Bungo Stray Dogs: Season Three & The Art of Wide Appeal

Some months back I went on a whole tirade about finding my “perfect” anime and ended up determining my three favorite shows of all time. One of them was Kekkai Sensen, an episodic action series by Studio Bones, which remains to be the closest to perfection I have found. However, when making that decision, I had a significantly difficult time picking between that and one other show: Bungo Stray Dogs.

Bungo Stray Dogs follows the Armed Detective Agency, a group of superhuman detectives who keep order in the port city of Yokohama. Meanwhile, they frequently face off against other supernatural organizations such as the aptly named Port Mafia. All major characters are named and based on real literary authors.

They are somewhat similar in premise. Both shows follow a team of sometimes serious, sometimes whacky superhumans keeping the peace in their respective towns. Kekkai Sensen captures the packed insanity of New York City while throwing in aliens and monsters. Bungo favors a more comparably peaceful and modern Yokohama. Both shows are episodic with a through-line narrative, both straddle the line between dramatic and comedic and they are both produced by Bones.

Eventually, it was no contest that Kekkai Sensen won the battle for being a bit more put-together throughout, whereas BSD was mixed in the first season. It helps that the former has the single greatest season finale I’ve ever witnessed, putting at least the first season comfortably among my top three.

That being said, Bungo Stray Dogs rides much the same line that Kekkai Sensen treads in winning over my heart and could easily make my top 10. It has managed to continue strong, with a feature film and a currently-airing third season. Six episodes in, it doesn’t seem to be losing stride.

[These are my first impressions of episodes 1-6 of Bungo Stray Dogs Season Three]

The beginning of the new season was like a journey back in time… for literal and figurative reasons. The first three episodes follow the backstory of Chuuya Nakahara, known prior in the series as a member of the Port Mafia. We see his first encounter with series regular Osamu Dazai, and how they became partners. At the end of these three episodes, we are transported back to the present for what I will assume is the rest of the season.

This isn’t the first time they have done this. Season two’s first four episodes focused on an original character in a side-story set four years before the present day. It was jarring to say the least, and this rather risky writing decision didn’t entice everyone, but for those who stuck with it, it became one of the best stories in the series.

Oda Sakunosuke, voiced by Junichi Sawabe

The story was a tragedy centered around Oda Sakunosuke (or Odasaku), a member of the Port Mafia who would not shed blood. He believed that it would rob him of the right to achieve his dream of retiring and becoming a writer. In the grand scheme of things, Odasaku’s story was not essential to the story and most people would likely have wished the story pick up right where things left off.

Even so, that arc, which actually is itself an adaptation of a light novel spin-off, leaves an impressive impact that permeates the rest of the season and future entries. Odasaku is revealed to be an integral part in how Dazai became the way he is. Coupled with some iconic battles and some gut-punching twists, these four episodes felt like a complete series in themselves.

In any other world, these would have been released off-season as a series of OVAs… but they weren’t. And so season two continued with eight episodes set in the present day. One could be forgiven for fearing this would hurt the quality and pacing of a pretty intense sequel, but far from it.

When I re-watched season one, I saw more issues than I had noticed the first time around. Atsushi’s repetitious flashbacks to his time in that shitty orphanage, some less-than-engaging early episodes and a somewhat sudden season conclusion stuck out a bit more. It was still good, and I remember the highs very, very well, but the pacing definitely suffered.

In contrast, season two moved at a great pace, both in the individual arcs and as one entire season. If I had to guess why the series was adapted in this way, it is because they didn’t want to stretch out the season to 12 episodes with just the current plotline. So, they adapted the “dark era” novel in order to get things off to a more intimate start in this truly new and improved Bungo Stray Dogs.

From left to right: Oda Sakunosuke, Osamu Dazai (voiced by Mamoru Miyano), and Chuuya Nakahara (voiced by Kishou Taniyama)

While too early to say if the same strategy will work as well this time around, season three’s prequel arc- while not as gut-punching- had all the visual charm that the Dark Arc possessed. Namely, the cinematic lighting and superb color design. There has always been an incredibly pleasant aesthetic throughout the show, whether it be the vibrant Yokohama cityscape or the noir influenced underbelly. On the whole, the prequel arcs take on a darker color palette to fit this dark age in the city’s story.

The story this time around follows Dazai and Chuuya investigating a rumor about the former leader of the Port Mafia coming back from the dead. It is a reluctant partnership, as Chuuya is adamently against the Port Mafia. As typical of their scenes together, they are a perfect duo and their dialog scenes are laden with hilarious banter.

The arc’s only big drawback was the mystery subplot which was far less interesting than the much-appreciated spotlight on Chuuya. For being a show about detectives, this show’s promise is rarely in the mysteries themselves. This arc had a few moments that kinda lost me for how sudden or convoluted certain plot points were, which is a shame.

Episode four returned to the present but was dedicated to this season’s main villain, Fyodor Dostoevsky, named after the famous Russian novelist. Much like in his grand appearance in the film Dead Apple though, his power makes no fucking sense and the show knows it. A big part of the episode is a Port Mafia executive just trying to figure out what it is, only for the episode to leave me even more perplexed.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, voiced by Akira Ishida

They have been setting him up since the end of season two and he featured prominently in the film. I love how dramatic his scenes are, but if I can’t properly assess what the threat is I can’t get as hyped for when he faces off against the Armed Detective Agency. That’s not to say I doubt it will be glorious, but I’m not feeling the hype the way the show expects me to.

The two most recent episodes focused on the main cast in one mostly comedic episode and another which sought to develop series regulars Atsushi and Kyouka by confronting their pasts. In fact, the episode was neatly divided into two halves just for that purpose, and I’m delighted to say that it was one of the more heartfelt episodes in a while.

Kyouka is an odd character and you could be forgiven for not having found her all that compelling given her lack of expression. As a partner to Atsushi, I think she works well, but I don’t think she could hold her own. That being said, the added backstory was a blast thanks to some hilariously awesome action and from what I can tell, we are beginning to see some change within her, if only slightly.

I was more concerned to see what they would do with Atsushi. See, he had a great arc in season two. So great, that when Dead Apple took his character arc back a couple miles, I felt a bit disappointed. I was even more worried when Atsushi’s childhood trauma was making a comeback, given how repetitious that was in season one.

On the contrary, though, they actually seemed to bring that arc to a close in a surprising way. It presented that childhood trauma in an open-ended, mature way that left me thinking. Here’s hoping it only goes up from here, as I would love to see Atsushi get even stronger.

With only six episodes remaining, I have little doubt about the future of the season. Unlike the second season, all the pieces haven’t been put in place yet for a huge confrontation, but if Dostaevsky really is the villain worth the hype, we are likely in for a big surprise by the end.

As I stated at the start, Kekkai Sensen and Bungo Stray Dogs are two shows I love very much for similar reasons. Style, great characters, and beautiful action. If I had to hazard a guess as to why the latter is more popular, it is due to the skill of a creative team very familiar with creating classics with wide appeal.

Director Takuya Igarashi is most known for his work directing shows like Soul Eater and Ouran High School Host Club. In his shows, comedy is animated and directed in a distinct way that thrives on cute, visual humor. He’ll often use forth-wall breaking arrows and visual cues in these scenes. When it is serious though, he is capable of some grand dramatic presentation.

This brand of visual directing allows for a flexibility with character designs. Harukawa35’s original character designs are given great life by Ryou Hirata and Nobuhiro Arai, who translated he sharp look of the designs, while allowing for a more curved cartoon-ish look for sequences of levity. This can be seen in Igarashi’s other works prominently.

An equally storied artist who has worked alongside Igarashi helped share the load on this project. Youji Enokido is the madman responsible for writing Ouran, Redline, Diebuster, Star Driver, Utena and most importantly, FLCL. His dialogue is sensual, comedic and all around wild, finding a way to connect with audiences through the insanity and really engage with them emotionally. In tandem with a great director, his work becomes legendary. While this is not an original work, his reputation alongside Igarashi speaks for itself.

Let us NEVER forget the music. Taku Iwazaki’s soundtrack at once feels like the chill backdrop to a back-alley club and a more theatrical filmic score during action sequences. He is to soundtracks what Yutaka Nakamura is to sakuga. Constantly evolving and experimenting with new styles, he has fueled many a hype train out of Japan for our listening pleasure.

Having a wide appeal is never a guarantee of success, obviously. Creating a work that is too broad runs the risk of making something that lacks focus. At the same time, many decry more broadly accessible media as placing accessibility above quality. The truth is, it takes great skill to make a story with this kind of appeal.

The witty writing produces funny and likeable characters while unafraid to put those characters in grim situations. It is unafraid to shed some blood too without creating an unintentionally hilarious dissonance. Character’s philosophies are easy enough to deduce and their individual arcs are effective at challenging them in an emotional way. In regards to sex appeal, the artwork has produced equally some of the most attractive male and female characters I’ve seen in TV anime.

The show is well-animated and consistent. Action in BSD is more focused on large displays of power and simpler choreography with an emphasis on character acting, posing and effects animation. What choreography does appear is equally beautiful and one recent episode had my new favorite cut of the series.

Typically, shows like this tend to be very niche. Shows with this brand of dramatic writing, theatrical flair and prioritization of style tend to be the ones that I tell all my friends they should totally try out, to no avail. But Bungo Stray Dogs is refreshingly popular, while continuing to impress me in the littlest of ways.

For instance, compensating for the loss of character detail at a distance by just not drawing their faces and accentuating their outfits. It is a simple workaround to a common issue that arguable makes the problem worse but as a stylistic choice doesn’t make an image necessarily worse.

Or perhaps how certain episodes are split cleanly in half so they can adapt two mostly separate side stories in one episode. I’m used to this in American cartoons, but not anime. And these are just the little things, what about the entire conceipt of the narrative: the fact that they are all based on literary icons.

Prior to watching this series, I knew nothing about these authors and if I hadn’t heard about how they were all based on writers, I may not have ever noticed it until much later. The truth is, knowing about these authors beforehand actually opens you up to a whole other dimension of the viewing experience.

Characters’ philosophies and mannerisms make a lot more sense in context and their likely fates are suddenly dramatic irony. New viewers will likely be able to tap into this added dimension by the time they reach season two, where they added western writers as part of the new group of antagonists. Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Francis Scott Fitzgerald and more feature prominently and all have abilities referencing their works. It is awesome.

Even if you don’t know the extensive histories of the western authors, it is still a marvel to behold. As for the main characters, you might not “get it” as much as the Japanese. People in Japan read more than Americans anyway, giving this entire premise a lot of cultural significance to them. You wanna know the best part of everything I just said? You don’t have to know any of what I just discussed to have a great time with this show.

I have yet to do a full review of this series. I recall writing a recommendation back when all of my reviews were on Facebook, but I look forward to reassessing this series in the future. You can wait until then, or you can catch up on the series now and watch season three along with me. Either way, look forward to more overdue coverage of this series very soon.

Bungo Stray Dogs Seasons 1-3 and the movie are available for legal streaming on Crunchyroll

I actually had to look through my blog to make sure my memory wasn’t deceiving that I hadn’t covered BSD on this blog before. Can’t believe I’ve been wasting so much time. Well NO LONGER!!! Look forward to some new reviews once I return from Japan.

Leave a comment letting me know what you think about season three and tell me what other shows you want me to talk about from this season. Thanks for reading and I’ll see you next time.

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