Don't scroll down yet.
I really, really advise against reading anything in this post but the watch-alikes/read-alikes list if you have any desire to see this show and haven't already. There are a lot of spoilers in this post, which would ruin one of the great pleasures of this show, finding things out as they are revealed. And this warning is, by the way, coming from someone who can't help but look up spoilers for everything. You have no idea how hard it was to keep myself from looking up character information as I watched this show, but I'm glad I didn't.
This synopsis is hard. This show is not presented in chronological order, so it's pretty disjointed. Plus, it follows the separate yet often converging paths of many characters and groups. That makes for a complicated story.
Most of the story takes place from 1930 to 1932, although there are occasional snippets that take place a few years prior to this range of years and even a few decades later.
The meat of the story, I guess, is a train ride nearly all of the primary characters are taking. During that train ride, several groups become violent, each having their own ends they'd like to achieve, and many people die. That doesn't actually mean this is a depressing show, by the way.
Long before the train ride, one of the characters performed some kind of magic or alchemy that resulted in him getting a drink from the devil that grants immortality. He and others in his group drank it, but only he knew the recipe for it. One of the characters, Szilard, wanted to have this recipe for himself and began "eating" other immortals in order to learn it. Szilard never ends up on the train, however.
You see, yet another character manages to make the drink of immortality. The first version he came up with granted one immortal life, but did not stop the aging process - those who drank it were mostly immortal, but could still die of old age. The perfected version grants both eternal life and a frozen aging process. Unfortunately, the character who made the drink was only able to save two bottles of the stuff from a fire. And, unfortunately for Szilard, those bottles ended up in the hands of a couple thieves, who drank them with a bunch of their friends. Every one of them unwittingly becomes immortal, and one of them manages to kill Szilard.
So, there are three main sources of death on the train, but Szilard isn't one of them. One group, the people in white outfits, just wants to kill for fun (or, in some cases, for money). The leader of that group, Ladd, enjoys killing people who think they're safe from being killed. Another group, the people in black outfits, plans on holding the train hostage in order to bargain for the release of Huey Laforet, an immortal being held captive by the government. They would like the secret to his immortality. Finally, there is a red monster of some kind, the Rail Tracer, reducing various passengers in the train to so much meat.
And that doesn't even get into all the other passengers of the train, such as the woman who loves explosives, and the boy whose horrific past experiences make it difficult for him to trust anyone.
Not exactly a very thorough synopsis, eh? I wasn't entirely sure how much to say. On the one hand, I could have written a few of the basics, just sticking to what little viewers are told in the first episode or two. On the other hand, that's not a lot of information, and I wasn't sure I could remember what had or hadn't been said that early on in the show. Every episode of this show reveals something new, and, by the midway point, you learn that some of the things you thought were true at the beginning really aren't. I love watching that kind of stuff, but then I agonize over my usual spoiler-y way of writing synopses. So, I ended up compromising a bit. Yes, my synopsis has spoilers, but I hardly used any names, I didn't say who survived the train ride of death, and I didn't mention what happened after the train ride was over. Although it's not like you can't piece at least a little of that together by reading this commentary.
I'll give this warning a second time: go no further if you think you'd like to see this show and want to get the full enjoyment of finding things out as they are revealed in the show.
This show took a while to grow on me, because I found it a little too confusing at first. I wasn't really sure what was going on, what I should be paying attention to, who I should be paying attention to, and what kind of relationships the characters all had with each other. I wasn't even always clear about when things were happening, even though the show helpfully included the year for all or most of the scenes.
It wasn't until I was halfway through the show that I really got into it, although my interest was sparked at an earlier point than that, when the train ride part began. It just took finding out the identity of the Rail Tracer for me to be completely hooked. Even then, however, I didn't sit there and watch the entire rest of the show in one sitting. I couldn't - I'm not sure my brain could have taken it. I ended up taking breaks of about a day or two between nearly every episode, so that I could let the new information (and sometimes new characters) revealed by the previous episode sink in. There was always a lot to take in.
Even though I hated the ending of this show, it's still on my "To Buy" list, because I did enjoy it overall, because it's a show that should be viewed multiple times and I prefer to do that kind of thing with DVDs I own rather that via streaming videos on the Internet, and because I'd like to hear the English dub. Depending on how everyone was cast, I might end up preferring the English dub over the original Japanese. It's happened to me before, Cowboy Bebop being an excellent example.
This show had tons of super-fun parts. I enjoyed watching Ladd's fight with Graham - by that point in the show, I had almost begun to like Ladd. He's a violent, scary guy, but he loves Lua in his own way (although I'm wondering, did he kill her or not?). For Graham, Ladd ends up being like a role model on steroids. And Graham is like Ladd on a massive sugar high.
Chane's fight with Graham, with Vino butting in and declaring his love for Chane, and then Vino deciding to fight Graham himself, was also fun to watch. Really, once Vino became more than just a scary monster, I enjoyed just about every scene he was in. The scene where he asked Rachel for advice about declaring his love to Chane was hilarious (his conundrum was something along the lines of "does she love me back, or does she just want to kill me?").
And somehow I also enjoyed the whole domino thing. Even though nothing much really happened during the domino scenes, it was great just watching everyone be so serious about nothing. It's something that wouldn't have worked if it had taken place earlier in the show, but by the point that it did happen, I had gotten to know all the characters involved and I could just sit back and enjoy watching them interact and have fun.
Unfortunately, the ending, or lack thereof, drives. me crazy. Lots of things don't get resolved. We never see Eve reunited with her brother Dallas, we don't know if Firo and Ennis become a couple, we don't know where Chez ended up, we don't know if Ladd ever got his groove back, we don't know what made Lua so messed up that she was happy at the thought of Ladd killing her, we don't know what happens to Huey. The list goes on.
Another thing. I distinctly remember seeing a clip of this show, or maybe something in a preview, in which someone from the group of immortals shot at Isaac, nicking his ear. His ear healed, and he was shocked, and that was apparently how he learned he was an immortal. It looked like it happened at the bit right after everyone got off the train of death, when they were at the station and met Maiza. However, I don't think it actually happened, and it looked like it didn't occur to Isaac and Miria what they were until decades later.
Well, despite my confusion and a few nitpicks, this show was really good, and I highly recommend it.
Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
- Cowboy Bebop (anime TV series) - This is a bit vague, but I feel like this show has a similar energy, even though the story and storytelling style has nothing in common with Baccano. The series is about a group of bounty hunters who are always trying to catch their next bounty. Unfortunately, they're not always very successful, leaving them perpetually low on money and decent food. Yeah, I know, it doesn't sound much like Baccano at all, but give it a try.
- Memento (live action movie) - This is another one with a disjointed story, although not in quite the same way as Baccano. The events of this movie are shown in reverse chronological order, so as to keep viewers about as confused as the main character, a man whose short-term memory is damaged. The characters around him all know what's going on more than he does and, even though he writes notes to himself to try to keep track of information he has learned, sometimes those notes are false. Can he somehow find the person who murdered his wife, and who around him can he trust to help him? It's a good movie, but much darker overall than Baccano.
- Darkly Dreaming Dexter (book) by Jeff Lindsay - If you like the cheerful violence of Ladd, Graham, and the Rail Tracer, you might want to try this, the first book in Lindsay's Dexter Morgan series (if you watch Dexter on Showtime, then you are watching the show based on the characters from these books). Dexter is a serial killer who, by day, is a blood spatter pattern analyst for the police department. Sticking to the rules laid down by Harry, a cop and the man who raised him, Dexter only kills people who have done bad things, people the law isn't equipped to deal with.
- Durarara!! (anime TV series) - I have yet to see this show, but every time I hear about it, some comparison is always made with Baccano, so there seems to be a consensus that if you like Baccano you will probably like Durarara!! (often shortened to DRRR!!). It sounds like this one also has quite a few characters and reveals things to viewers by showing events from different characters' perspectives.
- The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (anime TV series) - Another one for those who'd like another story told in a disjointed style. Unfortunately, I'm not sure which DVD set you'd have to buy in order to watch it in its original broadcast order. To explain: I own a boxed set of the complete series and, although I enjoyed the show, I was rather confused by the pacing, which made the show feel like it ended long before it actually did. Then I learned that the boxed set I bought presented the episodes in chronologically order, with no warning that the original broadcast order was very different - the episodes I thought felt like they should have ended the show actually were the end of the show, as it was originally broadcast. I pieced together the order I should have watched the episodes in but haven't gotten around to watching them that way yet. This show is much, much less violent than Baccano and follows the adventures of a girl who may have god-like powers. However, she has no idea what she can do and, to keep her from accidentally destroying the world out of boredom, the people closest to her do their best to keep her entertained.