“To The Stray Dogs” – A Bungo Stray Dogs Retrospective

Recently I enthusiastically wrote about Bungo Stray Dogs as it was in the middle of its third season. In the middle of writing it, I remembered that somehow I had avoided reviewing any of the series prior. In that same post, I also realized I have a lot of positive things to say as it turns out. Three seasons and a movie may seem like a tall order for one review, but I’m nothing if not a man of (too) many words.

For a series that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to my friends, the first season of Bungo has a few more problems upon second glance. This happens a lot with good shows I feel. There is a first season that catches your attention with some elusive quality you can’t quite put your finger on. Next up, the sequels build on the formula, turning the show into something even grander than you first envisioned.

The real tricky part is getting people into it without over-hyping it purely on the grounds of how good it gets later on. I’m sure if I kept watching Breaking Bad season four I would love it, but I don’t wanna watch Skylar try to buy a God damn car wash for half a season. Where was I? Oh yeah, allow me to start by giving you an honest look at this show’s humble beginnings.

Season One

It might not be too hard to sell someone on a series with a premiere as humorous yet cool as Bungo‘s. It begins with our lead Atsushi, an orphan with no home, on the verge of starving to death. He resolves to steal from the next person who walks by, though each passerby makes him feel less and less confident in his chances of success.

Then he meets Dazai. Osamu Dazai. A sharp-dressed man, clad in beige, brown, and bandages around his neck and wrists, whom Atsushi finds drowning in a river. Upon saving him, Dazai is displeased to be alive, as he was committing suicide, despite what his upbeat and mischievous demeanor would indicate of his psyche.

Thus begins a fascinating friendship as Atsushi becomes embroiled into the Armed Detective Agency, a group of superhuman private detectives operating out of Yokohama, Japan. Upon learning he has an ability himself, Atsushi becomes their newest member, helping them keep the peace while trying to find his place in the world.

Bungo‘s biggest gimmick is how major characters are based on real literary authors. Their abilities are references to their works. Dazai’s ability to nullify any other ability through touch is named “No Longer Human,” referencing Dazai’s most famous novel. His suicidal fantasies in the show are inspired by the real Dazai’s own multiple suicidal attempts. Every character has some connection to their real-life counterpart aesthetically, philosophically, and in terms of personality.

The first couple of episodes after the premiere are well-paced and offer some quirky comedy thanks to Igarashi’s visual direction. However, the stories themselves can be hit or miss in the beginning, mainly due to some repetition.

Atsushi is not very confident and carries a lot of baggage from his time at the orphanage he was kicked out of. A character plagued with PTSD isn’t a problem or anything, but the show just hammers it into your head how shitty it was. Constantly Atsushi is plagued by visions of the asshole who abused him at the orphanage, but it’s so repetitious to the point of unintentional comedy.

Atsushi Nakajima, voiced by Yuuto Uemura

On the bright side, I can’t say the supporting cast is not a blast to watch or that the episodes don’t move the plot along at a progressive rate. Despite being a show about detectives, I wouldn’t describe this as a mystery show. There are mystery plots, but the show is equal parts action as it follows the Armed Detective Agency’s rivalry with the Port Mafia.

Episode three introduces the main antagonist of this season, Ryunoskuke Akutagawa. He is a dedicated member of the mafia whose prior relationship with Dazai put him at odds with Atsushi, who is Dazai’s new underling of sorts. The two share a rivalry that extends beyond just season one.

Ryunosuke Akutagawa, voiced by Kensho Ono

Speaking of Dazai, he will likely be most people’s favorite character at first. Mamoru Miyano is no stranger to works of director Igarashi, having voiced Tamaki in Ouran and Takuto in Star Driver. The man has a charisma near-unmatched in the industry and the types of protagonists he voices in Igarashi’s shows always fit him.

Here, Miyano gives a darker edge to the character, as early on the plot reveals Dazai’s connection to the Port Mafia, and a past that has forged him through fire. For all his silliness, that element of his past lends his character an air of wisdom that makes his scenes resonate that much more.

Osamu Dazai, voiced by Momoru Miyano

By episode five, the show hits its stride, Atsushi being fully settled and the story becoming more episodic for a while. We get an actual detective story, featuring Edogawa Ranpo, the character whose ability practically makes up the entire “detective” part of their agency.

The episode is interesting for the story behind the murder at the center of the mystery, especially during its tragic conclusion. On the other hand, Ranpo appears a bit overpowered, even with the reveals at the end of the episode explaining the deductions. It isn’t an immediately noticeable problem throughout the series, but one could argue his skills should make any mystery a cakewalk based on what we are presented.

Edogawa Ranpo, voiced by Hiroshi Kamiya

The two-parter following this episode shifts focus to Kunikida, the straight-laced member of the agency striving to live towards his ideals. Next to Atsushi and Dazai, Kunikida is one of my favorites. Watching lawful good protagonists have their philosophies challenged is something I love and this arc is the very thesis of that plotline.

Doppo Kunikida, voiced by Yoshimasa Hosoya

Kunikida tracks down a criminal following in the footsteps of a bomber from an old case of his. This new investigation opens up old wounds and culminates in some really great teamwork between him and Dazai, with whom he shares disagreements over his beliefs. Tense, musically charged, and tragic, all while informing Kunikida’s character arc which plays a role in Atsushi’s conflict towards the finale.

Episode eight continues the agency’s introductions with Yosano, the doctor of the group. I won’t pretend she isn’t the main reason this episode is my favorite from season one. Smart, sensual, and maybe a little sadistic, Yosano brought this episode up to like a 9. The fact that the episode contained a fight on a train (one of the coolest settings for a fight) was even better. However this episode is also notable for the introduction of Kyouka, a young girl working for the Port Mafia.

Akiko Yosano, voiced by Yuu Shimamura

Your mileage may vary on how compelling you find her to be, because her deadpan attitude may make her uninteresting to some. As a companion to Atsushi, however, I think she can be really interesting. He begins to find new resolve to step up and be a hero so he can help one very similar to himself and battle Akutagawa in the process. Kyouka isn’t bad though and the episode dedicated to Atsushi awkwardly taking her on a date is too cute to complain.

Kyouka Izumi, voiced by Sumire Morohoshi

As the season nears a close, it feels less like the end of a major chapter and more like the episodic mid-section of a 24-episode show. There is some continuation of plot points like those involving Kyouka, but a lot of the time is spent on side-stories and building up to the second season. It may lack some sense of finality, but the stories themselves are not without their high points.

An impressive half-episode about Akutagawa’s assistant Higuchi is probably my favorite. It’s short, sweet and gives a great sense of the brotherhood felt by members of the Port Mafia. It’s easy to forget that engaging villains need a little humanity to latch onto, even slightly. The latter half of that same episode concludes introduction of the Agency’s members with the hilarious and deceptively strong Kenji Miyazawa.

Kenji Miyazawa, voiced by Hiroyuki Kagura

As for hyping up season two, the last episode introduces the next arc’s villains. It even feels like they start the next arc right in the last episode before obviously ending. Keep in mind that the next season doesn’t just immediately resume where the first left off. It’s an odd place to end there is still plenty of charm and if nothing else the last episode will leave you intrigued for what comes next.

Season one made a good first impression thanks to its style and comedy. However, not all of the biggest story beats resonated with me. I had more enjoyment watching the standalone stories about Dazai, Kunikida, or Ranpo than watching Atsushi confront his demons. If the story doesn’t grab you at first, the characters most certainly will.

The contemporary setting populated by colorful and culturally transcendent super humans alone makes the series appealing. Added to that a soundtrack of which any lover of melodrama is weak to and the result is a treat that gets sweeter with memory. Thank god it would not remain a memory, as a continuation followed close behind.

Season Two

From left to right: Oda Sakunosuke, Osamu Dazai, Ango Sakaguchi

I’ve praised the opening four episodes of Bungo‘s second season at length in my last post on this series, but it bears reiterating here. The first arc of season two caught me off guard, and I love it. It is still one of the best parts in the series and perhaps marks the moment when it started to really step up its game.

Set four years before the main plot, we see the Dazai back during his time in the Port Mafia, along with his friends Oda Sakunosuke and Ango Sakaguchi. Oda investigates Ango’s sudden disappearance and ends up facing off against a group that is setting their sights on the Port Mafia.

Every aesthetic quality I enjoyed from season one was present here but utilized to such a more impressive degree thanks to the story. There was even a fair bit of experimentation. Not only like arc itself but also in how the openings changed between episodes, experimenting with digital effects. All this to give the arc it’s own identity before the same song would be used with a more consistent opening after the time skip.

Once the action in the present resumes, it wastes none of its remaining eight episodes in building hype. The villains of season two are the Guild, an American organization of gifted individuals looking to take Yokohama by force. The exact purpose for them targeting the city isn’t made clear, but there are implications of an item that villains of this series would do a great deal to acquire.

For the moment, all the viewer can infer is that they simply want to control the city for profit and power. Either way, their presence combined with existing tensions leads to a war between the Agency, the Mafia, and the Guild.

All of the Guild’s members are based on western authors. This will lead to an understandable amount of excitement by Western viewers including myself. It’s easier to appreciate that added dimension of the series I’ve eluded to before once there is a character whose significance you can recognize.

Now to be fair, the villains in this season are not perfect. Beyond the surface-level appeal of say, watching the Scarlet Letter‘s Nathaniel Hawthorne fight Akutagawa, don’t expect a ton of depth. You can expect some of them to be pretty memorable though, that’s for damn sure.

Take for instance Francis Fitzgerald, the leader of the Guild, who is based on none other than Scott F. Fitzgerald, the author of Great Gatsby. He makes for a great rival thanks to his absurd yet very fitting ability that makes the final battle so epic. All in all, the Guild is iconic, if a bit underdeveloped.

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, voiced by Takahiro Sakurai

Perhaps that minor inconvenience is a godsend, as the members of the Port Mafia just get cooler and cooler. Their leader, Mori Ougai, made an instantly imposing presence in the season one finale. Here, he continues to be a creepily cool leader and the perfect opposite to the Agency’s leader, Yukichi Fukuzawa.

As for other big names of the Port Mafia, the most enjoyable is Chuuya Nakahara. He made his big splash on the scene in the latter half of season one, where his chemistry with Dazai was instantly recognizable. Here, he takes a more active role in battles but also finds himself palling around with Dazai again.

Chuuya Nakahara, voiced by Kishou Taniyama

See, one of the coolest parts of this season, and why it was so great for building onto the characters, is how allegiances are formed in this war. There is a lot of great character building conveyed just through how the Agency and Mafia interact during this time. The presentation and the script find a way to put two characters together and instantly feel the history between them, making some very memorable pairings.

Atsushi takes some big steps in his character arc this season, becoming a lot more confident and efficient with his ability. He has more fight scenes and while he’s not done learning, he shows a lot of growth. I get the feeling his character arc is building towards him better resembling his real-life counterpart and they even highlight that progress with real quotes from the late Nakajima himself.

Kyouka is still a rather quiet and edgy character with a troubled past, but also just as cute at the best of times. This season really stresses how difficult it is for her to move on from her past and join the Agency for real. I think that the end of her arc this season, in particular, is very sweet and compliments Atsushi’s own growth. Side note: Kyouka’s theme of sorts, Kokoro Furuekeri, is one of the most beautiful tracks on the OST.

Bungo is still more action than mystery, but they find the time for a fun side story before the climax. Ranpo and Yosano go to find a lead and end up in a battle of wits with none other than Edgar Allen Poe (I’m not shitting you). The result is a one-off that is completed within half an episode. It just sorta… happens… but I couldn’t be happier, honestly.

If season one was a gang feud then season two is a war. While it may seem odd for the series to have moved the plot in such a grand direction in only its second outing, I think it only helped it in the long run. Bones accomplished quite a bit and proved that even with fewer episodes, they can adapt the material the best they can. The fact that they could take supplementary material like a novel and work that in just as effectively was them practically showing off.

After two seasons in 2016, we wouldn’t get another full chapter until the summer of 2018. In the meantime, there was an OVA released in the summer of 2017 following Kunikida. It featured some great sakuga but followed very much in the same footsteps as the Azure Messenger arc from season one. It may just appear to be a neat little bonus but it actually has some major significance later in the series. We’ll get to that later though.

Unfortunately, the next major entry in the series would not fare so well compared to the other two, though not without some bright spots. Bungo Stray Dogs: Dead Apple was an original story set in between season two and the yet-unannounced third season we were all hoping for.

Before its release, I had high hopes for what could be a great continuation. What I got was an example of the many issues with movie continuations of TV anime.

Dead Apple

Let’s at least start positive.

In what I suspect to be one of the last of Crunchyroll’s suspiciously dormant movie program, this was screened in select theaters. It is always a delight to see anime brought to the big screen and this was no exception. If I have anything positive to say, it is absolutely the presentation.

Bones knew they were making a movie here and granted it an aesthetic befitting the occasion. Though in reality, this is less a testament to their recognition of the occasion of the film’s release and more telling of the overall quality of the series’ artwork. If we really want to address them stepping up their game, we need to talk about the soundtrack.

Taku Iwasaki’s skill is already well-known but the soundtrack particularly for this film… I’m honestly astonished. The symphonic heart from the show’s more emotional and dramatic moments is there but elevated to new heights.

often, my favorite soundtracks fill me with this sense of wonder that is a cross between the romanticism of old cinema and the tragedy of the drama on screen. This soundtrack accomplishes that perfectly. Do yourself a favor and listen to it online or buy it wherever you can get your hands on anime osts.

Even when my brain was focused on the parts of the film that were lacking, I couldn’t deny how entrancing some of the later sequences were thanks to the great sound and visual direction. From start to finish, the film is my favorite kind of spectacle.

The film begins in the past during a particularly bloody gang feud of which the Port Mafia emerged victoriously but not without a cost. It’s an exhilarating start to the film in which you can tell the opening track, “Get Down,” was carefully timed to match up with the scene, or vice versa.

The premise revolves around the Agency investigating the deaths of ability users across the world. A fog appears and then suddenly when it clears, those with superpowers appear to have been killed by their own abilities. Tatsuhiko Shibusawa, a man with the ability to collect people’s abilities would seem to be the logical culprit and they have to find him.

Unfortunately, before long, Yokohama is engulfed in this fog and the Agency needs to stop Shibusawa before they become the next victims. Worse still, Dazai’s whereabouts are unknown and his own involvement in this incident brings into question his own motives.

Sounds good so far, right? The concept is cool and with solid direction throughout you’d think I’d be really satisfied. Honestly though, the film feels like it should be filler. The film is referenced later on and certain character revelations here are arguably important, but the film still doesn’t feel like it affects much going forward.

A lot of anime films tied to major TV series have this problem. Most of the time they aren’t canon. If they are, they can’t do anything that will leave a lasting impact as to risk breaking canon. Even if they do something that could, it would probably just be contradicted once the canon story continues.

So just like with My Hero Academia: Two Heroes, the film is fun but feels meaningless. At least I can say that between the two, I might pick Dead Apple, only because at least it succeeds more consistently as an artistic showcase throughout.

The biggest problem with this movie is Atsushi. Despite having had an entire two seasons to get stronger and more confident, this film feels like it takes a step backward. Sure, he’s given a handicap because of the plot, but his lacking capability shouldn’t diminish his internal growth over two seasons. He’s whiny – too whiny – and it hurt several scenes that should have been great.

Kyouka is fairly consistent as the film treats her as though she is at the end of her arc from the series proper. There are a few scenes that even give that arc some extra finality. Atsushi, on the other hand, gets the short end of the stick. But at least he gets back to being himself by the final fight.

The MVP of the film is Chuuya, who arguably has the biggest motivation to stop the antagonist, having lost allies to him in the past. He gets his own brand of justice in what will undoubtedly be the most hype scene of the film. Honestly if the film was about him, it would have been a lot better.

Tatsuhiko Shibusawa, voiced by Kazuya Nakai

The bad guy, Shibusawa looks as cool as any other Bungo character but is overshadowed in showmanship by Fyodor Dostoevsky. He was eluded to at the very end of season two and now is formally introduced here in this film. This is just one more reason why the movie might actually be necessary viewing despite its problems. I’d prefer it if I could tell you all to skip it.

Slightly less annoying to me than Atsushi’s arc, but still a big deal to me, is in the confusing mechanics behind the film’s premise. Up to this point in the series, the abilities are fairly easy to understand. By the third act of the film, I was struggling to understand exactly what was happening.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, voiced by Akira Ishida

Whose ability was whose? What exactly was causing this whole incident? Because Dostoevsky’s power is made a mystery even throughout most of season three, it’s hard to say, but it’s just another thing that might be hard to follow. Still, it’s at least a beautiful confusion to witness.

Dead Apple is fan service and it doesn’t take full advantage of it’s potential as not to stray from its source material. I can’t say fans won’t have fun with it, but a majority will likely find far more worth in the series proper. The directing and soundtrack make the experience somewhat worthwhile, but it will merely be an intermission before the real continuation.

Season Three

Once again, I’ve discussed the first half of season three in this post, so go read that, but if you need a tl;dr, I’ll do my best.

Season three’s prequel arc at the beginning, while not as emotional as season two’s, treated us to Chuuya’s backstory. His chemistry with Dazai held the arc together when the mystery subplot suffered. In a show typically rich with solid directing, this arc felt a bit perplexing, mainly in the premiere when certain scenes’ visual flows seemed sudden.

The previous season’s prequel arc, while simply a novel adapted in the middle of a manga adaptation, tied into the series wonderfully. Dazai’s backstory and subsequent motivations, Akutagawa’s ties with him, and even the world-building really strengthened the story in the long run. This season’s arc is less tied to the events of the main story and might seem unnecessary. Though I still feel like these prequels are great at deepening existing characters while introducing memorable new ones.

As for the season as a whole, this very well could be the best one yet. The way it left me wanting more at the end of each episode was like the experience of watching season two but with an even better villain. Francis was cool but Dostoevsky is a mastermind and the perfect rival to both the Agency and the Mafia.

Speaking of Francis, he actually returned as well, better than ever. Those who liked him will find him even more enjoyable after he finds new resolve and a new mission in life. Those who thought he was bland or perhaps uninteresting will likewise find the aforementioned resolve to be a nice change of pace.

His time in the show is considerably shorter than season two but the strength of the solo episode he is given makes it apparent that he isn’t the same guy. It actually might be my favorite episode of the season. His circumstances give him an opportunity to grow and through that growth he becomes more complex. Whether he will be a villain or a hero going forward is uncertain to me, but he will be a delight to watch nonetheless.

The BEST. FUCKING. PART about that episode with Fitzgerald is that it ties into the main plot in such a cool way later on. Not a single episode is wasted. The latter half is where all the pieces fall into play and Yokohama falls into chaos. The series is at its best when it observes the relationship between the Agency and the Mafia, their philosophies, and their purposes.

Yukichi Fukuzawa, voiced by Rikiya Koyama

This season, in particular, places a strain on that fragile balance, threatening a fallout even grander than the war from season two. Fukuzawa and Mori, the leaders of the Agency and Mafia respectfully, both play a much larger role in the story this time. Fukuzawa especially felt underutilized in the past, so it was great to have such tense scenes between him and his rival towards the end.

We also finally understand what is so special in Yokohama that all these bad guys want so bad. It was eluded to before, but it could have been addressed earlier, especially when this plot device holds such great significance. At the very least I’m glad that the plot device itself sounds like a really cool concept that I’m anxious to see how it will factor in later.

Ougai Mori, voiced by Mitsuru Miyamoto

Every character is tested in some way and these trials say so much about the characters, the factions, and the cunning of the antagonist. It feels as though everything up to that point factored into this finale.

Kunikida’s ideals are tested more seriously than ever before at a moment at which he has to step up as a leader. Even the OVA episode from after season two factors into his arc. The other Agency members need to step up as well. Ranpo, for example, has to come to terms with the limits of his deduction. All the while, they have to determine whether to try and uphold peace against the unfortunate circumstances or go to war.

Not only are characters being challenged but their growth over the past three seasons is made greatly apparent. Kyouka’s resolve has really become admirable. From being resigned to the fate of a killer, to being hesitant to even use her ability, she’s had her ups and downs but she really shows how far she has come here.

Dazai will never cease to entertain me because he is so difficult to read. He’s not beyond going behind people’s backs to get things done and he clearly tries to keep two steps ahead of everyone. He aligns himself with good guys and is intent on helping to stop bad people, but he is still an imperfect man with a lot of blood in his past.

At the risk of sounding cheesy on account of the literary motif, he’s a book you can get lost in the further you read. What makes this season even more important for him is that he seems to have met his match. It’s hard to put into words how much I love Dostoevsky, but he is one of my favorite kinds of villains.

The kinds who seem to be practically born to take everything about a story and turn it on its head. He’s the kind of villain whose plans are a joy to watch unfold, and whose defeats are made even sweeter because of that (assuming they can be defeated).

And yet, somehow Atsushi and Akutagawa stole the show right at the end. Their rivalry has been constant since the very beginning and every time it feels like it might be resolved, it remains. This should be annoying but I love it because it evolved. It became a reluctant partnership that now becomes even more symbiotic this time around.

Atsushi is still berated by Akutagawa but he stands up for himself, snapping back. He has gotten stronger and knows it, so he doesn’t take it lying down. The two have matured and grown mutual respect that shines in the fights, where their bond is at its strongest. If that doesn’t sound exciting enough, their final fight together produced one of the greatest moments in the series and one of the coolest character designs.

Where do I even begin to wrap up a discussion about this series? It started some months with a comparison to another show I tend to hold in even higher regard; Blood Blockade Battlefront. However, taking the time to go through it with a fine comb, I wouldn’t be surprised if Bungo surpassed that show with time.

Visually, Bungo has shined in effects and character animation. Fights don’t always stand out for complex choreography but the more pronounced, dramatic movement of the already striking art. The series’ filmic look combined with the sharp and colorful character designs make this one of the best looking shows I’ve ever seen.

These characters built to pay homage to radically different fashions and eras, thrust into a contemporary setting are so cool I can hardly find the words to explain how. It is as if the creators set out to channel the romantic allure of old serial dramas and merge it with the battle seinen genre.

It’s such an odd mixture but it creates personalities and moments so theatrical I feel like I’m indulging in some alternative theatre. That is the closest I can come to explaining why I like the style of this show, much less describe what that style is. I just hope it sounds as cool to you as it does to me.

I’m not sure where the series will go or when a fourth season can be expected. All I know is that whenever we are lucky enough to receive it, it will be a great time to be alive.

Bungo Stray Dogs Seasons 1-3, the OVA, and the film, Dead Apple, are available through Crunchyroll and FunimationNow. Seasons 1 & 2 are also available on Blu-ray through Funimation.

Thanks for reading!!! Leave a comment below letting me know what your favorite season of Bungo Stray Dogs is. Coming down the pipeline I’m planning to discuss the Evangelion Rebuilds now that I’ve recently watched them all. It won’t necessarily be a review, but any I think Eva fans will be interested to hear what I have to say.

Other than that, I want to discuss a show that totally went under my radar that I just recently finished and fell in love with. I’m gonna keep it in suspense for now to give you all something to look forward to, but I haven’t been this excited for a review in a while. Of course I plan on finishing Shield Hero and Dororo as well.

Here’s hoping I stay on schedule cause I tend to making a lot more promises in these after-post messages. Time will tell I suppose. Hope you enjoyed reading and I’ll see you next time.

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