Bungo Stray Dogs Vol. 1 - Manga Review

Atsushi Nakajima is in trouble - having been thrown out of the orphanage he was once housed in and chased by a man eating tiger, he finds himself starving and desperate, far from any help. However, a chance meeting with the specially-gifted Armed Detective Agency is about to change his life.

The Lowdown

The Armed Detective Agency is on the trail of this devastating man eating tiger, when by sheer coincidence their agents stumble upon the tiger’s prey of choice: Atsushi. It turns out that the ferocious tiger hunting Atsushi is no normal tiger, but is the manifestation of Atsushi’s own “gift”: transforming him into the beast beneath the moonlight. Upon the advent of the revelation that Atsushi and the beast are one-and-the-same, Osamu Dazai of the Armed Detective agency decides to bring Atsushi into the agency’s employ as their newest member. Having found himself thrust into this new world of supernatural powers, mafia and murderous situations, Atsushi must finally come to terms with his own insecurities of doubting he can belong anywhere without causing everyone else harm.

How Was It?

Bungo Stray Dogs is a simple yet strange manga - simple in concept, yet with a number of strange decisions in how it decides to handle smaller aspects of its world and characters. The basic plotting is very similar to that of an X-Men story in following a number of superpowered heroes (based on 20th century Japanese authors), and Atsushi is the latest new recruit to help with their cases. The plotting and pacing manages to tell the story at hand fairly well, with most of the time spent on Atsushi’s own personal demons as he wrestles with deep rooted self doubt that keeps him from accepting the Armed Detective Agency as legitimate friends. The biggest issue I have so far though is that the manga is incredibly Atsushi centric, with only Atsushi and Dazai getting any major fleshing out to their characters. Although Atsushi’s personal doubts are unfolded and explored and Dazai’s many facets slowly show themselves to reveal a quick witted and competent agent under his bumbling exterior, the rest of the cast is sadly dealt with only fleeting characterization. Three of the characters on the front cover barely get any time in this manga, showing up for one group moment before just disappearing from the manga to presumably show up in later volumes. In the rest of this volume we instead meet two other team members, Tanizaki and his sister Naomi, but only Tanizaki really gets some decent character nuance as his honest and usually meek person is put in a situation where he must protect his overbearing sister.

The brief character introductions aside, there are a few other oddities, namely tonal dissonance and plotting inconsistencies. The tonal issues usually stem from some strange uses of serious subject matter. Dazai for instance is perpetually flippant and joking about committing suicide. This trait is played for jokes very frequently, especially when he is at his most bumbling and comical state. In contrast, Atsushi’s borderline abusive orphanage is shown to have had a serious emotional scarring effect on Atsushi, even if it is a one note, un-nuanced portrayal. The difference between these two aspects is surprisingly shocking, and can feel irreverent at times to their serious subject matters.

On the plot end, a number of the plot developments in the book often feel jarring, with new developments suddenly showing up almost at random. Important information like the appearance of Atsushi’s tiger isn’t brought up at all in the earliest panels, instead only showing up once Dazai and Kunikida bring it up. Similarly, the later two plot lines both hinge upon some late reveals which often feel forced or not properly foreshadowed. Some of these attempts work, such as one particular moment at the end of this first volume which showcases Dazai’s brilliance in using his previous bumbling persona to keep tabs on a suspicious client. It is definitely the one with the most forethought and carefully foreshadowed that the reveal is both surprising and feels well earned to the reader. Other times, like the reveal of the test in chapter two or the betrayal in chapter 3, seem to come out of almost nowhere and make the book feel like it just introduces some revelations last minute purely to keep readers in the dark, which seems odd especially for a series based on a detective agency.

The art is also somewhat of a mixed bag. The backgrounds can sometimes feel texturally bland or uninteresting, and some of the effect work is not up to par with more accomplished manga artists. However, Harukawa-san makes up for that with some consistently vibrantly expressive faces and character models, as well as a few excellent visual gags. Both of those factors together create a manga that is often engaging and visually surprising even if not every page is equally beautiful or well detailed.

Final Thoughts

Bungo Stray Dogs Vol. 1 was an interesting if inconsistent read. It has a few hiccups in how it has decided to portray these early chapters such as promising more than it delivers up front, some inconsistent tonal shifts, and artwork that isn’t always at 100%. Despite all of that, I still found it an enjoyable read. The ideas it has are interesting, and as it continues, the hidden depths of the characters and premise start to show more promising avenues for future volumes. Hopefully some of these tonal and plot inconsistencies are merely byproducts of the manga finding its feet because there’s a core story here that I really do enjoy here.


Bungo Stray Dogs, Vol. 1
By Kafka Asagiri

Bungo Stray Dogs Vol. 1 was published in English by Yen Press on December 20th, 2016, and was translated by Kevin Gifford. The series is written by Kafka Asagiri with art by Sango Harukawa. 

Verdict:

B-

Date of Publication: December 20th, 2017

Author: Kafka Asagiri + Sango Harukawa

Translator: Kevin Gifford

Publisher: Yen Press