****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****
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.
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.
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.
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!