How does one sanction evil?
The end goal of any traditional story of good versus evil is to battle to a point at which good has triumphed and evil has been defeated. The setting returns to or discovers a comparably peaceful status. From there, it can be assumed that peace will persist for as long as it can after the curtain has closed.
But what happens when a story paints that perpetual conflict between good and evil not as a disturbance or ongoing plague, but as the goal? Furthermore, what if a story progressively affirms it to be preferable to another, worse turn of events. While it may not be clear at first, Bungo Stray Dogs is the very thesis of this notion.
On the surface, this show is about the conflict between the simply named Armed Detective Agency and the Port Mafia, set in modern-day Yokohama, Japan. Every main character is named after and based on a popular author or poet, each possessing supernatural abilities based on their works.
Beyond the first season, the story evolves slowly into something far grander in such a way you might not notice it. It’s the kind of stylish show that could be unfairly criticized as lacking, narratively. My purpose in writing this is to parse the purpose of a story that I consider to be the very essence of character-driven storytelling.
[Spoilers for Bungo Stray Dogs Seasons 1-3 Ahead]
The Three-Part Framework
Bungo Stray Dogs isn’t a series that’s rather concerned with an end goal for its plot. It divulges much greater joy from picking apart the characters living within that world and discerning their philosophies. Granted, each season has its own goals, which become apparent as they continue.
In the first, it was Atsushi’s quest to save Kyouka as well as Kunikida’s ideals being challenged. In season two, it’s Atsushi’s maturing within the agency, to which Kyouka is just finding her place, and the Three-Company-Conflict. Then in the third, we witness the event known as the Cannibalism, as well as the forming of the new Guild.
Hinted at in season two and further elaborated in season three, the closest to an end goal for the series is the pursuit of a certain item. The item in question is a book that can turn whatever is written into it into reality. That’s a pretty monumental plot device right there, and it explains all of the attention Yokohama gets from antagonists abroad.
However, as appreciable as the reveal of the book is, it isn’t nearly as impressive as what season three reveals about the entire series. Fyodor Dostoevsky plans to obtain the book, feeding his already murderous God Complex. Before he can do that he determines he needs to kill off the Port Mafia and the Armed Detective Agency.
He plans to accomplish this by stirring the pot between them and provoking them to go to all-out war with one another. He poisons the leaders of both organizations, the ADA’s Kenichi Fukuzawa and the Mafia’s Ogai Mori, respectively. Both organizations are told that the poison, derived from a terrorist’s ability, is linked and that killing one leader will deactivate it for the other.
As some characters try to locate the terrorist with the poison ability, and everyone else battles each other, the two leaders sneak away to end things themselves. What looks to be the definitive battle of the so-called Cannibalism is turned on its head when an unexpected character arrives.
It’s only fitting that one of the most popular and well-regarded Japanese authors of all time, Natsume Soseki, shows up in a clinch. It’s even more hilarious to find he’s been with the characters the entire time disguised as a calico cat. His ability is named after one of Soseki’s popular works, “I Am A Cat.”
Through flashbacks, we gleam that both Fukuzawa and Mori were both pupils of Soseki. Soseki’s return brings to light the nature of Yokohama’s government structure and how the entire show has practically worked by design. Natsumei Soseki’s “Three-Part Framework” more or less encapsulates every major group native to Yokohama. It’s a framework put in place to keep Yokohama safe.
It mirrors day and night. Governing the day is the government’s Special Ability Department, keeping order lawfully if a bit dispassionately. Governing the night is the Port Mafia, a brotherhood at the top of the criminal underworld. In the middle, or, the “twilight,” – lies the Armed Detective Agency, a compassionate brotherhood of gifted individuals working to protect the weak.
It’s never explicitly stated whether or not this framework is one that is recognized by those in power or whether it was merely orchestrated by Soseki. Given that both the Mafia and the ADA are headed by Soseki’s pupils, it’s more likely the latter.
In acknowledging this strange design, it begs to question the morals of propping up a group like the Port Mafia. After all, they are comprised of murderers and criminals who are shown to be quite vicious in exercising dominance over their territory and assets. They are the antagonists. And despite this, the audience will inevitably come to like many of its members.
The reason for this is threefold. The first being the tone and direction of the series itself. Being directed by Takuya Igarashi, the series has a versatile tone and even more versatile art direction that can switch between comedy and drama at the drop of a dime. Humor can humanize even the most complicated and damaged characters in any work of fiction.
The second component is the context. Season two’s second half is built upon the ADA and the Mafia coming to a ceasefire to battle a common foe, the guild. Season three sees that ceasefire persist a bit longer than it needs to until Fyodor’s plans ruin it. Ergo, there’s a lot of time to see the Mafia’s characters as allies.
In my retrospective, I pointed out how the Cannibalism plays out like a battle between friends who have been turned against each other, rather than a typical good vs evil plot. I believe this is the reason why the reveal of the Three-Part Framework is an easier pill to swallow, even considering the Port Mafia’s previous actions. They are characters whom the audience has come to understand.
Arguably the most important element is the history. The world of Bungo Stray Dogs is fascinating. Whereas other stories with superhumans place them apart from or above other people, there aren’t any superheroes in this world. Merely the world has adapted to treat the gifted as specialists within pre-existing professions.
In this way, wars and the conflicts between superpowered organizations are grounded in a way that makes you think how superpowers would be treated in real life. In the context of Bungo, the prevalence of ability users has presented dangers that require complicated solutions.
What would normally be small gang conflicts can turn into all-out wars when criminal groups weaponize their abilities. In Yokohama’s history alone, there are multiple wars in the underworld. The Port Mafia’s old boss was sick and becoming mad, spilling unnecessary amounts of blood and leading the organization to ruin.
Mori, who previously worked as an underground doctor, rose the ranks of the Mafia, only to kill the boss. However, Mori’s Port Mafia thrived from thereon, his vision for the mafia acting according to Soseki’s Framework. In this way, the Port Mafia is seen as a necessary evil.
Consider a world like Bungo, in which even small scale conflicts can escalate to the level of warzones. Regulative powers have to respond in kind with superpowers of their own. However, these groups are not perfect either. The agents of the Special Ability Department aren’t above deception and dirty deals in the name of the “greater good.”
This is evident from Ango’s betrayal of Dazai and Oda in the Dark Ages arc. In the film, Dead Apple, the division made a crucial lapse in judgment, hiring Tatsuhiko Shibusawa during the Dragon’s Head conflict, resulting in even more casualties.
A group like the Port Mafia, an enemy that has nothing if not a code, should be preferable to a chaotic war between numerous rival groups. Better to have one enemy you understand than several whom you can’t begin to sanction. If anything, Yokohama, as it appears at the start of season one, is considerably better off.
None of this is to suggest that this framework is the best possible outcome. Furthermore, I wouldn’t go so far as to assume that writer Kafka Asagiri believes in it as the ideal. However, I think as a philosophical study, Bungo Stray Dogs uses this framework to create likable, empathetic characters on both sides.
In the end, both Fukuzawa and Mori both do what they do because they love their city; their home. They agreed to participate in such a framework because they saw opportunities to protect it in their way. The two cross swords for sure, not because their ends are different, but because their means offend the other.
Beyond season one, the major antagonists are always enemies looking to harm Yokohama and molest it for their own gain. As such, the framework guarantees that all three will unite to protect the state. These different and consistently contentious groups share a common love for their home and a desire to protect it. This requires that they keep each other in check now and again, not destroy each other.
In a way, the story paints a rather genuine portrait of coexistence in society and a nuanced dynamic of good versus evil. The fruit of said labors comes from the characters, colorful and theatrical but bearing hefty burdens, be they trauma or sin or both.
A Moment for Unabridged Praise
In the past, I’ve propped up three particular series as my all-time favorites. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Snow White with the Red Hair, and Blood Blockade Battlefront. However, the more that I have written about it and dissected it, the more I truly believe that Bungo tops all three of them.
It’s already an engrossing drama on the outset but deeper you dig into its soil, the more amazing and clever its construction becomes. Recall that, in my series review, I cited the narrative allusions as a big draw. Someone with a knowledge of the writers whom the characters are based on may get even more out of the story.
It was just recently that I had a moment that encapsulated that sensation perfectly. One of my favorite episodes of season three revolves around Francis Fitzgerald (author of Great Gatsby) and Louisa May Alcott (the author of Little Women) rebuilding the Guild, the enemy organization from season two. In working to get more funds, they endeavor to solve a murder.
I encourage you to watch the episode yourself to fully get the most out of this analysis. It is season three’s seventh episode, titled “Fitzgerald Rising.” Otherwise, read on ahead.
At a security company, an employee has created a cutting edge facial recognition software. That same employee has been accused of murdering his friend and funnily enough, he has been caught by the same program he designed. However, he swears he was not responsible. Fitzgerald comes to him and tells him he will make him innocent. The name of the man? T. J. Eckleburg.
Readers of Fitzgerald’s most famous book, The Great Gatsby, should recognize the name. “The Eyes of T. J. Eckleburg” is a painting adorning the side of a building in the book, commonly thought to symbolize the eyes of God, looking down on society. And what’s the name of the facial recognition software that T.J. Eckleburg designed? “The Eyes of God.”
The cherry on top comes at the end of the episode. Fitzgerald sneakily commissions the Armed Detective Agency to discern who the killer is. It’s the CEO of the company. He had a back door installed in the code, allowing him to replace people’s faces in the footage. He killed the programmer who installed it and then pinned it on Eckleburg.
Fitzgerald reveals this to the court with gusto and the CEO loses everything, with the former shorting his stocks and buying up the company himself. And what is the name of this filthy rich villain in opposition to Fitzgerald’s Gatsby-inspired characterization? Tom Buchanan, the antagonist of the Great Gatsby.
It took me far too long to realize all of this, but it just goes to make an already great episode a veritable masterpiece. This goes beyond simple allusion. This is an homage to literature that adds further depth to already engaging drama. It’s moments like this that make me want to read more into the histories of the series’ Japanese authors.
I couldn’t justify writing an entire post dedicated just to this episode, so forgive me for the tangent. It just goes to show what further dissection of this fascinating show offers. I have no other proclamations with which to end this essay other than this…
Bungo Stray Dogs is my new favorite anime of all time.
Bungo Stray Dogs is available for legal streaming through FunimationNow and Crunchyroll. It’s also available on Blu-ray through Funimation.
What are your thoughts on Bungo Stray Dogs‘ approach to a good versus evil story? And while you’re at it, who’s your favorite character? leave a comment below and let me know.
In April I initially planned to dedicate myself to fiction writing. After all, I have a lot of time to spend with all this quarantine business. However, I also recently got access to audio and video editing software. So, in addition to taking time off to do more fiction writing, I’m planning on turning some of these essays I’ve written in the past couple of years into video essays.
Leave a comment letting me know what posts you’d like to see turned into videos. Thanks for reading and as always, see you next time.