REVIEW: ‘Bungo Stray Dogs,’ Light Novel 6 – “Beast”

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Bungo Stray Dogs: Beast

In the strongest outing for the novel series to date, Kafka Asagiri asks readers to dissect the many possibilities in storytelling with Bungo Stray Dogs: Beast. The light novels, written and illustrated (Dead Apple excluded) by the original creators of the manga, Kafka Asagiri and Sango Harukawa, each feature independent one-shot adventures that tie into the greater world of Bungo Stray Dogs. The franchise is a fun, pulpy romp in Yokohama, Japan, where the characters are literary giants from around the world reimagined as superpowered detectives and mafiosos. The manga and light novels are published in English by Yen Press. Bungo Stray Dogs: Beast features translation by Matt Rutsohn.

Many multimedia franchises grow fervent fanbases…and a large subsection of fan fiction on Archive of Our Own imagining “what if” scenarios for favorite characters. Bungo Stray Dogs is no exception. However, with Bungo Stray Dogs: BeastAsagiri essentially jumps on the train for their own story. In a parallel world, Asagiri begins the story by asking, “What if Dazai hadn’t taken Akutagawa under his wing? What if Atsushi and Akutagawa’s roles were reversed?” And the story takes off from there.

The beginning is familiar, echoing the short story The Heartless Cur in Volume 6 of the manga, which briefly gave backstory to Akutagawa. This time, however, Dazai rejects him, and years later, he is taken under the wing of Sakunosuke Oda, who belongs to the Armed Detective Agency. Readers slowly see how small events cause the dominoes to fall differently in the world of Bungo Stray Dogs: Beast.

That is what makes Asagiri’s storytelling in this novel so enjoyable: the story is not a complete reversal. Akutagawa and Atsushi are still the same people at their cores. If anything, Bungo Stray Dogs: Beast gives great insight into Akutagawa’s character in the main plot because it doesn’t feel separate. While the more empathetic side of him isn’t something readers would see, it isn’t because Asagiri pulls that characteristic out of thin air. Instead, Akutagawa in the Armed Detective Agency is granted the empathy from others that Atsushi was given in the mainline plot. Consequently, Atsushi and Kyoka are subjected to a much more broken and abusive Dazai, who has taken over as leader of the Port Mafia.

Asagiri’s questions of “what if” create a compelling story independently but also do a fantastic job of exploring character relationships that the manga doesn’t have room for. Akutagawa has a stronger connection to his younger sister, Gin, here. However, Atsushi and Kyoka’s relationship becomes disturbingly co-dependent thanks to the pressures of the mafia, and the most important moments cannot even be discussed without ruining the emotional impact of their reveal. If a negative had to be found, it would be that Gin is sometimes used more as a plot device to push Akutagawa rather than a character in her own right.

Earlier I described Dazai as abusive, which might ruffle some feathers. It is true here. In the mainline entry, flashbacks showed how cruel he was mentoring Akutagawa. In Bungo Stray Dogs: Beast, Dazai never left the mafia. Instead, he sinks deeper until becoming the leader. Regardless of his motivations, they are inherently selfish. They may be spurred by a feeling of selflessness to protect someone else, but ultimately Dazai’s choices harm others’ lives for the sake of his goal. For those caught up with the main story, revelations in this parallel universe will likely bring forth tears, as this “what if” fantasy smartly ties into major events in the manga more than it initially lets on.

Artist Sango Harukawa also knocks it out of the park on the illustrations from the heartbreaking moment Dazai cracks to the dead look in Asushi’s eyes. There is even a small section in the back of the book where Haruwaka explains their choices in redesigning the characters for this parallel world. Additionally, the prose is fantastic, possibly the best of any of the light novels so far. Finally, Rutsohn’s translation work deserves praise.

For fans possibly frustrated with some of the writing decisions happening recently in the franchise, Bungo Stray Dogs: Beast is a reminder of why this series is so darn fun. Asagiri does a phenomenal job creating an independent “thought experiment” (as described in the afterward) that still ties into the main story. The smart character work makes it feel like an addition to what we already know, instead of an entity completely separate. Series fans will devour this light novel.

Bungo Stray Dogs: Beast is available now wherever books are sold.

Bungo Stray Dogs: Beast
4.5

TL;DR

For fans possibly frustrated with some of the writing decisions happening recently in the franchise, Bungo Stray Dogs Beast is a reminder of why this series is so darn fun. Asagiri does a phenomenal job creating an independent “thought experiment” (as described in the afterward) that still ties into the main story. The smart character work makes it feel like an addition to what we already know, instead of an entity completely separate. Series fans will devour this light novel.