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Thursday, 6 October 2016

Bungou Stray Dogs S1.

Bungou Stray Dogs.
Series 1.

This anime actually aired some time ago, but you might be amazed how many shows float at the periphery of my attention until the moment where I become bored enough to start marathoning them. Prior to watching Bungou Stray Dogs, I did make a gamely attempt at marathoning Active Raid, to no avail, as a combination of technical issues and outright boredom prevented me from getting more than four episodes in. I was somewhat more successful with Bungou Stray Dogs, a series I was only familiar with from its character designs, which I'd seen gain a fair amount of critical and popular praise. I ended up mainlining the series in about three days, which is pretty quick for me.

Set in modern day Yokohama, Bungou Stray Dogs follows Nakajima Atsushi, a young man with the ability to transform into a glowing, man-eating tiger, who is recruited to join the Armed Detective Agency, an agency of private detectives with similar powers to his. Not long after joining, however, Atsushi is targeted by the Port Mafia, who are chasing after an impressive bounty that has been put on his head. As Atsushi learns about his colleagues, and learns to control his abilities, he must contend with attempts on his life and personal freedom by the Port Mafia's superpowered enforcers, and in particular Akutagawa, an unhinged and dangerous man with a terrifying power.

Probably the series biggest marketing point is that all the characters -- or all of the superpowered characters, at least -- are based off famous authors from history, with the Armed Detective Agency including authors like Dazai Osamu, while the villains include Akutagawa Ryunosuke and F. Scott Fitzgerald among their inspirations.

Dazai being dramatic.

It's a pretty thin theme, in all truth, and really only serves to inform their powers, with each character having an ability named after and very loosely based on the author in question's most famous work. The characters themselves almost never resemble the figures they're inspired by (and F. Scott Fitzgerald is even very deliberately modeled on Jay Gatsby), with the possible exceptions being Dazai and Kunikida having character quirks that vaguely pay homage to their namesakes, albeit usually more in a joking way than anything else.

That's not to say I wanted exact replicas of the authors in question, but it does feel like something of a waste of an actually really interesting concept which could be taken in a lot of different directions, and more of a gimmick than anything actually substantial.

In terms of its technical aspects, the series actually fares pretty well. Bones has a pretty good reputation as a studio, having produced a fair number of celebrated classics in its time, so it's not necessarily a surprise to see that Bungou Stray Dogs is a pretty well-put-together production.

Kunikida's ponytail really bothers me.

The animation is solidly and consistently high quality (to the point where I would say that it's easily better than some of Bones' better known and better received works, like Fullmetal Alchemist and Zetsuen no Tempest), although the animators aren't afraid of making liberal use of shortcuts when necessary (usually pretty well-placed shortcuts, in fairness). The sequences where characters utilise their powers, accompanied by the names appearing on the screen in kanji before splitting to reveal glowing lines of letters, are particularly striking.

The soundtrack is good (if not exactly memorable), and the series has some pretty good voice work, with anime veterans Mamoru Miyano and Yoshimasa Hosoya playing partners and mentors Dazai and Kunikida, while the comparatively less experienced Yuto Uemura puts in some pretty good work as Atsushi, even if the script doesn't give him a lot to work with.

The series has a noir aesthetic and tone that I kind of adored, and as such I might be a little bit biased towards it -- I do love anything with even a hint of noir to it, after all. That having been said, it's in its tone that the series starts to fall down somewhat.

Get a haircut, Atsushi.

Namely, the tone is kind of all over the place. I quite like a series that has a decent mix of drama and comedy, but more often than not, the series has no idea how to juxtapose the two, with the tone veering back and forth between extremes hard enough to give it whiplash. To make it worse, a lot of the comedy just isn't funny -- some of that is context, like how Dazai's double-suicide-related humour becomes a lot less funny when you consider that he's themed after a man with severe PTSD who eventually did commit a double suicide with his mistress, but a lot of it is just that the jokes tend to be pretty hit and miss even when they're not kind of grotesquely insensitive.

The tone shifting hits Atsushi especially hard, whose character is rendered all but unlikable by how the writing is constantly swinging between playing his being pathetic and unwanted for comedy, dramatic tension, or sadness. In the case of that last, 'sadness' mostly means 'constant flashbacks of being told to leave his orphanage,' to the point where episodes will often have two or three repetitions of that flashback.

All that having been said, I did really enjoy this series, and I was pretty pleased to discover that I had conveniently watched it all mere days before the second series started (incidentally, the first episode of that second series aired today). It's certainly not a perfect show, but it is pretty enjoyable, and I'm looking forward to seeing where the second series goes.

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