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.

Baccano!: 1932 Drug & The Dominoes

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

This was the final Baccano! light novel that was used in the 2007 anime adaptation, but even if you’ve seen the anime you should read this anyway, as it’s startling how much was left out and how much was changed. The anime needed a little bit more plot to add to its “let’s move back and forth between various time periods” style, and Eve’s subplot seemed to fit the bill. They had little to no use for Roy Maddock and his drug addiction, though, and so he was completely eliminated. Which is a shame, as while I have little use for Roy himself, who is not as interesting as virtually everyone else in this book, his girlfriend Edith is awesome, and having Roy also means we meet Kate Gandor, Keith’s wife – and actually hear Keith speak more than a few lines of dialogue!

Eve Genoard, younger sister to ne’er-do-well Dallas, is front and center on the cover, and I’d wager that she gets to have the hero’s journey here – as I said before, Roy is a bit too flat for me to really grant that to him. You could argue that Luck Gandor may also qualify – he’s worrying that he’s lost an essential humanity since becoming immortal, and it’s through dealing with Eve and the Runoratas that he comes to accept who he is now and realize that he hasn’t changed as much as he thought. He’s certainly unrepentant about what he did to Dallas – who, let’s remember, killed several men in the Gandor mafia clan – but he allows Eve a chance to possibly rescue Dallas from his watery grave. (Luck wonders why he was so soft-hearted, which is hilarious given that earlier in the book, all three Gandors were terrified about the idea of having to punish a woman, mafia-style, for betrayal – they end up giving her a haircut.)

This happens right after the last two books – in fact, the first third of it actually happens before the last two books, as it begins in late December 1931 and ends in early January 1932. And we do see characters from the previous books. Isaac and Miria have a smaller role than usual, but it’s their theft of the Gandor Family Fortune which sets most of this in motion, and their obsession with dominoes that gives us some more comedy, though I think it’s REALLY OBVIOUS that Narita only added that plot so he could use the title, which comes from Eric Clapton’s band Derek and the Dominoes. Firo spends most of the book grumbling and whining, which seems a bit out of character for him. And we also see a few people who look like they’re being introduced for future books, such as Tick, the Gandor family’s smiling torture specialist, and Maria, a walking Mexican stereotype who can’t stop saying “amigo” but who is a lot of fun anyway. The Daily Days also get a lot more here to do than usual, and the one morally dubious guy of their bunch gets his after a ride on the Rail Tracer express (not lethal, for once).

That said, the book ends with a sort of tragedy, and it involves another immortal who appears throughout the book – Begg, who seems to have been one of Maiza’s group who became immortal back in 1711. He’s now the Runorata family drug expert, and spends his years trying to perfect a drug that will make everyone live in their own happy world, with no problems or worries. Given the halting, jittery way he speaks, you get the feeling he’s tested a lot of drugs on himself. And, despite an attempt at a heartwarming scene with Czeslaw (which is also rife with foreshadowing), in the end we see him at the start of the 21st century, burned out in an institution, barely able to respond to Maiza. Immortals may live forever, but they can still damage their mind, and it’s sad to see, even if you question the entire premise of what Begg wanted to achieve.

All in all, a good addition to the series, with lots of fun stuff happening, though I don’t think it hits the heights of Book 2. Next time we’ll move forward a bit – quite a bit – and see what the cast is up to in 2001.

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.