This article contains spoilers for 'Bungō Stray Dogs.'
Many have noticed a revival of classic literature within literary circles; however, much of this has come not at the hands of academics and elitist critics but at the hands of a choice few weebs in a niche corner of modern fandom culture. Diehard fans of Kafka Asagiri and Sango Harukawa’s seinen anime and manga series, Bungō Stray Dogs, may now be the most likely teenagers and young adults to discuss Crime and Punishment or No Longer Human with genuine interest, as much of the series’ content is heavily inspired by classic literature from around the world. Classic works and the authors who write them inform everything from character personalities and powers to the progression of the plot itself, and the level of sheer intertextual complexity goes far beyond mere “inspiration.” In BSD, these two are not merely hobbies but are foundational to the world—be it literally in the form of the elusive plot-driving “Book” that turns whatever is written into it into reality, thematically in the form of character backstories and arcs being shaped by the concepts, or inspirationally by bringing iconic authors and stories to life within its pages. In this way, the series becomes more than another story: it becomes Asagiri and Harukawa’s love letter to the classics and an inspirational ode to the transformative power of reading and writing.
BSD follows the story of Atsushi Nakajima, an orphan who ends up railroaded into joining a crime-fighting organization known as the Armed Detective Agency to gain proper control of his tiger-shifting supernatural ability, Beast Beneath the Moonlight. The protagonist’s namesake is Japanese author Atsushi Nakajima, and his ability takes inspiration from The Moon Over The Mountain, a tale where a man’s close friend unwillingly transforms into a tiger. The cast showcases this base formula of inspiration; the character inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne is modeled after The Scarlet Letter, the one inspired by Agatha Christie takes from And Then There Were None, the character based on Ryūnosuke Akutagawa is named after his short story “Rashōmon,” and so on. However, these are only the most obvious allusions to classic literature seen in BSD.
Take Japanese author Osamu Dazai’s BSD counterpart, with an ability named for his novel No Longer Human and the nihilistic, suicidal personality to match its contents. Not only does BSD Dazai have striking similarities to Yozo, No Longer Human’s protagonist, and the real-world author himself, even his relationships with the other characters mirror the relationships between Dazai and other real-world writers. For instance, the characters of BSD Dazai, Ango Sakaguchi, and Sakunosuke Oda are close friends who often go out drinking together. In the real world, these three authors were the most prolific members of the Buraiha, a group of rebellious writers in Japan who were dissatisfied with the post-World War II state of the nation’s culture and ideals, mirroring how the three BSD characters were mutually dissatisfied with their lives in the Port Mafia, their organization of employment. BSD Ango is tertiary to Dazai and Oda, whose relationship is so profound that the effects of it ripple throughout the series. This continually affects Dazai’s sense of morality and self, just as the author Dazai’s relationship with Oda was transformative to the point of Dazai writing Oda’s eulogy and lashing out at the world after his death.
BSD shows this level of intertextual and biographical complexity throughout, such as the relationship between characters Ranpo Edogawa and Edgar Allan Poe taking heed from the admiration real-world Edogawa held for Poe. While, initially, the affection is reversed, with Poe being the one to respect Edogawa, Edogawa’s admiration for Poe becomes much more evident as the plot progresses. A BSD fan could easily predict this relationship development if they were familiar with the biographies of the real-world authors, as Edogawa’s admiration for Poe is not the easiest to catch on a blind watch. Another case is the character Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald and his Gatsby-referencing ability: The Great Fitzgerald. Based on Jay Gatsby, his power allows him to spend money to make himself stronger, keeping with the themes of consumerism present in the novel. BSD Fitzgerald’s character arc pulls plot points directly from many of the author’s novels in a brilliant case of intertextual foreshadowing, rewarding BSD fans particularly familiar with Fitzgerald’s other writings. These are only two examples; this phenomenon is so widespread in BSD that an author’s biography and works can spur fan theories and mass speculation about characters based on them, such as the ongoing debate surrounding the character Fyodor Dostoevsky. Despite being the overarching antagonist of the series, Asagiri and Hayakawa have confirmed little, thus questions of this character’s backstory, what his Crime and Punishment-inspired ability does, and what motivates him are all questions whose answers are found in the margins of real-world Dostoevsky’s literature. Having a grasp of where BSD’s inspiration originates allows a fan of the series to have a deeper understanding of the characters and story and appreciation for not only Asagiri and Hayakawa’s labor of love but for the source of the series’ inspiration as well.
However, that isn’t to say that well-read fans of BSD can predict everything through their preexisting knowledge of classic literature, as the creators fold aspects into the narrative that are wholly unique to BSD. They often try to work directly against fans’ expectations to make what would have otherwise been a predictable experience into one that is anything but certain. For instance, the character Sakunosuke Oda’s motivation for refusing murder is out of sympathy toward human life. This is a prominent theme present in the real-world author’s work. However, the character compromises his beliefs in favor of revenge, a concept far removed from the author’s bibliography. While knowing BSD’s real-world inspiration can sometimes allow someone to consume the story insight into future revelations, the story forges into the unknown, leaving even a well-read fan dead in the water. Without any reference to real-world Oda, the sudden nature of his turn in personality is hyper-emphasized, and its emotional impact is increased. When BSD strays away from the characteristics of its inspiration, it plays off of both what is present and what is not, heightening the story’s complexity and emotional impact while retaining an air of unpredictability and enjoyability.
While the complex intertextual play in BSD encourages fans to read, much of the series’ worldbuilding and anecdotes encourage them to write. The most important aspect of the series’ lore and overarching plot, the aforementioned Book, is the power of writing personified. This alone gives the act of writing heavyweight in BSD, but the minor anecdotes further emphasize its importance. For instance, Oda’s story also serves as an example of one of the many writing-themed messages in BSD’s pages, as the sympathy for human life behind his abstinence from murder stems from his desire to become an author. Oda strongly believes that authors create human lives when writing about them; thus, a murderer has no right to write. Writing is not something to be taken as a frivolous hobby; it requires dedication and significant, foundational change in how one lives. The creation of fictional characters is equated to the creation of human life, to the point where moral error makes one unfit to write, just as it would make them unfit for parenthood, medicine, teaching, or any profession or endeavor which concerns human lives.
As wholly serious and dreary as Oda’s arc might be, BSD manages to weave some optimistic writing themes into the plot. Character Mushitaro Oguri kills his writer friend Yokomizo to fulfill his friend’s desire to create the perfect mystery story—one that is unsolvable and can transcend the pages—through his aptly-named ability, The Perfect Crime. Mushitaro, who had always held distaste towards his friend’s hobby, takes it up to cope with his grief at the behest of BSD Poe, who tells him that “inside a story, you can see anyone you want at any time.” Another positive theme in the side story Bungō Stray Dogs: BEAST, wherein Dazai uses the Book to create a timeline where Oda can live out his dreams of writing a novel. This is at the expense of Dazai’s happiness, as the life he’s consigned to as a result of Oda being alive again is one where he and Oda are enemies. Despite that, to Dazai, Oda being able to write his novel is the most important thing, to the point where his one regret when he commits suicide to preserve the timeline at the end of the story is not being able to read it.
BSD is Asagiri and Harukawa’s ode to reading and writing, one that successfully revitalized interest in classic literature and fostered their fans’ creative spirit. Interest in classics among BSD’s target audience—teenagers and young adults—had generally been trending downward outside academia and the classroom. Although this micro revival of classic literature and inspiration is limited to the series’ small, niche demographic of fans, Asagiri and Harukawa have successfully brought new life to old stories. There are countless online posts and threads from fans who want to read the inspiration behind their favorite BSD character’s personality, arc, or ability. An entire Reddit community is dedicated to discussing real-world authors in relation to the series. The New York Times even acknowledged BSD as a contributing factor in the works of Osamu Dazai remaining in print, as his BSD version is one of the more prominent and popular characters. Copies of No Longer Human are sometimes shelved near volumes of the BSD manga in bookstores. As for writing, BSD fans are rather creative, though this is mainly limited to the massive amounts of fanfiction that they produce; but, just as the series itself does, they too often fold in literary references. Despite the two being seemingly mismatched at first glance, anime and classic literature make a good pair, and it’s worth acknowledging what other forms of media can experience this mutual revitalization.
Shajaka Shelton is a junior in the College studying English and Journalism. She is one of the INDY’s Commentary Editors.