has quite a few quite diverse characters and naturally quantity and quality are interchangeable. The characterization is minimal but often strong enough to leave deep enough impression so that the reader won’t begin to wonder why everyone is so one-dimensional and more often than unchanging. There are some noteworthy individual characters like Firo, a young almost-member of one gang, Szilard, an old evil dude, Ennis, his homunculus (that meaning an artificial human that can be mind-controlled), Dallas, a wealthy thug, and Isaac with Miria, a pair of ridiculously lucky idiot bandits. The level of characterization can be seen from the mere fact that Isaac and Miria have a single wiki page dedicated for both of them. Some cheesiness in such motives as “I was looking for you because you were attractive” also must be pointed out. As you see, characters come a dime a dozen and limited length of the volume doesn’t really let to explore much, especially since the web of interconnections takes some time to be established. Generally that’s not a problem because the characters are just tools for the story to evolve. Sometimes you can wonder if the story isn’t a character itself – wickedly pushing one character or another in a particular way so that all the individual little stories intertwine into one giant intricate web of coincidences. And that’s the biggest charm of Baccano! – as you run through the pages you aren’t that interested in the fortunes of most of the characters – the main question remains how everything will continue to develop and what will come out of different encounters between the characters.

     Characters themselves might not be aware of all the connections and coincidences and it gives the reader even more satisfaction when you can sit on your high (and all-knowing) horse and smirk because you get that two characters that for example crossed each other at a street had far more in common than random passerby should have. Knowing the full story when the characters are aware only of some parts of it somehow is very satisfying. However, that feeling is restrained because some remarks by the narrator point out that he knows even more than the readers.

“We’ve robbed eighty-seven places, and in all that time, have I ever put you in danger?”
“About eighty-seven times.”
“…………”
“…………”
“There, you see?! It’s not even a hundred yet!”
“You’re right! That’s amazing!”

—Issac and Miria being Isaac and Miria—

     One thing I was left wondering about was the nature and summoning of the demon who granted the immortality elixir. Sure, it was portrayed to be an extraordinary event but also it was given only the smallest part of the book and its purpose was only to justify having immortal gangsters. Still that leaves a lot of unknown during this earliest time period not to mention the idea that a demon can so easily manifest to people. All these problems and lose ends basically arise from the limited space of the genre – I’m sure sooner or later Ryohgo Narita will be (or have already been) forced to elaborate aspects of the story that need that and at the same time can provide some entertaining story material.

     As a starting point of the long series (Baccano! as of now has 22 light novels and it’s not finished yet) the first novel isn’t the best example of how you should do it. The Rolling Bootlegs can even be viewed as a self-contained story that doesn’t absolutely require much more exploration. The mindset of the grand story in the first place is just portraying a segment of characters’ lives and they naturally extend more than can be stuffed into a one specific story, so inevitably some minor quips are here. Still, the main plot is resolved (the culmination was enormously and unexpectedly lengthy though) and even the very ending is a few words short of “and they lived happily ever after”. This stand-alone quality doesn’t retract anything from the bigger picture, it’s just not a very usual way of wrapping up things when everyone wants to grab attention and make enough space for future sequels at the same time strongly hinting at them.

     I guess some words about the relationship between the light novels and the anime need to be said. The anime adapts first few novels but there the storylines are all intentionally mixed up. On one hand you get even a better impression about the hectic swings of fate but for me it felt a bit too confusing. You need to pay all your attention not to get lost between the storylines, even though by themselves they are fairly simple and linear. Shared characters, especially when you still aren’t familiar with them, suck you into a mess that’s quite hard to disentangle. I’m not even talking about the first episode that screamed “hey, I’m complicated, hey, sucks to be you, hey!”.

“Quietly, the spiral of destiny turned.”

—The Narrator knows it all—

     Another quite apparent difference is that the novel uses a framing story that is absent from the anime – a Japanese tourist just hears the story from a certain someone. The fact that the whole immortality (and fast wound healing) is talked about in the framing story detracts some of the mystery elements that surrounded the anime where a fresh viewer didn’t know that he could expect such things. To be frank, it’s a bit weird how matter-of-factly immortality, alchemy and summoning demons is presented. I think in this case I prefer the more subtle reveal of everything in the anime. Compared to the realistic world of 1930s (minus immortality but that isn’t a game-changer) the fact that you have to use demons (do demons ex machina exit?) to justify the core events of the story feels like pushing too far, especially since at least at this volume no demon has any prominent role at all.

     Reading Baccano! makes it very clear why the genre is called light novel – the text easily flows through your eyes and you’re left with a wish to get more of the same but after some time you begin to feel like having eaten some fast food – it was tasty but still not the best food in the world. To be praised and remembered, Baccano! needs to elaborate its characters, maybe offer a longer story and some explanations about elements that were just glossed through.

 I believe, this light novel is

 2Decent

     Should you read it? If you enjoy insanely paced fast-food books, yeah, definitely grab a bite. Still, it’s not as attractively complicated as the anime seems to imply. Nevertheless, reading enjoyment at least for was certainly there, and not only because I want to know the source material well and then take advantage of the opportunity to know what happened after the anime ended.

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Aoi Bungaku – can old literature be adapted into an anime?

Alternative title Blue Literature
Studio Madhouse
Genres Drama, Historical
Source Novels
Episodes 12
Season  Fall 2009
Directors Morio Asaka, Tetsurou Araki, Shigeyuki Miya, Ryosuke Nakamura, Atsuko Ishizuka
Music Hideki Taniuchi, Shusei Murai
.

     It’s often hard to get a satisfying manga adaptation, and light novels regardless of their quality may prove to be even a harder original source to tame. Still, out of everything that can be printed on paper probably the hardest is to take a conventional novel or a short story and reshape it into an anime, and Aoi Bungaku tries to do exactly that. The catch is that it’s not contemporary stuff it’s trying to adapt, and not even a one novel. Aoi Bungaku actually is something like an anthology of various stories written by famous Japanese who created their now classical works in the first half of the 20th century. For someone like me saying “he’s an extraordinary writer” doesn’t say much (quite shamefully) because sadly I lack that aspect of knowledge about Japanese culture. Still, such name as Osamu Dazai probably is known by many because his fame often seeps into anime and manga as a cultural reference – remember for example the recent Tsuki ga Kirei. All the stories originally were created having in mind a vastly different audience and not only because of a different time period – I guess such genres as a high-school comedy would’ve been inconceivable then. Because of that, adapting long-ago written stories may prove a particularly challenging task. How does Aoi Bungaku cope with that? Well…

Not the most expected OP

      First of all, the structure of the show needs some explanation. Aoi Bungaku is split into 6 completely different stories (though the last two have an artificial connection), and the differences are even more pronounced since each segment was created by different crews. Because of that it’s entirely possible to watch the show any way you like and skip any story you don’t like. Also, it’s uncommon that the show doesn’t have an OP. In its place in a documentary-like segment an actor Masato Sakai (remember the name) introduces the author and some details about a particular story. As for someone with virtually no prior knowledge about the cultural and personal circumstances of the stories, his comments were very helpful and insightful.

     The first story, the longest and in my opinion the most powerful one, is the swan song of Osamu Dazai. No longer human (Ningen shikkaku) tells a tale about sorrows of a man with little social abilities. Youzou gets what he doesn’t need but doesn’t manage to achieve what he really craves, if actually there is something he desires. Constant war with inner ghosts that manifest very powerfully and struggles to decipher if he really is a human and whether he should strive to be one makes it a very personal and engrossing story. A whole new view opens when you learn that Ninegen Shikkaku is the last work of Osamu Dazai right before his suicide. As if it’s not enough, some striking similarities with Youzou’s and Dazai’s lives make it an almost autobiographical and very personal work, a sad confession of a pitiful life. You just can’t sit without thinking “Oh poor poor Osamu…”. The visuals also are one of the strongest in the whole show. It’s not really a surprise, since it was Takeshi Obata of Death Note and Bakuman who provided character designs (he also did that for the third story). To be frank, the very first seconds of the show gave me the idea that it was made by good old Madhouse at its peak, and during all the four episodes the standards weren’t lowered a tiny bit. Every scene conveys the mindset of the protagonist and sustains the heavy atmosphere. Although it’s hard to make a convincing horror anime, Youzou’s inner demon looks terrific. There probably wasn’t a better way to start this show as strong.

      The second story deeply contrasts with the first one in many ways. I guess Tetsuro Araki is more suitable for making action flicks and not philosophical and deep stuff. From the first few seconds it’s clear that Ango Sakaguchi’s  In the Forest, Under Cherries in Full Bloom (Sakura no Mori no Mankai no Shita) isn’t going to be a very serious story. The art (character designer Tite Kubo of Bleach) as well as some additions to the story rather look like something Studio Trigger could’ve made and certainly not as a story of an acclaimed 20th century Japanese writer. There lies the biggest problem because I don’t think that was the right direction to take. Sure, some comedy is never a bad thing but particularly in the context of the other stories this one sticks out like a sore thumb. I wonder who thought that a talking boar or such anachronisms like cell phones in a medieval period would be a good addition. Thus such comedic moments completely overshadow the main story which itself doesn’t feel satisfactory. As I haven’t read the original work I can only hope that there were enough explanations why, for example, a rough bandit was so enchanted by a random woman to carry out every single of her sometimes ridiculous orders. Also the central idea of the story that sakuras may be a source of terror in the anime was just left hanging with no reasoning why.

     Next story Kokoro was written by Souseki Natsume. As far as I know, the anime takes some liberties with the story but in the end it pays off. Kokoro is about a friendship of two completely different people and what happens when their interests (of course involving a woman) collide. The first episode dedicated to this story felt too crammed and it seemed that only a surface has been scratched. The interesting part is that the second episode retells the same story, only this time from the perspective of the other friend. It turns out that pretty much everything actually had a different meaning. It’s not only the same situations that can be interpreted in a different manner – the two versions even contradict one another at some points. It’s quite puzzling but also interesting to try to trace everything as it really happened because even the second story that seems to be far closer to the truth may not have been told entirely without any changes. It may not hit right in the kokoro (hehe) but compared to the second story it shines very brightly.

     Then we have yet another work of Osamu Dazai, but this time far more cheerful, though not without some emotions and pain. In its essence Run, Melos! (Hashire, Melos!) is quite simple – it’s following a playwright as he’s tasked to adapt an ancient Greek story to a play. The story concerns two friends, one of whom was sentenced to death but manages to postpone his sentence by giving his friend in as a hostage. The struggle begins when he must return within three days in order to be executed himself and to set free his friend. It turns out that the playwright himself has some experiences that almost completely mirror the story and his memories prove to be too vivid for him to be able to work as always. Despite the simplicity of the story it tackles some fundamental values and shows that the same things that were important to the Greeks haven’t lost their significance. Ryosuke Nakamura’s direction again rises a question why he hasn’t been at the helm of more productions. At least he quite recently got Grimgar.

    The final two episodes are devoted to Ryuunosuke Akutagawa’s short stories The Spider’s Thread (Kumo no Ito) and Hell Screen (Jigoku Hen). The first one concerns a bandit whom a spider tried to save from hell. I think it’s a very common story, at least I have heard it many times before even knowing that there was such a writer. The second is more interesting as it discusses the actions of an obsessed artist to whom no sacrifice seems too painful in order to complete his painting. The stories at their core are very simple, but the director Atsuko Ishizuka of No Game no Life (that’s why there’s pretty colors everywhere) decided to join them together so that they would happen in the same mini-world. To some extent it pays off but in the end there are some inconsistencies left. The first Akutagawa’s story is far more fairytale like and its compatibility with the second one may be questionable. Moreover, the emperor in the first story is held to be the nicest guy in the world but in the last episode this notion just vanishes without a trace. The stories don’t have the complexity of the other ones but their core ideas are still relevant. Also, the first episode provided some nice trippy imagery of hell but the ending of the last story was just an animation fest.

     An interesting thing is that Masato Sakai (remembered the name?) acted as a protagonist or an important character in 5 stories. On one hand, it’s a common thread that unifies the stories. On the other, it wasn’t really necessary. Moreover, having a guy with a melancholic voice voice-act a rough and tough bandit gives not the most convincing performance. Still, more times than not he as well as other VAs did a good job trying to sound not like some anime character but real people. Serious emotions were certainly here and I can ask no more than that.

Excerpt from the OST of Ningen Shikkaku by Hideki Taniuchi

     The soundtrack was composed by two guys – Shusei Murai (episodes 9 and 10) and Hideki Taniuchi (the rest). There’s only a little more that I can say about it because in a very curious way the soundtrack apparently was never released. After some search I found that Hideki Taniuchi was charged with carrying some marijuana and we all know how strict Japanese are with such things. Of course it’s just a supposition that these facts are related and I may never find out why there was no release. Anyway, it’s very unfortunate because the soundtrack wasn’t a bad one. There are some reconstructions of the tracks taken from the series themselves scattered throughout the Internet but it’ll never fully replace nor quality nor quantity of the official release. The soundtrack mainly stays in the background but some of the more lyrical or upbeat themes find their way to the surface. The purpose of accompanying the stories and enhancing the atmosphere are accomplished and while it’s hard for me to recall anything substantial, the soundtrack accomplished its task without any major flaws. Probably the most impressive tracks belong to Ningen Shikkaku since it’s the longest story and has far more contemplative and emotional breathing spaces than any other.

Excerpt from Hashire, Melos!. Animation by Kenichi Shimizu.

     In the end Aoi Bungaku turns out to be a very mixed bag of everything. In principle trying to revive some classics and give them a new coating, maybe tweaking a little bit one detail or another to suit the change of the medium is a very commendable act. Yet, that’s only theoretically since even without the knowledge of the source material it’s obvious that not everything may be translated into animation well in the first place, so inevitably there arise some hard decisions to be made, and not all of the results seem to be on the same level as the original sources. Despite quite huge ups and downs, the positive (without, of course, getting to know about some influential literary works) is the possibility to choose what you wish. If a  full-cour-length show messes up its story, it feels way more important and a sour feeling will mar the whole show but with such a format as Aoi Bungaku chose you can pick up the better bits and come out of it quite satisfied.

    I believe, this anime is

 2Decent

      If you’re still pondering whether to engage Aoi Bungaku, please do yourself a favor and try Ningen Shikakku, that is the first four episodes. If you feel like it, you may check out Hashire, Melos! and maybe Kokoro. For sakuga fans the second half of the last episode is advisable. The whole 12 episode package has some unsavory parts but cherry-picking is of course allowed and you definitely have my recommendation for that.

     Have you watched Aoi Bungaku? Are you familiar with any of these literary works? Do you think it’s possible to have novels (not light novels) adapted into an anime in a satisfying way?