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Anime-Breakdown: Durarara!! (2010) Series Review

Durarara!! or as I like to call it for fun DRRR!! is an interesting anime series. Putting a lot of emphasis into creating its characters and world were losing tons of time becomes a habit when watching the series. Capturing the chaos and mystery of the city in it’s version of Ikebukuro with soaring success. While the story being told is decent as a whole what makes it memorable and a great way to spend time are the characters themselves. No matter what flaws present themselves, the characters always manage to make it seem like those flaws don’t matter in the long run.

Mixed: Interesting story filled with questionable decisions

Durarara!! has a headless horseman, a girl with a demon sword that can possess people, a puppet master bent on creating chaos, gang leaders wanting gang warfare, and a person with superhuman strengths among its cast. You would think one of those characters would be the protagonist. Except that position is given to an average teen, Mikado Ryugamine, whose relevance and backstory is not given until episode eleven. Giving the other characters more than enough time to overshadow him. Despite that specific pitfall the story manages to fit in elements of teen drama without feeling inappropriate with everything else in the story. The focus on presenting Ikebukuro and Japanese youth culture through internet chat rooms, text messages, and technology in general lends itself to making the city more lively. Seeing characters talk about rumors, folklore, and their experiences make it feel like a real chaotic city. While Mikado is a weak point of interest compared to the other characters, him being in the central of the story makes sense. He is experiencing life in Ikebukuro for the first time interacting with a host of interesting characters and sometimes unknowingly being part of a bigger ordeal beyond his control. What also justifies Mikado as the lead is he’s experiencing and learning everything about Durarara!! version of Ikebukuro just like the viewer.

In every episode the narrative will rotate onto a different focused character. Shining the spotlight on the cast members when the opportunity presents itself. After the primary introduction in episode one the rest of series spends time exploring it cast. In a semi-non linear fashion it spends times on various characters each having their own conflict in a single episode like finding a kidnap friend for a single episode or looking for a missing head for the entire series. Eventually having the large cast interact with each other in various ways and form an engrossing narrative with a mystery at its heart. In the first half, the main draw is a mystery centering around the headless rider. The headless rider search of her head spans several decades trusting the viewing to piece together the information themselves. This headless rider storyline takes some unexpected directions that will keep viewers guessing on where it’ll go next.

It’s biggest strength is in telling a series of smaller stories weaving them together into a larger story. All the events shown correlate with one another in some way expertly building up to a climax. Without action, it build up is very exciting, thanks in large to wanting to see how it’ll played out once all the elements are together. The smartest choice the series made regarding its writing was being more serious than splitting half of tone balancing comedy. While it filled with fun personalities to lighten up from the darker aspects of the anime. When it times to take something seriously there’s no need to worry about transitioning between tones. Handling it expertly by having jokes every now and then, but by not at making it an equal focus like its drama.

For an anime that has a cool cast of characters how it uses them is disappointing. At times dropping characters completely from the series, though even those characters manage to have a good moment. The only time this is ever a consistent problem is with police officer Kinnosuke Kuzuhara in the second half. He’s featured in the second opening of the anime misleading viewers he has a decent size role in the second half. The fact he doesn’t do much or receive much characterization is made more noticeable because of it.

From episode thirteen and onwards it builds up is allot more rewarding than the actual resolution to the storylines. The second half of Durarara!! spends lots of time jumping back and forth between timelines where it becomes unnecessary. A linear narrative framing device would have better suited the second half. It’s constantly jumping back to earlier episodes that instead of moving the story forward take steps backwards. Halting progress in certain episodes as literally nothing has happened to progress forward. The reason it does this is because the series is bad at foreshadowing. With the exception of Masaomi Kida past, revelations on characters come out of left fields. For example, there’s a large gang called the Dollars in that no one within it knows who started the gang. Once it gets revealed who started the gang it’s seem to be there to justified following a character for long as it has. It also is a disservice to the character when he’s given a just because motivation of sorts.

Another drawback in the second half is the mystery aspect is gone when the focus is put on the three leads. What exactly is keeping Mikado, Anri, and Masaomi separated is shown to the audience as a series of misunderstanding and indecisiveness. Also, laziness on the writer part for not having the characters talk to each other because of if they did the whole ordeal would have been dealt with quickly. Having them act on assumptions throughout the second half. Compare to earlier storylines, one of which deals with a character looking for her head. Misunderstandings as a source of conflict is less interesting in comparison and executed badly when the audience is show the source before the characters discover it. Making the halt in progress more obvious when waiting patiently for it to move forward.

The ending of the series doesn’t feel conclusive leaving dangling plot threads and fate of certain characters left in the open. In no way is the ending sequel bait as some character arcs (Celty arc being the best example) have satisfying growth by the end of the series. Where it feels inconclusive are with the lead characters. Just when the viewers learn about their past there’s a desire to see how the three will interact with one another once those kept secrets are revealed to everyone. Instead of showing that it simply tidy everything up as if the secrets the lead characters kept from each other wasn’t that big of a deal. It’s a thrilling ride that ends with a whimper instead of a bang.

Good: A layered cast

The story might have a weaker second half, but the cast of characters are able to escape the same pitfall of the story. For starter, not all characters presented will have a major role or even a recurring minor role in the long run. This is made up with the writing that manages to weave together an unlikely cast of character with all sorts of different background together to compliment each other nicely. There are personalities of all types of the love-to-hate jerk Izaya Orihara, the short fuse bartender Shizuo Heiwajima, passionate Otaku Walker and Erika, and many more.

The three leads are high school students and for the duration of the first half they are overshadowed by the supporting cast. Mikado Ryugamine is the new kid with average characteristics, Masaomi Kida the best friend with a hidden past, and Anri Sonohara the bespectacled timid girl. They receive partial characterization in the series that make them good character. When the series finally goes into their past, they become more interesting than how they presented at first sight. In Durarara!! there’s always allot more to the characters than what we initially know. This partial development does backfire when they are the focus in the second half and due lazy writing it creates a force conflict between them. These characters are compelling, but how their story was told brings down what could have been another good arc.

Celty Sturluson, the Headless Rider, is a stand out in the large cast. She goes to Japan in search of her head communicating with the locals through a PDA. Throughout the series she lives with scientist Shinra Kishitani whom she shares an interesting relationship with. It develops into something romantic that, crazy as it sound, but actually sweet in execution. Both characters are playful together as well as being show being able to talk through any issue like a real couple. Whenever Celty and Shinra are on screen the writing is at it’s best.

Another memorable character is Shizuo Heiwajima. The shortfuse bartender with superhuman strength who hates to fight. His characteristic are a bit ironic since he does fight allot in the series leading being in the center of the most over the top moments in the anime. Usually tossing around any large object connected to the ground like a streetlight or vending machines like it weighs nothing. He has a rivalry with Izaya Orihara who’s also another memorable character. Leading to the two clashing heads with Shizuo using his fists and Izaya using his head in their confrontations. This leads to more great moments.

There’s also a group of four friends who are always together consisting of Kyohei, Walker, Erika, and Kyohei. Kyohei is the leader of the group, especially after all four quitting the Blue Squares. Walker and Erika are passionate Otaku and manga reader and if you’ve a large chunk of anime you will know the references all which aren’t subtle. Like in the second opening one of the manga that’s shown in their collection is Sword Art Online, there’s also a poster for the short film Cencoroll hanging outside the theater, or two characters from Baccano making cameos which are only a few references. Lastly there is Saburo, who is the driver of the group and gets mad whenever his van is wrecked. The chemistry between these characters is gold acting like actual friends acting like goofballs even in serious situations.

Good: A catchy soundtrack and a voice cast to die for make up for inconsistent animation

Animation is done by studio Brain’s Base and it’s decent. Coloring in several episodes will have large crowds of people just painted gray or black and white. This makes no sense from a production standpoint given the insane amount of time it must have taken to create Ikebukuro. The backgrounds have to take into account all the effect for neon street signs, lighting of the city at night or day time, the different material of buildings, streets have to seemingly connect to one another, and other tiny details to sell the idea of its being a living, breathing city. With that much hard work put into connecting all the backgrounds to make Ikebukuro come to life, leaving background characters gray comes across as laziness. Whenever it does anything over the top it delivers those moments spectacularly. Though, in motion some character movements (like the first fight between Izaya facial expressions when he first fights Shizuo) will have some unintentionally hilarious awkward facial expressions.

Characters design varies; if it’s an important character they are stylized though not memorable. If they are part of the background than details are spared like fully coloring them to missing some line detail on limbs. Some animation in the second half will take a noticeable dip in quality when they matter the most. In episode 17 titled “Everything Changes”, Shizuo fights a large crowd of people scraping some details like not coloring the large crowds, or rawing a giant blob instead of individuals’ bodies for a crowd. In general Durarara!! has this recurring problem with background characters lacking the same details as important character sparing details through its run. At first it comes across a neat stylistic choice and later feels like laziness.

Director Takahiro Omori makes handling a large cast seem natural. Despite some characters being under utilized Omori direction makes sure it’s never overwhelming to keep track off. While the story being told isn’t linear what events unfold in the episodes are. Omori uses a character to transit into another character to show their perspective in that specific moment or episode. No matter who he rotates the attention to he manages to have far greater success than failures in his direction.

Regardless what format you hear the audio in both cast offer a great list of voice actors. The Japanese voice cast offers Miyano Mamoru, Jun Fukuya, Miyuki Sawashiro, Hiroshi Kamiya, Daisuke Ono, Yuichi Nakamura, and the list goes on. This same rule applies to the English dub, which was produced by Bang Zoom! Entertainment and they basically gathered some of the most recognizable voice actors in anime dubbing. The English dub has a dream cast come true for anyone who watches English dubs regularly. It has the likes of Johnny Bosch Yong, Michelle Ruff, Bryce Papenbrook, Kari Wahlgren, Yuri Lowenthal, Crispin Freeman, Steve Blum, and Patrick Seitz to name a few. Quite a cast, regardless what version is heard.

Both cast have a similar issue of giving talented voice actors little material in the anime. Almost as if just gathering them up for name recognition. In the English dub, Stephanie Sheh plays Rio Kamichika who in only one episode has an important role. Her character fades away quickly after episode two. Another awesome voice actor who gets limited screen time is David Vincent who plays Seji Yagari. His performance is fine, but not varied in how to portray the character. Always having to sound concerned about his girlfriend. Cassandra Lee Morris, who plays Saki Mikajima gets to speak in very little in the anime. In the Japanese cast Keiju Fujiwara, Hochu Ostuka, Toru Okawa, Yuji Ueda, and you get the point.

The weakest link in the English dub is Darrel Guilbeau as Mikado Ryugamine. His performance is uneven and for a leading role. He easily gets overshadowed by his cast members whom deliver better performances. Darrel Guilbeau performance will take time to get used to before sounding natural in it. Toshiyuki Toyonaga who provides the Japanese voice for Mikado Ryugamine is good from the first episode. Bringing personality into an average character without sounding wooden in his portrayal of the everyguy lead. It’s a good performance that unlike Guilbeau, does not get overshadowed by his co-stars.

Kari Wahlgren has more line to deliver than Miyuki Sawashiro in the role of Celty. The way Celty talks to another character is through text on her PDA. Depending how and where you see the anime English subtitles might not appear (even on DVDs this happens) when Japanese text is displayed. This is remedied in the English dub by Kari Wahlgren reading those lines of Japanese text on her phone to the audience, though it will feel like something is missing without knowing that bit of information. Miyuki Sawashiro does equally well in portraying Celty giving her a mysterious aloof charm, warmth, and sisterly undercurrents of her character.

Bryce Papenbrook for the English dub and Mamoru Miyano in the Japanese cast both play Masaomi Kida. Aside from a couple word changes for Papenbrook dialogue (like saying boobilicous) both actors have unfettered energy and enthusiasm down. When it comes to performing the more dramatic scenes Miyano delivery is superior, though Papenbrook is not bad either.His comedic delivery is better than his dramatic voice work. Kana Kanzawa and Michelle Ruff, both play Anri with a timid low voice. Both actresses play the character similarly which, unlike the rest of the cast is difficult to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses. They both do a good job in the role. Crispin Freeman and Daisuke Ono both play Shizuo Heiwajima. Freeman goes more for a perpetually rougher, grittier feel, in his portrayal contrasting Daisuke Ono’s is suave calmness into maniacal madman transitions is entertaining. Both performances portray the character differently, but both interpretations fit the character.

Johnny Yong Bosch and Hiroshi Kamiya play Izaya Orihara. Johnny Yong Bosch performance of Izaya is the definitive portrayal of Izaya. Hiroshi Kamiya is fine in the role, but Johnny Yong Bosch excessive smugness and hammy voice work serve Izaya far better. Unlike Kamiya, Johnny Yong Bosch is able to come across as a comical menace who can make you laugh and take him as a serious threat. Yuri Lowenthal and Jun Fukuyama both played Shinra Kishitani. Lowenthal performance is subtle and compose. It’s an unexpected performance with the contrast Fukuyama goes for the mad scientist route in his portrayal. Fukuyama performance is very fun in the over the top nature he acts, though Lowenthal comes across as a more likable Shinra because when he says something romantic towards Celty it sounds romantic instead of sounding insane.

There’s no wrong way to see Durarara!! since both English sub and English dub deliver the material in virtually the same way. Just a minor word or phrase changes to sound natural in their respective languages. However, the Japanese cast just barely etches out a victory as the superior audio track thanks to Toshiyuki Toyonaga in the leading role as Mikado Ryugamine. Darrel Guilbeau takes time to improve his performance before sounding natural in the role and taking a lot longer to become accustomed to hearing in a cast filled with great voice actors. Toshiyuki Toyonaga is strong from the beginning standing on his own. He provides Mikado a personality adding to the everyguy trait of Mikado. Unlike Darrel Guilbeau who starts out bland, Toshiyuki Toyonaga gets it right from episode one and is a smoother viewing experience. Whatever your preferences for viewing anime is both cast are good.

The first opening theme song, “Uragai no Yuuyake” (Sunset of Betrayal in English) by Theatre Brook is used in episode 1 – 12 is forgettable. It’s fit fine with the opening animation with light rock beats, though it’s nowhere near as memorable as it closing theme. Once the catchy R&B song with J-Pop lyrics, “Trust Me”, by Yuya Matsushita start playing in the outro it’ll be able to put anyone in good mood. The closing animation is a single image that’s pan down with color altering effects to show all the characters. Simple as it might be the track and the closing animation are oddly memorable. The fact there’s dozen of parodies of it first closing animation is a testament how memorable it is.

The second half of the anime has the opposite effect on the second opening (episode 13 – 24) and second closing tracks (episode 13 – 23). In the second half the opening track, “Complication”, by Rookiez is Punk’d is a far more memorable track building up excitement before the anime starts. It’s edgy sound combine with some vocals makes a good rock song that’s able to stand on its own even without having to see the anime. “Butterfly” by On/Off is an okay track that’s not as memorable as “Trust Me” by Yuya Matsushita. The most memorable thing about the track are it’s guitar chords at the end of the track which closes off things nicely. It’s unfortunately accompanied by an animated outro that tries to copy the closing animation of the first half, which is uncreative as it is forgettable.

The OST is composed by Makoto Yoshimori and it’s a fine soundtrack. Heavy in Jazz music it perfectly captures the mood of Ikebukuro from it thuggery environment to its more mysterious side giving off a cool and mysterious vibe. Combining Jazz with piano and violin melodies, industrial instrumental, orchestral, folklore music, and even random noises. Like inserting laughter in the middle of the track “Ikebukuro nishiguchi go mata-ro kostaten”. It’s diverse in genre and risking in composition culminating in a unique soundtrack with plenty of music of all types to offer.

Personal Enjoyment: Despite a lackluster second half I had a good time

It started out weak with it first episode doing nothing, but introducing many characters. Leading to mix feelings to how it might turn out in the long run. Episode two got rid off any and all concerns I might have had with the series. Showing it true strengths in providing an engrossing world and fantastic character moments. Another bonus for me was recognizing the character designer of the Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor series, Suzuhito Yasuda, also did the character designs for the anime in my second viewing of the series. For me personally, that added it a bit more charm to the series in being able to see more of Yasuda creations. Granted the series wasn’t smooth sailing for the entire run. Before reaching its final arc, it was starting to lose some steam which it never overcame. The ending did leave something to be desired on the story front by leaving dangling plot threads, but as a viewing experience I am completely satisfied. While the quality of the story takes a dip towards the end. The true draw of the series for me were the characters that kept me coming back episode after episode. No matter what character took focus I was more than happy to see the events unfold. Watching the series was enjoyable on so many level. Writing (and you possibly reading) this review, which turned out as long as it did not as fun.

Story: 2/3

Characters: 3/3

Production Values (animation, sound, etc.): 2/3

Personal Enjoyment: 1/1

Final Thoughts:

Durarara!! is an entertaining anime where the apparent flaws don’t ever seem to matter when viewing the anime. It’s so easy to get engrossed into the large cast of realize characters and the city of Ikebukuro that losing track of time becomes common in Durarara!!. In every area it has a strong point that stands out from the story that developed layered characters down to the memorable soundtrack that will be stuck in the viewer’s head. It’s an anime that creates a world successfully that you will want to revisit it time and time again to see a different side of what makes Ikebukuro so special.