In Tokyo's downtown district of Ikebukuro, amidst many strange rumors and warnings of anonymous gangs and dangerous occupants, one urban legend stands out above the rest-the existence of a headless "Black Rider" who is said to be seen driving a jet-black motorcycle through the city streets.
Ryuugamine Mikado has always longed for the excitement of the city life, and an invitation from a childhood friend convinces him to move to Tokyo. Witnessing the Black Rider on his first day in the city, his wishes already seem to have been granted. But as supernatural events begin to occur, ordinary citizens like himself, along with Ikebukuro's most colorful inhabitants, are mixed up in the commotion breaking out in their city.
(Adapted from MAL)
Simply put, Durarara!! is a show that attempts anything and everything. It seeks ensemble-based drama with enough humorous peripheral characters to lighten its load (and some romances thrown in for good measure), and in its spare moments delves into the supernatural and attempts a metafictional perspective on 21st century Japanese culture. The series throws development after development at the audience, fascinating one with modernized takes on Irish folktales, introducing a myriad of strange characters, and filling the screen from corner to corner with dazzlingly colorful panoramas of Ikebukuro, an anime lovers' mecca if there ever was one. There's a great deal of innovation on display, and because of that it's simply a shame that the show never quite gels together in the way it wants to, with its focus being diluted by an overly large cast and the balance between the humorous and the serious never being quite right. In spite of its ambitious efforts, Durarara!! is a frustrating show to watch, one whose core story is too light on weight to work and whose levity relies too much on the slapstick and obscure cultural references, and one whose most interesting aspects seem peripheral, with the stories of secondary characters and the framework of the show itself outdoing the rather bland leads in interest.
As said, Durarara!! has one of the largest casts I've yet seen in anime, and this stylistic choice allows the series to frequently change viewpoint and to interweave different aspects of the same event for dramatic effect. Our main trio of characters consists of the newcomer Ryugamine, his flamboyant friend Kida, and their mysterious classmate Sonohara, with the three receiving roughly equal quotas of centric episodes and each of their stories proving to be integral to the plot. It's a shame, really, that the show never really attempts to elevate the three beyond the archetype anime functions, with Ryugamine, for example, being as blandly polite as any anime "transfer student" could possibly be, and while the intended effect may be to surround "normal" anime characters with bizarre settings to amplify the show's metafictional atmosphere, the sorts of people in this show have appeared countless times before. While Kida gets some welcome development near the very end, Ryugamine and Sonohara are hopelessly and painfully boring to watch, their dull politeness, spinelessness, and tired anxiety never truly being altered and the endless explicit jokes about Sonohara's supposedly unusual breast size quickly growing old. The show doesn't spend all of its time on them, thankfully, and the story is greatly improved by the subtly sophisticated personalities of some peripheral characters, particularly the violently insane and yet still strangely lovable Shizuo, and Celty, a beautiful motorcycle-borne dullahan in search of her lost head. Indeed, there are times when the show uses its diverse cast well to dramatic advantage, and it's a bit disappointing that aside from the two aforementioned characters, very few of them are likable. All contribute by accentuating the development of supernatural events or accelerating the story in some other way, and yet many of them are simply despicable and unpleasant (if perversely interesting to watch), ranging from an incestuous older sister to an unbelievably disturbingly-matched couple to Orihime Izaya, who makes a strong contender for the award of most despicably manipulative and psychopathic character yet seen in anime. Furthermore, Durarara!! knows how to make use of characters for thematic purposes and yet struggles to expand upon them: in a twenty-four episode-long series, you only have so much time, and you can hardly expect to make full use of every person if you include more then one can fit.
Now Durarara!! is a show that tries its hand at as many storytelling techniques as it can: it lingers on flashback to tell the story of the dullahan and then uses her to pervade the series with a supernatural air, while similarly using a quartet of anime-obsessed van-dwellers to give the series a strangely charming metafictional aspect and then crafting a story of gang wars to drive the pace along. The tone never quite stays the same from episode to episode, with comedy quickly giving way to tragedy, and it's rather interesting if watched as a sort of variety show, one in which the creators' various goals create an array of episodes with different focuses and intents that ultimately tie back to the same place, Ikebukuro, and the same rough assortment of characters. The problem is, this inconsistency in tone makes it hard to follow seriously, with uneven pacing sometimes causing parts that should rivet and electrify to lag and the humor awkwardly butting into moments that may best have been left serious. Durarara!!, meanwhile, introduces as many subplots as it does characters, with several remaining unresolved at series' end and various cliffhangers and tantalizing pauses leaving one curious for more and subsequently dismayed at the lack of closure. Characters sometimes act illogically, with the villainous sometimes too-easily re-integrating themselves into society and the main trio being given backstories that, while obviously designed to dramatically and stunningly bring the various "clues" the series drops early on into a cohesive whole, seem uncharacteristic and tacked on as a way to generate personality without really giving them any really depth. The end result is a story that feels much less of a triumph than it could have been, and even a surprisingly effective ending never covers up the show's lack of answers, reliance on flimsy plot-twists to maintain interest, and tepid moments brought about when the creators lie uncomfortably between bullet points in a plot summary, the flow having temporarily vanished and the audience being left with the bare bones of a fascinating but awkwardly presented thesis.
On the technical scale, Durarara!! maintains a good standard of animation and draws its characters distinctively and sharply, with the backgrounds being wonderfully detailed and the district being illuminated by the attention paid to color, geometric shape, and lighting. The character design is good if unoriginal, with the style seeming like one that may slightly befit a graphic novel more than animated television but nonetheless one in which people's personalities are well accentuated by shape and clothing and in which the supernatural elements give the show leeway to explore the surreal, sometimes for comic effect. The musical score, meanwhile, was always a welcome listen, and the mix of free jazz, atmospheric vibraphone tracks, and piano pieces perfectly suited the show's quirky intent, with the pieces being well-placed if occasionally a bit repetitive.
A show that frustrates is often still one whose failings prove to still be interesting, and all things considered, most episodes of Durarara!! have at least one surprising quirk somewhere that makes them worth watching, even if the level of innovation is not sustained across the full episode. The series makes too many blunders for its story to leave much of a lasting impact, and its meandering moments becoming intolerably tedious at times, but the entirety, in spite of being unsatisfying, does have something of a distinct charm that keeps it slightly on the positive side of mediocrity. Durarara!! is far from a masterpiece, but the journey is hardly a waste of time either, and those low on top-grade material may enjoy delving into the lightweight cleverness this show sometimes manages to bring amidst the mess.
It's not a great series by any means, but those with a penchant for quirkiness should certainly take a look. — Nick Browne
Recommended Audience: Various episodes of this series feature violence that ranges from harmless, comic sequences to graphic depictions of near-death and severe trauma, although the more intense episodes are separated by sequences of lighter-toned ones. There are also scattered moments of fan service, some disturbing content involving incest, and moments at which biomedical ethics take center stage; thus while older teens should be fine, this is not at all appropriate for young children.
Version(s) Viewed: Stream courtesy of Hulu.com (Japanese with English Subtitles)
Review Status: Full (24/24)
Durarara!! © 2010 Narita Ryohogo/Brain's Base
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