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"Bungo Stray Dogs I" – Authors becoming fiction

Updated: Aug 1, 2023

When I was browsing the internet for a new, binge-worthy series on a Wednesday night, I stumbled upon the ominously titled TV series "Bungo Stray Dogs". And while the ladder part is self explanatory, I wondered what "Bungo" might be meaning. After a few clicks on the internet, I was wiser: "Bungō" is a Japanese term, translating to something along the lines of "true masters of the word". This unofficial title is awarded to only the most exquisit writers, today still. The Anime (Japanese Animation), is based on a manga (the Japanese equivalent to comics) of the same name by Kafka Asagiri and Sango Harukawa.

Now my interest war piqued. Tagged with "Action", "Crime" and "Mystery", it was decided: this piece of media would be my evening pastime. At that time, I did not suspect, that the "straying literati" would occupy me for much longer.

The characters relevant to the plot not only share their name and birthday, but also their abilities (more on that later) as well as certain personality trains with famous authors and their respective works. Japanese writers in particular take the spotlight here, but some western writers are also included in the character repertoire.

The show takes place in modern-day Yokohama, a port city in Japan. It's normalised in this world, that some people have developed various supernatural abilities, similar to the concept you may know from "My Hero Academia". Some of these "supernaturally armed" people have formed to the "Armed Detective Agency", short ADA. They function as a private detective agency, investing all sorts of supernatural crimes. Their biggest opponent in maintaining the safety of Yokohama is the Port Mafia. For now, that's everything you need to know to understand the brilliant innuendos in the series.

Dazai Osamu was born as Tsushima Shūji on June 19, 1909. In the show we first meet his character in the attempt to drown himself in a river. This is a nod to the writer, who wanted to "go into the water" a 19-year-old waitress named Shimeko. He once again attempted suicide by hanging in 1935 and ultimately drowned himself with his lover Yamazaki Tomie in the Tama Canal on June 13, 1948. His body was recovered in the same river, which is only a 24-minute drive from Yokohama by the bay, on his birthday six days later. His obsession with death is also addressed in the show, where his lighthearted nature creates a humorous contrast with the dark theme of his character. Overall, his character is quite multifaceted, his whimsical exterior often conceals his deeper, darker motives, therefore his true intentions oftentimes remain unclear. Aditionally, Dazai is the only Character in the show who has worked for the Port Mafia as well as the Armed Detektive Agency, which emphasizes his ambivalent personality.

What bought him joy indeed, was reading and painting, both of which are brought up in the show, as fictional Dazai says: "A good book [...] is always a good book, no matter how many times you've read it." His love for art is addressed, when he sees a painting at the Yokohama Museum of Art, commenting: "What a strange picture. Even I could have painted that." The painting in question actually depicts a landscape painted by Dazai in 1940. If you look closely, you can even see his signature in the lower right corner. A character in the show also mentions his "Self-Portrait" in an expressionist style, created in 1947. Some of his literary works include "Schoolgirl", "After the Setting Sun", the semi-autobiographical novel "No longer Human", which is name-giving for his ability in the show, as well as the unfinished serialized novel "Guddo Bai" (Goodbye).

The V-Pose (as seen in the picture above) is inspired by his idol Akutagawa, who is also a part of the show to which we come later.

In contrast to other authors on this list, Chūya Nakahara primarily published poetry that rarely reflected the spirit of the time and therefore received little attention during his lifetime. Initially a high flyer in school, he rebelled due to the numerous punishments inflicted upon him by his father. Later on, he developed a preference for cigarettes and fine wine alongside a bohemian lifestyle.

That's why he has an rather anti-authoritarian temperament in the show, which is also reflected in his writing style, Dadaism. As a result, he was jokingly called "Dada-san" ("San" is an addressing pronoun in the Japanese language, translating to Mr. or Mrs. irrespective of the gender, it's used in a general context.)

The name of his ability "Upon the Tainted Sorrow", is based on a poem of the same name. The rebel organisation "sheep", to which he belonged before he joined the Port Mafia, is named after his poem "Sheep Song". Similar to the mentioned V-Pose, Chūyas design features the hat he is wearing in his most famous portrait.

Before Dazais time in the Armed Detective Agency, he formed a 2-persons special unit with Chūya, called "Double Black". This working relationship was baed on a joint literary project that both planned but never put into action because they didn't get along. Similarly their relationship in the series appears to be, well, suboptimal, to say at the least.

Akutagawa Ryūnosuke combined the local literary style as one of the first asian poets with European influences, thus modernising eastern literature. In recognition of this accomplishment, the coveted Akutagawa Prize is named after him today. He influenced many other writers, including young Dazai, who took Akutagawas suicide in 1927 as an example. Akutagawa suffered from a psychosis, characterised by hallucinations and anxiety, among other symptoms. In the tale "Cogwheels", he processed the symptoms brought about by his mental condition.

His physical health was also lacking - in 1918/19 and 1921 he suffered from severe coughing due to various causes. That's the reason why his character in Bungo Stray Dogs is occasionally interrupted by coughing. The author drew heavily on material from medieval Japan, which explains his strikingly old-fashioned appearance. He seasoned the well-known stories with a psychological background, making the events transferable to current circumstances, as you can read in "Hana" or "Rashomon". The latter title is also the name of his ability.

The actual Protagonist of the show is Nakajima Atsushi. As a young man, the soon-to-be writer taught in Yokohama, the setting of the series. He was nominated for the Akutagawa Prize for his story "Light and Wind and Dream". The theme of the tale is Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of "Treasure Island" or "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (you can find my thoughts on this here). In the series, they refer to the short story "Hunting Tigers", which he debuted with and which loosely follows the plot of the first episode. (Dazai and his partner are hunting a white tiger that seems to be chasing Atsushi. It turns out that this tiger is Atsushi himself, or rather his ability.)

Akin to Akutagawa, Atsushi incorporated a Chinese subtext into his works, which led to frequent comparisons between the two. This "rivalry" also becomes a key aspect of the series, as Atsushi, a member of the Armed Detective Agency, is chosen by Dazai as his new protege, much to the displeasure of Akutagawa, who is still trying to please his former mentor. As they belong to different organizations, they are already working against each other.

As a greater threat looms over Yokohama later on in the story, both are forced to work together. If one can interpret the context, there are hints of a future collaboration early on: the name "Akutagawa" is written with the character for "dragon," which in Chinese mythology is seen as the opposite of the "tiger" and thus provides a balance of power. In Japanese Buddhism, these two animals also represent Yin and Yang, which is reflected in the character design of Akutagawa and Atsushi.

Mori Ōgai, born as Mori Rintarō in 1862, worked as a military doctor, poet, and translator. He was the first son of a prince's personal physician and studied in Leipzig and Berlin under Robert Kochs supervision, among others. Later, he became the chairman of the Japanese Academy of Arts. Mori has a similar background in Bungo Stray Dogs: initially serving as the personal physician of the head of the Port Mafia, he took over as the leader of the organization after his death.

He gained fame for his short story "The Dancing Girl", as well as his translation of "Faust" into Japanese. Originally, he scribbled the translation in his diary after visiting Auerbach's Cellar, before he decided to publish it. In contrast, the series features the censored novella "Vita Sexualis", which is also the name of his ability in the anime.

In the late 1860s and 1870s Fukuzawa Yukichi was the backbone of the Japanese Enlightenment movement. His "An Outline of a Theory of Civilization" dealt with Western politics, economics, and philosophy. The "Encouragement of Learning", which begins with the sentence "All men are equal," often brings him praise, but it actually comes from another source that he translated and included in his work.

Nevertheless, this statement presents the fundamental values of his character and his real-life persona, which is why it is also the name of his ability. Á la "Sapere Aude!" the author encouraged people to be independent, maintain self-respect, and study. Fukuzawa can thus be seen as a philosophical role model, which is reflected in his role as the head of the Armed Detective Agency.

Just like Akutagawa & Atsushi or Dazai & Chūya, the dynamic between the two contrasting characters stands out as they treat each other with respect, recognition, and even trust, but do not like one another. Mori and Fukuzawa were brought together when the latter acted as a bodyguard for Mori, before both took on the leading position of their respective organizations.

This was prompted by Sōseki Natsume, (born as Kin’nosuke Natsume) one of the most famous writers of the Meiji period. Sōseki began his writing career with various short stories about an intelligent cat that accompanies his owner's daily life and humorously comments on the aspirations of the people around him.

These stories were later summarized into the novel "I Am a Cat", whose first sentence "I am a cat. As yet I have no name" still has a great recognition value in Japanese culture today.


If you want to dive deeper into this topic, I wholeheartly recoomend this blog, which exclusively explores the real-life authors from Bungo Stray Dogs, als well as their works.


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