Reviewby Lynzee Loveridge,
Bungo Stray Dogs
Season One Limited Edition BD+DVD
Atsushi Nakajima thinks he has nothing ahead of him after he's booted out of the orphanage he called home for 18 years. He's unsure of where he's going to sleep or how much longer he'll have to listen to his stomach grumble when he spots a man floating upside-down in the nearby canal. Atsushi rescues the man, who introduces himself as Osamu Dazai, a comically suicidal detective for the Armed Detective Agency. The agency is home to detectives with supernatural powers, all named after real literary giants. Atsushi discovers that he also has a burgeoning superpower that allows him to transform into a were-tiger, the very power that left him abandoned by the orphanage and left a huge bounty on his head.
If you'd told me at age 14 that there was an anime series starring famous literary authors with superpowers based on their works, I would have died. Bungo Stray Dogs' premise taps into a very specific appeal that's hard to explain if you are not its exact target. Teenage me fancied herself well-read by devouring things like Dante's Inferno or The Scarlet Letter, and I kept detailed notes about each novel's specific metaphors. Of course, Bungo Stray Dogs aired in 2016, which is about 15 years too late for pimply Lynzee to fangirl over Osamu Dazai. Underneath its literature-flavored premise and dramatic conspiracy plot, Bungo Stray Dogs' appeal is largely juvenile.
I don't say that to be dismissive, however. Older fans have all had our first anime that was a little heavy on the loud slapstick humor and overwrought character reactions. Stuff like Dragon Half and Saber Marionette J were popular in the '90s, and Bungo Stray Dogs delivers this same type of over-pronounced humor for 2010's fans. Characters (usually Kunikida) get increasingly frustrated with their wacky team of co-detectives until everyone is yelling at each other, giant veins are popping out on the screen, and Atsushi is cowering with a silly reaction face from the drama. It's funny until it isn't, which ultimately adds to the series' tonal problems when it can't decide whether it's a supernatural workplace comedy, drama, action, or mystery series. It tries to be all these things, but only succeeds at a few.
The series' problems start early on. As a trio, Kunkida the straight-man, Dazai the fanciful genius, and Atsushi the greenhorn work well, playing off each other in an entertaining way as Atsushi learns detective techniques from both. Dazai ribs Kunkida, Kunikida redirects the group to the matter at hand, and everyone (the audience included) is having a good time while they investigate supernatural hijinks. I'd argue that the introduction of the extended cast causes things start to fall apart. We're introduced to a full ensemble of authors, all with supernatural powers and varying levels of wackiness, but this revolving door of new quirky characters never really seems necessary. Atsushi is tasked with one-off episodic missions alongside these new characters, but the entire group never feels like a cohesive unit together. Rampo doesn't appear to have any kind of interesting history with Tanizaki, for example. And Yosano's only relation to the other characters is whether or not she sadistically attacked them before healing them. These are characters who've all worked together long before Atsushi's introduction, but it feels as though they only exist in relation to the new guy instead.
By extension, the Port Mafia cast is much the same way. Outside of a few tenuous ties to Dazai and Akutagawa, the rest could be dismissed without greatly affecting the plot. The Black Lizard crew is probably the best example of this issue. They're supposed to be the fearsome Port Mafia's combat arm, and an entire episode is centered around Atsushi trying to reconcile becoming a mafia target and putting the agency in danger of a raid by the mob. The episode goes full anti-climax instead, as apparently The Black Lizards are a bunch of chumps compared to the Detective Agency's line-up. This is despite the fact that the episode already showed off Hirotsu's ability to violently contort a human body like a twisted branch, not to mention Gin's incredible physical prowess. It's a solid encapsulation of Bungo Stray Dogs' tonal dissonance problem. It's a serious action show until it suddenly decides it won't be, and these anticlimactic narrative choices have a ripple effect. A later episode focusing on hitwoman Higuchi sees Gin confront her with a knife in the bathroom. This is the same guy that got thrown out a window almost immediately the last time we saw him, so is he supposed to still be intimidating?
Bungo Stray Dogs' extended cast problem seems to be a case of having a large well to draw from, with so many literary greats to recast as powered up heroes and villains, but not knowing when to stop. The result is a bloated cast, each requiring their own establishing episode that eats up screen-time that would be better suited focusing on Dazai's backstory or other pressing story threads. The rest of the one-off episodes, with the exception of Kunkida's, are pretty rote. Kyoka Izumi's plotline was especially distracting, as it felt like little more than an excuse to give Atsushi a girlfriend and draw exceptional renditions of Yokohama's tourist attractions.
But if viewers can reconcile the series' YA-oriented tone and plotting issues, there's still a solid action show underneath. Studio BONES didn't skimp on the artistry here, and animation shortcuts are few and far-between during its explosive showdowns. One of the more show-stopping effects arises any time Akutagawa activates his Rashomon ability, a kind of shadowy beast that takes the form of a gaping maw or spider-like legs that tear and stab. The staff clearly had a lot of fun figuring out different ways for Akutagawa to impale his opponents while keeping the fights intense and unique.
Funimation's Limited Edition release comes with a few bonuses not included in the regular version. The Blu-ray and DVD box set nestles into a chipboard case that also houses an art booklet. The book has some nice key art, storyboards, and detailed character profiles for exploring the history of the character's real-life counterparts. The limited edition also includes a fitting bonus of five bookmarks, each with one character on the front. On-disc extras are significantly sparser, with only the standard promos and clean theme songs included, along with a comparable English dub.
Bungo Stray Dogs does what it does fairly well, even if some of it wasn't for me, or for viewers who would prefer a more ambitious or cohesive approach to this premise. It does provide an attractive character roster that begs viewers to pick a favorite, sets the groundwork for plenty of over-the-top battles, and never overcomplicates its story, although this does cause that story to dawdle around in side character episodes. The series was originally planned for two seasons, so don't expect anything close to a satisfying conclusion for the last episode on this set. Next season, expect the cast to expand even further, this time with American authors and assuredly even more superpowers.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C+
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : B
+ Unique concept leaves lots of room for interesting powers, well-choreographed and intense fight scenes, mystery never gets too convoluted
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