There is no easy way to sum up the anime series Durarara!! Even its name, which will likely give Seven’s copy desk a fit of apoplexy with its two unnecessary exclamation points, doesn’t translate well from the Japanese; it is essentially a gibberish word that might be an onomatopoeia for the revving of a motorcycle, or might not. Ryohgo Narita, who wrote the pulp novels upon which the show is based, is maddeningly vague on the provenance of the title. And, also, on the provenance of everything else.
Actually watching Durarara!! only makes things worse. At its heart it’s a soap opera, with a constantly expanding cast that is presently nearly three-dozen characters strong. The show never kills off or retires anyone; a minor character can disappear for 10 episodes and then reappear as if we never completely forgot he existed. And the plotting is so dense and so tangled that I can’t say with certainty what more than three-quarters of those characters want to do. But I know they want it, whatever it is. They want it bad.
So why watch Durarara!! at all? Because when it does work—and there are moments, terrific moments, when it does—it’s one of the damndest things you’ve ever seen. It’s a tapestry of fascinating stories, some of them supernatural and some completely human, and when they intersect, even the characters driving these stories are fascinated by each other. It’s almost like they’re like me, sitting at home watching this stuff, saying, “Huh. That’s weird.”
Take Mikado Ryugamine, the quiet-natured teenage boy whose move from the countryside to Ikebukuro—a district within Tokyo’s Toshima City ward—sets the plot in motion. Part of the reason Mikado comes to Ikebukuro is because he’s fascinated by local legend Celty Sturluson, a black-clad transporter that doesn’t have a head under her cat-eared motorcycle helmet. (She’s in town looking for it. Like ya do.) And Celty admires Shizuo Heiwajima, a mob enforcer who dresses like a hotel bartender and is strong enough to rip a telephone pole out of the ground and smack you around with it.
We need to stop there. Durarara!! has many, many more characters, and every one of them has a story full of possible spoilers. Besides, the great moments of Durarara!! don’t come from who these characters are, but what they do. The show gives us so many spectacular visual and narrative set pieces that we can easily forgive its confusing plotlines and stilted dialogue. (The latter is probably a result of poor translation; as is the case with most television anime, this one is better subtitled). A street gang breaks into operatic song; an assassination is thwarted by a group text; the transporter races her motorcycle up the side of a building. Durarara!! delivers this kind of spectacle on the regular.
Better still are those moments when Durarara!! settles down and makes genial conversation—when those supernatural beings, mobsters and prep-school kids get a table at the local Russian-run sushi joint and simply shoot the breeze. The animation studios that create Durarara!!—Brain’s Base did the first season, Shuka the second—have created an engrossing playground for these players; their Ikebukuro is as palpable an environment as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or Blade Runner’s Los Angeles. It has such a clarity and weight to it that you actually kinda miss the place between episodes.
This next run of 12 episodes, the conclusion to the show’s second season, begins streaming on subscription anime service Crunchyroll at 8 a.m. January 9. (You can watch Crunchyroll through most set-top boxes, including Apple TV, Chromecast, Playstation 4 and Xbox One.) I can’t recommend you just jump in there, because you’ll be horribly lost. (To be honest, I’m not sure I can recommend Durarara!! at all; it’s an acquired taste.) But I can tell you that there’s nothing on television that’s even close to it, not even other anime. When a headless rider is your show’s most well-adjusted character, you know you’re riding into unknown territory. —Geoff Carter