Atsushi Nakajima, a homeless waif with an asymmetrical haircut, is at the end of his prospects. The orphanage he once called home has cruelly thrown him to the streets, and if that misfortune wasn’t enough, a mysterious man-eating tiger has been stalking him. Atsushi’s only wish is to eat a bowl of chazuke tea over rice, and as starvation sets in, it becomes clear that the timid teenager’s only option is stealing money to feed himself.

Resolving to rob the next person he runs into, Atsushi is shocked to encounter a tall young man attempting to drown himself in the river. Instead of robbery, Atsushi saves the man, Osamu Dazai, who treats him to a bowl of chazuke as a reward—under the condition that he’ll help capture the tiger-beast that haunts him. Osamu and his partner Doppo Kunikida work for the Armed Detective Agency, which employs agents with supernatural abilities to solve mysteries of a mystical nature. And as the reader will soon guess, it is Atsushi himself who is transforming into the tiger. It’s the real reason his orphanage kicked him out as a liability, but it’s also what makes him an asset to the Agency.

Shounen manga featuring secret agents with superpowers are prevalent, but this does not make Bungo Stray Dogs stale bread. A great number of the characters, including Atsushi, Osamu, and Doppo, are named for literary figures of Japan, and their powers and personalities are derived from what is known about their namesakes. For instance, the author Osamu Dazai perished after drowning himself, and Atsushi Nakajima published a collection of short stories called “The Moon Over the Mountain,” while Atsushi of Stray Dogs is called “The Beast Beneath the Moon.” It is a clever little gimmick, though it might not be apparent to those unfamiliar with Japanese literature.

Atsushi’s initiation into the Armed Detective Agency feels more like hazing when he is called on to negotiate with an unstable young man, who seems intent on holding hostages at the agency. After he’s accepted into the fold, he is sent on a mission which immediately puts him in the path of Ryunoske Akutagawa, a mystical mafiosa with a nasty reputation, and yet another namesake of Japanese literature. It might be of interest to readers that Akutagawa’s namesake is the author of the famous short story “Rashomon,” which plays with the idea of a subject committing a crime in order to survive. Readers will likely be more familiar with Rashomon as Akira Kurosawa’s classic film, which shares a name and theme of moral grey area for petty crime (but little else) with Akutagawa’s short story. Appropriately, the character of Ryunosuke Akutagawa is armed with a power called Rashomon, which seems to create an all-consuming dark matter monster from his coat; it’s more terrifying in the book than how it might sound here.

The cast of willowy young men with mysterious pasts will endear themselves to audiences, yet some bloody violence and aggressive flirting between a young woman and her unwilling brother suggest an older teen audience. It is also important to note that Osamu’s casually suicidal nature is a big part of his character. Regardless, there is a lot of action and intrigue packed into this short first volume. The issue ends on a cliffhanger, and teens will look forward to seeing what will next befall Atsushi and his strange new family.

Bungo Stray Dogs, vol. 1
by Kafka Asigiri
Art by Sango Harukawa
ISBN: 9780316554701
Yen Press, 2016
Publisher Age Rating: OT (16+)

  • Jessikah Chautin

    Past Reviewer

    This reviewer is not longer actively working on our site, but we would not be here if not for our many dedicated contributors over the years. We thank all of them for their reviews, features, and support! Jessikah graduated with her MLS from The Palmer School of Library Science and has been working at the Syosset Public Library as a children’s librarian since 2003. She enthusiastically developed a children’s graphic novel collection for her library and enjoys developing programs around some of her favorite titles. As a child, Jessikah grew up on a healthy diet of Matsumoto, Toriyama and whatever anime series she could find. She often had a hard time deciding if she would prefer to be recruited as a Mahou Shoujo (Magical Girl) or a Gundam Pilot, a debate that still plagues her to this very day. If she could have any power it would definitely be telekinesis.

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