[Synopsis]: Due to a recent string of mysterious incidents involving a great, white tiger, Nakajima Atsushi (Uemura Yuto) is evicted from the orphanage that has served as his home his entire life. Left both homeless and penniless, Atsushi happens upon a drowning stranger whom he rescues from a nearby river. The man turns out to be Dazai Osamu (Miyano Mamoru) who, along with his partner, happens to be searching for the white tiger responsible for Atsushi’s predicament. Dazai himself belongs to the Armed Detective Agency – a group of people possessing supernatural abilities that solve especially violent crimes and combat underworld organizations. Following Dazai’s lead, Atsushi is quickly entangled with the agency and the menacing Port Mafia as he struggles to find his place in the world.
Bungou Stray Dogs features a fairly small cast, comprised mostly of the various members of the Armed Detective Agency, the Port Mafia, and a few episodic characters besides. Perhaps the most key feature of the show’s cast is that each character’s name serves as some reference to a renowned author or poet with most of the references stemming from modern Japanese literature. This relationship between author and character is an ongoing element within the show and often certain personality traits or actions associated with the authors are exhibited by their respective characters in varying degrees.
While this aspect of the show sounds both interesting and engaging the manner in which it manifests is very lackluster and sometimes even problematic. The actual depth of reference the characters pull from their real-life counterparts is very shallow with most characters simply borrowing their names with their abilities often titled after their author’s most pervasive work. Beyond this the characters don’t seem to have all that much depth to them and hardly borrow from their referenced authors in either a thematic or intelligent way. What could have been a complex and intricate parallel of ideologies and themes becomes no more than a slew of referenced names. My own familiarity with each author is incomplete and there are occasionally thematic parallels that arise however for the most part the show is quite shallow in how it pulls off this would-be-interesting characteristic.
Though the actual depth of Bungou Stray Dogs’ references is questionable, what issues arise within the show’s cast lie with the characters themselves on an individual level. In terms of characterization and how the character fits into the show, Dazai Osamu is possibly the biggest offender. Whether it’s his passion for attempting to kill himself over and over again and comically failing each time or his desire to find a partner for his ideal double suicide, Dazai presents an incredibly unappealing character. Beyond the fact that paralleling the real Dazai Osamu’s relationship with suicide and its presence within his works by turning it into a poorly constructed gag is the height of insensitivity, the gag itself makes absolutely no sense. The very fact that a character is continually trying to kill themselves yet both fails to actually do so and will fight for their own self-preservation runs completely opposite of whatever poor characterization could be drawn out of Dazai’s ridiculous character. In a number of ways, Dazai is representative of how the show handles its references – in a loose and often unintelligent way.
The protagonist of the show, Nakajima Atsushi doesn’t fare much better than Dazai in terms of characterization. From the beginning of the story it is quite clear that he has themes of rejection and belonging after being tossed out of his orphanage. He feels out of place wherever he goes and undeserving of anybody’s interest or compassion. This is a decent start and he does develop over the course of the show, slowly coming to terms with his place within the agency and accepting his coworkers however this is not achieved without some hitches. For one, a certain flashback of his dismisal from the orphanage is often queued whenever the show attempts to discuss the themes surrounding Atsushi and its over-usage quickly becomes tiring. The same exact sequence plays multiple times an episode for more than half the series and its pervasiveness gives insight into the show’s complete inability to characterize Atsushi outside of paralleling his predicament at hand with the scene in question.
Though I’ve highlighted Dazai and Atsushi specifically here, the rest of the cast isn’t a whole lot better. Atsushi doesn’t really play off of his coworkers at the agency as much as he predictably reacts to them in given gag scenarios. The Port Mafia, despite their initial introduction, is continuously undermined as an antagonistic enemy as their plans are foiled relatively easily which cuts the tension surrounding them considerably. And lastly, the show’s cast is chronically over-involved. Bungou Stray Dogs tends to shy away from introducing new characters once each story gets rolling which causes the subsequent events to feel extraordinarily coincidental and predictable at times when the same characters keep wrapping around into relevance.
Bungou Stray Dogs’ animation is perhaps its only worthwhile attribute. Though it fails in various ways elsewhere, the art style is crisp and unwavering while Bones presents beautifully animated action scene after action scene. The fight sequences are very high quality though they are actually rather sparse for the greater part of the show – growing far more frequent after around episode 8 and on. Despite its subject matter, a lot of the show features slapstick, physical comedy and various gags which utilize a slightly more cartoonish aesthetic. Though these gags still look good visually, they are rarely funny and often only serve to disrupt the scene at hand.
The first episode of Bungou Stray Dogs is fairly slow paced as it introduces the viewer to Atsushi, Dazai, and Kunikida as well as the existence of the Armed Detective Agency and their supernatural powers. It isn’t a bad introductory episode but it doesn’t present much of a hook into the show either. The shock comes with the arrival of the third episode as it features the show’s first real action sequence. The episode as a whole is surprisingly bloody and ruthless despite the two proceeding episodes of mostly repeated gags between Atsushi and Dazai. This episode was actually a pretty good introduction into the brutality of the Port Mafia which would later be undermined repeatedly however its the show’s earliest insight into Bungou Stray Dogs’ biggest, critical problem.
After the early introductory episodes, the show plays out in somewhat of an episodic fashion – featuring Atushi as he tries to find his place within the agency and one of the various detectives that work there as they team up to solve various mysteries and cases. There isn’t much of an overarching plot though the Port Mafia’s interest in abducting and selling Atsushi is a recurring part of the story for most of the show. The stand-alone episodes aren’t terribly interesting and the featured mysteries leave a lot to be desired as their outcomes often felt predictable or coincidental.
The major failing of Bungou Stray Dogs is in how poorly it marries its two establishes tones as its subject matter involving murders and underground crime organizations clashes against its style of comedy giving way to very polarizing scenes. The show undercuts whatever real drama or tension it is able to conjure up with its rampant character gags. A police woman is shot in cold-blood and washed away by the river and her senior and subordinates are visibly torn up about it. Dazai then cuts into the scene, mourning the loss of her beauty and says she should have committed a double suicide with him instead. Not only does it continuously set precedent for generally tension-free scenes but it does so by utilizing the stupidest gag in the entire show. One second the show pokes fun at Kunikida’s ideals and Dazai imbibes hallucinative mushrooms and the next moment people are being forcibly drowned, gassed to death, and killed as products of a black market organ trade.
The extremes are too huge and the comedy is too gag-oriented and dumb to allow for the viewer to take any of the more gruesome scenes seriously. The show tries wholeheartedly to be dramatic but completely fails due to its cast of primarily comedic characters who simply aren’t capable of executing a serious moment either because of their exaggerated nature or comedic tendencies.
The soundtrack didn’t stand out to me very much and mostly served to reinforce the two prevalent atmospheres of the show. The music supported the show’s comedy and action from the background without ever becoming too prominent or memorable itself.
[Final Thoughts and Rating]:
Looking at Bungou Stray Dogs as a whole, I would warily say it has potential to be more than what it is. The show element of referencing various authors and imparting various attributes from them and their works into the characters is a very compelling idea at face-value and if it could make better thematic use of the technique I think it could yield very interesting results. With the next season already around the corner I have to wonder if perhaps the show would do better outside of the format of exploring individual members of the Armed Detective Agency each episode and instead attempted to tackle something a bit grander and more comprehensive. With these hopes in mind, the show has to find a place for its comedy and I think if it cut it entirely it would have a fair chance at becoming something worthwhile however I doubt this will come to pass.
To add a quick note about whether or not it’s worthwhile to be familiar with the referenced stories and authors beforehand – I don’t think there is much benefit to it currently. I was familiar with probably over half of the authors mentioned and a moderate amount of the literature alluded to and outside of a few shallow comparisons between characters and how the show aesthetically designed their abilities, there wasn’t much extra benefit to the knowledge so I wouldn’t urge prospective viewers to familiarize themselves unless they wanted to.
I gave Bungou Stray Dogs a 4 because its cast had either poor or uninteresting characterization, its story had a variety of problems, and it was very conflicted tonally causing. Its later action sequences and slight movement away from the rampant comedy of its earlier episodes improved its second half by a small margin along with the overall quality of its animation.
I would recommend Bungou Stray Dogs for its action sequences and animation above all else. Though it has its fair share of narrative issues and a cast of problematic characters, its visuals are quite strong all throughout. I didn’t enjoy the comedy of the show however one can tell whether or not it appeals to them by the time the first episode finishes.
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