I watched this series week to week and if you want to see my thoughts on individual episodes, click here.
Down on his luck orphan, Atsushi, rescues a man attempting suicide in a river and then finds himself working for the Armed Detective Agency, an agency comprised of unusual individuals with powers (and the unusual part generally isn’t the power). There’s some stuff about a bounty and a group of mafia but otherwise that’s about the story.
I remember the first episode of this. I didn’t watch it in the week of release because I’d kind of decided I wasn’t all that interested in it. I don’t know anything about Japanese literature and so the fact that the characters are kind of personifications of the subject matter of the authors that they are named for (or something like that) didn’t really fascinate me. Though I must admit this season has been educational as reading the blogs of people who clearly were fascinated has actually introduced me to a whole lot of factoids about Japanese literature but that’s a separate matter. When I watched the first episode it was firmly with the view that I was watching the anime and I wasn’t watching for the references that are heavily interwoven into the story.
So I watched. And within the first few minutes just fell over laughing. The opening scene with Atsushi starving by the river and deciding to rob the next person who comes by. Then the motorcycle screams past and you see him realise that was never going to happen. Then the military group. Lastly, we see the floating legs going down the river. It was a beautifully written piece of comedy and the timing was perfect and the predictability of it and yet the still refreshing reveal just hit the spot.
I abruptly stopped the episode and rewatched the sequence. And laughed again. A few episodes in to this show I introduced it to someone else with the clear warning that, the first few minutes are golden, everything after is a bit hit and miss.
Now, at the end of episode 12 and facing a wait before we get anymore of this show, I’m going to stand by that statement.
If you’ve read anything about Bungo Stray Dogs, you will know that most people have had issues with the pacing, the comedy not always hitting the mark, the characters either being too present or too absent, the abrupt switches in tone, the abrupt changes in art style, the lack of any real substantial threat to the agency or overall plot. When said like that it kind of makes it sound like the show is dreadful. And the thing is, all of these are issues with the show. They persistently get in the way of the audience fully engaging with the world these characters are in and the events unfolding (even when we don’t really know what those events are they are unfolding).
Watching Bungo Stray Dogs makes you feel like you are on a see-saw. This joke hits the mark and things go your way, and then the next falls flat and you are just stranded up in the sky because someone left a rock on the other end of the see-saw and it won’t get off. That plot twist grabbed your attention… and then it went nowhere. That villain looks super-cool. Did they just unspectacularly knock him flat and move on without really dealing with why he even attacked? For every moment of ‘now it’s getting going’ you get at least two moments of ‘what the?’. When reflecting on the whole, you realise the series seemed like fun but lacks anything of substance.
Characters – Questionable.
Atsushi has some great moments and then some dreadful ones. Worse though, he has a lot of dull moments. As the protagonist, the fact that he does very little other than give the over-exaggerated reaction to other character antics in several episodes makes him problematic. The fact that he is cowardly at times is fine, but the moments where he suddenly isn’t make him inconsistent. And don’t even start to try and figure out when he learned anything about using his power.
Dazai is amusing. For about three episodes. Then he is occasionally quirky, occasionally irritating, smug, self-confident, continuously suicidal (though why he hasn’t succeeded is also questionable), and generally just the filler of space in the series and the occasional operator of the massive coincidence required to solve an episode. He does get some good moments in episodes 9 and 10 but then he all but vanishes from existence again. Also, for those who find suicide jokes in ill-taste (enough to be offended by it), Dazai is not a character you will find any humour in.
I liked Ranpo (or Rampo – never did get a consistent reading on that one), but he features in two episodes at most and otherwise is a non-entity.
And that’s kind of the issue with all the other characters. They get an episode or two and then they get shoved to the background and kind of just blend in. The re-emerge when its time for their five minutes and then they disappear again.
Plot – Huh?
Oh, there was supposed to be a story. Maybe its Atsushi overcoming his traumatic past and dealing with his trust issue… No. We’re still having dark flashbacks up to episode 10 and episode 12 clearly illustrates he is just as hung-up on his abandonment issues as he was. The Port Mafia taking down the… No we have no idea what they are after. This new Guild thing from America challenging the Japanese agencies for… What? What did they want other than a permit? Um… Okay, plot? Look, our characters are quirky and amusing and they have super powers. They fight each other over things that may or may not turn out to have any meaning and we’ll drop just enough hints that you think something may emerge from all of this.
Don’t get me wrong. I actually enjoyed individual narrative arcs within this but I just couldn’t follow a greater plot thread (if one in fact does exist). Maybe season 2 will bring all of this together somehow but I’m really hoping we don’t see a teaming up of the Agency and the Mafia against the Guild. That would seriously suck.
Music was appropriate and amusing. Colours and character designs were pretty cool, though I really want to trim Atsushi’s belt. Some of the transitions between dark and light storylines worked well whereas other felt flat.
Basically, I liked this show. There are a lot of flaws but it is still primarily fun. If I rewatch, I will skip episode 11 because to be honest it added nothing and bored me to pieces. Do I recommend watching this show? Not to people who dislike death, kidnapping, selling people, mafia references, weird medicine, suicide, or just things that are inconsistent. If you don’t fall into any of those categories, check it out, you may get a few laughs and a few moments of genuine enjoyment.