Beastars

(Welcome to Ani-time Ani-where, a regular column dedicated to helping the uninitiated understand and appreciate the world of anime.)

We’re living in a golden age of anime. There is a never-ending stream of new shows airing all the time, and too many streaming services to count. With so many shows arriving all the time, the Netflix model of waiting until all the different-language subtitles and dubs are ready means that their shows get delayed by months until they get released at arguably odd times compared to the already established anime season.

Of course, this isn’t a big deal if the show is worth the wait, and at least when it comes to Netflix’s latest anime, Beastars, it is 100% worth the wait. The series is set in a world of anthropomorphic animals, where society is divided amongst herbivores and carnivores. The main storyitself  is set inside the fragile ecosystem of the Cherryton Academy, where an alpaca is killed and devoured, sending a wave of distrust that rocks the school and puts everyone on high alert. Making matters worse, there’s a large but dorky and quiet wolf who starts developing complicated feelings for a dwarf rabbit. 

From there the show becomes a genre-hopping and thrilling story about breaking free from expectations set upon you, a thrilling mystery that goes into the underworld of a fragile world where carnivores still have to fight against their predatory instinct but doing so is seen as taboo, and also a high-school drama with an unexpected romance. Comparisons to Disney’s Zootopia are expected, but you really haven’t seen anything quite like Beastars

What Makes It Great

CG animation often gets a bad reputation among fans of the medium. Like CG in general, shows animated digitally are often said to look artificial and weightless, which has the effect of taking you out of the story. Beastars is a rare exception. Where many traditional studios use 3D CG animation to cut corners when working under deadline, or to bring complex creatures and structures to life, Studio Orange uses 2D animation for complex closeup scenes, or for background characters that are either hard to make in 3D or simply aren’t that important to the story. Orange are the reigning kings of CG animation, as seen in their previous anime Land of the Lustrous. With Beastars, the studio manages to translate the visually inventive manga to the big screen without losing what made the original special. Facial expressions, fur, ears and tails bring the characters to life in ways you wouldn’t expect, and when we get a motion-heavy scene like a drama club theater production or a fully-fleshed fight scene, it feels more real than many live-action movies. 

The world of Beastars is an incredibly rich one, and the show excels at expanding and developing its strange reality. Each episode builds upon what we know with details as big or obvious as the Back Alley Market, which is like a red lights district but for carnivores openly buying meat, or a scene of the canine students trimming down their fur in the school yard before the summer, and as small as images of different-sized doors for the different species in the background. Like in the manga, the show often stakes a bit of time away from its main story to answer questions about its world like: what about chicken eggs? And that’s where Legom, a student hen who sells her eggs to the cafeteria to make money, comes into the fold. 

Then there’s the opening theme. I’ve talked a bit about anime opening theme songs before and how sometimes the darkest of anime can have the brightest of songs. And when it comes to Beastars, the opening is just as visually inventive and thrilling as the rest of the season, as ALI’s “Wild Side” plays to a beautifully-made stop-motion sequence that takes several U-turns from terrifying, to kind of sweet and moving, back to terrifying and bloody, setting up the stage for what’s to come. And the song is an absolute banger too, with a sound that recalls the iconic “Tank!” from Cowboy Bebop

What It Brings to the Conversation

Just like Beastars itself, its main characters are not what they seem at first. When we first meet Legoshi, he’s a big and intimidating wolf who is also incredibly socially awkward. Despite most students cowering in fear at the mere sight of him, Legoshi (named, of course, after horror legend Bela Lugosi) is an introvert that tries his best to follow society norms and be a good vegetarian instead of the big scary wolf everyone assumes he is. Unlike many anime protagonists of around the same age, what Legoshi says and things tend to be very different things, and when he does act on impulse it comes as a shock to the audience. 

Outside of Legoshi, the other central character is Haru, a dwarf rabbit with a reputation for being “easy,” which has made her the target of bullying not by carnivores, but other herbivores. Female students hate her while male students all seem to be obsessed with protecting her from the world, treating her as a fragile glass object.

The creator of Beastars, Itagaki Paru, the daughter of Baki creator Itagaki Keisuke, is interested in exploring the idea of innate nature. The show is fascinated with the idea of characters actively fighting against what society expects them to be, as well as what they think are their inner desires, like a lion mayor who removed his fangs and underwent plastic surgery to appear less threatening, or Legoshi outright denying his instincts because he doesn’t think of himself as a predator. Even Haru has a tragic and relatable backstory that makes her act a certain way to challenge what others may think of her just because she was born a poor little rabbit. When Legoshi starts becoming infatuated with Haru, the show asks whether it comes down to genuine romantic attraction or simple hunger for eating the small animal, and though the show doesn’t explicitly answer this, it’s exploration of that question is entertaining and thought-provoking. 

The allegories may get a bit muddled if you try to make them a 1:1 parallel to our world (at times the show seems to equate animal predation to sexual predation, and other times it’s literally the natural instinct to devour another animal). If taken at face value Beastars becomes a fascinating exploration of loneliness, trying to find your place in the world, and also about tackling expectations set upon you by the circumstances of your birth.  

Why Non-Anime Fans Should Check It Out

Even outside of the catchy opening song and the stunning animation, Beastars starts with a simple premise that evolves into so much more, plus the use of anthropomorphic animals gives the story a certain level of universality. As a murder-mystery, this first season is thrilling, as a world-building exercise it’s fascinating, and as a high-school drama with an unusual romance at the middle of it, it’s already a strong contender for best anime of the year.

***

Watch This If You Like: Zootopia, 13 Reasons Why, Riverdale, the soap-opera aspect of Twin Peaks.  

Beastars is now streaming on Netflix.

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