Baccano! Novel 1: The Rolling Bootlegs—Immortal Gangsta’s Paradise

hisui_icon_4040_round I was recently at the Kinokuniya Bookstore since it is on the way to the Mid-Manhattan Library. After looking at the new English-language manga I sent out two tweets. The first was the cover of  Queen Emeraldas manga and the second was the cover of the Baccano! novel. I asked if anyone had read either book and what they thought of it. Interestingly enough the Queen Emeraldas manga got quite a few responses but I did not see any conversation around Baccano! That was not the expected reaction at all.

I say that because I always thought that American fandom (or at least the anitwitter portion) loved Baccano! Whenever Durarara!! comes up it seems like someone always has to bring up that “they are fine with more Durarara!! but what they are really waiting for is more of the far superior Baccano!” It even has all the classic hallmarks for mainstream popularity: It has a Western setting, it has lots of violence, it can be sexy but it does not have excessive fan service. Not every series that has that combination is popular, they still have to be good, but any show that has all three is far more likely to be very popular.

It seemed like a formula for instant success. Now it might have been that I posted my tweet at a time that all the Leiji Matsumoto fans were out in full force but the Baccano fans were AFK but it made me extremely eager to read the first book. Was the silence just bad timing, a sign that Baccano! fandom has sadly died off since there has been no new anime since 2007 or is the book itself the weak link in the chain.

narutaki_icon_4040_round Baccano! like its (more?) well-known cousin Durarara!! is based on a very long running series of novels by Ryohgo Narita. But unlike DRRR!!, Baccano’s anime only finished up a couple of story arcs before ending. Though many of us still hold out hope that more anime is in-store, we’re lucky enough to now have access to the original novels in case those hopes are never met.

The first Baccano! novel covers some familiar ground and characters of the anime but in a more linear fashion.

hisui_icon_4040_round In the modern age when a Japanese tourist loses his expensive camera, he is told of a local mafioso can get his camera back for a small fee. While they wait for the stolen item to arrive the gangster shares a story which stars him and his acquaintances during Prohibition-era New York. It turns out that he and several other immortals waged war in the shadows. It is a tale of masterminds and pawns, fools and brigands, mighty mortals and hunger immortals, the law and the forces of chaos. More importantly, it is the story of the double-dealing, coincidences, and bonds of fate that tie them all together.

narutaki_icon_4040_round There are two epilogues (one comes at the beginning and hence isn’t called an epilogue…? Anyway doesn’t matter!) which serve to bookend the story. They are actually quite bland unfortunately and seem to serve very little purpose. The character who is being told the story in the epilogues feels like a stand-in, generic viewer insert.

Though I shouldn’t underestimate Mr. Narita’s ability to spin all of it into something vitally important in a much later book. It wasn’t lost on me that the point-of-view character heads back to Ikebukuro after all is said and done.

But really I just wanted to chop the epilogue’s out. They start and end the story on a bit of a stumble which simply doesn’t add anything. Plus, the main story is not told from any one character’s point of view so in a way it simply doesn’t make sense with the epilogues.

hisui_icon_4040_round Ryohgo Narita’s main appeal is that he can juggle a large cast of colorfully insane characters who are constantly crisscrossing in unexpected ways. His stories take characters who live on the periphery of society and spins a tale of their lives in the shadows and the web of fate draws them together despite the fact that all of their stories seem unrelated at first.  Some of the characters are outsiders because they are criminals, others are off the beaten path because they are supernatural, sometimes they stand apart because they are a bit unbalanced, and often they are all three.

He also likes all of his characters to be hiding a secret or two. Characters sometimes hold their secret like an ace up their sleeve, others try to bury it like a Tell-Tale Heart, and some are as surprised as the rest of the cast when they come out. Some of the excitement is trying to figure out who is hiding what and who actually knows what is going on as opposed to those who merely think they know the score.

Also, his casts are almost universally morally gray. His cast members are often charismatic, energetic, and colorful but they often range from friendly fiends to cold-blooded monsters. Martillo Family is a prime example of this happy darkness. They are generally a happy bunch of characters that seem like a fun bunch of nogoodniks. But any bit of inspection will remind you that they are all gangsters at the height of prohibition. Most of them have probably killed over a dozen people in the course of their criminal careers on top of all the extortion, robbery, smuggling, and a wide variety of other crimes. Even if any of the Martillo Family have not directly committed any of those crimes they are complicit in all of that barbarism. And they are ostensibly the good guys. Then again most anyone looks like an angel when compared to Szilard.

narutaki_icon_4040_round Coincidence when manipulated so totally by the hand of Ryohgo Narita becomes a work of art. It is mind-boggling that he is able to do so much juggling and actually tell a coherent and engaging story which doesn’t get bogged down by all the jumping around. And it is a real delight trying to figure out and seeing how each character will get wrapped up in the others’ stories. The connections are a little bit easier to see in the novel as it is told in a succinct fashion with a rapid pace so as you’re reading you can see the gears turning a bit.

Unlike in the TV series, Issac and Miria feel like a much bigger portion of this story. And thanks to that they ended up being my favorite part. They run into just about everyone in the story at least once. And they feel like they actually effect change as opposed to being a fun gag pair that appear now and then.

hisui_icon_4040_round There are some significant differences between the anime and the novels. While The Rolling Bootlegs is a fairly linear story even with the use of the framing story. There is a distinct jumping between interconnected characters in the manner of something like Snatch. The anime, on the other hand, takes the story of the first three novels and tells all of those stories at the same time. To make things more complicated the anime also tells three stories completely out-of-order which makes the story far more challenging. Clearly, Takahiro Omori was more than willing to tinker with the story when adapting it to another medium.

This also means that the anime utterly removed the tourist as a framing device and instead take Gustav St. Germain and Carol from a later book instead. If anything I think it speaks volumes to Kate’s assertion that the unnamed tourist is a mediocre way to frame the story and the anime clearly dropped him for a reason. It does not help that the back cover of the book spoils the reveal that the person the tourist is talking to is Firo. The book tries to trick the audience into thinking that it is Maiza telling the story so that the reveal that, it is in fact, an immortal Firo instead is supposed to be a surprise. Anyone who has watched the anime already knows the deal but people reading the book could easily be spoiled by that reveal.

This is just a minor point put I feel the sharper character designs of Isaac and Miria are an indicator of the change in their characters between the anime and the light novel. This is hardly an 180-degree change or anything. In the other version, they are a combination of the Trickster and the Fool. The Trickster wisely tweaks the nose of the arrogant and hidebound in an attempt to teach them the error of their ways. The Fool seeks happiness while stumbling through the story often succeeding in spite of themselves.

In the anime, Isaac and Miria utter embody the Fool and just happen to coincidentally be effective as the role of the Trickster thanks to many coincidences in the story combined with the generally innocent nature. In the novel, Isaac and Miria are trying their best to be a pair of sagely Tricksters but actually are perfect Fools. It just so happens as they fulfill that role they inadvertently succeed as Tricksters just never in the way they initially intended.

It is a minor but often noticeable difference much like the differences between their character designs.

narutaki_icon_4040_round Al pretty much covered all the differences between the anime and the books. I will add that the gripping early scene of the Baccano! anime where the hat shop gets shot up is not in this book. I kept waiting for it! It is obviously from an even later story.

Some random final notes: The cover and the color page at the beginning were difficult to decipher thanks to the type design. Also the back of the book calls Firo a bookkeeper?

Baccano! novel 1 flies by even without the addition of weaving multiple books stories together. Bring on the Flying Pussyfoot and Railtracer story!

hisui_icon_4040_round Actually having read the novel I am strangely curious why there is so little conversation Baccano! as it seems exactly what you would expect out of the origin of its animated counterpart. It has everything you expect for the anime with a little extra ability to explain the inner workings of characters and the universe.

So if you have enjoyed the anime I heartily recommend the novels. Since there has been no real announcement about more anime this is undoubtedly the best chance to experience the further adventures of the immortals of the Advena Avis. There are enough little differences to make reading the books a new experience and it paves the way for the new material in the later books. By making some ruckus in the sales of the novels we can all get more Baccano! 

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