Bungou Stray Dogs is a decent action anime about an orphan weretiger and the “Armed Detective Agency” that gives him a job and a place to belong. Between the quirky characters and the action, it has all the ingredients for a basic, fun show. Still, I found it unremarkable until the seventh episode, “Love for the Disease Called Ideals.” By the end of that episode, I started paying closer attention to what this show says about justice.
One of the main characters, Kunikida, is obsessed with ideals. He carries around a notebook with his plans and ideals written inside it, and when real life deviates from what he’s written, it upsets him.
Years ago, another man obsessed with ideals took violent steps toward his goal. He was known as the Azure King. He saw an “incomplete” world, where “people still die from accidental circumstance, and evil goes unpunished to flourish freely…” So he set off a bomb in a government building, targeting killers who’d gone free and corrupt diet members. He explained, “Then I shall desire the ideal world. It will be built not by the divine hand of God but by our own bloodied fingers.”
That statement is messed up on so many levels. But we’ll get back to that.
Anyway, Kunikida was a key part of taking the Azure King down. In the process, the vigilante’s bomb killed him and many of the police officers who came after him.
Now, the King’s girlfriend is back as the Azure Messenger, and she plots to use a deadly bomb to destroy the Armed Detective Agency’s name, and Kunikida along with it. Before they figure out who she is, though, Kunikida starts to get to know her. So when she ends up dead, killed by the son of one of the Azure King’s victims, he’s upset: “Why?! Why does it have to end this way? What went wrong?! Who was wrong?!”
His partner, Dazai, replies calmly, “No one was wrong. This was the only possible outcome.”
Kunikida: “Shut up! You could’ve saved her! Are you saying this is justice?!”
Dazai: “Justice is a weapon. It can be used to cause harm, but it cannot protect or save others. What killed Sasaki-san was, in the end, the justice of the Azure King, and of you. Kunikida-kun, as long as you pursue your ideals, the flames that burned in the Azure King will one day take root in you, and raze everything around you.”
Kunikida: “Even so, I’ll still push on until I push past it! Don’t underestimate my ideals!”
I’m glad Kunikida has something to believe strongly, but he’s too old to sound like a shounen hero. It’s good to listen to Dazai’s warning and think about how he will pursue his ideals differently than the antagonist.
The Azure King wanted to achieves his ideals by executing those who should be executed, even if it meant going outside the law and killing innocent people in the process. He believed this justice could build an ideal world. To him, if there was a God, that God had failed—or at least was too slow. Now, the Azure King was right that the world is incomplete. But you can’t build something good by destroying evil. That’s like saying you’re going to build shiny new condos, but having no plans beyond destroying the old apartment building. I discussed this thoroughly last fall, when comparing Kira of Death Note to the God of life.
“Justice is a weapon. It can be used to cause harm, but it cannot protect or save others.”
Focusing only on justice is dangerous. Alone, it cannot protect or save—only destroy. Dazai’s warning is correct.
So what is the point? Why pursue ideals if they lead only to destruction? Why seek justice?
I’d argue that, just as justice is incomplete without love, mercy, and reconciliation, so also are these other ideals incomplete without justice.
I look at God’s love and compassion as an example, particularly as represented in Psalm 136. He is the creator and the life-giver. But he struck down the firstborn of Egypt and many evil kings who not only reigned in evil in their own nation, but also oppressed his people Israel. His covenant with Israel and his passionate love and loyalty would mean nothing if he didn’t take strong measures to back them up. His righteousness and his status as the God of the whole world would mean nothing if he didn’t do anything about it. Without God’s justice, I’d have a hard time believing his loving and merciful promises. I wouldn’t know that he means what he says. Justice gives him integrity and is part of what makes his ways distinct and whole.
On a human level, justice is important as well. In the U.S., for example, it’s a large part of how we defend our identity and the values in our Constitution and rhetoric. It gives law the strength to protect us—to some extent. It’s not enough, though. It can’t give us freedom on its own. It must be used with patience, generosity, mercy, grace, and above all, love.
So what about individuals? Can—and should—we take justice into our own hands to back up our own ideals? To teach others that we mean business, and that our ideals are worth backing up? Uhhhhh… be careful. It’s really, really difficult for individual humans to balance justice, love, and mercy. I’ve fallen into this trap many times, usually in subtle, small ways. As an editor, this happens when I see a writer twist Scripture. It’s one of the very few times I get angry, especially if it’s done repeatedly and by an older Christian who should know better. It’s easy to abandon all patience at this point. I usually attempt to understand where people are coming from, to gently explain why I think their understanding differs from the truth. But when I’m angry, I struggle to see the people that God loves dearly. All I see is a being that wrongly trampled on truth. My comments become harsh, and my criticisms are all destructive, not constructive. I sometimes have a similar reaction when people speak hatefully or disrespectfully of a group of people—whether an ethnicity, political party, or even sexual or gender identity. I’m so determined to “honor” and “love” one group, I’m prepared to crush someone else. I wield my words like a sword of justice, determined to beat love and truth into anyone I perceive is being disrespectful toward Scripture or toward human beings. I the process, I miss opportunities to teach and love the person in front of me. It’s okay for me to reveal my passion for truth and people, but only if it’s paired equally with compassion for the person who has violated my ideals.
All that to say, justice is good, and anger can be righteous… but if your name isn’t YHWH (Yahweh, Jehovah, God), then you’d best be careful your so-called righteous anger is really that, and it doesn’t lead you to sin. You don’t have to kill or go outside the law in order to be a misguided vigilante. When in doubt, it’s best to forgive, love, and trust the authorities to take care of justice—and if pursuing justice through government fails, then, as hard as it is, it’s best to leave vengeance to God.
Bungou Stray Dogs can only explore ideas of justice and mercy on a human level, and I hope it continues to do so. Episode 7’s discussion complements the first episode’s premise: Atushi, an orphan weretiger, unconsciously killed people in his tiger form. His tiger is wanted. But Dazai of the Armed Detective Agency took him in anyway. Sure, Atushi didn’t intend to kill anyone, but it could still be argued that someone needs to be held accountable to his tiger self’s crimes, and that someone is him. Dazai and the Agency’s acceptance of him shows mercy.
And in Episode 9, when Atushi tries to protect a young girl who’s killed 35 people under control of the Port Mafia, he, too shows mercy. Unlike him, this girl was conscious during the crimes. She could have run away and thus sacrificed her own life in order to save those she was made to assassinate. But she’s sorry for it, an she tries to let herself blow up. When that fails, she’s prepared to turn herself in. And so all Atushi sees in her is a precious human being who, like him, has been forced to use her gift to kill. Atushi wants to forgive and accept her the way he’s been forgiven and accepted, even if that goes against justice.
It’ll be interesting to see what else Bungou Stray Dogs does with these themes. So far, it’s done a decent job showing that justice and mercy aren’t always as clear cut as we’d like them to be.
Justice is messy. It’s valuable, but when it’s wielded as a weapon without love, it can’t protect anything—not truth, not safety, not even any ideals that are worth upholding. That doesn’t mean we give up on it or paint justice and pursuit of truth as bad. It just means we proceed with caution. And for Christians, that means a lot of prayer, reading the entire Bible to get a fuller picture, self-reflection, and trust in God to uphold justice and give life.