[My thoughts on seasons 1 and 2 of Bungo Stray Dogs.]
It’s been a mad term and I’ve barely had any time to breathe, let alone watch and write about anime but I managed to squeeze this one in. Bungo Stray Dogs is altogether as average as an anime can get. There was nothing particularly outstanding in this anime because the plot, people and the problems in the show are all rather plain. Of course I’m basing this entirely on the two seasons of animation (never read the manga). I generally still did like it but it could have been better.
It starts off with a very predictable protagonist facing a very predictable problem. Nakajima Atsushi (I frequently forget his name) is a boy riddled with self-doubt, who hasn’t quite found his purpose. Naturally, he has a dubious blessing – he can morph into something like a super-tiger. As it turns out, gifts are not uncommon in the world presented in this story and individuals may have all sorts of powers. Unsurprisingly, Atsushi meets the one person who is dangerous enough to turn his life around.
This person –Dazai – who is charming, cunning and utterly contrived is probably the only reason I actually sat through the show. Dazai is such an unrealistic character and the culmination of so many contradictions that I really cannot wrap my head around him: he’s a running gag in the story and also its greatest enigma; he’s dark and light all at once; he doesn’t care except it’s clear that sometimes he does; he’s very intelligent but imitates an idiot for the most part and he’s a suicidal nut who’s dangerous to everyone but himself. It’s like the writer wanted a single person to embody everything but didn’t realise that that doesn’t make a person at all. Also, being the master of many talents means that Dazai also completely outshines our fledgling protagonist, taking the centre stage whenever he’s on screen. It may not sound like a good thing but I’m happy about that because his antics do make up for the otherwise plain plot.
Anyway the first episode quite predictably ends with our protagonist discovering his gift, Dazai showing off his power, and the rest of his team of X-Men substitutes making a very artificial entrance. From there, I could guess how the rest of the story was going to play out and I haven’t been proven wrong yet. There aren’t many secrets and surprises here and it’s a rather straightforward battle of the mutants.
For a group calling itself the ‘Armed Detective Agency’, our team of heroic mutants don’t seem to do much detective work. Instead, most of the plot revolves around their conflicts and scuffles with other teams of mutants running around the city and the ensuing damage to public property. While their name may have been displaced, their intent definitely isn’t and they do save the day the way heroic mutants are supposed to.
Their primary adversary, the Port Mafia, seem to be bad for the sake of being bad with a name that distinctly marks them as the villains. They provide some challenge to our heroes here and there and get defeated here and there and that’s pretty much it. The second season brought a new group of evil mutants into the story and again they provide some challenge to our heroes here and there and get defeated here and there and… I think you get it.
It’s not that I can’t digest repetition in a story; some of my favourite stories repeat ideas but there has to be more to the tale than that for it to remain interesting: some profound mystery lurking behind the curtains, stronger opponents who actually present a real threat, or gripping characters who can carry the story. Bungo Stray Dogs doesn’t quite hit the mark with any of these so unless things change in the next season, it’s going to get a bit dull.
I also find that there isn’t a lot of tension in the story, and this could stem from the rather tropey characters – both on the side of the heroes and the villains – that fill the plot. As likeable as they are, I don’t actually care about the good guys (and definitely not about the bad guys) so I find it hard to get invested in the outcomes of their battles. Then we have Dazai, the cheat code, who knows exactly what to do or say to win the game. Somehow it made me feel that the good guys were never really in any danger that they couldn’t escape from. The battles unfold in a mechanical manner, without much emotion.
Bungo Stray Dogs also liberally uses running gags to lighten the mood and while I like these recurrent and silly jokes, they do eat away at the tension in the story. Because of this, I found that I preferred the “lighter” episodes that didn’t pretend to be fending off a catastrophe, focussing instead on minor scuffles and the group dynamics. The “darker” episodes always felt like something was amiss.
Well, that’s my take on Bungo Stray Dogs. It wasn’t great enough to love nor was it horrid enough to warrant any hatred. It’s a routine story with an unoriginal concept that makes a lot of noise but doesn’t leave a mark. I watched it, sniggered at the comedy, shrugged off the fights and possibly yawned at the conclusion. I would probably watch the next season, and any seasons after that just to see where the story goes. Maybe I’ll remember the protagonist’s name by then.
If you haven’t watched Bungo Stray Dogs, do try it out. It’s not horrible after all. If you have watched it, feel free to share your thoughts on it.