Look! It Moves! by Adi Tantimedh #60: Altman + Geek = ?

Posted by August 9, 2010 Comment

Ryougo Narita.

And of course he would come from Japan.

Not a name most of us would be familiar with. In Japan, he’s an author of two ambitious series of light novels that are now part of pop culture. Light novels are short novels that often have accompanying illustrations by manga artists (which I imagine is a good way to visualize and embody a franchise), and the popular ones are usually adapted into manga, anime and audio drama CDs (which are a viable market in Japan). Light novels can cover the gamut of genres from Science Fiction to high school romantic comedy to epic fantasy to horror to urban adventure to boy’s love or lesbian teenage romances. The market is usually the same teenage and early 20s market that read manga and watch anime. A manga or anime version often boosts sales in the other two categories in a smooth circular loop that American comics are unable to achieve because of the red tape and rights issues that come from having to work with different companies. There are several light novel series that became huge franchises, the chief example being the high school Science Fiction comedy THE MELANCHOLY OF HARUHI SUZUMIYA, which I think of as Philip K. Dick for teens (a column for another time).

Ryouhgo Narita’s light novels are particularly interesting for creating worlds populated with a huge cast of characters and storylines that intersect. There’s no single protagonist, and juggling so many plotlines is notoriously hard to pull off properly. In movies it’s the genre that Robert Altman is the acknowledged master of, and we still get examples in movies like SHORT CUTS, PULP FICTION, CRASH and so on. Some comics try to do that too, but very few from Europe or the US have the wit or lightness with which Narita pulls off his two most famous novel series BACANNO! and DURARARA, which are still ongoing and have proven popular enough to get manga adaptations and that ultimate sign of popularity and success: an anime series.

BACCANO!, which I’m told is Italian slang for ‘ruckus’ or ‘stupid commotion’, the latter being Narita’s preferred meaning. The basic premise is Immortality. Or rather, warring gangsters in 1930 America who become immortal. So what to do when you can’t die? How do you live when you don’t have to worry about dying anymore? What is the point of fighting when you and your enemies can’t die? What do you do to stave off boredom? So far, at least fifteen novels have been published, but none of them have been translated into English. Fortunately, the acclaimed 16-episode anime series has been brought out on DVD in the US. The anime series is what you get if you imagine Neil Gaiman and Angela Carter scripting ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA for Nic Roeg to direct. It does something very clever by adapting the first three light novels and intercutting the storylines in an intriguing nonlinear fashion so you’re constantly and unpredictably skipping between key events between 1930 and 1932, between the fight with the sinister alchemist who created the elixir that the main characters got exposed to, a turf war between the various gangs, the elder trying to forge peace between the factions, the luxury train journey from Chicago to New York filled with several factions who want to kill each other and a heavily-armed religious cult out to commit an act of terrorism who don’t realise they’ll be meeting a bunch of pissed-off immortal gangsters and assassins who would just love to kill some idiots that stayed dead for a change. And on top of that, there’s a framing arc featuring an upper class gentleman and a (seemingly) young girl narrating and discussion the various plotlines and the nature of stories.

BACCANO! has a few especially intriguing ideas, that when you can’t die, your story never ends, and when you’re immortal, you’re probably going to be insane. Virtually all the main characters in the series, of 18-plus of them, is insane, some of them more aware than others. There’s the trickster couple who pull ridiculous stunts and robberies just for fun, like prospecting for gold in a mine that has none, or robbing a mob-owned candy store and only taking the goods to distribute to everyone on the streets. There’s the hitman who loves his job and whose idea of declaring his love for his silent and equally deadly (and unkillable) girlfriend is to promise to kill her someday. There’s the young gun who falls in love with the homunculus that becomes humanized by friendship and love. There’s the immortal trapped in a boy’s body who spends decades being tortured by an enemy until he’s a paranoid wreck. The trick the anime pulls off is in being so light and breezy while juggling over a dozen storylines at a go without seeming to break a sweat.

DURARARA!! is Narita’s other ongoing light novel series to get a manga, audio CD adaptation and recent anime series. The 24-episode series just finished its run in Japan and will also be brought out on DVD in the US early next year. Here Narita also juggles a large and sprawling cast but sets them on home tuft: the Ikebukuro district of Tokyo. In real life, Ikebukuro is not a tourist spot or particularly trendy but is nonetheless such a melting pot of working class communities, gang activity, crime and everyday strangeness that it has attained a certain mythical quality in popular culture, starting with Ira Ishida’s working class detective novel IKEBUKURO WEST PARK GATE, which was made into an excellent TV series back in 2000 (and again, which I should write about sometime).

Narita might have been influenced by Ishida’s novel, but has eschewed Ishida’s overt social and class commentary with the fantastical, infusing the urban drama of DURARARA!! with a whole load of supernatural and mythical elements. You have the usual dramas you would expect from the setting: the gang warfare, the high school kids hanging out, the labyrinth of street politics, the underground economy and petty criminals, the pharmaceutical company paying for humans to experiment with, but then you have the characters and situations that elevate the story past the mundane. The mysterious black-clad underworld courier and vigilante who turns out to be a headless dullahan from Ireland searching for her stolen head. A mysterious street gang that seems to draw its members from the internet but has no identifiable dress or traits, whose agenda is completely unknown. The Russian sushi chef with the mysterious past. A bartender and bodyguard whose uncontrollable rages give him superhuman strength as he engages in epic street fights where he literally rips up the street and demolishes dozens of opponents. The slasher attacking random people at night turns out to be possessed by a demon blade. The high school friends in a love triangle trying to have a normal life and friendship but whose secrets each turn out to be far greater than anyone thought. DURARARA!! is a story where urban legends turn out to be true, where everyone’s story turns out to be epic, and the ordinary is fantastical. And it’s not every series that makes a sex symbol out of faceless, headless woman.

A friend described BACCANO! and DURARARA!! as the types of series Vertigo might publish as comics, “only, you know, GOOD.” Now, I don’t go hunting for sticks to beat Vertigo or other US comics with, but I think I can see his point. Both series succeed in what many Vertigo books tend to fail at, which is to be fun and feature characters you actually care about as opposed to pile on angst for angst’s sake and forget to make you care about the characters or the story. That’s not to say either series is all that light and breezy, as they do go to pretty dark places, but still manage to pull through with more narrative ease than I ever see in American comics, so I say there’s something to learn from watching them.

Now for the good news: the visual novels and manga may not be translated, but the anime series are and easily available, either as DVD sets, with DURARARA!! seeing a US release next year, but if you’re interested, both shows are available for streaming from Crunchy Roll and Funimation, who has licensed them for US release.

Juggling multiple viewpoints at lookitmoves@gmail.com

© Adisakdi Tantimedh

(Last Updated August 9, 2010 2:11 am )

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