"Revenge is a dish best served cold."
This is the cornerstone expression that drives 91 Days. An expression that it lives and dies by, down to the very fabric of its being. One that we're quickly made aware of from the opening act that plants us into its world.
The arms of the clock tick in reverse, as we travel back to the days of the prohibition era. It's a cold night in April, and our young protagonist, Angelo Lagusa, enters frame. In the warm glow of his household, behind the thick wooden walls that push the harsh cold out, he's at ease with the comfort of his family filling in the spaces of his living quarters. Cushioned by a blanket of security, Angelo and his little brother, Luce, awaits their father's return, hiding away in anticipation for the moment he walks through the door. It's a brief hallmark moment, the siblings' father cheerfully calling out their names, waiting for a likely response to ring out from within the closet. But little does Angelo know, that everything he's known up to this point is about to come to an end with the sudden knock of a visitor at the door — dun! dun! dun! —... and so it begins.
Three burly figures draped in thick trench coats steps inside. And just like that, the warm radiance that once filled the house is immediately sucked out. In its place, the thick stench of malice creeps in, seeping through the floorboards, suffocating the very air around them. Something is about to happen and every beating heart in that room could feel it coming. Angelo's father lounges forward, blade in hand and his little brother bolts out the 2'x8' coffin to come to his parents' aid before Angelo could even react. Stifled by the linen hanging behind him and the fear of what he's witnessing in front, our young protagonist is left frozen to look on, powerless to take action against the chaos looming right outside his hiding space. Peaking through the wooden panels of the cramped closet, he bares witness to a sight that will forever haunt him. Bullets leave their chamber, the thunderous echoes marking their departure, as they tear through the flesh of what he once called family.
This is it. This is the event. This is the anger that fuels him. This is the removal of normalcy. This is the motivation that keeps him going. This is the beginning of something sinister. This is the landmark moment that will forever pave his path with blood stains of burgundy and the sulfuric stench of gunpowder. "Revenge is a dish best served cold." and Angelo is determined to deliver it, even at the cost of innocent bystanders that's oblivious to his vendetta. The cost of him ever living a normal life. And at the cost of what little shred of humanity was left during that cold winter night. When he goes through with this, there's no turning back. No one to turn to. No one to pray for his godforsaken soul. And so we depart with him, down the topsy-turvy course of trust and betrayal, with a hit list in hand and a determination that refuses to yield. He begins his journey, the first steps are taken, day one begins.
Bearing a similar tone and structure to projects done by movie heavyweights Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, 91 Days plays out like a love-child of these two worlds being brought together. This is immediately felt with the sultry musical backing, soft piano keys being carted off by bellowing brass instruments, stylistically cropped with titles cards and blood-curdling violin strings, as the camera slowly pans across the landscape. Traversing the fledgling stages of a city aiming to shoot their infrastructures towards the heavens, we're made aware of this place that's aptly named Lawless; a nesting ground for those trying to carve out a living for themselves, as well as the mafia families that make up the seedy underbelly of the booming alcohol smuggling trade. After laying low for seven years, Angelo makes his return to this city, reborn under the alias Avilio Bruno. Here he set the plans in motion for his revenge, enlisting the help of his childhood friend, Corteo, using his talents as a brewer to get closer to the crime syndicate that massacred his loved ones on that cold night in April.
And as his plans begin to unfold, everyone is slowly entangled within it. A sprawled-out web that's inhabited by family feuds over the dominion of the city and pretexts made at a moments notice to insight altercations. A breeding ground for mutual partnerships and calculated backstabbing, with Avilio fanning the flames whenever he sees fit. These warring family factions include the Vanettis, Orcos, and Galassias. All of which participate in this codependent dance of charades that's set to the music of a zero-sum game. With lots of twists and turns scattered along the way, every episode adds a new piece to the playing field. This, combined with the brisk, yet methodical pacing, made 91 Days a title that constantly had you wanting to see what would happen next. There were no guarantees on who live or die, only the falsehood of plot armor that's immediately revoked when two opposing parties meet.
This became one of the show's greatest strengths; suspense backed up by tangible results.
Revenge stories that slowly taper off as it pushes forward aren't uncommon. There have been many examples of this occurring across several storytelling mediums, with the usual morality message regarding the perpetual state of hate being the star attraction set on display. Thankfully, 91 Days isn't another statistic. It sets the stage early on and delivers on its promise from beginning to end. There aren't any trade-offs made to extend anyone's relevance, if they're ensnared in a situation that they can't walk away from unscathed, they receive their just desserts like everyone else. There are still clear messages regarding the cost of revenge, as well as themes that come default with these scenarios, but the story doesn't bend at will to adhere to the warnings of it. Revenge isn't just worn as a shiny badge before flipping the script to see the obvious wrongs of the actions being taken, no, in 91 Days, revenge is carried out without compromise. And nowhere is that made more prominent than with cutthroat mentality adopted by the main lead, Angelo "Avilio" Lagusa.
If Angelo was summed up with one word, it would be merciless. An empty shell that lives solely for his objective, Angelo knows nothing else, adjusting his life around the need to make his targets pay. He isn't just satisfied with simply killing them, he wants to crush everything that they stand for. Dismantling the very foundation of their family's name by orchestrating events that will see them tearing each other apart. He's determined to see his plans through to the end, becoming another cog in the machine without so much as flinching at the prospect if it benefits his cause. Step by step, he draws closer to his end goal, the phantom resemblance of a smile just below the surface as bodies begin to fall. It's an obsession that borders on madness.
And it's this same obsessive state that gives birth to paranoia among all camps of the conflict. Men hunched over in their local speakeasies, glancing over their shoulders in fear of other families taking them out. Restless faces marked off by bags under their eyes, dispatching hit men before someone else gets them first. And standing in the cross-hairs of this chaos is Nero Vanetti, a man deeply devoted to his Don and father, and the extended crime family, and unfortunately, another name on the checklist to be snuffed out. Where Angelo is driven to dismantle everything around him, Nero is committed to keeping it together, who, like Angelo, is obsessed with his cause, but instead of being duty-bound to some vendetta, he instead wants to maintain the integrity of his family's name. A task that proves nigh impossible with Angelo offering a handshake in comradeship, while the other hand carries a pistol erected in his direction. A give-and-take relationship where one man stumbles in the dark, oblivious to the others malicious intent.
But not everything in 91 Days compliments this gripping narrative. For one, the art direction and presentation often fell short of expected standards. Instead of becoming an animated series that could go toe-to-toe with the giants it pattern itself after, it only manage to measure up by the skin of its teeth. By no means should anyone approach this work expecting something on Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino's caliber. When I said "similar tone and structure" that was the extent to which I think this anime achieves when pulling from its influences. In terms of general scriptwriting, cinematography, and fully developed personalities, 91 Days remains an imitation to these great creator's works. But still a gripping imitation nonetheless.
The lack of shading, eye-grabbing textures, unique camera angles, color saturation, or other presentation nitpicks could be ignored if you're invested in the story, although, some aspects might stick out far too often to turn a blind eye to. Which is the case with characters like Fango, who exudes a kind of hammy performance that had honest intentions in being a case of sadomasochism, but comes closer to portraying a one-off villain for a Saturday-morning cartoon. Where everything is aiming for early Film noir set in the 1920s, Fango comes marching in like a man transported in a time capsule from the 1970s, complete with the general attire and appearance to boot. And as detracting as his antics could be at times when placed in a setting not meant for him, after awhile he gels over enough to become tolerable for anyone that might have initially found his inclusion jarring. There are also a few character dynamics that could have benefited with a bit more time dedicated to it, like Angelo's connection to his childhood friend Corteo, which felt too much like a secondary thought at times, only there to get his foot in the door and serve as a catalyst for certain events to happen. With a bit more meat to their relationship, pivotal narrative moments could have become emotionally gripping ones as well. There's a great storyboard there, just not enough attention to detail in-between point A to point B to make it moments with long shelf-lives in the collective conscious of the viewership.
And even after dumping this laundry list of shortcomings, 91 Days still remains a welcomed addition to its niche genre. We've had a fair share of mobster-inspired works before this, from the more character-centric ones like Gungrave and Gangsta, to the rule-of-cool beat-em-ups of Darker than Black and Baccano, but there's never been a more faithful rendition of the traditional mafioso story until now. Where those titles are riddled with supernatural occurrences that're dipped in the flourishings of the mobster lifestyle, 91 Days trades this in for a more grounded approach, containing characters that draw closer to real-world personalities than the more zany ones found in some of its contemporaries.
It may not have the energy of Baccano, the fully developed characters of Gungrave, the well-choreographed fights of Darker than Black, or Gangsta's—... oh wait, Gangsta sucks. But what it does have is an appreciation for the classics that proceeded it and the commitment needed to see its vision through.