Durarara!! is an ambitious, but flawed character study

Posted at 8:08 AM, Nov 16, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-16 10:08:57-05

Released: 2010
Studio: Brain's Base
Episodes: 24+2 OVAs

Durarara!! is about a cornucopia of oddball characters living in Tokyo's entertainment district back when flip phones with sliding keyboards were a thing (the archaic year 2010). Durarara!! is at its best when it's hopping around the two dozen or so characters with reckless abandon, not caring about skipping around time like a TARDUS on the fritz, cementing the seemingly disparate tales with a narrator's thoughts on Ikebukuro (the name of the district), love, or whatever other themes crop up. It's a wild ride of weird romances, cartoonish violence, gang wars, and shadowy occult figures.

The main character, if you can have one in a show with a roster as large as Durarara!!'s, is Ryuugamine Mikado. He's the self-insert, a country bumpkin come to the big city where a mysterious headless rider has terrorized the town, a "slasher" is sending people to the hospital, and a recent gang war has left one group running with their tails between their legs while the other thrives. But Mikado has a secret; one revealed early on that shows he's more than just the nobody country boy everyone believes.

While Mikado is the central character, the main thread of the first arc concerns Celty, the aforementioned headless rider. She's a dullahan from Ireland (a mythological creature, she carries her decapitated head with her as she visits the homes of those about to die). She is in Ikebukuro, in search of her lost appendage while living with the son of the man who discovered her stowed away on a ship from Ireland to Japan.

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That's such a Cliff Notes overview of what is a very deep story with a police cork board of interconnections. There's a young man in love with Celty's disembodied head, there's a stalker girl so in love with the young man that she gets plastic surgery to look like the decapitated head, there's a doctor in love with the headless Celty (who communicates via writing on her phone or laptop). The first half of Durarara!! is amazing because it brings these extraordinarily weird pairings together and makes them work. I never thought I'd say the romance between a headless woman with wisps of black smoke coming out of her neck and an insane doctor who only caters to the city's underground would be something I invest myself in. But somehow the show manages to be cute and have some genuine emotion behind the otherwise bizarre ideas.

And there are more weird love stories too. A woman in love with her brother. A guy in love with a girl he put in the hospital (though he wants to break up because he can't stand what he did). The connections of these characters are what will drive you to marathon the show -- seeing where their relationships will go and how the story will integrate that into something much bigger.

There are the "main" characters that have the biggest stakes in the overarching plot, then there are the side characters, all of whom steal the show. There's Shizuo, the bartender who is quick to anger and can pick up vending machines and throw them around because...he drank a lot of milk as a kid. There's Orihara Izaya -- the omnipotent driving force of much of the plot-- an information broker manipulating everyone in the city for no apparent reason other than self-pleasure. There's the Russian sushi chef Simon a former mobster who accosts everyone on the street to eat at the weirdest concept restaurant on the planet; a duo of weird anime fanatics who constantly make references while buying up all the latest manga and light novel releases. The sheer number of unique and entertaining characters combined with the whiplash pace makes the first 12 episodes an absolute joy, perfectly paced, intricate, and worth every moment.

Rating: 4/4 Stars...oh wait there's a part two.

The second half of Durarara!! picks up threads from the first but loses a lot of cohesion. Characters outside of the main three (Mikado and his friends from school, Anri and Masaomi) have very little to do. The idea here is that all three run different factions within the town. Masaomi was once the leader of the Yellow Scarves gang, but he stepped down after his girlfriend was hurt and hospitalized. Mikado runs the Dollars, an anonymous internet group that pretty much every citizen of Ikebukuro is a part of. And Anri is revealed to be some sort of parasitic host for a monster that was inside a cursed sword. So she can make people who have been infected with the parasite into her personal zombies.

Here is where the show lost me. The dullahan idea is well executed and believable. But the parasite idea seems to only be there so that Anri has a faction that winds up facing off in the final battle between the three friends. Though it has repercussions in future seasons, here it comes across ham-fisted.

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Each episode of the first half has one character narrate and that becomes the thread that binds the (seeming) non-sequiturs together. The second half has less of that and less of the side characters who make Durarara!! pop. The "main" three are all boring, normal high school kids. The idea of this inseparable trio leading opposing factions in an epic finale is cool on paper, Durarara!! squanders the potential in execution.

Animation-wise the show looks pretty good, offering a very grounded interpretation of the actual city with memorable character designs. It's the music end where the show can become annoying; repeating the same background loops and stings over and over. The actual opening and ending credit songs are great and, to be fair, the BGM is as well the first ten times. But if you marathon the show, as I did, you will hear the stings in your sleep.

And a fun little aside, Durarara!! makes constant reference to its predecessor, Baccano! (You can tell it's the first by the single exclamation mark). This series has nothing to do with Baccano! but that anime airs on screens across Ikebukuro, the name is the password for the Dollars website, and some characters make little cameos. Baccano! is well worth a watch, using the same idea of multiple characters, this time on a train in prohibition-era America. I think it's better than Durarara!! but it flopped so hard it's more well-known for being a bomb than for being a great historical anime.

That aside...

Durarara!! is ambitious and largely succeeds in its first half in presenting tons of characters interacting within a small setting and getting involved in a story that's intricate in detail and design. But the major pitfall of having so many characters is not having enough for them to do as the story progresses. And Durarara!! falls into that trap.

The style, the non-anime-like characters, the bizarre romances, and intricate story; as flawed as it is Durarara!! is still a binge-worthy anime well-worth checking out.

Durarara!! is available on Netflix, Crunchyroll, and Funimation.

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