"Beastars" Season 1 Review
Can Predators and Prey Coexist?
Animation has always been fond of using animals to tell their stories. In much the same way as Aesop did long ago, animators often use animals to spin very human tales with equally human morals. Lately, however, animation is leaning into the idea of letting animals be themselves without becoming too anthropomorphized and fully teasing out the natural connections they have with one another. Cultures where predators and prey attempt to coexist have become common themes of these newer works, popularized by the Disney movie Zootopia. The film succeeded in communicating its message about prejudice in a masterful way, and yet many people wondered what would have happened had the movie taken a much darker direction.
Enter Beastars, a late-night anime released on October 8, 2019 in Japan and March 13, 2020 in America. Though it might look like a typical piece of animal-based animation, it has one significant difference--it isn't aimed at children, and that just might be its greatest strength.
What is Beastars About?
Beastars follows Legoshi, a gray wolf student at the famous Cherryton School, where animals study in harmony--or, at least, they're supposed to. Early in the first episode, an alpaca named Tem is brutally murdered while doing work for the school's drama club. No evidence was found at the scene, and all anyone knows is that a carnivorous student ate him. As a stagehand for the drama club, Legoshi is suspected of committing the crime, even though he's a loner who secretly hates being a wolf.
In the midst of this, Legoshi attempts to control his carnivorous instincts and happens upon a rabbit named Haru, a similar pariah who runs the school's gardening club. As the two get to know each other through this challenging time, Legoshi develops a crush on Haru and begins to wonder--can an herbivore and a carnivore really fall in love?
What I Liked About Beastars
By and large, Beastars succeeds in its goal to create a mature animal-centered anime that isn't afraid to tackle real-world topics. With only 12 episodes, it's very much a binge-worthy show, and I was able to finish it in just a few days. These are just a few of the many things I enjoyed and appreciated about it.
- Rather than being an action-packed fantasy, Beastars chooses to approach its themes from a slice of life angle. The tension between predators and prey is depicted through the eyes of a high school drama club where both have coexisted for years. However, after the death of one of their own, this peaceful dynamic slowly erodes, exposing the members' biases and creating a rift between members. While this might not make for the most exciting television at times, it uses animals to show how high school social groups are impacted by traumatic events, something rarely explored in teen media.
- The characters are combinations of high school and animal stereotypes. Legoshi is the literal misunderstood lone wolf, Haru the rabbit is intimate with many of the male students, and Louis the deer is the popular, almost regal, student leader type. Using animals to portray these high school tropes makes them much more human and charismatic.
- The way Legoshi and Haru's growing relationship bridges the line between kindred spirits and forbidden love. While Haru clearly understands Legoshi more than Juno, her love rival, she also understands that she is a rabbit and Juno is another gray wolf. The worldbuilding in this series clearly indicates that while predators and prey are encouraged to be friends, any other relationship between them is a perversion. Endangered animals are even encouraged to mate with their own kind to preserve the species. Not only is this a marked difference from other animal stories that explore opposite-species relationships, it elicits eerie comparisons to eugenics that I hope the creators tease out in subsequent seasons.
- Beastars gives equal screen time to both sides of the predators vs. prey conflict. While the protagonist is a wolf, many of the secondary characters are herbivores, and their struggles are explored just as much as Legoshi's. Louis the deer's story particularly struck me--by the time his past was revealed, I was genuinely uncertain which side had it worse in this story.
- While the art style can be off-putting for some people, I found the animation itself to be amazing, especially considering how it blends 2D and 3D. CGI has become more popular in recent anime, to the point where some such as Bang Dream! have switched mediums entirely. Beastars manages to bring the same quality to all aspects of animation, from its 2D and 3D-animated portions to the exquisite stop-motion it uses in its intro.
- The jazzy theme music that accompanies the stop-motion intro is every bit as good as the animation. "Wild Side" is unique, true to the setting, and extremely catchy. Every time Netflix tried to get me to skip the intro, I manually rewound to the beginning just to hear this great song again.
What I Didn't Like About Beastars
It says a lot that I don't really have much to say about Beastars' weaknesses. The anime has a lot of aspects that may not appeal to all viewers, such as its anthropomorphized art style or its emphasis on sexuality, but outright flaws are rare to find in this delightful anime.
- For all the attention that the murder gets in the beginning, it largely gets shoved to the side by the end of the anime. This pacing problem isn't entirely the creators' fault, though. Many new anime like Beastars are limited to only 12 or 13 episodes, and while this works marvelously for anime without an original piece of source material to work from (Puella Magi Madoka Magica) or even a manga-based story with shorter arcs (The Promised Neverland), shorter seasons really don't work well for shows like Beastars. Thankfully, the last anime I had this problem with, My Hero Academia, was popular enough to get renewed for a much longer second season, and this appears to be the case with Beastars as well.
- The emphasis on Cherryton School also means that areas outside the school are merely touched on in an episode or two. Many of the details of the outside world are very cool, such as an all-lion yakuza group, but by and large, the worldbuilding outside the school is fairly slim. I understand that a lot of this is to create a sense of mystery about growing up, but I would have loved to hear about why Cherryton is such an important school, or even some history of how predators and prey came to coexist. (Even in a somewhat sanitized form that can be explored later, like in Zootopia.)
- Some of the exclusive titles in this world, such as Beastar, are not thoroughly explained. It's described as more than a student council president and less than a mayor, but there isn't a whole lot more we know about it. Learning more about the title would have helped us understand why Louis and Juno are so desperate to reach it.
While Beastars is sometimes easily dismissed as a "furry anime," it is genuinely one of my favorite new series. If you aren't afraid to explore something new and experimental, Beastars won't disappoint, bridging the best aspects of children's and adult animation just like Cherryton bridges species.