Bungou Stray Dogs Anime Review
Written by: ClayDragon
Books are awesome. Countless series all across the world are based off of books, from shows like Game of Thrones and Sherlock to anime such as Bakemonogatari and Haruhi Suzumiya. But it’s incredibly rare for any work to actually focus on the authors of such stories. Of course, some might find the idea of an entire series showing how a book is written to be comparable to one of the circles of hell, so how do you inform people of authors and their works without boring the audience to tears? Answer: you give the authors superpowers based on their books and have them fight each other.
|And throw in the occasional homoerotic subtext.|
Bungou Stray Dogs tells the story of Atsushi Nakajima, an orphan who has just been thrown out of his orphanage. As he lies starving next to a riverbank, he sees a man trying to commit suicide, and ends up saving him. By way of thanks, the not-too-happy-to-be-alive man (Osamu Dazai) and his partner Doppo Kunikida buy a meal for Atsushi. This seemingly innocuous event ends with Atsushi realising he can turn into a weretiger, and he subsequently joins Dazai’s organisation – the Armed Detective Agency. After joining the Agency, Atsushi begins to learn more about his new colleagues and eventually finds himself drawn into a conflict between the Agency and the sinister Port Mafia.
This series is unique because every character (and I mean every character) is based off of a famous author, and their superpower (or ‘gift’) is based off of stories or poems that the real-life version of the author wrote. For example, Atsushi (named after the real-life Japanese author Atsushi Nakajima) has a gift that allows him to turn into a giant tiger with regenerative capabilities, and which is called ‘Beast Beneath the Moonlight’. This is a reference to real-life Atsushi’s famous short story The Moon Over the Mountain, in which the protagonist is transformed into a tiger. Another character, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, has a gift called ‘Rashomon’, which takes inspiration from two of the real-life Akutagawa’s works. The ability is based around Akutagawa’s cloak (which is an allusion to the Rashomon story, in which a cloak features prominently), and it is used primarily for killing his enemies (which refers to the story In a Grove, which is all about death).
Despite being all about famous authors, Bungou Stray Dogs doesn’t focus on the process of writing at all. Instead, it relies on a character’s name, gift, personality and relationship with others to inform viewers of what the real-life authors were like (to a degree). Some of these interpretations are accurate (the real-life Dazai committed suicide at a young age, which inspired the anime version of Dazai’s frequent suicide attempts), but some are subverted (for example, the real-life Dazai idolised the real-life Akutagawa, whereas in the show it’s the other way around). It’s a tactic that works, as I ended up doing a fair amount of research on each character so I could know the origin and inspiration for their powers and relationships.
Speaking of the characters, Atsushi may be the protagonist, but it’s Dazai who really steals the show. Whilst the fact that his suicide attempts are played for humour might put some people off, his lighthearted personality combined with his rather dark past make him an interesting character, and his interactions with the rest of the Agency members are always fun to watch – whether he’s trolling the serious and stoic Kunikida or mentoring Atsushi. By contrast, Atsushi himself is everything that Dazai isn’t. Due to his history in the orphanage, Atsushi has been left with major self-esteem issues, and whilst this is understandable, the constant flashbacks to him getting kicked out of the orphanage get old fast. That being said, seeing him develop over the course of the show is fun, and he gets a fair share of awesome moments.
|Man, talk about ungrateful.|
Since Bungou Stray Dogs is a Japanese series, it obviously focuses more on Japanese authors. However, in the second series a group called the Guild is introduced, which is made up of various American and Canadian authors including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Herman Melville and Mark Twain. It’s obvious that the original author put a lot of work into designing characters based around Japanese authors, and so it’s nice to see the same concept applied to people that Western viewers would be more familiar with. By and large, I didn’t really have a problem with this, except for one specific character – Howard Phillips Lovecraft.
|Mind you, the likeness is uncanny.|
I mentioned previously that each character is defined by a number of the original author’s works. However, this is not entirely true for H.P. Lovecraft, who is really only defined by real-life Lovecraft's story The Call of Cthulhu. This is understandable (it was his best-known story, after all), but Lovecraft wrote so much more. We’re talking about a man who wrote about immortal alchemists, murderous cats, portals to hell, murderous penguins, alien cities, murderous fish-people, time-travel, an alien colour, and the Necronomicon. This guy literally wrote the Book of the Dead, so to see him portrayed as ‘the awkward Cthulhu guy’ is a little disappointing. It's not that I don't like his portrayal - in fact, I absolutely love it - but I wish more had been done with him. This complaint actually applies to most of the Guild members, but I’m more annoyed about Lovecraft since I’ve actually read his works.
|Sadly, his skill at making balloon animals out of tentacles needs a bit of work.|
Griping aside, my main point of contention with Bungou Stray Dogs is that a huge amount of characters are introduced, and barely any of them get the screentime they deserve. This is especially bad in the second season, where the appearance of the Guild means that there are another ten characters that join the fight for screentime. This is compounded by the fact that the first third of the second season focuses on an awkwardly-placed (yet interesting and enjoyable) flashback of Dazai’s past, resulting in the Guild arc being compressed into 8 episodes. This means that a lot of moments feel rather rushed, especially the confrontation between Edogawa Ranpo (the Japanese Edgar Allan Poe) and the actual Edgar Allan Poe.
|Am I the only one getting Shizuo Heiwajima flashbacks?|
Aside from these issues, the series is definitely enjoyable. The animation is good (a few off-model faces are balanced out by awesome fight scenes), as is the soundtrack, with special mention going to the openings and endings, which are all excellent. The interactions between all the characters are both entertaining and touching at times, and the sheer amount of literary references within the series is amazing. If there is to be a third season, my only wishes would be for the pacing to be slowed down somewhat and the secondary characters to get more focus. If those issues are fixed, I’d have no complaints.
|Atsushi, you need to pay attention when Kunikida is teaching you about trigonometric identities!|
Good Things: The insane amount of literary references and allusions.
The interactions between the main characters.
Dazai in particular is an awesome character.
The fights (especially those towards the end of each season) are amazing.
The openings and endings are all brilliant.
Bad Things: Not enough characters get the focus or development they deserve.
Dazai’s flashback was awkwardly-placed and messed up the pacing.
Lovecraft was underused!
Do you have a suggestion for an anime I should review? Let me know in the comments, or submit it to ask.fm/ClayDragon!
|As the newest member, the role of 'cannon fodder' fell squarely on Atsushi's shoulders.|
ClayDragon has finished studying Physics at university, and understands about as much as he did when he started. The main method of contacting him is his Gmail account at firstname.lastname@example.org. He has an ask.fm account at ask.fm/ClayDragon. When not playing games or reading, he can be found with his head in his hands whilst trying in vain to figure out what to do with his life. Before anyone asks; yes, I did check the trigonometric identities to make sure they're correct. They are.