Every so often an anime episode comes along that’s so good, I have to step back for a while at the end just take in how good it was. That’s how good this week’s ep of 91 Days was – truthfully one of the best anime episodes I’ve seen this year. I think this series showed how flawless it can be with the A-part of the premiere, and while it’s been downright excellent since then, with this it’s managed to maintain that epic standard of quality for an entire episode. As an original series that’s written specifically to have a start, middle and end that fits into its time slot, the sky really is the limit for 91 Days.
I’m sorry to beat a dead horse, but it’s absolutely remarkable how authentic to the time and place it’s presenting 91 Days is. Or rather, authentic to the version of that time and place as depicted in American fiction and movies (which is how most of us today see it in our mind’s eye). It’s tangibly an anime, yes, but there are so many innate little details that I don’t think I’ve ever seen an anime get quite so spot-on – most importantly in the general tone and feel of the piece. It’s a fanciful version of America during prohibition, but it’s not the thoroughly surreal and Japanese fancy of Baccano! – it’s the fancy of Max Allen Collins and Sam Mendes, of the Coen Brothers, of De Palma. Only a thoroughly informed and respectful writer and director – as Kishimoto-sensei and Kaburaki-sensei clearly are – could pull that off.
Of course, it should be duly noted here that one of the stories that 91 Days is clearly an homage to – “The Road to Perdition” – is itself an acknowledged homage to the Japanese manga Lone Wolf and Cub. So I suppose the circle is a closed one. None of that would matter so much if the story and its execution weren’t up to the challenge, but they so magnificently are. While the second half of this episode was a breathless tour de force, it would be hard to overstate how much I loved the first – Nero and Angelo ambling their way through a rural America that was mundane and vibrant at the same time. Few genres are more precious to American cinema than the road trip and the buddy picture, and this was a marvelous rendition of those old tunes.
The premise here is really riveting, because the chemistry between Angelo and Nero is so riveting. Nero is one of those guys that’s hard not to like, and you can almost see the conflict inside Angelo as he struggles to stop himself from seeing Nero as a human being. He sits sullenly behind the wheel of their car, driving too slowly and refusing to be drawn out as Nero keeps up a constant patter next to him. The scene are the car camp (a fixture in America in the 1930s) was a joy to watch – the kids and the piñata, Nero’s juggling, Angelo revealing his pickpocket skills. There’s not that much happening here in the plot sense, but these moments are rich and absorbing – the interactions are so natural and so charming that for me at least it’s impossible not to be totally caught up in the moment.
After that, the episode takes a much darker and more dangerous but no less successful turn as the assassin sent by Orco closes in on Nero and Angelo. He’s a freakishly tall Mexican fellow with a bloodhound who reminds me more than anything of Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men. He trails Nero and Angelo to the small town where Nero has bribed the local sheriff to point him towards the town speakeasy (at Schwab’s Drugstore, itself an homage to the legendary Hollywood pharmacy where stars were legendarily discovered working as soda jerks and waitresses) while Angelo does the shopping, leading to an eventual arm-wrestling (mis)match, and the first confrontation of several to come. Valbero has warned Nero that this “Goliath” is after them, but Nero is a pretty unflappable fellow – a loveable rogue who’s calm under fire and full of piss and vinegar.
This showdown is pure, classic Hollywood schtick – and you’ll rarely see it done better even in Hollywood. Eventually Mexico and his dog track the boys to the old barn where they’re waiting to ambush him (though not before Angelo has rammed into him with their car, totalling the car but not the assassin – “Uh, oh”). Bullets, knives, pineapple cans flung by razor-strap slingshots – none of them can fell this giant sequoia, but several rounds from the farmer’s shotgun finally bring him down. Nero leaves the farmer with the assassin’s dog and the dead sheriff’s wallet (courtesy of Angelo’s quick hands) and the runaways take Mexico’s stolen cart and horse and head back on the road. I don’t suppose they know there’s a dead cart driver in a barrel traveling with them, either.
This is just great, great storytelling – top-shelf all the way. 91 Days has it all working at this point – atmosphere out the wazoo, terrific chemistry between the leads, sharp humor, heart, and a rock-solid premise with an air of mystery. Angelo now knows that Nero was definitely there the night his family died (at the tender age of 14) – but he knows there was a fourth person there, too, and that Nero didn’t do the deed himself where his family was concerned. How Angelo reacts as he inevitably bonds with Nero is going to be a fascinating thing to watch play out, and then there’s the matter of Frate – something important is hidden there, though I still don’t think Frate is the (mostly) grown-up Luce (that has red herring written all over it). I’m in awe of how well put-together all this is – 91 Days has served notice with this episode that it’s a serious contender for anime of the season.