The Spring 2020 Anime Preview Guide
Bungo and Alchemist
How would you rate episode 1 of
Bungo and Alchemist -Gears of Judgement- ?
What is this?
In ancient Greece, a young man named Melos was caught when he tried to assassinate a tyrant. The tyrant planned to execute him immediately, but allowed Melos to go home first to see his sister married when a friend offered himself as a hostage against Melos's return. Along the way Melos is helped by a mysterious figure who seems to know his story. He eventually discovers that he's not Melos at all but instead Osamu Dazai, the author of the story Run, Melos!, and he has been drawn inside his own story by Taints, mysterious entities who seek to ruin his and other books. Further, the mysterious figure is actually the acclaimed author Ryonosuke Akutagawa – or, rather, an astral projection of him – and he is part of an organization which combats the Taints.
How was the first episode?
This will likely result in me having to turn in my laminated Snooty Literature Teacher ID badge to the Book Nerd Police, but Bungou and Alchemist's first episode just was not very good at all. “But James!” the Book Nerd Police cry out, “This is a show about two famous authors jumping into the worlds of legendary stories to write the wrongs created by the evil Taints, all to protect the most valuable resource on the planet: Books. It's like if Pagemaster got fused with Quantum Leap, and Macaulay Culkin and Scott Bakula got replaced by really pretty anime versions of Osamu Dazai and Ryūnosuke Akutagawa!” I know, I know, but as it turns out, a show about two long dead Japanese authors running through the Cliff Notes versions of famous short stories is just a little dull, and that's after you toss in a flashy battle with a 'roided-out Minotaur.
Granted, I should acknowledge that I'm probably not the target audience for this show: I'm only vaguely familiar with Dazai as a historical figure, after all, and the one Akutagawa story I've ever tracked down is “In a Grove” (it's the story that inspired one of my all-time favorite movies: Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon). If I were more specifically versed in the Japanese humanities, or if I grew up reading and hearing all about the two men's great literature, I might have found the immediate emotional connection that would have made Bungou and Alchemist click. My scant amount of research tells me that “Run, Melos” is a perennial favorite in the Japanese school system, so I likely would at least have understood the title drop, and I would've had more context for why the random Japanese guy shouldn't have been interfering with the myth of Melos and Selinuntius. That kind of stuff happens all the time in anime, so it took me awhile to even follow the basic conceit of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa being an unknown variable that was interrupting a well-known tale when it started to veer off course.
That being said, I don't think any amount of Wikipedia bingeing beforehand would have made this story much more interesting, since it never bothers to give its characters or story an identity outside of their historical novelty, except for the presence of the awkwardly named Taints. Dazai's spat with a mentor over losing out on the Akutagawa Literature Prize is the foundation for the reveal that, when the Taint sucked Dazai into his own story, he projected his personal woes onto the original story. That's an idea, I guess, but it still operates under the assumption that one will find everything going on terribly interesting simply because of its use of real-life people and art. Actually, given that the there isn't anything about the art, music, or direction that strikes me as especially striking, that might very well be true: Bungou and Alchemist will be great for anyone who demands more historical and literary crossovers in their generic pretty-bots-doing-fantasy-stuff shows. Otherwise, I'd try your hand with another story.
In the game on which this series is based, players gather teams of famous Japanese writers and use them to delve into works of literature and combat Taints who are trying to rewrite (and thus corrupt) the stories. The anime's take on this is that astral projections of the original writers are the ones who are actually involved and they are working for an organization under a boss who's a talking cat. That truth does not come up until near the end of the first episode, however, as most of the episode is taken up with playing out a version of the events from Run, Melos! (which itself is an adaptation of a much earlier Greek work) and showing how the Taints are getting involved in disrupting the story to negative effect. The episode also displays one significant game mechanic: how the player can recruit additional writers by meeting them within stories (since they get sucked into the stories when the Taints start messing with them).
This isn't ultimately as fresh or dynamic at it sounds like it could be. The concept of jumping into stories to guide them back in a correct direction is hardly a new one, as there have been other examples of this just within the past few years. Aside from being a story that most Westerners probably have not encountered before, this approach doesn't accomplish anything special in this episode. The story has to be corrected from going off the rails and there are monsters to be fought by dashing bishonen, and that's mostly it. The only additional twist is some insight about Osamu Dazai's strained relationship with his mentor. This also looks like it's going to be a very sanitized version of Dazai; in real life he was a troubled fellow who struggled with alcoholism, drug addiction, infidelity, and multiple failed suicide attempts before he finally succeeded (so clinical depression can probably also be assumed), but his characterization here is more the typical bishonen hothead.
The character design style for the two main male characters is handsome but also about as generic as can be for otome game bishonen. (While the source game may not explicitly be an otome game, it is clearly targeted at female players. So is this adaptation.) Giving the books setting different texturing is slightly interesting and does help promote the artificiality of the setting, while Taints are animated with hazy CG effects to give them an otherworldly effect. Not bad, but again, nothing special.
There is an audience for a title like this, and it's not actually badly-made, but I think it's going to have trouble picking up a following in the West if the first episode is going to be typical for the series.
I have mixed feelings about the growing “historical figures/authors reimagined as fantastical warriors” subgenre that's bubbled up recently, likely inspired by the Fate franchise's lucrative spinoffs. On the one hand, history and literature are full of fascinating characters and stories, and there's much to be gained by engaging with or interrogating the fictions of the past. On the other hand, none of these properties are actually interested in doing that - instead, they mostly just seem to treat characters' heroic origins as personality gimmicks, right before sending them off to engage in more generic superhero battles across space or time.
So it goes with Bungo Alchemists, which envisions a world where famous novels are being invaded by the unfortunately named “Taints,” who corrupt the narratives and then destroy the novels entirely. In this first episode, Osamu Dazai finds himself trapped inside his famous “Run, Melos!”, taking the role of Melos himself. Melos' struggles are eventually supplemented with reflections on Dazai's own career, ultimately leading into an absurd fight scene where Melos does battle with his cruel king, who transforms into first a robot, and then a giant flaming bull.
If this were a generic fantasy property with no historical or literary allusions, this would just be a subpar first episode. The characterization is sketchy, the story is uninspired and lacking in tension, the animation is limited, and the background art is mediocre. The episode's one major claim to fame is its excellent OP, which is full of neat visual tricks like a faux-stained glass image sequence.
As the latest entry in this genre trend, though, Bungo Alchemists feels like a natural indictment of the whole concept. By removing these characters from their historical context and placing them in a convoluted fantasy shell, they become caricatures - generic anime characters with historically relevant catchphrases, loudly declaring “here are the things I'm famous for” before swinging their big swords. Transposed historical figures often end up feeling even less like sympathetic people than mediocre original characters could be, because they're being hamstrung as distinct individuals by their obsession with the cliffnotes versions of their own former careers. The ultimate result doesn't even begin to seek some emotional connection with the original figures; instead, we're being asked to care about anthropomorphized versions of their wikipedia pages.
Given the success of properties like Fate and Touken Ranbu, there's clearly a market for this kind of “collect 'em all” historical fantasy, which treats history and literature mostly as sources for action figures. But I personally feel like creating a character half out of original ideas and half out of haphazardly applied historical footnotes makes it almost impossible to invest in the final result, and with this show lacking any real strengths outside of that main appeal, I don't see much to recommend here.
Are you missing Bungo Stray Dogs? Well, I wouldn't necessarily count on this one to fill the gap it's left. Bungo and Alchemist – Gears of Judgement – is only nominally along the same lines, pulling great authors from the mists of history and having them fight, in this case against book-destroying creatures known as “Taints.” Naturally the first two authors we meet are Osamu Dazai and Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, which does make a certain amount of sense since Dazai was a known admirer of Akutagawa and may have formed his suicide ideation at least in part because of Akutagawa's own suicide. This feels like it may be an important piece of the show at some point because it takes place in a time when both men are most likely dead – they've become “astral beings” based on their past author selves in order to help fight off the Taints determined to destroy their works.
It's not a bad conceit as far as these things go, and it certainly does give the show the chance to explore their works, as we see in this episode, which takes place almost entirely within the plot of Dazai's work Run, Melos and requires the story to reach its actual conclusion in order to defeat the monsters who seek to destroy it. This means that not only are viewers given a chance to experience the story, but also to hear a little about its themes, which warms my little English professor soul. It's simplistic, yes, but it's still an interesting approach to the overarching series story as well as a relatively natural way for the show to introduce more authors, presumably as other excessively pretty and fussily-dressed men. (Although I'd hope that at least a couple of female authors would be included.)
The downside here is the frame story and the weirdly ornate character designs. Having a cat be in charge of the authors' agency may just be an excuse to have them find Natsume Soseki at some point, but it also feels like a too-obvious dose of silly cuteness in the story, and the same can be said about the decidedly perky personality they've given notoriously glum Dazai. The idea of book delvers and the importance of preserving literature is a good one, but the details that are clearly intended to hook a female viewership really do feel like too much pandering, at least as of now. That could change, and I'll probably watch at least one more episode, because let's face it, I'm a sucker for this kind of premise. But it definitely runs the risk of being too trite to do as much as it could, and that's a shame.
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