Reading the first volume of Bungou Stray Dogs is an exhilarating experience, it is also a personal reminder why I love reading magna and watching anime, the originality of the premises. I’m sure that many of the previous historical figure x (Mostly Oda Nobunaga) played some role in inspiring this series, but the structuralist twist it does makes me very eager to crown it an original idea.
But, let’s not give everything away just yet. From the start we follow a blonde orphan boy. He is starving, on his last legs, barely able to move. It’s been a few days since he was kicked out of his orphanage. But those are not his only troubles. Atsushi, as he is named, is also followed by a giant, bloodthirsty tiger. Then, all the sudden, as he is recounting his many troubles, he sees and hears a splash. Someone is in the water. Atsushi saves the person. That person is everything but grateful. That person is Osamu Dazai, a detective, and also a lover of suicides. Dazai is very annoyed and disappointed with how things turned out, berating the young and starving Samaritan.
The suicide attempts are played out like a joke and most of the jokes work very well. The author has a great sense of comedic timing. It is very difficult to have just a few jokes, or character beats and to keep them entertaining throughout the volume. But it is done. There is plenty of skilled shading of every single suicide joke that they don’t feel like the same joke over and over again. They are also very well distributed throughout the volume, sometimes appearing as the primary source of attention, and sometimes something that is on the periphery of the panel.
It turns out, Dazai and the rest of the members of the detective agency he works for are in fact superpowered people. These aren’t you everyday powers either, but tied to the character in a very meta way, but in terms of what the power is and the very name of said powers. Dazai and the rest of the characters, including Atsushi, are based on famous Japanese writers, most of the beginning of the 20th century. By the end of the first chapter, we realize that he meek, scared and hungry Atsushi is also a superpowered being, with the ability to turn into a tiger.
The central conflict, beside the shenanigans and banter between the characters, is that of the detective agency and a mafia. The mafia is lead by the scary, bleak and ruthless commander, Akugutawa (also based on a historical novelist, who like Dazai killed himself).
The art is average to below average. The only time the art really sticks out is on the title pages of a given chapter. Apart from that it is very standard stuff. The humor picks up where the art lets down. Additional big plus for this manga is the fact that it will stock up your To Read Goodreads list for sure.
I am wondering just how greater my enjoyment of the series would be if I was deeply familiar with all of these literary figures. Apart from Osamu Dazai, I have not read any of the writers. Dazais work No Longer Human is one of the bleakest works of fiction I have ever encountered. It does the incredibly brave step and leads you inside the mind who feels absolutely alienated from everyone and everything. I have never witnessed someone so detached, in so much pain and misery, with desperation being a closer description than depression, no matter how crippling. The manga version of Dazai feels like the total opposite, quite cheerful and charismatic, but he also has a dark past, one not revealed in the first volume. Maybe this Dazai just met the right person at the right time, and his pain started to diminish.