Bungō Stray Dogs‘ chief conceit is that it pulls great authors from the past and gives them new life as modern-day detectives and gangsters with special powers, so bibliophile readers can experience the thrill of seeing F. Scott Fitzgerald go up against Osamu Dazai while literary references are scattered like confetti. Its spin-off, Bungo Stray Dogs: Another Story: Ayatsuji vs Kyougoku, takes a slightly different approach: in this case, the authors in question are still alive and writing today. That is a little awkward if you think about it, but the story still essentially follows the tried-and-true formula of having super powered authors face off against each other, and in this case the literary references aren’t necessarily to the authors’ own works.
The authors in question may also be more familiar to the anime and manga fan today. As some people will have already discerned, Yukito Ayatsuji is the author of the series Another, which was adapted into an anime series in 2012 and published in English by YenOn in 2013. In fact, his Skill’s name is Another, and its ability to cause the seemingly accidental death of a criminal whose crimes have been revealed feels very much like a nod to the plot of that story. Meanwhile Natsuhiko Kyougoku’s The Summer of the Ubume has been published in English by Vertical while two of his other works have been adapted into anime, one into the 2003 TV series Requiem from the Darkness and the other into the feature film Loups=Garous – The Motion Picture in 2010. Meanwhile Mizuki Tsujimura‘s Anime Supremacy was translated into English in 2014, although she, like the other two main characters in the series, is best known as an award-winning mystery author.
The story itself is not nearly as cleanly or clearly presented as the main Bungō Stray Dogs series. We open on a prologue that owes more to the death of Sherlock Holmes at Reichenbach Falls than to the works of any of the authors in question (although Ayatsuji does reference works of classic mystery authors in his own texts) – a confrontation between Ayatsuji and Kyougoku at a waterfall’s edge. Ayatsuji attempts to use his Skill to get rid of Kyougoku, but like Holmes and Moriarty, things don’t go quite the way witnesses expect. Why that is and what the actual nature of Kyougoku’s Skill is have yet to be seen, and that sets the story up to explore the precise ability that Ayatsuji’s rival possesses. From there we shift perspectives to Mizuki Tsujimura and her role as Ayatsuji’s keeper, something he tolerates with barely disguised contempt and she dislikes doing. Essentially they’re being prepped to appear as a Holmes and Watson duo, with Tsujimura hovering in the great man’s shadow to a degree while he explains things that he thinks any intelligent person should know. Tsujishima’s not stupid, but when compared to Ayatsuji, it’s easy to see how he might believe she is.
On a basic level, this volume feels like it’s pretty strictly set up. We meet the main characters, get a few mentions of Dazai and the Yokohama group (with one extra gag two-panel strip including him), and Ango shows up to remind us that we have a transitory knowledge that these characters exist, and that’s about it. The conflict between the eponymous two is established and left to develop in later volumes. While that’s not a bad way to approach the series, especially given that we already know the rules of the world from the main story, it also isn’t hugely satisfying in terms of storytelling, and the blatant Holmesian parallels make it feel like this isn’t quite as original as its predecessor.
The visuals are also a bit of an issue. Rather than Sango Harukawa, this time the art is provided by Oyoyo, and their work isn’t any where near as clean as hers. They do, however, do an excellent job at approximating Harukawa’s style and using her character designs as a solid base. Oyoyo‘s work has more of a fanservice feel to it, upping the sensuality of the way bodies are drawn and indulging in some curvy backside shots of Tsujimura that we wouldn’t expect to see in Harukawa’s renditions. The issue, therefore, is the layouts of the pages. Each page is heavily inked and crowed with panels, figures, and backgrounds, making it feel a little overwhelming and more than a bit hard to follow at times. The appealing stylishness of it wars with the overcrowding, and when combined with the prologue-like feel of the entire volume, the book simply comes off as less polished than we might expect.
To say that this is a shame is stating the obvious, because there is a decent amount of potential here. Along with the Holmes references, bits and pieces of the lore of both Ayatsuji and Kyougoku do pop up here and there. The most notable is the secret basement hideaway Ayatsuji has filled with ball jointed dolls, including one who should look very familiar to fans of Another, but the storyline with the cursed well could have come from Kyougoku’s Requiem from the Darkness, which deals in ghost stories and dark folklore. There’s also a reference to a locked house murder á la Agatha Christie, which in addition to bringing her to mind is also the plot (with thanks to Christie) of Ayatsuji’s debut novel The Decagon House Murders. (For the interested, it was translated into English in 2015 by Locked Room International.) Hopefully things will pick up story-wise and calm down art-wise in the next volume – because fans of both the original series and mystery in general stand to find a lot to like if this can steady its pace.