Flip or Flub (Bungo Stray Dogs Ep. 1)
Bungo Stray Dogs started the season strong with an episode that kept your eyes on the screen (really this whole season is super diverse and interesting so far; hopefully the quality keeps up). Stray Dogs kept viewers interested due in part to its execution of mystery, but also possibly flubbed in that execution. Let’s figure out how this show succeeded and flubbed, and why flubbing in the first episode might actually be a great idea.
Let’s get to the point: Stray Dogs eventually makes it obvious Atsushi is the man-eating tiger. The first sign of his ability comes in the first scene. When waiting for a passerby to rob, Atsuhsi’s eyes flare as his senses pick up the presence of different humans. Although this is just used for a joke, his awareness certainly gives off the vibe that he has some sort of power.
We learn early on that Atsushi is kicked out of his orphanage for being “good for nothing”, shown in shots with him crouched on the ground like a dog being scolded. However, there’s something off about that explanation. Why would an orphanage call one of their children useless and kick him out? Ignoring Dazai’s later logic about one mouth not affecting the cost of food much, this just doesn’t seem like something an orphanage would do. Not to mention, we’re never told why exactly Atsushi was such a “good for nothing”. Once we’re told his expulsion was necessary due to the tiger attacks, and how the tiger follows him everywhere, things start to piece together. After all, Atsushi does crawl away from Dazai like a tiger—on his hands and knees.
Speaking of the shots of Atsushi’s expulsion, there are some stained glass windows in the background. Given how were-beasts (such as a weretiger) are often considered unholy creatures to be repelled with silver crosses and other religious relics, these cathedral windows serve as yet another hint.
What really spoils the surprise is Atsushi’s retelling of his encounter in Tsurumi. This scene overloads us with clues. Atsushi is wandering around at night. The tiger he sees is born out of his own shadow—it literally appears out of his shadow. Most importantly, Atsushi doesn’t see the tiger directly (because he can’t) and instead notices it (himself) in a mirror.
Off-screen spectators shriek, but Atsushi runs from the tiger alone, really indicating that he’s running from the spectators. Of course, he runs towards the full moon.
By the time Atsushi and Dazai are sitting in the warehouse, it’s pretty obvious Atsushi is going to shapeshift come midnight. You could chalk up Dazai’s relaxed reading to his bizarre, suicidal personality, but he’s so clearly waiting for something. At one moment in particular, Atsushi hears a noise and runs into the moonlight while Dazai just continues to read. Dialogue-wise, we’re told yet again that Atsushi is the tiger. Atsushi laments that he might as well be eaten (possessed) by a tiger, and Dazai’s next line is: “Well, then, I think it’ll be soon.” It’s horribly obvious in hindsight.
The huge full moon hangs behind Atsushi as Dazai reveals the truth of the matter. Even if you couldn’t understand Japanese and watched without subtitles, you would realize that Atsushi is the weretiger after this shot.
In terms of mystery storytelling common sense, there are some great successes and some horrible errors in this episode. In a mystery, you want to encourage the audience to attempt to figure things out, as well as plant the seeds for a credible and fulfilling reveal. Moments like Atsushi’s poor reasoning behind his banishment, or his super senses, are great for engaging the audience. They clue us in that something is out of place, and become cohesive storytelling in hindsight. Moments like the numerous exaggerated moons, or the fist-in-face mirror shot, are too heavy-handed for traditional mysteries. They guide the audience way too strongly, more or less forcing us to solve mystery ahead of time. With our hands held so tight, we can’t feel excited for figuring the mystery out—we can’t doubt ourselves or extrapolate details in this scenario.
So was this a poor episode then? Indicative of a poor series? No, not necessarily. First of all, this directing would be fantastic for a show not dependent on its mystery, and Bungo Stray Dogs has yet to reveal whether it’s full-on mystery or just pseudo-mystery (think The Perfect Insider vs. something more like Bakemonogatari; one is entirely dependent and focused on the murder mystery, the other just utilizes mysteries for a larger storytelling purpose). Yet, even if Bungo Stray Dogs chooses to rely on its mysteries to keep us interested, these heavy-handed clues might be beneficial to a first episode.
So much attention is drawn towards the hints this episode that we can’t help but play detective and figure the case out. Yeah, it feels a bit hollow and diminishes the relative brilliance of the show’s actual detectives such as Dazai and Kunikida, but it sets a precedent. This first episode tells us to keep our eyes open. If future mysteries aren’t made quite so obvious, but we remember that Bungo Stray Dogs excels at providing hints, we might actually enjoy those future mysteries more. We’ll remember that it is possible to solve these mysteries ahead of time, and challenge ourselves to beat the detectives.
Setting up your detectives as Sherlockian geniuses might make the audience interested to see what crazy deductions they spit out, but it discourages participation. Oftentimes, mysteries stack the deck against the audience. The numerous Sherlock Holmes stories (past and present) are severe offenders of this, and I’ve seen argument (argument I disagree with, but nevermind) that The Perfect Insider is also too contrived for the audience to reasonably figure out on their own. Sherlock recognizing a woman’s wedding ring was polished on the inside but not the outside, thereby deducing that she took it off often to have sexual affairs at least once a week, can be cool to observe, but it’s just not something the audience can calculate themselves.
To make matters even more intriguing, the detectives of Bungo Stray Dogs are supernatural detectives with supernatural powers. The introduction of their powers by name only is a mystery all its own. Dazai’s “No Longer Human” gives a vague sense of his ability, but not nearly enough to predict he nullifies other people’s abilities. As long as the rest of the cast doesn’t have their abilities exposed lazily in the second episode, we might find ourselves attempting to figure out what the cryptic names mean, and how the abilities might be relevant to the various mysteries. These titles are tools Bungo Stray Dogs can play with.
I don’t think mysteries are necessarily divided into either ‘spectacles’ that discourage self-solving or ‘activities’ that encourage self-solving, but I do believe many traditional mysteries fall somewhere on a spectrum between those two bounds. And if Bungo Stray Dogs leans more towards traditional mystery than pseudo-mystery, the odds are we’ll have a chance at figuring out those mysteries. For better or worse? That’s up to you to solve.