Bungo Stray Dogs Series Review: Guys With Super Powers, What More Do You Need?

This is part of a series of re-posts of older reviews on 100 Word Anime. The original review came out in July 2016 and can be found here.

Now this post originally had those random circular images in it that just look kind of hideous and didn’t really have much in the way of flow. So I was kind of happy for the chance to revisit and to restructure just a little bit.

Review:

The first time I watched this series, my familiarity with the authors it was referencing was pretty much zero. I’d heard some of the names but knew little about them. After watching this and reading various blog posts that looked at how they were used in this series, and coming across many of these names in other anime, I spent a bit of time reading about these authors and their work and have even read small bits and pieces of some of their work. I don’t know that it appreciably adds to the viewing experience in the anime though I guess some things make a little more sense (but at the same time some things make a great deal less sense because while there is a reference there they seem to have taken a lot of artistic licence).

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The other thing with revisiting this series is that I’ve since watched season two and that of course very much changed my impression of season one and where things were going so I’m trying to just focus on this season as I revisit it.

The first few minutes of the first episode remain my favourite part of this entire season. My original post summed it up best:

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.

However, as glorious as those first few minutes are, the rest of what follows will be a mixture of success and failure and none of it ever quite lives up to that opening. It kind of reminds me of Zombieland Saga n that I loved the opening act of that, however, I will admit what follows in Bungo Stray Dogs certainly held my interest better than what followed so far in Zombieland Saga.

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My biggest issue remains the pacing, though characterisation when watching again seems even rougher at times with some characters overstaying their welcome in a scene and other characters seemingly missing in action for no reason other than the plot said so. I also never found the comedy quite as solid as that opening scene, though I will admit there are some genuinely funny moments to be had. Again, the original post kind of captured my feelings perfectly.

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.

As for the characters, Atsushi and Dazai tend to dominate a lot of the screen time and that’s a problem in and of itself because both of these characters are brilliant at times and at others kind of painful. Dazai’s particular character quirks are really funny in the beginning but feel stale and repetitive, or just ill-timed, elsewhere. While he is an interesting character, he is also quite annoying. As a protagonist, Atsushi has a lot of dull moments where he is kind of propelled along because plot said so and the jumps in his ability to use his power seem really inconsistent.

The supporting cast are made up of some interesting characters but not enough is done with them in this first season to really make any kind of connection. They are there, they have the potential to be really fun but it isn’t really ever achieved. I just kept thinking how much I’d like to get to know more of the cast but always feeling like they were just kind of there.

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And it is a shame that I still feel much the same way about the plot presented in season one. There is a plot and it does continue into season two, but it is really scattered all over the place and there’s a lot of different ideas that never really seem to consolidate. It is more just watching the characters reacting to events rather than having a clear goal and that is partially what hurts this anime in its pacing because we’ll have a series of events coming one after the other and falling over each other and then we’ll have moment of kind of aimless meandering before the next thing happens.

 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.

Still, it is fun enough and even rewatching it and seeing that I wasn’t mistaken and that the plot really does just trip all over the place, I actually enjoyed watching these characters in action. The cool moments are cool enough and there is enough humour and action to keep things going and enough potential for the story in the future to bring things together if it chooses to do so.

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The music was pretty solid and I like the visuals. The first time I had a bit of an issue with the way things hang off of characters, ties, belts, hair, etc, but this time around I just kind of liked how the show seemed to have a consistent style in its character design and that kind of made the whole thing seem very together so as much as I’d still like to trim Atsushi’s belt I think I’ll just go with it for now.

I still like this anime, though Bungo Stray Dogs is one of those that I probably won’t ever buy on DVD. I don’t feel I really need to watch it over and over and while there’s fun enough to be had there’s plenty of other titles I’d rather watch. Still, if you haven’t seen it and Dazai’s suicide joke isn’t going to upset you, watching this series is probably a fun way to spend a weekend.


Thanks for reading.

Karandi James

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Gangsta Series Review

Overview:

Much like the title suggests, Gangsta deals with the events of a mafia run city called Ergastulum. Mostly we follow Worick and Nicholas, two ‘handymen’ as they take on pretty much any job for a price.

Review:

It would be easy to make the case that Gangsta goes for style over substance and without any kind of conclusion to the anime (and pretty much no chance ever of a conclusion) that this is a title to put in the watch if you’re bored list or just move on. Despite one of my pet hates about anime being lack of resolution to so many series, I still found Gangsta a blast to watch and even knowing it doesn’t end it has become one of my go-to rewatch titles when I’m feeling a little bit down.

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That doesn’t mean this series is in anyway uplifting. In point of fact, it’s more the kind of thing you watch to remind yourself that maybe you don’t have it that bad. Then again, the series isn’t depressing either because while horrible things happen to the characters at times, none of them seem to really take it too much to heart. And that’s where the argument of style over substance comes in.

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There’s a lot of really good ideas in Gangsta and some really interesting characters. The Tags/Twilights/whatever you want to call them are a great concept and as we get to know some of them and see their way of dealing with the cards life dealt them you really get drawn into the struggle that probably would have become a central theme if the show had continued. Gangsta touches on so many ideas and gets into some really serious issues but none of these have the chance to really be developed. It’s almost as though you are standing on clear ice and you can below that there is depth and something really compelling in the lake below but you can’t touch it.

So really, your enjoyment of Gangsta will come entirely from whether you are happy to simply consider the ideas as they are presented and then contemplate them further on your own.

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Worick and Nicholas are really entertaining as our main characters. It is nice that we meet these two from an outsiders perspective though (Alex, the prostitute they rescue early on) because their relationship is so established before the time period we’re viewing and without that perspective even the audience would be quite locked out of the nuances that govern their ‘friendship’. It’s difficult to actual say if these two are friends or not given their history and positions. At times it feels like a genuine friendship, at others a partnership of convenience, and others still you feel that there is a massive power imbalance. It’s the back and forth between these states that keeps you watching and wanting to know whether or not they really have found a way beyond the discrimination so inherent in the world they live in. It helps too that both characters are deeply flawed in their own ways and yet equally talented in others. They both bring baggage to the table but they also bring strengths that are necessary for the other to survive. I also like that they don’t try to make these two out to be the knights in shining armour. Sure, comparatively to other characters these two aren’t scum but they certainly don’t mind getting their hands dirty.

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Alex is a necessary plot device in the story but as a character she is probably the weakest element in the Gangsta universe. They make some attempts at fleshing her out beyond damsel in distress, hard done by girl who got rolled by the big-bad world, etc. These attempts are okay but mostly she is still just a vehicle for the audience to enter a fairly closed world. Alex wasn’t born in the city and hasn’t been there long so she asks the questions the audience needs answered and gives the other characters a reason to launch into an info-dump. It’s not the most sophisticated way to world build but with limited run-time and a fairly full agenda with the plot it was probably the quickest and least intrusive way to go about it.

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Beyond the characters we have the story itself which looks very much at the power balances within the city and plays old mafia families off against new comers, mercenary units against whoever they choose, the police trying to keep up appearances of order, and independents such as the handymen moving through the whole lot and stirring the pot as they pass. While there isn’t a singe, central issue being dealt with in this series and there is no closure, I never really had a problem with that while watching. There was always something happening, some job the characters were dealing with, or some threat that they were gathering information on.

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Then we have the action sequences. The fights in this are amazing. The tags being significantly stronger than normal humans (and yet not being supernaturally overpowered) gave us some fantastic clashes. Their individual quirks and disabilities add a unique feel to these fights and the speed and power they bring to bear (not to mention some of the weapons) are just entertaining.

Equally entertaining is the opening theme. It energizes you for each episode and really sets the tone of the world we’re entering. All and all, it is an opening I rarely skip when rewatching the show.

Also, the English dub is really good. I don’t say that very often as normally I either haven’t watched the English dub or I preferred the Japanese, but in this case I’ve watched both and I’d happily watch either one.

Final view: I really enjoy Gangsta but wish it could have been more. If they’d finished the story, explored some of the issues they raised, maybe introduced a few more female characters that didn’t feel like they were tokenistic… But that isn’t what the show is. It’s a great ride for what they give you and a lot of fun while skating across the surface of a lot of the darker sides of human nature. I’d love to know your opinion if you’ve watched Gangsta.

91 Days Series Review

Overview:

Set in the fictional city of Lawless during the prohibition era, the story follows Avilio (Angelo) as he seeks revenge against those who killed his family.

I reviewed 91 Days week to week so if you are after individual episode thoughts click here.

Review:

Revenge stories are always a bit of a problem because right from the start you have a fairly narrow range of options from a plot point of view. Either they will succeed or they won’t. You can throw in as many loops and twists as you like about who they need to extract revenge on and the manner in which they will get their revenge, but the story itself is pretty much set. That means you are dependent upon your characters and setting to carry your story and to make people care.

And this is where 91 Days failed for me. Initially I was very interested in Avilio and his quest for revenge. He’s an interesting character and a fairly tragic one right from the word go and he draws you into the fairly generic world of Lawless (generic in terms of giving all the look of prohibition era America without ever really capturing the feeling that other movies set in this era have – not so generic from an anime point of view). However, by the time we hit the mid-point of the series Avilio feels like he has lost his way and while they attempt to justify the drawn out nature of his revenge on a number of occasions it really comes down to the fact that they needed 12 episodes when they had about 6 episodes of actual plot driven story.

While Avilio’s story (once you trim it down to what is needed) is still interesting and his character progression (admittedly not positive progression) is enjoyable to watch, there are too many characters in this show who exist just to exist. We have a mafia setting so we’ll be introduced to all the usual stereotypical gang members and sycophants. We’ll even have a minor sub-plot of dealing with a new police guy who after a minor bombing incident will quietly slip away and the law enforcement will effectively disappear from the remainder of the story. But none of these characters matter in any meaningful way and they don’t make you care about what is happening. By the time we get to the inevitable tragic ending where the vast majority of characters (who are still alive) start dying, I really was indifferent. And mass murder should never leave you feeling indifferent even if they are trying to create a point about the futility of revenge and murder.

Nero and Avilio are a great duo to watch on screen together. The double meanings behind Avilio’s statements, Nero’s genuine humanity under the mafia don’s son mask that he has worn for far too long, and the real friendship that develops despite the situation Avilio is in makes this one of the more compelling parts of the series. Yet for the vast majority of the series these characters are given nothing to do. Nero in action is reactive to the world around him and is given few moments where he can actually make a choice. The few choices he makes are almost always deferred to Avilio. Avilio on the other hand has some sort of plan that he amends on the go but as we are not really privy to the plan his actions remain fairly inexplicible for the vast majority of the episodes. Neither character seems in any rush or driven to get somewhere and that really affects the overall feel of the show.

Before I move on from characters I just want to touch on Corteo. Outside of Avilio he was possibly the only other character I was really interested in seeing progress. While I’m not going to go into detail, I am still not convinced about the choices Corteo made as a character. They fit with the plot and drove Avilio nicely into the final corner that triggered the ending, but based on Corteo’s personality and actions earlier in the series it all just seemed too much like a plot contrivance rather than the real actions of a real character. Coreto’s death at least gave an emotional impact but left me at least with more questions about whether we were supposed to be taking these characters seriously as people or whether they were all just stand ins for various ideals.

It is really hard to review 91 Days. It is one of those anime that I look at and know from almost every point of view is a good anime. The plot makes sense and is resolved. While I didn’t feel connected to the characters, there are some well written characters here. The dialogue, while a little generic at times, never falls into the completely bad. There is forward thinking and ideas that are foregrounded early return with significance later (even when we preferred they didn’t). While the mid-season episodes suffer from poorer animation than the early and later episodes, they aren’t poor compared to the vast majority of the other anime I watched during the summer season.

That said, I still don’t much like 91 Days. While I may watch this with a particular friend (because I actually think they’ll really enjoy watching it and it is hard to talk them into anime usually), I probably won’t ever rewatch this by myself because I’m just not that interested in it.

A final recommendation: If you want a serious story about revenge, then 91 Days will deliver. For anything else, you may need to look elsewhere.

91 Days Episode 11

Review:

Turns out we have one more episode but this was a highly entertaining episode. The first half was all semi-ironic statements about planning for a future (that we should all know by now was never going to exist) and the second half was metaphorically about burning everything down (though less flames and more knives and bullets involved). I do question how incredibly lame you have to be to have two guys stabbing someone else multiple times and still not actually succeed at killing him, and worse, allowing yourself to be killed by the wounded beast. Anyway, this episode brought us to the conclusion that everything (right from the killing of Avilio’s family) has been for nothing because nothing is going to survive the war that has now been ignited. I’d ask if Avilio is happy with this outcome but the answer to that is obvious.

I still think this whole story would have been more affective with less episodes as the middle really felt stretched out, but I am very satisfied with where we are going for the conclusion.

91 Days is available on Crunchyroll.

91 Days Episode 9

Review:

Corteo is captured but not yet killed. Kind of surprising really. This week felt like the story was done diverting us from the central narrative by watching gang in-fighting and seemed to get right back to Avilio and his revenge. Who is the elusive letter sender? Who is the fourth killer? With that focus back front and centre the story was far more compelling than I’ve found it in recent weeks and by the end, when Avilio figured out who was behind recent events at least I was actually really engaged with this story. While at times the characters seemed a little off visually this week, this is probably the best episode 91 Days has delivered for awhile.

91 Days is available on Crunchyroll.

91 Days Episode 1 + 2

Overview:

Mafia story about revenge and illegal alcohol. I could probably be more specific but there’s already been so much promotion for this it doesn’t really feel necessary.

Review Episode 1:

This is a promising first episode. We’re introduced to a young man and his motives for revenge. His friend is good with chemistry (helpful for making illegal alcohol and blowing things up apparently). We have all the usual mafia idiocy of overly mucho men talking big and then having to follow it up with knife/gun fights. The tone is pretty serious in this episode (so don’t think Baccano) and the opening credits play more like a black and white movie than an anime. I’m definitely interested at the moment in this but will really need more of a connection with some of the characters if I’m going to get right into this.

Review Episode 2:

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Like with most mafia shows, every character in this story is unlikable. They are thugs and hypocritical and lack empathy for anyone outside of their own little circle. That said, I don’t dislike this show. It is far more serious in tone than the other shows I’ve picked up this season and I just don’t see how this situation will end well for anyone, but it has created tension and drama in the first two episodes and established a clear motive for our protagonist, even if his plan seems a little complicated (assuming he has a plan and isn’t just winging it). Definitely going to keep going with this.

91 Days is available on Crunchyroll.

Bungo Stray Dogs Series Review

I watched this series week to week and if you want to see my thoughts on individual episodes, click here.

Overview:

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.

Review:

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.

Anything Else?

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.