Baccano!, Vol. 1

By Ryohgo Narita, Shinta Fujimoto and Katsumi Enami. Released in Japan by Square Enix, serialized in their magazine Young Gangan. Released in North America by Yen Press. Translated by Taylor Engel.

For the most part, when you are reading the first volume in a series, you do not need to worry too much about spoilers. I can see a casual reader picking this up and thinking “Oh, this is an adaptation of the first light novel, I can read this instead.” And they’re… sort of correct – the 2nd and third volumes of this series will in fact be a pretty straightforward adaptation of the first light novel. However, this first volume serves as a prequel to the series, taking place 3 years prior. And it spoils the absolute heck out of some things. I’d recommend reading the first four books and watching the anime, really. If you’re already familiar with the series, though, this first book is a treat, especially for Firo fans, showing us a younger Firo more desperate to prove himself as his own man, but beset by his baby face and the fact that circumstances mean he has to try a bit harder. Luckily, he has his family. Well, families.

The main reason I gave that spoiler warning o\in the first paragraph is because the manga also features Claire, showing off his acrobatics and his solipsism, at a point before he’s left Firo and the Gandors to set off on his own. Given that a large part of the second book revolves around who Claire Stanfield is, this will give it away. As for Firo, he’s perfectly characterized here. We see that he’s exceedingly observant and clever, but also easy to anger and filled with a desire to take care of everything by himself – which makes things far more dangerous for him here, in that he isn’t an immortal. The first chapter is entirely about this (and shows off Maiza’s dangerous side – folks who think of him as just an “accountant” may wind up dead), the rest of the book has anotehr plot about a seemingly immortal priest who’s going around killing people.

Narita excels at writing unpleasant people doing bad things and making you like them, and that’s the case here, as despite being mafia (or camorra, yes) gangsters, beating people up, killing them, and torturing them, you’re left with the feeling that the 1930s were a rollicking good time. There are other shoutouts as to events in the series proper – the villain behind the villain turns out to be very unsurprising provided you’ve read the first book, and there’s a substantially large role for Keith Gandor, possibly more substantial than he’s ever gotten in the actual novels. By the end of the book you’re ready for the adaptation proper, which begins in Vol. 2 but really begins with Isaac and Miria making their grand entrance at the end. There’s even a cameo by Carol at the end, for anime watchers.

If you’re new to the series and want to check out Baccano!, I do recommend this order: anime, then light novels, then this manga adaptation. If you’re a long time fan, though, this is a must buy.

Baccano!: 1933 The Slash -Cloudy to Rainy-

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

After a brief foray into the 21st century, Baccano! returns to its main plot, which takes place in the 1930s. Many of the main characters are featured in some way or another here, and in a way it feels like the author is writing enjoyable set pieces, as if he’s finally gotten a grip on writing everyone. Isaac and Miria are fun, loud, and seemingly completely random; Luck is seemingly cool but in reality rather frustrated with everything happening around him; Jacuzzi cries a lot but buckles down when he needs to, etc. That said, the book also features two minor characters from earlier books who get the spotlight here, and I suspect enjoyment of it depends on how much you enjoy those characters. It’s also, as you may have guessed by the title, the first of a two-parter, and unlike Grand Punk Railroad, this is definitely incomplete.

Tick Jefferson is in the top third of the cover art. We saw him before as the Gandor family’s torture expert, and he seemed like another of Narita’s ‘smiling insane guys’. Which he may be, to a lesser degree – he still really loves cutting people apart. But we get a bit of his family background, as well as a surprising amount of his philosophy, and see that when he’s not torturing people he’s surprisingly level-headed. His partner in the book (middle third of the cover) is Maria Barcelito, one of the assassins that we saw Claire completely destroy in the 4th novel, who joined the Gandors because she was so impressed by Keith stopping Claire. On the bright side, the Gandors gained a powerful assassins, probably their most powerful fighter. On the down side, Maria is annoying as hell, immature, can’t stop trying to cut anyone and anything with her swords, and is desperately in need of some humbling. Fortunately, she gets it in spades at the end of the book.

The bottom third of the cover art is Chane Laforet, the “girl in the black dress” from the Railroad books. The cliffhanger to those books had her being picked up by Jacuzzi’s gang, and she’s now living with them in Eve Genoard’s mansion in upper Manhattan (the explanation for why a gang is living in the Genoard mansion made me roll my eyes a bit, but I can see Eve just agreeing and then forgetting about it, especially given her obsession with finding Dallas). Chane doesn’t interact with Jacuzzi’s gang as much as I’d have liked, but she clearly values them highly as friends. She’s also clearly hooked up with Claire, something also implied at the end of the railroad arc, and I suspect Claire will have more to do in the next volume.

As for the villains, well, technically I suppose it’s Huey, though his daughter is unaware of what he’s doing. He has a group of people trying to offer Jacuzzi’s gang the power of immortality (please God no, I love the fact that Jacuzzi and Nice’s gang are just normal scrappy kids), though this goes south when their demo – Dallas Genoard, freshly retrieved from a sunken river and just as much of a giant dumbass – ends up getting too obnoxious and gets slashed. A lot. Immortality sounds great till you see that you can still feel horrible pain. We really only meet two of the villainous gang here. Tim is the leader and also shares a secret past with Tick Jefferson, and seems to be there to watch what was supposed to be a smooth situation spiral out of control. Adele is seemingly shy and meek… but in reality seems to really love fighting more than anyone. And we haven’t even met the mysterious Christopher yet…

This is a decent book, and I recommend it for those reading the series, obviously. That said, it really needs its second half, and feels slight as a result. It does have some rewards for the careful reader (watch Isaac and Miria’s reaction to the Genoard mansion), and Tick and Maria can be a lot of fun provided you don’t pay too much attention to how aggravating Maria is most of the time. You may want to wait till April and read this with its conclusion.

Baccano!: 2001 The Children of Bottle

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

This must have been quite startling to readers at the time, and it’s still pretty startling. The first four books in this series all took place around the same two year period, and there was no reason to expect anything else. Thus suddenly jumping forward to 2001 is jarring, even if you do know intellectually that a large number of the cast are Immortals. Furthermore, Isaac and Miria, bar a cameo at the start (which ended up being used in the anime) and the end, are absent from this book. But that’s OK, because we are introduced in this book to Elmer C. Albatross, a man with so much sheer force of personality that he tends to overwhelm the narrative when he’s in it. Having him interact with Isaac and Miria would be like eating something too sweet. Best to have moderation. That said, this is still an excellent volume of Baccano!.

The girl on the cover is Fil, and she is essentially the heart of this book. (To avoid too many spoilers, I will try not to refer to her as Fil and the Filtones.) The basic premise has Maiza and Czeslaw, who we’re familiar with from previous books, searching the world for the remaining immortals from the 1711 ship journey where they gained said immortality. The goal is to tell said immortals they can stop hiding, as Szilard is now dead. They pick up two more for this journey: Sylvie, a gorgeous women who was hell-bent on nothing but revenge on Szilard and has to figure out what to do now that someone else got there first; and Nile, a large North African man who has spent his immortality fighting in wars and wears a mask because his face no longer shows emotions when doing things like killing people. They are now all arriving at a tiny village in the middle of nowhere in Europe, where Maiza has been told he may find Elmer. He does find Elmer, but also finds what Elmer’s been doing for the last few years: trying to make everyone smile.

Elmer is one of the most awaited introductions for longtime Baccano! fans, and he doesn’t disappoint. As I said earlier, on the surface he might seem a bit like Isaac and Miria, but that’s just the surface. Elmer is a bit broken, and his quest for smiles at any cost, no matter how inappropriate the time, no matter if he’s talking about a killer, no matter if it involves selling everyone’s soul – it’s just disturbing when you dig down into it. He’s doing the right thing here, but it’s not really for the right reason, and yet in the end you can’t help but love Elmer, even as you find him vaguely disquieting – I suspect if I met him in real life he’d be unbearable. (I suspect that about a lot of Baccano! characters.) The rest of the cast also get stuff to do – Czes shows that years and years of physical, mental and emotional abuse can still affect you even almost a hundred years later, Sylvie gets to be sympathetic and sweet (mostly; she’s noticeably different when only around the other immortals), and Nile at first seems to be comic relief till an absolutely stunning speech that rips into a character’s desire to end their life with beautiful precision.

Speaking of Nile, let’s talk translation. Baccano! has a large fan community who translated many of the books before they were officially licensed. That hasn’t been an issue before this, as the first four books had fan translations ranging from adequate to awful. 2001, though, had a really good translation, so I was concerned fans would be wedded to that and object to anything different. That said, having finished the book, I think we’re good. The main concern is Nile’s way of speaking. He has a habit of prefacing his sentences with “Let me just say this:” and variations, which emphasizes his declamatory language and also shows a bit that he’s constantly asking permission to speak, something Maiza calls him out on. The fan translation had “I say this:” which is more literal but not as smooth. I think Taylor Engel does a very good job of making each character’s speech pattern distinct, which is important, as not everyone’s dialogue is as eccentric as Nile’s.

I haven’t talked much about the actual plot of the book, but that’s because it’s one of those books where I don’t want to give away the surprises too much. Suffice it to say I found it very enjoyable, and think you will as well. And if you’re annoyed that we don’t get more of Firo, or Isaac and Miria, or Jacuzzi and Nice, well, we’re back to the 1930s with the next five books.

Oh yes, and ‘Children of Bodom’ is the title reference, a Finnish metal band.