Here's a test for you: Would you rather see a story about a) a group of writers whose powers allow them to manipulate reality according to their respective worldviews, or b) a rehash of a bunch of clichés about Roaring '20s-style gangs with some X-Men style superheroics slathered on top?
If you answered b), little I say about Bungo Stray Dogs will matter; it'll be a fun diversion for you, end of discussion. If you answered a), you'll understand why I found this show such a tremendous letdown. It's as if someone said, "What if J.D. Salinger was a superhero, and his super-power was to be 'The Catcher In The Rye'?", and decided no further work was needed. But a gimmick is not a story, and this show is a case study in why that is so.
Let's start with the premise/gimmick, because I confess it's a wonderful idea. In theory, anyway. In a time and place something like the here and now, there exists the "Armed Detective Agency" in Japan — a team of people with superhuman powers of one kind or another. Agency members have all been patterned after famous authors in Japan, and the names for their powers are generally plays on the names of work they've created. Key example: Osamu Dazai, the tormented and brilliant author, shows up here as a playful young man with a fixation on killing himself, and the ability to negate other peoples' abilities. (What to name such an ability? No Longer Human, naturally.)
Into this not-always-disciplined circle of do-gooders comes the hapless Atsushi Nakajima. In real life he was an author who died relatively young of pneumonia; in this setting, he's an orphan, at home nowhere due to his power "Beast Beneath the Moon", with which he can transform into a powerful, nearly indestructible white tiger. His lack of control over the power has left him feeling like a human wreck, but the Agency gives him a place to be and a way to discipline his powers in their service.
The other members of the Agency all follow roughly the same pattern: famous author; fantastic interpretation; power named after prose from their oeuvre. I typically cracked a big smile whenever any of them were introduced, as odds were I'd read something by them: Doppo Kunikida, Junichirō Tanizaki, Edogawa Rampo, Kenji Miyazawa, Akiko Yosano, Kyōka Izumi, and so on. It's to both the story's credit and detriment that you don't need to know who any of these people are — it helps, but because of the way the story is constructed, it's not essential, and that's both good and bad. (More on this later.)
Most of what unfolds across the series follows a few basic tracks. Track One is Nakajima trying to come into his own, and overcome his feelings of worthlessness — something Dazai knows a thing or two about, because of his own past. That's a big part of what fuels Track Two, the Agency's ongoing struggle against the "Port Mafia", a local gang of thugs, also super-powered, also staffed with characters reworked from Japanese literary history: Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (another tragic case akin to Dazai), Ōgai Mori, Kyūsaku Yumeno (of Dogura Magura fame), Dazai's former partner Chūya Nakahara, and so on. Track Three involves both the Agency and the Mafia grudgingly setting aside their differences to fight a threat bigger than both of them: the "Guild," yet another group staffed by — you guessed it — authors from outside Japan: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Margaret Mitchell, Nathaniel Hawthone, H.P. Lovecraft, John Steinbeck, et so many more ceteras. And said fight also provides an arena for Nakajima to hone both his skills and himself.
Now I must separate what the show actually accomplishes from the potential it has. In other words, I have to talk about how much better all this sounds in theory than it actually is in practice.
On the surface, Dogs is passably entertaining — the plot's sufficiently convoluted to generate interest, there's the sins of the past being visited on the present, and plenty of other elements (e.g. Kyōka Izumi and her conflicted loyalties) are stirred in to keep things humming along. What it does not do, what it consistently fails to do, is take any of the ideas suggested by its premise and produce a story that is actually suggested by those ideas in the first place.
Imagine how much more interesting this whole project would have been if it had been about, for instance, the way each author shaped the reality around them by way of the worldviews expressed in their writings, and the complications that created. That's even something that lends itself to the kind of four-color superheroic spectacle that this show loves to indulge in.
But we don't get anything like that, because the story isn't organically connected to its own premise. By this I mean it doesn't take the central idea — the authors have powers related in some way to their works, or maybe to their world-views — and make the story revolve around the implications of that idea. It's just an excuse to show them doing cool stuff, with the actual workings of the plot powered by far less normative things. You could chop out the premise, replace with any number of other generic super-power contrivances, and it wouldn't make any difference.
Come to think of it, if you removed the characters' names and thus decoupled them from their alleged historical counterparts, you might well have had a better show — because at least then we wouldn't be expending all this mental energy trying to futilely connect them with their real-world counterparts that they don't even much resemble to begin with. At first it's amusing to have, say, "Margaret M." trotted onstage with her powers of air manipulation ("Gone With The Wind"! GET IT?). But after a while, it's just tired — doubly so when we realize how many other, better, far more interesting possibilities the show is actively shirking just so it can cook us this warmed-over genre goulash.
I admit some of my frustration comes from my own attachment to and fascination with many of the figures in the story: Dazai, Akutagawa, Sōseki Natsume, and so on. I am not foolish enough to be annoyed at the fact that they were depicted realistically or anything that silly. All right, on some level I am; there was a lot more to Dazai, for instance, than the fact that he was obsessed with killing himself, and Kenji Miyazawa was more than just a hayseed in overalls. But setting that aside, what's most annoying is how these people, with the abilities they have, aren't give anything more of consequences to do than rehash crime-movie and superhero-story clichés.
The shame of it all is, if you do in fact decouple the show from its own ingredients, what we end up with isn't half-bad. I particularly liked the extended flashback, spread over several episodes, that depict how Dazai left the Mafia and joined the Agency, and all the tragedy that stemmed from those decisions. And at another point, Sakaguchi takes the time to write up details about some of the Port Mafia dead, a way to humanize them in a way that Dazai is incapable of seeing because of his constant romanticizing of death. I also can't deny the show has a sharp sense of visual style. But it's senseless that we need to unplug the show from its own best ideas to make it work.
Beyond a gimmick
The most ironic part is that whenever the show does nod in the direction of doing something truly interesting with its characters' powers — like, say, giving Edgar Allan Poe the ability to trap people inside his stories! — it's as gimmickry, or a one-shot throwaway, not as something the story as a whole is built around. How do you do something as potentially inspired as pit Edgar Allan Poe against Edogawa Rampo (whose name was phonetically derived from Poe's as tribute) and have that fall flat? Answer inside.
Whenever we make any leap out into the fantastic, we do need something familiar from the world we know to anchor ourselves in it. We need a person who can recognize as human, or some other thing that we can cling to at least provisionally. We also need the story to have some faith in its sense of the fantastic, in its ability to take us someplace we've never seen before. What's the sense of introducing such a great leap of imagination to the audience if you're not going to use it to tell a story that doesn't spring exclusively from it? In another form, this was a core problem I had with Firefly: why invent a far-future setting only to recapitulate dead clichés from TV Westerns? Likewise, with this show, why raid Japanese and Western cultural history for what amounts to little more than exotica and name-dropping, all for the sake of a story that can't see its most interesting components for what they really are?
Two more things. First, when putting together the "related products" list for this article, I noticed that works by a number of the authors in question — Dazai, Rampo, et al — have started to enjoy that much more popularity. Ostensibly it's because the show has waved those names under many more peoples' noses. I'm happy with those authors finding new audiences with modern readers, but I hope curiosity about them remains genuine — that people can become interested in those authors as themselves, for what their work has to offer them as readers, and not simply because the show has imbued them with a cachet of cultural cool.
Two. Daniel M. Pinkwater, a writer of supreme unclassifiability, once proposed a scenario in one of his novels which I'll quote here: Suppose you lived in a world where there was no such thing as a car, and you came across a fully restored 1952 Studebaker Lark, all gassed up and ready to go. You'd bring your friends to marvel at this wonder, but you wouldn't know that it was in fact a machine that had the power to take you from place to place. You'd think the purpose of such a thing would be to sit in the front seat and play the radio — and you'd have pretty much missed the point, wouldn't you?
Such is the problem with Bungo Stray Dogs. It's got its hands on a Studebaker Lark of an idea, but all it does is tune in a golden oldies station of a story. If all you want is golden oldies, fine. But you can get those anywhere. A concept like this deserves better. So do we.