In a Moeronpan first, I got to watch a show so puzzlingly stupid that I enlisted a Special Guest to help explain why it was so stupid. So heads up, this First Impression is a long one!

No you’re not.

Nakajima Atsushi is a poor misunderstood orphan who recently got kicked out of the orphanage. Now living on the street, he has no money and food and decides that if he is going to survive, he needs to steal from the next person who crosses his path. The only person he is able to aproach at all though is a man trying to drown himself in the river, whom Atsushi ends up rescuing. This man is Osamu Dazai. That wacky Dazai sure loves trying to kill himself! And he has a friend, Kunikida Doppo, who sure loves getting mad at Dazai and everybody else! They both end up feeding Atsushi and reveal that they are supernatural detectives from some special agency that handles cases the police cant.
Right now, they’re looking for a tiger that keeps appearing and disappearing, which Atsushi is terrified of because oh never mind SPOILERS he’s the tiger and we’re all supposed to pretend this is a big surprise at the end of the episode I guess. Once we finally do get to the end of the episode we get to meet the other supernatural detectives: Edogawa Ranpo, Miyazawa Kenji and Yosano Akiko.

Oh that silly Dazai, always with the suicide!

Alright, so. How utterly and completely ridiculous the above synopsis sounds to you depends on whether or not you know anything about modernist Japanese literature, because if you do you’ll immediately realise it’s unbelievably stupid. I mention this because, already, I have noticed a whole load of people watching this and squealing about all the hot guys with no idea who they actually are and the absurdity of the whole premise is tragically lost on them, which, in all honesty, may be for the better.

This is a show about modernist Japanese authors being supernatural detectives who have super powers that share the names of their most famous works. For example, Dazai’s big shiny attack is called ‘No Longer Human’.  I…I just have no idea. I have no idea why this story exists at all. This probably sounds mighty hypocritical coming from a Fate fan, but there’s just something…different about how Fate characterizes most of the heroic spirits (for the most part. I’m not saying all the Fate series are equal in this regard because they’re definitely not and Grade Order is a Grand Disaster of bad character design). So many of the heroic spirits are so legendary that speculating about their true ‘identities’ doesn’t really seem weird – I mean, a lot of them never existed in the first place. But it just gets kinda different, and weird, and honestly embarrassing when we do the same with authors and turn them into fujoshibait bishounen.

especially when one is Osamu goddamn Dazai.

Dazai in this show is a goofy, kooky and wacky kind of guy who is obsessed with suicide to the point that it’s a running gag that gets beaten into the ground over and over in just the course of this episode. It’s…also really not funny. It’s a sensitive topic to begin with, but given that the real Osamu Dazai did kill himself, it’s just in poor taste. Call me old-fashioned, but turning a depressed guy in this moe bishounen kooky weirdo is not half as funny or clever as the show seems to think it is. As for Doppo, his entire personality seems to be ‘shouty anime face’ and that’s it. If you don’t find suicide jokes or shouty anime faces funny, then boy howdy are you in for a long 20-or-so minutes because the writers of the show seem to think both – especially the latter – are gut-bustlingly hilarious.

To be honest, I still have no idea if these characters are meant to be the actual authors themselves, some kind of reincarnation type thing (I have no idea what time period this is meant to be set in) or maybe even gijinka of the writer’s work itself. The last one I considered only because we Edogawa Ranpo looks like a stereotypical detective, which would be like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle being an actual stereotypical detective. Miyazawa Kenji is also a small blond child – the fact that he wrote mostly children’s literally could explain the child part, but certainly not the blond part. I don’t know if this is ever actually addressed, and to be honest I’m…not sure I care. This show has already annoyed me in many, many ways and I’d rather not devote more time to it than I have to.

If the show were about original characters instead of the authors though – I personally still would have found it annoying. A little because I’m just so goddamn sick of supernatural detectives – detectives should not need to be supernatural – and the stories in detective anime continue to be terrible to me. Even if that were changed, there’s still the unfunny comedy and constant anime-shouting that’s neither funny nor cute, the poorly explained melodramatic backstory of the lead character (who is also based on an author/poet apparently, although not one I’d actually heard of. Looking him up he did have poems concerning tigers, which is why he can…turn into a tiger) and so on. What the show does have going for it is the fact that it’s by Bones, and their production values are out in full force. The backgrounds look great, the characters look good and move fluidly, and the show itself is done well on a technical level at least.

Now, I really gotta say, I’m not saying that the concept itself is impossible to do. I’m sure that, somehow, someone could have said ‘what if we make a show with anime osamu dazai and make him super moe’ and made it work. My frustration with it isn’t so much the concept itself but the way it was done and just how amazingly annoying it was to watch.

I was actually so perplexed by this show, so unable to believe that I really was seeing cutesy silly suicide-obsessed bishounen Osamu Dazai on my screen, that I just had to show this to my good friend Deadybones. Because Deadybones has a deeper knowledge of Japanese literature than I do, as well as a particular fondness for Dazai, she had quite a lot of Words to say about why this show was so stupid. So it’s time for a Moeronpan special guest segment!

I officially stopped caring here.

Deadybones: The writer John le Carre once said seeing your book turned into a movie is like seeing your prize oxen turned into stock cubes. Seeing your favourite authors *themselves* turned into one-note fujoshi-bait nonsense must be a bit like that, only with more cringing.

The big question I have after watching Bungou Stray Dogs Episode one is HOW. How in ALL OF THE FUCKS did we ever reach this point? At first blush it seems to defy explanation. Why are the giants of Japanese literature now handsome young men? Why are they solving mysteries? Why do they have magic powers? There is no reason for them to be, do or have any of those things.

The more I think about it, though, the more I think some of this is can be explained by a particular phenomenon of Japanese literary modernism: the shi-shosetsu, or I-novel. This genre emerged in Japan towards the end of the Meiji Period, and came out of the Naturalist imperative to represent the world faithfully, as it is, through the writer word. The I-novel applied this same logic to the writers’ psyche.

The I-Novel genre engaged with readers on the tacit understanding that the protagonist was a direct representation of the author himself, the events of his life, and his innermost thoughts. This degree of imagined closeness inspired tremendous loyalty among readers at the time, particularly when such works were being serialised in newspapers and literary magazines. The I-Novel genre contains some of the most beautiful, heartbreaking writing in the Japanese language, and many of these novels are still highly popular. They also inspire a kind of persistent and obsessive fandom culture that you don’t often see outside the I-novel context.

Dazai Osamu is a particularly strong example of this phenomenon. His fans’ genuine love of his work is misplaced onto an image of the man himself – whose private traumas the reader is supposedly privy to. There’s even a Dazai cafe in Tokyo’s Mitaka Ward near the place where he died, so fans can gather and feel closer to the man behind the words. In the I-Novel’s long shadow, even the works of prominent modern writers outside that genre – such as fantasist and poet Kenji Miyazawa, inexplicably imagined here as a young blond boy – are often approached both in mainstream criticism and pop culture through a similar lens. At some point the writer and his characters have become interchangeable; in a sense, the writer is a character himself.

But there’s the tricky part. Despite the myth of self-revelation in the I-novel, no fictional character can ever accurately represent the messy realities of a life. They are a copy, and an imperfect one at that. Their legacy in the popular imagination, then, is a copy of a copy. And so on. Each time, they lose a level of nuance. By the time someone reaches the status of a literary superstar, the writer has already become something of a public domain character – very, very, very far removed from the original human who wrote those books.

And once they’re public domain characters…? Well, there’s nothing to stop you turning them into sexy anime detectives with magic powers and no more than two personality traits each if you wanted to. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should, but I can’t bring myself to hate this thing that I just watched. Not entirely, at least. It doesn’t exist in a cultural vacuum. But if I can only make sense of a show as a strange byproduct of the literary-industrial complex, that doesn’t necessarily speak highly of it.

PS. If you’d like to see an example of anime doing modernist authors RIGHT, check out Spring and Chaos: an animated biopic of Miyazawa Kenji where everyone is cats.

No, really, I can’t get over Miyazawa Kenji being a small blond child.

Out of 5,