Bungo Stray Dogs tells the story of a group of individuals known as the “gifted” who possess supernatural abilities. Though we follow a number of individuals and organizations, the story is largely viewed from the eyes of protagonist Atsushi Nakajima, a boy who at beginning of this story is kicked out of the orphanage he grew up in and is living on the street. He meets Osamu Dazai who eventually invites him to join the Armed Detective Agency after discovering his “gift.”
Note: This article contains spoilers for episode 31 (Herurisu / Portrait of a Father) and some light spoilers for episode 37 (Echo), but are mostly self-contained to former and not the main plot. In addition, there may be some graphic/disturbing content related to child abuse (physical/emotional).
Early on, we learn Atsushi was subjected to all manners of cruel and abusive treatment at the orphanage, unaware of his ability to transform into a weretiger which results in his expulsion once his power grows to be too much to handle. Filled with doubt, a general lack of confidence, and feeling “unworthy” of living, Atsushi begins to heal some of his past wounds through his new comrades. His kindness is often portrayed as his strongest attribute, going so far as to put himself in harm’s way to save others, partly a result of feeling the need to prove his own reason for living (pun not intended).
As the plot moves forward and the cast grows, Atsushi’s story begins to get pushed into the background as other characters start to make their impact on the main story. With the plot focused on the main gifted factions and their respective members in the later seasons, there is a lot happening on screen that Atsushi’s insecurities and abusive past become more of an afterthought than a sticking point. This becomes more apparent as the story gives a lot of attention to Dazai’s past in the Port Mafia for both the beginning of the second and third seasons, who in a way acts as the series’s second protagonist.
Up until this point, we were only given vague hints or vague flashbacks to Atsushi’s time at the orphanage, but episode 31's second half revisits the subject in a rather dark and unexpected turn of events that rocks his world.
It all starts as Atsushi fills in for Rampo at his request to investigate a hit and run accident with Junichirō Tanizaki, another member of the agency. Not long after, police are able to ID the victim and Atsushi is shaken to the core. It’s the headmaster of the orphanage; his adoptive father.
In any other series, this would normally be portrayed as a tragedy regardless of the kind of character the person was in life. A lot of media has a tendency of “absolving” troubled parents after their deaths, always going back to that silver lining of “well, they did some good in their life” or even romanticizing their lives after death with some form of “redemption” arc in their final moments. Which is why Atsushi’s initial response to this comes as a complete shock even for his generally good-hearted personality:
We flashback briefly to his childhood, locked up in a cell by the headmaster asking him if he hated him, even encouraging him to hate him once he leaves; but never to hate himself. Back in the present, Tanizaki reveals new information relating to the headmaster’s whereabouts prior to his death. He was looking for Atsushi after stopping The Guild’s attempt to destroy the city; most likely to congratulate him.
Conflicted by the news, Atsushi is unable to accept the headmaster as anything less than his tormentor and root cause of his previous suffering. Dazai finds him at a park bench, lost in thought as he notices the parents and children nearby. By this point, Atsushi has put together the pieces of the accident, including the fact that the headmaster had an appointment at a flower shop based on Rampo’s hint early on. And yet, he cannot bring himself to forgive him. What follows next from Dazai might be one of the most realistic moments of any medium:
“You don’t need to forgive him. No matter what he may have believed, what he did to you was absolutely unforgivable. Absolute barbarism.”
“You were truly in hell. But that hell raised you properly. As someone who understands suffering, you resisted violence and evil and saved many people who were in positions of weakness.”
Still in the midst of grasping his emotional state, Atsushi asks Dazai what is the feeling that’s currently running through him. He gives him one final piece of parting words for him (and the audience) to interpret:
The final scene ends with Atsushi quietly shedding tears, but whether he was shedding tears of joy or tears of sadness is left unanswered.
Over the years, entertainment has evolved to become slightly more inclusive, diverse, and push back on established or traditional norms that society has come to accept as normal. This includes the idea or romanticism of the abusive parent and a silver lining or one major sticking point that somewhat absolves them of whatever wrong doing they may have done in life, often a heroic sacrifice or one last good deed before they pass.
We are driven unconsciously to a certain extent to always see the good in someone, no matter who it is or what they have done or continue to do. That we should always respect the person in power because of who they are rather than what they stand for. In a society that often prioritizes family reconciliation and stigmatizes estrangement, we often forget the people who end up suffering and carrying the burden for the sake of keeping everyone “together” or avoid confronting the real problem.
Towards the end of the season in Episode 37 (Echo), Atsushi is asked a question of why he continues to listen to a dead man. I won’t spoil his exact response, but he acknowledges it is a part of him that he will never escape; at least not yet. In the end, he can only continue to do what is right and accept himself.
Bungo Stray Dogs gave me a lot to think about the role of abusive parents, the way we determine our own self-worth, and the person we end up becoming. Though the manga gives a little more context on the headmaster, it shouldn’t absolve him just because he was treated worse than what he put Atsushi through. “Portrait of a Father” is a reminder that parents come in many shapes and forms, and for the unfortunate few, sometimes they fail us or put us through unimaginable pain.
But it’s okay to move on. You don’t have to forgive them. It’s okay to cry whether its love, hate, or something in between. But most of all:
It’s okay to live.
All screenshots taken from Crunchyroll.
Track: Wright Left (Bungo Stray Dogs S3 insert song) | Artist: SCREEN mode | Album: Yakusoku no Sora