It’s easy to make assumptions about people that you don’t know. A group of teenagers: probably high schoolers. Everyone around you at the grocery store: probably bored.
The bigger the group, the broader and more biased the assumptions. City folk: probably in a hurry. Canadians: probably polite.
All of these generalizations are based on templates which we’ve created in our minds about what it means to be a so-called “normal person;” along with certain categories of normalcy which we use if we need to get more specific. When we look at strangers, we tend to think of them as nothing more than “normal;” maybe with some qualifiers, like “normal white guy,” or “normal old lady.” We think of people this way because we don’t know anything about them–and since we’re not necessarily interested in learning about them, our brains quickly categorize them by way of basic understanding without giving them much thought.
But in reality, everyone has a story of which they are the main character, in a book which only so many people will actually read from. Everyone is, in their own way, a protagonist; whether theirs is the kind of story that we’re interested in reading or not. Sometimes we get the chance to read a bit of someone’s story and it leaves us wanting to know more; and some of those stories are appealing enough to be shared until they become famous.
If you’ve never read the blog Humans of New York, I highly recommend it for getting a sense of the people passing by you every day on the street. It’s a collection of portraits coupled with quotes and short stories from random people, and it peels back the curtain a bit on the interesting things going on with every person that you ever run into. It’s a testament to the density of human stories–and so, in its own way, is Durarara.
The most important character in Durarara is the district of Ikebukuro–which is why the entire first episode is dedicated to introducing it. In order to understand what portrait I think Durarara’s author, Ryougo Narita, is trying to paint of his Ikebukuro, I think we have to start by understanding some things about the actual real-life city.
For starters, Ikebukuro isn’t a city at all. It’s a small district of Toshima City; which is, itself, not a city either, but one of the eight central wards of the Tokyo Metropolitan area. Toshima as a whole is home to fewer than 300,000 people, who are densely packed into just over five square miles of land–into which another 70,000 people commute each day. Unfortunately, I don’t know exactly how many people live in Ikebukuro specifically, but considering that it’s known primarily for being a commercial and entertainment district, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the people inhabiting it on a daily basis are commuting into the city.
The point I’m getting at is that Ikebukuro is tiny, both in terms of land mass and relative population; and this is important because of the sheer number of characters who are relevant in some way to the story of Durarara!! Going by the number of pages in the “characters” category on the series wiki, there are at least 74 named characters in the story. Beyond this, factor in all of the members of the Amphisbaena, the Awakusu-kai, the Blue Squares, the Yellow Scarves, the Toramaru, the Dragon Zombies, the Saika Army, and the Dollars, and there are hundreds, if not possibly thousands of characters tangentially related to the main events going on in the story; which amounts to a sizeable percentage of the population of Ikebukuro.
But what’s fascinating about the presentation of relevant characters in this story, is that none of them really knows how the people around them are related. Most of the named characters have their own things going on, and are really only concerned with a little bit of what’s happening in the city. It’s only when people start taking action that the ramifications of those actions begin to ripple out across the rich tapestry of human interaction that is society.
Narita’s Ikebukuro is brimming with larger-than-life celebrity characters, a lot of whom we learn about up-front: a headless biker with a cat-eared helmet; a man dressed like a bartender with superhuman strength; an information broken manipulating everyone to do his bidding; a back-alley doctor taking on supernatural patients; etc. Some of the characters are even celebrities in the traditional sense, such as the idol who is secretly a killer, and the actor who falls in love with her.
But Durarara isn’t only interested in its famous characters–it’s also interested in the unassuming high school boys who are secretly leaders of the city’s biggest gangs, as well as their shy girl friend who is actually possessed by an evil sword spirit. It’s interested in a van full of otaku who always seem to find themselves in the middle of the action, as well as the proprietors of a Russian sushi shop which is actually tied to the mafia. It’s interested in a high school stalker who knows more about what’s going on in the city than anyone else just because she wants to be able to protect her boyfriend, as well as an otherwise normal little girl who finds out that her father is a mafia boss.
In Ikebukuro, everyone has a story. Even the people who seem normal at first are hiding a more exciting secret, and all of them are connected in ways that they might not even realize. The grey mass of supposedly irrelevant background pedestrians could actually turn out to be a massive number of interconnected gang members organizing themselves via internet forums–which is exactly the case during the show’s biggest payoff in episode eleven.
To me, Durarara has always looked like a celebration of humanity’s intrigue, presented in a twisted, supernatural form. It’s a fiction-is-just-as-strange-as-truth approach to showing just how much is going on in the world around is, and how connected everybody really is. Parts of the time, it’s about the buildup to the big moments when all of the pieces of the story fall into place in one giant spectacle; but even more of the time, I think it’s about moments like this from episode four of season two–when a huge group of otherwise insane characters in the middle of their own crazy narratives all sit down for a hot pot together. Most of them don’t even know what the others are going through–they all simply see one-another as friends–yet all of them are actually protagonists.
All of this is what makes Orihara Izaya such a perfect villain for this story. Izaya loves people more than anything, and is fascinated by learning about and becoming a part of their stories. He’s a person who wants to lift up and shake the tapestry of society until it ripples and folds in on itself.
One of his best scenes comes in the first episode of X2 Ten, when he’s attacked in his hospital bed by a girl that he tormented in the past. She was someone whom he saw as normal–lacking connection to the sub-world of abnormalcy over which he reigns supreme–and who’s now been dragged into his world by her own actions. Izaya wants to change and to connect everyone’s stories in an even more complex and chaotic web, in the name of turning Ikebukuro into a battlefield befitting of Valhalla; and he does this by having the best grasp out of anyone of how everyone in the city is connected. In episode seven of X2 Ten, he invites his own crew of newly connected villains to have their own hot pot moment.
My favorite piece of dialog in all of Durarara comes from Izaya’s speech to Mikado in episode twelve. He tells Mikado that life in Tokyo will become normal in about six months, and that if he wants things to stay interesting, then he’ll need to get into some underground stuff–which will then become normal to him after a few days. In order for things to stay abnormal, he’d have to be constantly evolving–but Izaya’s advice is to “enjoy everyday life.”
At a certain point, especially in the second season, that’s exactly what Durarara becomes–if it’s not what the series was all along. As the episodes have become more and more disjointed, the plot more vague, and the payoffs more minute, it seems more and more like Durarara is just the story of a bunch of normal people living their everyday lives, which coincidentally run into one-another and suck more and more people in as they go along. It just so happens that being a normal person in Ikebukuro is the same thing as being a total badass.