The eye of the tiger, and the legs and the fists.
What’s the Story?
Kicked out of his orphanage and on the verge of starving to death, young Atsushi has a run in with the suicidal Detective Dazai, but you see Dazai is no ordinary detective (you know, outside of being suicidal). He’s a member of the Armed Detective Agency, a group of super powered individuals who deal with cases the police and military can’t handle, usually involving other powered individuals. Once Atsushi learns he too has super powers he ends up joining the Agency, at first its all wacky hijinks and bizarre powers, but soon Atsushi is pulled into an escalating conflict as different powered groups vie for control of him.
Bungo Stray Dogs is an odd series, it’s both it’s own weird little thing while at the same time following along certain story paths that have been done before. I mean once the series finds its footing and starts to take shape you can tell a lot of the structure, you can see who’s going to end up fighting who and how the various character arcs are going to be resolved, you just don’t know the specifics. That’s where Bungo Stray Dogs shines the most though, while this kind of plot has been done better elsewhere, the sheer bizarreness and inventiveness of the characters and their power is worth the price of admission.
I seriously love the characters in this series, the majority of them have a screw loose and some of the weirdest powers I’ve ever seen. I mean we have a doctor who can heal any injury, as long as said injury is near-fatal, there’s a guy in season 2 who can trap people in the books he’s written (talk about drawing your audience in) and, my favourite, a guy who can solve any crime just by putting on a pair of glasses (except he’s not actually super powered, he just thinks he is and no one has the heart to tell him otherwise). That’s without even getting to the lemon bombs and the creepy doll that drives people crazy. Add into this that all of the characters are full of personality and energy, they’re a bunch of hyperactive lunatics at times and always fun to be around. Individually they’re all a great laugh, but when you get them in a room together that’s when the sparks start to fly, I love how all these guys bounce off of one another and it’s where a lot of the humour of the series comes from.
Tonally the series is a bit all over the place. I mean at the start of the series we get Dazai’s constant jokes about the ways he wants to commit suicide, which is all kinds of ‘I don’t whether to laugh or be concerned’, but then you’ll have the characters laughing and joking with one another and the next minute we’ll have Atsushi flashbacking to how he was beaten in the orphanage and told he was utterly worthless. Yeah, the show strikes this weird tone, trying to be both light and dark at the same time and never quite getting either one right (at the start anyway). It doesn’t help that for a lot of season 1 the plot meanders about all over the place, giving us random cases as a way to get to know the members of the Agency one by one, it’s enjoyable, but not exactly mind blowing.
As we start to move towards the tail end of season 1 and throughout all of season 2 things improve a great deal, more serious storylines take over as the Agency, the Port Mafia and later on the Guild start to clash (there’s also that wonderful flashback arc at the beginning of season 2 which is without question the best the series has to offer, seriously check those episodes out if nothing else). It probably helps that the jokes are cut back at this point and the humour is just left to the character interactions and Dazai being his wonderful mischievous trickster self. Also season 2 is where the action takes a serious shot of adrenaline. I don’t think there isn’t a week that goes by without something awesome happening, especially as we get into the conflict with the Guild.
Let’s talk a little bit about our main character, Atsushi, like the series he takes a while to get going, but once he finds his footing he’s pretty great. At the start he’s mostly the straight man for Dazai and a few of the other weirdoes in the Agency, he can’t control his powers to save his life and I’ve already mentioned his rather dark past with the orphanage and that is his main driving force. Atsushi has no confidence in himself; mostly because he’s never been told he’s anything other than useless, and while it does take a long while for him to start to gain some confidence (possibly a little too long), when he does start to see his own worth, it’s a powerful moment.
My favourite character though has to be Dazai, yeah the suicide jokes are a bit weird for me to wrap my head around, but he’s always entertaining, purposefully teasing the other members of the Agency and bringing out a laugh. As the series goes on though we start to see the deeper shades to Dazai, such as the fact that he’s a master manipulator and that his past might be a lot more bloodstained than you expect. As you get to know him, you can’t help but wonder what exactly is going on behind that carefree smile. The flashback arc at the beginning of season 2 (seriously, go watch it), gives us a glimpse of the Dazai of the past and showing us that he makes a pretty effective bad guy.
In the end, Bungo Stray Dogs is an unusual anime. It does take a little while to get going, but it’s definitely worth the effort to stick with, the characters are fun and lively and the best of the humour comes from their personalities bouncing off of one another. The powers are creative and while the plot may struggle to find its tone at the start, once it settles in it does lead to some great character development and some exciting battles as more powered people come into play. The animation is also above the standard and has some truly gorgeous moments when the action demands it. Hopefully we will get that third season that was teased with the last episode.
Chris Joynson, aka the Infallible Fish, is a writer, blogger and lover of animation living in Sheffield. The blog updates every Friday.