Born to Die – Bungo Stray Dogs’ Karma

****I will be discussing characters and events from the fourth episode of Bingo Stray Dogs, season 3. Although I don’t believe this post by spoils anything about the season or the larger plot, it does go over the episode itself in fair detail so if you don’t want to learn what happens, please feel free to come back after you’ve seen it****

Bungo Stray Dogs s3 ep4 (1)

we’ll get into that!

If you don’t know who Karma is in Bungo Stray Dogs, don’t feel bad. He was a bit part who only shows up for a single episode. To tell the truth, I’m not even sure they ever tell us his name. I looked it up on the wiki. He also doesn’t have a last name or a famous author to be based on. To put it bluntly, Karma is nothing but filler. Or to be more precise, he’s fodder.

Poor Karma, his entire existence was never really about him at all. He was created for Fyodor. And not even to play a small role in an elaborate plot or to accidentally change the course of the story or to have any individual impact at all. Just to be killed so we can get a slightly better idea of what type of man Dostoevsky is. Karma is a narrative prop. A character created simply so the plot could make a point without resorting to exposition. Entirely disposable. You were never supposed to know who he is.

It’s a cruel and gratuitous thing to do to a character and it was also masterful.

Bungo Stray Dogs s3 ep4 (14)

sorry

Creating this type of prop character is more challenging than it can seem on the surface. You need to make your character likable so that the audience will be emotionally vested in their death but not so likable that they’ll get angry and turned off on the show. You also need to develop them enough that the death has a proper impact, then again if you do that too much or too well, you risk overshadowing your main characters and have viewers thinking back on the redshirt you threw out instead of concentrating on your hero or villain.

And then there’s a question of presence and timing. The only way a character like this works on any level is if your audience has bonded with them a bit. However, you don’t have endless episodes to devote to a throwaway so you have to get rid of them fast. You also need to develop as much or not more the main character you’re propping up with this little device. And the moment of truth is crucial. You make it silly or over exaggerated and it won’t convey the message it’s supposed to. Too casual and people might not notice (not enough). If you treat it as a tragic event, once more you got people thinking about the guy that’s no longer here instead of who you want them to be focused on and if you make it spectacular or attach too much importance, the narrative may end up being about the event itself rather than the characters.

Bungo Stray Dogs s3 ep4 (32)

I know, it’s getting complicated, righ?

See what I mean. This is an advanced literary technique and the writing in Bungo Stray Dogs doesn’t get enough credit to be able to pull this off in any way. A lesser script could easily have had news clippings of Fyodor’s past misdeeds or have the lackeys discussing his chilling presence or something. Heck, they could have illustrated a real puppy for him to kick instead of trying to craft a metaphorical one.

But Bungo Stray Dogs didn’t take the easy way out. For all it’s occasionally stunted dialogue and overbearing characterizations, it’s episodes like this that remind me the incredible potential of the series and keeps me coming back to see if Bungo Stray Dogs can realize it.

In a mere 20 minute episode it manages to establish a clear unlikable antagonist in Ace. He got superficial development but a lot of exposition so I knew clearly that I was supposed to root against him. At the same time, it introduced us to Dostoyevsky. By keeping both his characterization and reactions cryptic while putting him in a compromised position, he managed to come off as both unnerving and vulnerable at the same time. I wasn’t sure what I was meant to think of him and that uncertainty captured my attention.

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duly noted!

But it’s through Karma that everything came together. A repentant villain as much a victim of circumstances as of his own failings, we catch up with him when he’s already given up. Without ever telling me, through stray thoughts and small gestures, somehow I knew that this was some punk kid who grew up without means and had too much ambition for his own good. You know the type, big fish in a small pound who thinks he’s gonna take over the world cause he has a modicum of skill just to realize the world is way bigger and more dangerous than he imagined. So for survival, he bent and compromised until he no longer recognized himself.

None of this is ever said and yet I feel confident in my analysis. Bungo Stray Dogs managed to convey the *essence* of Karma without ever introducing us to the person. And it does so convincingly enough that I was worried about him. A small fry surrounded by sharks. I hated Ace more because of what he did to Karma and feared Fyodor through his interactions with the boy.

Karma never managed to do anything at all. He remained helpless until the very end. But his existence was a narrative tour de force and for that, he deserves something. Like his own post at least!

BSD Karma

there is so little Karma fanart out there (by VermeilleRose)

Irina

I'm much nicer than I seem, we should be friends!

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8 Responses

  1. Dawnstorm says:

    Wait, he only shows up for a single episode? I could have sworn he’s the first person we ever saw in episode one, and the one who received Dostoyevsky, while the one handing him over told him what a creepy guy Dostoyevsky is. I thought it was him who removed the hood so we could see Dostoyevsky.

    Karma is the focal point of view of the entire first arc. As such, he’s not just there to be killed, but how he witnessed this arc and how it led to his death would be a big hint for how Dostoyevsky’s skill works. (We’ve been starting down the road of backstory for main characters recently, and I only understand that to be a set-up for the plot in the way I do, because we saw a micro-cosmos of it with Karma.)

    Note that at the very end Karma didn’t resent his end. Characters are their own undoing and find piece of mind in pending death? Is this how the skill works? I don’t know all that much about Dostoyevsky. Never read anything by him, and not really tempted. My father’s a huge fan, and my sister’s Karamasov but didn’t like it. So from what I’ve heard, I could easily see the skill work that way, but I’m shaky on it. (I didn’t do any research either.)

    I think, though I don’t have enough information to be sure as of yet, that Karma was carefully crafted to be the perfect victim for Dostoyevsky’s skill. Had big dreams and quit after a (series of) set-back(s). Finds peace of mind by letting it all go. The end.

    At least that’s how I saw that first arc. (Maybe I misremember things?)

    ****

    Also, usually I don’t comment on typos, but sometimes they’re just imaginatively productive. May I go on record for saying that I would totally watch a show called “Bingo Stray Dogs”? (Perfect for a spin-off: 3-minute episodes and chibis?)

    • As much as the idea of “Bingo Stray Dogs” appeals to me, there is a manga spin-off much like what you’re pitching – it’s a gag manga with chibis called Bungou Stray Dogs Wan!. If you ever wanted to see Atsushi as Cinderella, for example, Wan! has that.

      • Dawnstorm says:

        That’s awesome. Sounds like a must read. (Says the guy who has maybe read three manga in his entire life, and never finished one.)

  2. Karandi says:

    This was perhaps my favourite episode of Bungo Stray Dogs ever and it is the moments like these ones were some brilliant writing comes through that keeps me watching Bungo Stray Dogs despite the bits inbetween that I sometimes look at and wonder if they have a clue what they are doing. Really great post.

  3. 7mononoke says:

    Agreeeeeed! I loved that kid and the way he was written. Honestly I was shocked when I did a little research on him last week and discovered he’ll probably never appear again. It’s so sad! I didn’t know his name was Karma until last week, either. Anyway rest in peace Karma!

  1. May 26, 2019

    […] Irina discusses the side character Karma from Bungo Stray Dogs this week and how his short life on the show had a larger meaning for the plot and characterization of more important characters. […]

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