Full disclosure: while we watched this show in its entirety in streaming at the time of its original airing, we also received a screener DVD containing the first five episodes of this series, English dubbed only, from Aniplex USA for the purposes of review.
Adapting a sprawling, ongoing serial novel like Ryohgo Narita’s Durarara!! (hereafter the easier-to-type DRRR) is tricky work: Brains Base has to worry themselves with what to leave in, where to condense, and where to take liberties while still leaving a complicated story, a massive cast of characters, and the strings that connect them intact. Now, the original DRRR novels aren’t available in English and I can’t read Japanese, so this isn’t going to be a review where we look at things like that. However, the DRRR animation runs into another adaptation problem, and it is a big one: what if one half of the story you’re adapting is strong and the other, as Mr. Masaomi Kida would say, totally blows?
DRRR is the story of a restless teenage boy who moves into Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district in search of adventure and the extraordinary, and who bites off a bit more than he can chew. This Ikebukuro is home to brawlers, gang wars, psychos, supermen, demons and monsters, and he’s about to become very well acquainted.
The show starts slowly– in fact, the 5-episode screener DVD I have here contains little but character introduction and backstory. With the sheer amount of characters and plotlines being introduced, we can allow it that time to set up its grand design: all the weirdos, freaks and monsters in Ikebukuro get caught up in the mystery surrounding the still-living, disembodied head of an Irish death fairy. This first arc doesn’t answer every question about the dullahan, but it doesn’t have to. Once the plot gains steam, DRRR is a hell of a ride: an intricate, twisting story that pays off as much in superhuman action, great characters, and big reveals as it sets up for.
Halfway through the show, I was thoroughly satisfied and felt entirely optimistic about where the show would go next. Oh boy, more ghost-bike, and dudes getting punched out of their clothes! More vending machine vs. knife action! Apocalyptic warfare in Tokyo gangland! This was gonna be totally awesome. Do you know why people who’ve been watching anime for a long time always come off as jaded, joyless and generally awful? It’s because they’ve watched so many TV shows that wind up doing this to them and letting them down hard.
Something happens around the middle off DRRR, like the light switch of inspiration flicking off inside of Narita’s brain. The first arc of the show is slow, but it pays off handsomely and goes so far as to explicitly promise great things coming up soon. The second half of DRRR backs hurriedly away from all that potential, and opts instead to adapt a C-grade story. The most distinctive, exciting, and mysterious people in Ikebukuro fall fully into the background, the opening animation goes from Guy Ritchie to a teen whine-rock video, and suddenly we’re spending all our time with the kids.
Now, I’m not fundamentally opposed to watching the teen love triangle between the protagonists of this story, and finding out more about what these kids’ deal is. The hook of the second arc– that the hero and his best friends hold deep secrets that reposition them as bitter enemies in a brewing war that threatens to devour Ikebukuro– is compelling. Or it would be, if the show went anywhere with that. Instead, it sits on its hands: introducing characters who don’t go anywhere (or worse, never make a second appearance), making revelations and hints that never pay off, spending all its time on the kids not taking action, and capping the season with an anticlimactic non-battle against a villain so flat and two-bit that I believe I last saw him when Kenshiro made his head explode in 1985.
Again, the adaptation problem rears its head: couldn’t we just skip the weak part? The answer is unfortunately “no”, because this otherwise dull tale is packed with major revelations that the audience will need to know for any further DRRR story to make any sense. Brains Base is stuck with this story, it’s not really their fault, and they do the best they can with what they’ve got. There are even a few animation showcases to try and make up for the bad story and the plummeting production values: Shizuo Heiwajima’s rare spotlight moments express him not so much as a man as a living embodiment of one of those dust clouds you see in a Looney Tunes cartoon when Bugs and Daffy get in a fight.
The show doesn’t precisely end on a cliffhanger, but it leaves just about everything it’s brought up hanging. At the end of the show, I was only really satisfied that the bad part of DRRR was finally over. I continue to hope that either a theroetical second season of the show will get back to the good stuff and salvage the time lost, or (and this is never happening) that the novels will be published in English so I can decide for myself what went wrong here.
The screener I have here is dubbed in English only. Given the choice I’m not really a dub watcher, but the actors do well until a Japanese word occasionally trips them up, or the rhythm of the original dialogue doesn’t wholly match up with English: the same problems that have been plaguing English dubs of anime since forever.
Aniplex USA is going to be releasing this series in three box sets, so here’s your official Colony Drop Real Dude Course of Action:
– Buy DRRR box set 1
– Buy DRRR box set 2, barter second disc to someone else for goods or services or your choosing
– Act like DRRR box set 3 doesn’t even exist
– If DRRR season 2 gets made, watch it after asking somebody else what happened in the second half of DRRR.
And you’re set!