Every season, I pour over the preview summaries for upcoming anime shows with a bunch of friends, and every season, we find at least 3 series we think might be worth following. Inevitably, they keep watching, while I drop off after the first few episodes because I tend to be busy, and also very picky (somehow, they aren’t as jaded as I am). The last show I can say I genuinely took pleasure in watching was Bakemonogatari.
Here’s my problem with present-day anime: a lot of it is based around recycled concepts that we’re all too familiar with. And while I have absolutely zero issues with a well-made show that refines elements of stuff from the ’90s, there’s almost always something lacking, whether it’s the music or the enthusiastic "spirit" that made anime from the mid-90s so much fun to watch. I enjoyed Bakemonogatari because it came out of left field and was like nothing I’d ever seen before. The direction, the dialogue, art style and character interactions all felt very fresh and new, so whatever shortcomings the show had were quickly overlooked.
One of the new shows from last season, Durarara!! (based on a light novel by the author of Baccano!), however, is of the former approach. It’s a refinement of the "spirit" of anime, but at the same time, it also feels very new. If I were to describe it to in a few lines, I’d say it feels like someone hired Atlus’s Shin Megami Tensei team to work on an anime series. If that sounds interesting in the least, do keep reading.
Following the ongoing trend of games and anime situated in popular commercial districts, Durarara!! takes place in Ikebukuro, and is an extremely character-driven show. The first episode kicks off with a rather meek boy by the name of Ryugamine Mikado arriving at Ikebukuro station to do his schooling from there. Mikado is greeted by an old childhood friend: Kida Masaomi, a self-proclaimed "Ikebukuronese," who intends to introduce his pal to the wonders of the district, including — but not limited to — women, women and…women.
The interaction between Mikado and Kida is one of the many highlights of the show. There’s a great emphasis on characterization, and these two are handled exceptionally well. Mikado, while meek, is actually quite steadfast and down to earth in his beliefs. Kida, a playboy-in-training by appearance, is secretly very mature and protective of his friend. He’s seen a side to Ikebukuro that most would keep away from, and the subtle cues hinting at this make you curiouser about his experiences as the show goes on. The two together are like an innocent-yet-street-smart comedy duo that make for some very interesting moments.
Then there’s the "Dollars," a mysterious street gang whose purpose and origin is unknown. All you know about them is that they aren’t to be messed with and are capable of taking on the local yakuza, amongst other feats of unbelievable strength and influence. And yet, just like Kida, there’s far more to the Dollars than meets the eye. Who formed them? Why do they exist? On what basis do they induct members?
The same can be said for highschool dropout Seiji and his seemingly mute girlfriend, who has a large scar across her neck; Orihara Izaya, a smart-talking troublemaker that makes it his hobby to test the will of (read: "help") suicidals; and Heiwajima Shizuo, a quick-tempered but comical bartender that’s capable of ripping entire mailboxes out of the pavement and flinging them across the block. Ikebukuro is an absolutely fascinating locale, home to a wide variety of very unique people, and every single character in the show has a story begging to be discovered. And naturally, Durarara!! is in no hurry to provide you with all the answers.
For, you see, not only is every character interesting and relatable as an individual, they’re also all connected to each other, but you’re not quite sure how. This is where it gets good.
Beyond being the noisy, bustling, sometimes dangerous commercial centre that it is, Ikebukuro is also home to the urban legend of "the headless rider," as people like to call the mysterious headless ghost with a giant scythe and a neighing motorcycle that tears down the streets, hunting down criminals and performing various under-the-table jobs for reasons and people unknown. This headless rider is somehow the connecting link between the characters. A large majority of our mysterious cast seems to know the headless rider personally, and often offer their assistance any way they can, but the hows and whys are shrouded in mystery.
Durarara!! is a very Shin Megami Tensei-esque show in the sense that it perfectly combines modern-day urban culture with supernatural elements and a fantastic cast of characters, and actually dares to justify doing so. Furthermore, the artwork for the show is based on designs by Suzuhito Yasuda, who did the designs for Devil Survivor, and it’s evident right away. Beyond Yasuda’s unique style, every aspect of Durarara!!’s art is so highly polished, saturated and slick, it’s probably one of the best-looking series I’ve watched in years. Throw in the fantastic OP and ED sequences that capture the spirit of the series perfectly, and you’ve got one hell of a show.
Ikebukuro culture; its inhabitants; an organized fight against crime. I said earlier that Durarara!! was extremely character-driven, and it really is. To the point where, 10 episodes in, I’m still not entirely sure what the show is about…but that’s okay, because I’m in no hurry to find out. Right now, it’s doing a fantastic job of blending slice-of-life with supernatural and action elements, and really, all I care about is being taken along for the ride.
Shows like these are the reason I got into anime in the first place. Something that dares to be different, cool, and enthusiastic all at once, but is deep enough to make you think. Something that makes you feel cool just to be watching it. Highly recommended and you can watch it on Crunchyroll.