“What’s that, Miria my dear?”
“What do you suppose they call the Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?”
“Hmm…well, Miria, I believe they’d call it a Royale with Cheese!”
“Wow! Is that because of the metric system?”
“That’s exactly right, Miria! Because of the metric system!”
“Baccano” is an Italian word translating roughly to “raucous noise” or “crazy ruckus.” It implies loud chaos and confusion, and that’s exactly the sort of story delivered in Ryohgo Narita’s series of light novels titled Baccano!, as well as in the anime of the same name. However, it’s also the type of story delivered by Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film Pulp Fiction.
It’s easy to compare the works of Tarantino and Narita, as they’re similar enough that it wouldn’t be surprising if one of them has had direct influence on the other. Both their works are marked by plenty of lowlifes of ambiguous morality spouting quips and pop culture references while committing acts of extreme violence, all delivered in a non-linear story structure set to strikingly iconic soundtracks. The two even set many of their unrelated works in the same universe, and they write similar enough character and duo archetypes that it’s possible to draw parallels between some of their characters.
Pictured: Celty and The Bride from Durarara!! and Kill Bill Vol. 1. Coincidence?
However, it’s Baccano! and Pulp Fiction that are the most similar, as they contain not just stylistic elements, but thematic ones. Pulp Fiction embodies the idea of “baccano,” of crazy ruckus, as much as the series that takes its name from the word, as both series ultimately posit the same thing: that there are no main characters, there are no beginnings or endings, and there is no string of fate guiding us. Rather, our lives are dictated by crazy, dumb, unbelievable coincidence.
Chapter 1: Inglorious Bastards
Or, The Lovable Rogues are Ultimately Still Just Rogues
“What if we were to look at the eccentric pair of hitmen and see the two of them as our central players? Or, perhaps, the young boxer who suffers with a cursed destiny? Or, perhaps, Marcellus Wallace’s brilliant young wife? Or, perhaps…”
“What about this guy? He’s main character-ish.”
Neither Baccano! nor Pulp Fiction have a true protagonist. They both contain personalities who are, in the words of Baccano!’s Carol, “main character-ish,” but ultimately every character is the hero of their own story. There are definitely characters that you’re supposed to like or dislike–characters who are “hero-ish” or “villain-ish,” if you will–but for the most part, there’s no clear primary hero or villain.
In Baccano! it’s a bit more clear-cut, with Szilard Quates, Goose Perkins, Ladd Russo, and Gustavo Bagetta in clearly antagonistic roles within the individual stories, and Firo Prochainezo, Jacuzzi Splot, and Eve Genoard taking on roles similar to protagonists. However, it’s hard to call any of these characters the primary protagonist or antagonist. Then, of course, you have the more ambiguous situations. Take Claire Stanfield and Czeslaw Meyer, who have direct conflict with each other, but which of the two is the protagonist and which is the antagonist is incredibly vague. Claire is a hypercompetent hitman who’s inflicting torture on Czeslaw and gruesomely killing dozens of passengers…but only because they’re threatening the safety of the other passengers. Czeslaw, meanwhile, is treated as a sympathetic and broken person who’s hesitant to trust others after being taken advantage of so frequently in the past…but he’s also smuggling explosives for the mafia and is willing to massacre everyone on the train in order to preserve his own safety. And on top of all this ambiguity regarding protagonists, you have the inclusion of Isaac and Miria, who are the most heavily recurring characters, but are purely agents of chaos who serve as side characters at best.
In Pulp Fiction, the lines of protagonist and antagonist are even more heavily blurred. Hitmen Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield seem to be the protagonists since one or both of them act as our point-of-view character for the first part of the movie, but when boxer Butch Coolidge enters the story he is given equal treatment as a protagonist, to the point that he ultimately kills Vincent–one of our presumed protagonists–in the most anticlimactic manner possible. Then there’s the gangster Marcellus Wallace, who’s shrouded in mystery for the first half of the film. Vincent and Jules speak about their boss like he’s a monster, but his wife Mia speaks highly of him. He serves as Butch’s primary antagonist, but by the end of the story, that antagonism is diffused as the two team up to defeat a more pressing menace and come to an understanding in the process.
Playing into this eschewing of protagonists and antagonists is the fact that both Baccano! and Pulp Fiction are filled with characters of dubious morality. Almost every single character in both works is tied to criminals or, more frequently, is a criminal themselves. The casts are full of bootleggers, thieves, mobsters, cultists, drug dealers, and hitmen, just to name a few. There are no heroes or villains in these stories: just different points of view or lesser evils.
Chapter 2: The Gold Watch
Or, The Infinite Staircase of Time Contains Many Stories but Has No Beginning and No End
When I was creating the story for Baccano! [AN: the first book in the series, not the series as a whole], I imagined a spiral, and for the sequel 1931, I visualized two parallel train tracks.
Just when I was thinking about what to do next, I got the opportunity to see the video Endless Dominos. I thought it was really neat how the ring of dominos fell and rose again, around and around, and that led me to the story for this volume.
~Ryohgo Narita, Baccano! Volume 4 afterword
Perhaps the most interesting element of both Baccano! and Pulp Fiction is how they handle the flow of time. While there are plenty of non-linear stories out there, few treat chronology as cavalierly and arbitrarily as these two.
Pulp Fiction’s chronology is almost inverted. The movie begins with a scene in a diner that ultimately immediately precedes the final scene, but viewed chronologically, the two scenes would take place roughly in the middle of events. Likewise, Butch’s story is placed in the middle of the film and begins with a flashback (set long before the events of the film), ending with what would chronologically be the conclusion of the events in the movie.
The result is that these series of events taken as a whole are given very little focus. Instead, what’s emphasized are the smaller, more personal stories, and even within those, the small moments are given as much prominence as the big ones. Vincent and Jules discussing the quirks of European culture, swapping workplace gossip, and debating whether giving another man’s wife a foot massage is in any way similar to performing oral sex on her is given the same amount of focus as the two of them recovering a briefcase full of (presumably contraband) valuables and then killing everyone in the room. Vincent’s conversations with Mia Wallace as he entertains her at his boss’s behest are elevated to the same level as her needing to be revived after accidentally overdosing on heroin. Butch double-crossing Marcellus Wallace and then fighting his way to freedom is broken up by an extended scene where he spends time relaxing with his girlfriend. Overall it leaves the impression that any greater story is ultimately irrelevant. What’s important in Pulp Fiction is the here and the now.
Baccano! is particularly interesting in this regard, as the order in which events are presented is vastly different from the novels to the anime. The anime chose to take three different storylines and tell them simultaneously, framing them as an assistant at a newspaper struggling to figure out where the story should begin and end as she documents their events. It, similar to Pulp Fiction, begins with the endings to all three stories, then returns to the beginning and begins working back to the endings, jumping back and forth between the three as it focuses on different characters each episode. Through its framing device, it emphasizes the point that the story has no beginning, no end, and no main character.
The books are ultimately far more chronological than the anime, but Narita still enjoys jumping around. While the first novel takes place primarily in 1930, it actually begins with a framing device in 2002, then jumps back to 1711 to establish backstory. After that, the 1930 storyline actually begins, before finally returning to 2002 in the epilogue. The second and third novels take place simultaneously from different perspectives, and the events of both those books occur in the background of a single chapter in the fourth novel.
As Narita says in his afterward to Drug and the Dominos, he’ll often use a deliberate metaphor as a pattern for writing the story. The fourth book’s motif is dominos, toppling and setting off chain reactions with destructive but almost beautiful results. The dominos, arranged in the pattern of a phoenix, also double as a metaphor for immortality, as once they’ve toppled they can simply be set up again. The second and third novel are two sets of parallel train tracks, with both trains traveling towards the same destination, but telling two very different stories due to being seen from different points of view. The first one, however, is the one that sets the metaphor for the series as a whole. It uses the metaphor of a spiral staircase, one which (once most the main characters gain immortality) extends into infinity. It’s an apt metaphor for Baccano!, where the story began with events that started long before the first book and, with its massive cast of characters, many of whom are immortal, has the potential to go on indefinitely.
Chapter 3: Baccano!
Or, An Endless Cycle of People Interacting, Influencing Each Other, and Parting Ways
“I was curious as to what would ultimately count as the beginning and ending of this story.”
“Hmm. That’s a foolish question, Carol. May I hazard a guess and assume you are still trying to ascertain who is the main character in this story?”
“You must liberate your mind from such dogmatic ideals. Rid yourself of this unending illusion that stories have clear beginnings and endings. Stories never begin, nor do they end. They are comprised of people living: an endless cycle of interacting, influencing each other, and parting ways. As long as stories are told, they should not have clear endings, Carol.”
~Carol and Gustav St. Germain, Baccano! Episode 16
Ultimately, the main thing linking Baccano! to Pulp Fiction is not in the ambiguity of who the main character is or the idea that events have no clear beginning or ending, but the result of mixing those two ideas. Pulp Fiction is, like Narita’s series, a baccano, a crazy ruckus. The two stories are both a series of wild, unpredictable events.
If there are any threads of fate running through either of these stories, they are tangled and knotted rather than laid out in any sort of clear way. It’s something that stretches belief so much that it’s hard to reduce it to mere coincidence, but it’s too messy, arbitrary and mundane to be fate. A group of gangsters accidentally gain eternal life when a box full of an elixir of immortality gets mixed up with their drinks. After betraying Marcellus Wallace, Butch just so happens to stop at the intersection where he’s crossing the street with coffee and donuts. In Baccano!, three different factions trying to hold up a train car on the Flying Pussyfoot at the exact same time, and in Pulp Fiction, a thieving couple holds up a diner while two professional hitmen capable of diffusing the situation are inside. All of these are inexplicable events that would seem destined were it not for the fact that they result in such chaos.
They’re just a string of crazy coincidences, happening over and over in a mess so beautiful that it’s enthralling to watch. And just like Isaac and Miria, plowing through life without a second thought, toppling the carefully placed dominos around them, the stories of the characters in Pulp Fiction will still interact, influence people, and part ways. Jules will walk the earth as a retired hitman, trying to atone for his past. Butch will leave Los Angeles forever and begin an entirely new life. Marcellus Wallace will continue to run his gang, spreading his influence throughout the city. And of course, while Vincent Vega is dead, Tarantino has expressed a desire to make a movie about Vincent and his brother Vic (who appears in Reservoir Dogs), so his story ultimately remains unfinished as well.
Like an infinite spiral staircase, there are no true beginnings or endings. Any story’s opening is informed by events that led to it, and no story’s conclusion will bring complete closure. Why, then, does it matter where any particular story begins or ends, or who the main characters are, or even what order the events happen in? After all, stories are just an endless cycle of people interacting, influencing each other, and parting ways.
Update: The original draft of this post included a bit on Pulp Fiction and Baccano!‘s shared legacy in pulp magazines that I have published here. There wasn’t a good place to include it in this post but I still found it worth sharing.