Reviewby Rebecca Silverman, Feb 9th 2017
Bungo Stray Dogs
Sixteen-year-old Atsushi Nakajima has just been thrown out of the orphanage where he spent most of his life. Adrift and afraid, he's unaware that the reported attacks of a man-eating white tiger are somehow linked to him until the day he pulls a suicidal man from the river. That man is Osamu Dazai, and he's part of Yokohama's best-known detective bureau: The Armed Detective Agency. Each member of the force has special supernatural gifts, and Dazai tells Atsushi that the reason he was forced out of the orphanage is because he is the white tiger. He invites Atsushi to join his group, but as Atsushi quickly finds out that there's a lot more going on with the members than meets the eye.
Some of you may already be familiar with this story, since Bungō Stray Dogs' anime adaptation beat its original manga to English translation by a fairly large margin. For those who didn't watch it, the chief conceit of the story is that all of the major characters are based on major literary figures, and their supernatural gifts take their names (and in some cases powers) from the authors' best known works. In the case of this first volume, that's more an Easter egg than anything else, and familiarity with the original authors is largely not necessary for enjoyment. But if you do know the stories behind the characters, there's an added level of interest and fun to the book that makes it more than just another superpowered action piece.
The point of view character is Atsushi Nakajima. In real life, he was a mid-twentieth century Japanese author who died young, but here he's an orphan who has just been booted out of the orphanage where he spent his life. Flashbacks show us that maybe that's not such a bad thing – Atsushi was clearly both abused and neglected, and his warmest memories are of sneaking into the kitchen to eat scraps. Being on his own isn't doing him any favors either though – when we meet him, he's on the verge of starvation and tormented by a fear of a mysterious white tiger that seems to follow him wherever he goes. All of this changes when he spots a man drowning in the river and pulls him out. That man turns out to be Osamu Dazai, and he's a lot more than what he seems. Dazai's a member of a group known as the Armed Detective Agency, an organization that aids the police by using their special supernatural powers for investigations. Dazai immediately realizes that Atsushi is the white tiger, making him one of the gifted. Using his own ability to nullify Atsushi's were-tiger transformation, Dazai takes Atsushi under his wing and gets him into the Agency.
Readers familiar with Japanese literature will immediately recognize Dazai as a version of the acclaimed author of the early twentieth century, perhaps best known for his work No Longer Human. (That's the name of his power as well.) If you aren't aware, however, Dazai can come off as a very problematic character – clinically depressed, real life Dazai attempted suicide many times before eventually succeeding in drowning himself (and his female companion). Author Kafka Asagiri has chosen to use this as the basis for his Dazai's slightly dippy persona; he's obsessed with suicide and shinju (double suicide, often given a romantic wash), and he makes many “attempts” over the course of these first few chapters. Obviously, this is not going to sit well with everyone, even if you are familiar with his history, and there's definitely an element of tastelessness to using suicide as a joke. This makes Dazai's character the highest bar to entry in the volume, although readers unfamiliar with Junichirō Tanizaki's novel Naomi might also have some difficulty with his character's relationship with his sister; however, they play the dynamic safer in terms of tropes we're already accustomed to in manga.
Perhaps the biggest issue with the book is the translation, or rather, the adaptation. Both Dazai and fellow Agency member Doppo Kunikida speak in what reads as very stilted language. It's clearly meant to sound formal, with a lack of contractions and some old-fashioned word choices, probably stemming from the fact that both men wrote in either the late nineteenth century or the early-to-mid twentieth. Unfortunately, it contrasts oddly with Atsushi's and Tanizaki's more contemporary speech, and in the case of Dazai, it might prevent readers from seeing him as the humorous character he seems intended to be. (Both he and Kunikida calling Atsushi “lad” also feels strangely out of place in the text.) There are also a couple cases of missing words in speech bubbles, which feels very unusual for Yen Press. Hopefully volume two will have a better handle on things.
Sango Harukawa's artwork favors a lot of lines – both as action indicators and in terms of texturing clothing and hair. There is a decent amount of variation in line thickness, which saves the art from being too busy, and if motion isn't always as dynamic as it could be, there's always a clear sense of what's going on. Body language is done well and often the best indicator of a character's age and attitude; Tanizaki's perpetual slouch and over-long sleeves do more than his face or speech to mark him as closer to Atsushi's age than Kunikida, for example.
The story doesn't waste much time introducing the gifted villainous counterparts to the Agency, and the second two (of four) chapters throw us right into the rivalry between the Agency and the Port Mafia, introducing Higuchi and Akutagawa as well as their designs on Atsushi. This book feels very much like an introduction, with the second half moving much faster than the first, but it does end on a significant enough reveal to make readers hungry for volume two. There's definitely promise in this premise, and if the adaptation issues can be worked out, this series could turn out to be a real treat for both fans of Japanese literature and people who enjoy action manga.
Overall : B-
Story : B
Art : B-
+ Fun literary Easter eggs, story picks up quickly, good use of body language in the art
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