Baccano!: 1931 The Grand Punk Railroad: Express

By Ryohgo Narita and Katsumi Enami. Released in Japan by ASCII Mediaworks. Released in North America by Yen On. Translated by Taylor Engel.

This is, as the prologue suggests, not so much the second part of a 2-arc set as it is “what was going on behind the scenes” for Book One. Various questions we had are answered, various characters who seemed to arrive and vanish for no reason now get a fully fleshed-out backstory. And we discover the true identity of the Rail Tracer, whose presence alone makes this book much, much more brutal and gore-filled than the previous two. Last time we had some horrible violence, but a lot of it was “come across the bloody remains of corpses”, and in this book we see why they came to be that way. And whereas in The Rolling Bootlegs Ennis was the one with the hero’s journey, and in the first Grand Punk Railroad it was Jacuzzi, this book’s most fascinating character is one who doesn’t really make any journey at all, because he’s already ten times better than everyone else. Yes, let’s talk about Claire.

It’s a shame that the cover art for this volume is so bad, but it makes Claire look almost like a cardboard cutout of a human, and after following him though half the book, that’s not really an unapt description. He’s the dark mirror to Ladd – and given that Ladd is a psychopath who murders for fun, that’s really saying something. Claire talks a lot towards the end of the book about solipsism, the idea that he is the most important thing in the world, and that since he can’t imagine what it would be like to either die or lose a battle, he never will. And he doesn’t. He’s not a hero – make no mistake about it, Claire is a nasty piece of work, and makes his living as a killer for hire – but at the same time he’s saving the day here, taking out the black suits and the white suits, falling in love with one girl while cheerfully admitting if she rejects him he’ll go after the other girl he also sort of fell for, and generally making your jaw drop as you go “cooool!”. Oh, except perhaps when he’s torturing Czeslaw.

Of all the characters introduced in this volume, Czes is probably the most tragic. The idea that in among all the people in 1711 who gained immortality was a young boy is chilling enough on his own, but then to spend years being roundly physically, emotionally and mentally abused by one of his fellow immortals is the icing on the cake, and Narita really does milk it for all it’s worth. He’s not subtle, either – when Czes is trying to make a deal with Ladd to have the other passengers on the train killed off, it explicitly mentions that he’s channeling the very man who abused him. The scenes with Czeslaw and Claire are there, I think, to remind you not to see Claire as too awesome or wonderful – they’re utterly dreadful. Still, the whole thing does lead to Czes managing to find hope in trusting other people, even if it means he has to put his life in their hands. First Isaac and Miria, who are of course all-loving and think nothing of falling off a train just to protect Czes – and then Maiza, who is the reason he’s there today, and possibly the most dangerous immortal of all, but around whom Czes can finally be the child that even after 200 years he still is to a large degree.

It is, of course, not all about guys murdering other guys, though you so get a lot of that. There are some amazing female characters here who get a chance to shine. We met Chané in Book 2, but here we see what’s driving her – a love for her father, who may be a terrorist but still shows her more love than any of the other black suits. We also finally confirm that she’s mute, which also allows her character to be more visually expressive than a ‘type’ like her would otherwise be. And of course we get Claire falling for her – it’s not clear if they’ll ever meet up (as Claire says, “meet me in Manhattan” is horribly vague), but it would be nice. As for Rachel, she’s the seemingly “normal” character here, even though she can nimbly crawl across the bottom of trains and save the day by rescuing everyone from the terrorists. She’s normal as she has the most normal reaction to everything going on within the train – sheer terror. Even Isaac and Miria, when presented with a pile of corpses last time, felt like they’d seen this sort of thing before. Rachel, on the other hand, is us, and her heartfelt plea to Claire towards the end of the book to sacrifice herself to stop all the other killing is wonderful, and it’s the one thing the anime cut that is deeply missed. Lastly, there’s Lua Klein, who is… still something of a cipher, but given a bit of internal monologue and a chat with the Grey Magician (also cut from the anime, mostly as he does very little other than stitch people up and give advice), we can empathize with her life choices and why she and Ladd really are deeply in love with each other.

I’ve gone on more than usual, but that’s because there’s simply so much to talk about. This is a short book – possibly the shortest in the series – and yet it’s rich in its development. Those who are fans of the series will enjoy picking out little bits and pieces that we’ve seen before, or setups for the next book. And it also has Isaac and Miria deciding the best present to cheer up Ennis is a young boy to be her little brother. Baccano! is as chaotic as ever, but also richly rewarding. Just… be prepared for a lot of blood. A *lot* of blood.

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