Review/discussion about: Bungou Stray Dogs
Bungou Stray Dogs has a lot of references to words and books and authors.
I, too, used to have a penchant for reading. When I was younger, I would always have a book in hand – at school, at home, or at family gatherings. I even remember coming in second in my fifth-grade class’s multi-genre book-finishing bonanza. (Darn you, Meredith.)
I have been doing my best to get back into the habit. Partly to enjoy some different stories, and partly to up my writing game even further.
As for Stray Dogs, well, its tale may only be half told, but it appears it has a tough time even getting to second place.
Stray Dogs begins with a rather sour mood. Atsushi, an orphan-turned-street-urchin, finds himself hungry and, more importantly, in need of money. Luckily, he encounters Dazai. Floating in the water. In the middle of an apparent suicide. Not so luckily, this fateful meeting allows Atsushi to join the Armed Detective Agency – and take part in some crazy (and dangerous) shenanigans.
The best way to describe Stray Dogs is that it’s an anime that tries to be everything but nothing sticks.
The show tries to be a comedy with its over-the-top reactions, but the semi-serious atmosphere gets in the way.
The show tries to be a drama with its “kidnapping” conflicts and near-death scenarios, but, since the Armed Detective Agency is always the best and always stronger, any sense of danger is lost.
The show tries to be a mystery with its detective cases, but the literal Sherlock-Holmes-esque character ruins any chance at guessing (let alone needing to worry about potential problems).
The show tries to be a romance with Atsushi’s relationship with Kyouka, but it seems to skirt around the possibility despite the moments they have had together thus far.
The show tries to be quirky, with each person having a specialized ability, but no actual explanations behind their gifts have been given, leaving it all up as “just because.”
Clearly, Stray Dogs tries. A lot. And those attempts are not inherently an issue, for many, many anime dabble in multiple elements at once. (Arguably all stories are a combination of elements and not strictly a singular one.)
But this anime fails at fully committing to any of its elements. Almost as if it wants to have the element just to have it.
To be fair, it does have an element that works: action. Through the characters’ abilities and general outclassing of their opponents, Stray Dogs gives its back-alley brawls and boating battles many cool twists and intrigue. “Light Snow” changes the field into a virtual representation. “Rashoumon” incites fear, pain, and dread. Atsushi’s “Weretiger” morphing creates dynamism everywhere.
Not to mention the teamwork of Dazai and Kunikida during their two-fronts fight, Miyazawa’s nonchalant prowess, and the otherworldly dreamscape that Lucy forces the others to play “hide-and-seek” in. So, despite the show’s general lack of focus, its action, at the very least, is given a nice amount of attention.
This season is also technically just the first-half of the whole experience. Meaning, a goal of the anime is to simply set everything up for what is to come later. And, for the most part, it did just that.
For example, Dazai’s background of betrayal with the Port Mafia is known but not explicitly divulged. Atsushi and Kyouka’s relationship, while not anywhere particularly noteworthy, has the makings of something grander down the line. Each member of the Armed Detective Agency, more or less, gets time to shine so that, later on, the show does not have to spend time hyping up its cast.
However, the anime does not do so hot when it comes to some of its other decisions.
Kunikida’s mini-arc in the middle of this season somewhat gets forgotten once it concludes.
The introduction of brand-new baddies makes the Port Mafia’s grudge feel pointless. (Although, admittedly, Atsushi and the others need competition from other ability users because, as has been shown, guns, knives, and thugs are not enough to slow the main gang down.)
And the main plot itself – the Port Mafia (and other evil people) looking to claim the bounty placed on Atsushi’s head – is neither nuanced nor engrossing. It does not even come off as a strong motivator. It’s not as though Atsushi wronged people or was a specific person who had the potential to affect the future; he is literally just being targeted for money.
The show’s ending seems poised for further, more foreboding trouble on the horizon. But, with how scattered the anime feels and how off-the-mark many of its narrative choices have been, it’s hunched over rather than standing upright.
Easily, Stray Dogs’s best component is its art and animation.
To combat the somewhat static setting – the offices of the Armed Detective Agency – the anime makes an effort to visit different parts of the city. A bomb-ridden subway. Near the side of a local river. The bloodied, muddied torture room. The inside of an abandoned building. Their local bar joint.
More than the variety, however, is the lighting. Stray Dogs likes to play with purples, greens, and oranges to bask the different scenes and locations in colored lights that either accentuate the foreground action or provide some beautiful-looking detail. Often times, it is both at once.
Simultaneously, the anime achieves that hyperactive comedy through its visual shifts. When a character is doing something particularly funny – usually making a face of some kind – the show adopts a more cartoony display for those involved. This trick not only elevates the comedy but also helps to differentiate what is supposed to be taken seriously and what is supposed to be taken hilariously.
The animation levels also keep up the same quality. Even with the detailed backgrounds and heavy lighting, the characters move quite a bit for both comedic and dramatic purposes. Especially so during the fight scenes. Atsushi jumping off walls, Akutagawa’s black aura and red void devouring everything around him, and Higuchi doing whatever she can to save her leader demonstrate the show’s penchant for above-average actual animation.
And the character designs continue with the consistent quality. Some of them, like Miyazawa’s and Edogawa’s, have designs that define where they come from (blue overalls and a straw hat) and who they are as people (a brown detective outfit complete with hat and shawl). A couple of them are just cool, like Kunikida’s glasses and red tie or Higuchi’s professional black-and-white work suit.
But they can also be subtle and, by extension, clever. Atsushi’s loose belt hangs behind him as though it were a tail (alluding to his weretiger power), and Akiko wears a butterfly clip in her hair (alluding to her “rebirth” power).
The Armed Detective Agency houses a kooky cast of characters. From the suicidal Dazai to the “all knowing” Edogawa, the crew are not so much a couple of misfits (let alone nitwits) as they are a venerable, formidable group.
Such traits are evidenced by their abilities. Some have already been pointed out, but, for the sake of completeness, they will be relisted (mostly) in-full here since they define these characters.
Atsushi can turn into a spectral tiger – the weretiger as it were. Dazai nullifies any and all abilities. Akutagawa summons forth a demon that literally devours everything (even the space about him). Kyouka controls a ghostly, deadly samurai. Akiko can regenerate anyone back to perfect health. Miyazawa wields impossible strength. Edogawa can surmise the solution to any situation in less than a minute. Kunikida can create items just by writing them down and ripping out a page from his journal.
As many already know, however, each ability comes with a catch, a caveat attached to his or her power. Atsushi’s is difficult to control reliably. Dazai’s only works through touch. Kyouka’s can only be accessed through her phone. Akiko must be near the edge of death before her healing can work. Miyazawa has to be incredibly hungry. Edogawa’s is technically not even a power whatsoever. Kunikida can only make something as big as his journal.
Such limiters keep them each from being ultra-powerful. I.e., they have a cap on what they can do (which is a common idea in the medium) to provide some semblance of weakness.
While the basis for their powers is still unknown (reiterating an earlier point), they at least mirror their persons and personalities. Atsushi is a scared, nervous boy, but he turns into a ferocious tiger. Miyazawa is a super nice, super friendly kid, but he can pick up an entire car by himself. Akiko is a doctor, but she must first brutally torture her “victims” before she can save them. And so on and so forth.
For those paying attention, a name has been skipped for a few paragraphs now: Akutagawa.
Presumably, his ability makes him very sick – seen (and heard) from his constant coughing – but it is difficult to say if this caveat is, indeed, the correct one. Because, after his initial introduction, such sickness no longer shows up. Yes, he nearly dies in his battle with Atsushi, but dying through tiger punches is not the same as succumbing to a crippling disease.
Presumably as well, his anger fuels his Rashoumon familiar, but, again, it is not a done detail.
Regardless, Akutagawa himself directly ties into one of the most important relationships, one of the most important dynamics, in the entire show: the connection shared between him and Atsushi.
It gets slowly revealed that Akutagawa was once the apprentice of Dazai. “Was once” because Dazai is now the enemy of the Port Mafia and because Dazai has taken on Atsushi as his apprentice (of sorts) instead.
Right away, this shift in status provides a basis for Akutagawa’s rage. His master, the man who taught and led him, has left everything behind, taking on an inferior pupil? And to top it all off, he gets told directly to his face by his former tutor that the new guy is better? It would be hard to not get frustrated or at least aggravated.
It’s not the headbutting between the two that sticks out the most, though. Rather, it is how much they contrast one another.
More obvious details, like one representing good and the other representing evil, exist. But there are others, too. For instance, Akutagawa does not personally fight, using a summon instead, but Atsushi does, going paw-to-paw with his opponents. One likes money and living and has other interests whereas the other cares only about succeeding. Atsushi follows everyone else around, and Akutagawa leads everyone else around.
The most striking difference, however, is in the way they have been cast out.
Atsushi was an orphan early in his life, but then his orphanage orphaned him, too, leaving him out to fend for himself. He did not ask for such treatment; it’s just how his life has proceeded.
In contrast, Akutagawa pushes others away. Even his direct subordinate he treats as a nuisance. As somebody who will only hamper him.
By the end of the season, where they end up – Atsushi with a bunch of new friends and control of his power, Akutagawa comatose – reflects just how important it is to have people around that care. Indeed, if not for Higuchi, Akutagawa may have been in far more dire straits.
It must be noted, though, that Atsushi’s actual character is quite weak. Stray Dogs repeats his same backstory (often with the same exact visuals) ad nauseam, and his transition from not being in control of his weretiger power to being in control somewhat just happens for the sake of progressing the story (e.g., no extensive training is undergone).
To be fair, the anime tries to give Atsushi more to his character by saying that his presence brings bad luck to those around him. Of course, the opposite is true since he saves Kyouka. It also helps to give his feeling of isolation more support. Meaning his character is not a total miss. Just a very big one.
Akutagawa is slightly better overall. While his backstory consists of about one scene of Dazai punching him in the face, Stray Dogs does well in setting Akutagawa up for the next season.
He joins the scene in hardcore fashion – warnings from Kunikida to run away at all costs and blowing up a police building. Then Akutagawa maims Junichirou from behind, rips off Atsushi’s leg, and manipulates Kyouka.
Essentially, he is built up as this strong, ruthless, and troubled dude. So, when Atsushi demolishes him in their second fight near the end of the season, putting said dude into a coma and into disfavor with his main boss, the anime clearly has an arc for him. An arc that he will (hopefully) continue to follow in the next season to show off more of his power and his evolution as a person.
As for the rest of the cast, Kunikida is the only one to get a couple of personalized episodes. Hints at there being more to his character and past exist, but the anime does not go that route (for now at least), so he does not have much going for him at this moment.
Higuchi gets some attention, too, making her more than just a tagalong that got slapped in the face by the leader she loves. But, after her and Kunikida, the anime does not provide much else on the others.
A final discussion point. The anime does not have many other strong themes to speak of (besides Atsushi and Akutagawa’s isolation). “One is more than the power that defines him or her” is one possible idea, but it takes a backseat to the ever-present comedy and action. The show has an entire second season to wrap up or tie back specific motifs, however, so it still has a chance to go deeper than it has.
In total, Atsushi, Akutagawa, and the rest have a lot to prove, but, given that this is the first half to the split-cour, the cast sit in a competent spot moving forward.
While none of the voice acting stands out, Yuto Uemura as Atsushi, in one of his first major roles, does well in providing the distraught dude with a nervous, strained voice during many of his (earlier) encounters.
The opening track is a step down. It’s all over the place – much like the show’s contents. Techno beats and screechy background sound-effects, harder guitar and drums, and a vocalist that echoes in parts and varies the rhythm in others. The different pacing throughout helps to make the piece more interesting, but, overall, it’s nothing more than a loud and forgettable song.
The ending track, however, performs better. Compared to the OP, it is a slow song, relying more on the singer to carry it. Thankfully, he does, holding notes, stringing lyrics, and changing pitch where needed. All the while, the more relaxed guitar and steady drum beat help to support him with the final few seconds sending the ED off in high spirits.
Finally, some of the tracks in the original soundtrack are weirdly likable. “Haji no Ooi Shougai wo” is somewhat bubbly and bluesy. “I Know no Susume” is killer with heavy guitar supported by deafening drums. “Furachi” has moaning women and chirping birds mixed into it. The rest of the tracks, though, are not as noteworthy, but they do at least bring the atmosphere – be it ominous, tense, or calm.
I know what you’re thinking.
“Why are you writing this review now? The second season (really a split-cour) is almost over, so why not just wait for the whole series to come to an end first before writing this up?”
My answer is that I write a review for everything I complete (barring edge cases like OVAs and other miscellaneous material). This season is technically separated from its brother. Therefore, I find it fair game to critique it now.
Plus, I’m stubborn. I wanted to write it, so, gosh darn it, I am going to.
Tangents aside, I didn’t hate the show, but I was not too fond of it either. Naomi’s overzealous crush on her brother was silly, and Dazai teasing Kunikida got soft laughter out of me. But a lot of the show’s drama and quirkiness fell flat.
That’s mostly due to the characters being generally uninteresting. Sure, Dazai’s whole kill-himself-through-barrel-torture is funny the first time, but his shtick got old quick. Edogawa wasn’t the nicest guy around, so I did not particularly welcome him. Atsushi was slightly annoying, too.
I did, however, like Kunikida, Kyouka, and Akiko. Kunikida’s whole ideal-centric mindset is something that I can somewhat relate to (i.e., wanting to achieve an “ideal” lifestyle). Kyouka was simply a cute character, and, as a big fan of cuteness, she easily jumped up my list of favorite characters from this show. And Akiko was a smidge insane, but that trait is what made her fun.
Sadly, they are not enough to make me want to check out the second season anytime soon.
Bungou Stray Dogs sets itself up somewhat, but, ultimately, the anime does not have a clear heading. The story is unfocused and uninteresting, and Atsushi’s character did not have a high level of execution. At the minimum, the art is very nice, the action is pretty cool, and Akutagawa makes for at least an intriguing villain. But that does not put this one anywhere near well-read.
Story: Bad, tries to be too much at once, containing strong action scenes and questionable narrative decisions
Animation: Great, nice artistic direction, above-average actual animation, and interesting character designs
Characters: Fine, Akutagawa has some setup for later, his dynamic with Atsushi is clear and contrasting, and the rest of the cast, while not explored, at least have their abilities fused with their personalities
Sound: Fine, bad OP, good ED, okay OST, and okay VA performances
Enjoyment: Bad, some cool fights, but the plot is boring and most of the cast is simply uninteresting
Final Score: 5/10
Thanks for taking the time to read my review. If you want, take part in the discussion below! :3