I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that every character is the protagonist of their own story. In the best narratives, every person has their own motivations and perspective, a whole life that’s happening alongside the life of the main character. When done right, it adds depth and realism to even the most fantastical of stories. It feels like a reflection of real life, where each person you meet has an entire life they’re living separate from your own, but which for one reason or another intersects with yours for at least a moment or two. Their story may remain unknown to you, but it’s no less important than yours. Although ensemble cast stories try to apply this concept, it’s often obvious that the writers have favorites among the group of characters who they’ll give more lines, more screen time, and better narratives. Baccano!, a character-packed action anime, staunchly refuses to fall into this trap.
Then Who’s Flying the Plane?
Baccano! is a show that takes the term “ensemble cast” very, very seriously. It believes that each of its twenty-ish characters is a protagonist with their own important story to tell, and tells every single one of those stories at the same damn time. It’s a story about train heists, a death cult, Faustian deals, assassins, alchemy, prohibition, gangs, and more. Every character’s individual plot at first seems unrelated to the others’, but eventually they cross, tangle, and weave into a web so intricate it’s a miracle the writers didn’t tie themselves into knots pulling it off.
This style of storytelling is rare in other ensemble cast narratives. The X-Men movie series, which has often had a cast of characters that would all be interesting leads in their own right, has more or less always been “Wolverine and the X-Men” from the beginning. Although we occasionally get to see other characters’ backstories and motivations, the audience spends most of its time following Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine through the main plot of most of the films.
In Baccano!, every plot is the main plot, all happening simultaneously as its large cast of characters moves through events at various points in time. The show begins by giving the audience contextless glimpses of the different situations characters find themselves in, such as their apparent murder or a bank robbery, and then slowly filling in the blanks around them over the course of the episodes, never focusing on the same character for too long. The narrative leaps wildly from character to character during each episode as you wonder, ‘How is this this all going to tie together?’ until the plot threads collide in the finale.
Murder on the Pussyfoot Express
The bulk of Baccano! takes place on the express train that most of the characters find themselves on, the Flying Pussyfoot. Some characters are there to steal from the passengers, some are there to kill the passengers, and some are there for reasons we don’t understand until their story crosses with someone else’s. It’s clear that if any of the characters were removed from the story, it would leave the narrative with large, confusing holes.
While soft-hearted gang leaders Jacuzzi and Nice attempt to rob a train, a young boy named Czeslaw hunts down other immortals on the same train before they can kill him, not knowing that those immortals are the harmless idiots Isaac and Miria, on their way to visit Ennis, a friend who works for a villain. Somewhere else on the same train, a string of grisly murders is taking place, while another group led by the unhinged Ladd Russo plots to kill the passengers on the train for his own pleasure, catching the attention of the serial killer who calls himself the Rail Tracer, who is also eyeing Czeslaw’s activities with interest.
While we get to see how these plots all connect in single instances, we’re also shown the plots in full from the perspectives of the individual characters involved, and how they affect each other. Two characters at the start of the story lampshade this unusual storytelling technique as they try to decide who the main characters of the events are. The conclusion is that they are all the main characters and that each individual story is just as important as the next to understand the full scope of the events that unfold. There is no A-plot led by one or two of the characters, and there is no less important B-plot that the side characters are relegated to.
By comparison, Finn and Rose Tico, two of the supposed leads in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, spend most of the film in a B-plot that ultimately ends up not affecting the main story led by the clear writer favorites, Rey, Luke Skywalker, and Kylo Ren. The poster even makes it clear who the “main characters” of the film are meant to be. It’s hard to feel like they were given a fair chance to contribute to the story, and like their character arcs were more afterthoughts meant to keep them out of the way of the A-plot. Ultimately this makes for an unsatisfying, hollow experience, particularly if they’re characters you’re invested in. But Baccano! doesn’t see its characters as pieces to keep out of the way, and it shows in their character arcs and how they all tie into each other’s narratives.
Plot Armor for Everybody
As leads of their own stories, some characters even seem to have a Protagonist’s Immunity that allows them to repeatedly sidestep death, sometimes to a comical degree. By the end of the anime, we come to find out that many of the characters who have repeatedly bounced out of dangerous situations intact, like Isaac and Miria, have been granted immortality through a zany series of events. The genre of the series also changes to reflect the different characters we follow — you get comedy from Isaac and Miria, horror from Claire, and sci-fi, fantasy, and even suspense thriller from other characters. Somehow, the tonal changes feel natural and never jarring, echoing the way the show flows smoothly from one character’s perspective to the next over the course of minutes.
Baccano! is impressive because so many other stories have come up lacking where it excels. Although ensemble cast stories are common, they are often ensemble casts in name only, with stories rarely using those casts to their maximum potential.
For instance, cult darling Firefly attempted to focus on its multiple characters equally, but there was always a clear lead working the A-plot — Nathan Fillion’s Mal Reynolds. One would be hard-pressed to say Morena Baccarin’s Inara or Gina Torres’ Zoe Washburne are as main a focus in the overall story as Mal. The same goes for comedy ensemble Community. Although the different characters were all shown getting into zany adventures during many episodes, I always had the impression that Joel McHale’s Jeff Winger was the lead, and whatever plot he was in was the plot to watch.
But in Baccano! every character is the lead, each narrative is only a fraction of the plot, and if even a single piece is missing, the story completely falls apart. Baccano! reminds the audience that perspective is everything and that the right story from even a seemingly insignificant character can turn our perception of an entire event on its head in an instant.