The best thing about Beastars, easily the finest of Netflix's anime projects so far, is how they could have settled for far less, but didn't. On its face it looks like one big allegory: a private school populated by sapient animals, where in theory they will learn and create side-by-side, the better to transcend the constraints of their biologies. All this could have been a superficial palette-swap of any number of other stories about school life or social rivalry. But it comes off as far more than that — it's actually about important things instead of just stirring them in as plot elements; and it's that rarest of breeds, a truly adult show.
Are we not men? (Actually, no, we're animals. Deal)
Beastars posits a world much like ours, with one key difference: where there were humans, there now are anthropomorphized animals of every imaginable species. Herbivores and carnivores make an effort to live in harmony, both sides knowing full well the only thing that keeps the latter from sinking fangs into one of the former is social norms backed by the threat of violence. Under all the good intentions, the biological imperatives remain.
Here and there, though, are places where the ideal comes close to being realized, like Cherryton Academy, a private school where predators and prey live and learn side-by-side, finding ways to coexist aside from their baser natures. Among them is Legoshi, a wolf with a most un-wolf-like mien: gangly physique, haunted eyes, wallflower personality, and all instincts for violence and predation on the tightest possible leash. In human terms — and let's face it, most every aspect of the story begs to be cross-interpreted in human terms — he'd be the quiet, shy kid who gets sneeringly called "gay". He means no harm; he just doesn't know what he wants from life, or how his tamed instincts are supposed to fit into this world.
One night his instincts give way, and he almost preys upon a fellow student: Haru, a white rabbit, and a fellow ... I was going to say black sheep, but maybe better to say the exact term: social outcast. Her classmates despise her for her promiscuity — especially the dalliance she has with Louis, the haughty deer who's head of the drama club — but also for the way she dishes out as good as she gets. Even when having her furnishings heaved out of her dorm window, or when she's tripped and lands face-down in the dirt, Haru never shows tears to her tormentors. Her promiscuity is her way of asserting herself in the face of a world where she runs a risk merely by existing, but it's also a slap back at everyone who despises her on principle: I'll sleep with whomever I damn well please, how about you?
We in the audience see how Haru and Legoshi are in fact well suited to each other. They both live in defiance of what's around them, even if that defiance manifests in totally dissimilar ways. But the show has no naïve idealism about these two. Everyone around them who has some inkling of what's going on is either skeptical (carnivores and herbivores never end well together), or outright contemptuous. And Legoshi and Haru themselves are uneasy about where their hearts are leading them. It's one thing to say love is blind and another thing entirely to deal with the fact that your potential lover could derive as much pleasure from devouring you as anything else.
Not to spill blood; that is the law
The most immediately satisfying thing about Beastars is how it doesn't just rely on the concept alone to carry the weight. Once we get the idea, it wastes no time diving deeper and finding storytelling and worldbuilding to go hand in hand. It shows us, for instance, how the Utopian flavor of the school stands in very stark contrast to the rest of the world, where underground markets deal herbivore meat to well-heeled carnivores. We can see how Legoshi, unmasculine and reticent, is ill-suited to face such darkness. But what about the likes of Louis? What if he's better equipped to deal with such things because he's a refugee from such an underground market, and this all the more motivated to fight back if such forces intrude on their lives?
With most every episode the show presents parallels of one kind or another between the beasts and our world, but the parallels aren't just set up and left running — e.g., the "Jews as mice, Nazis as cats" algebra in Art Spiegelman's work. They're fluid. The carnivore animals and the herbivore animals, for instance, do not map conveniently to any one particular set of human in- and out-groups. They stand in for the in- and out-group-ness of humans generally, and so the metaphor is more powerful and plastic without ever becoming dilute. What works in some lights as a metaphor for the asymmetries between the sexes works in other lights as a metaphor for the power imbalances in the rest of society — and since the asymmetries between the sexes is a power imbalance, the metaphor works even more.
What's best about all this thematic stuff is how organically it comes through. The surface story — about Legoshi and Haru, about the tensions between them and the rest of the student body — is well-told and -constructed all by itself, so there's never the feeling the show's making up for lack of actual ideas about its characters by trying to be self-consciously about Bigger Things. At one point Legoshi finds he's the target of affection by an underclassman, a female wolf named Juno, who goes starry-eyed for him at first glance, but for whom he feels at best only a physical attraction. There's no there there.
But Legoshi also doesn't want to ruin Louis and Haru's relationship (if only because he doesn't want Louis making his life miserable, as only someone that popular and top-of-the-class is capable of), and so is torn between doing the "right" thing — dating his own species — and doing the thing that will actually make him happy for once. It also doesn't help that he's surrounded by temptations to do the very wrong thing, as when a fellow student, a tiger, gets a high from some illegally obtained herbivore blood and tries to make Legoshi complicit with him.
The best of instincts
Some works, and some creators, seem blessed with good instincts: they step correctly from the start and never step wrong. Beastars, derived from the manga by Paru Itagaki, is most likely as good as it is because the source material was, too, and that means the promised future season of the material is likely to be as satisfying. I look forward to it, because the show has barely scratched its own surface.
The one place where the show has stepped wrong so far, I think, is less of a misstep the more I think about it. It's the climax to the first season, spaced out over a few episodes, where Haru is kidnapped by a gang of tiger yakuza who want to dine on her flesh, and Legoshi (and a crossbow-wielding panda he met earlier) go into their lair to save her. At first I balked, and for two reasons: one, it felt like we were being given an action-movie climax to a story that didn't seem in that vein; two, it put Haru in the position of a helpless damsel to be rescued.
But the show surprised me in both cases. With the first issue, it used the possibility of violence as a way for Legoshi to come to terms with that side of himself — it's not that one has the capacity for violence, but how one disciplines and directs that capacity that matters. It also avoids the meathead sociology of stories like Straw Dogs, where demasculinized men rediscover their manhood by learning how to kill in defense of, or competition for, a woman.
With the second, there's a whole extended set of sequences after she and Legoshi escape and have to spend the night in a hotel before they can catch the next train home. The show uses those scenes to take the hoary "sex as a reward" cliché and turn it inside out to show how the power balances that exist between Legoshi and Haru have multiple and mutable dimensions. What could have been a cop-out of a capper to the season turns into one of the most intelligent and sensitive things I've seen in anime in a long time.
Here is a question I've been turning over in my mind since I started writing this piece. Would the kind of audience that's drawn to a show like this to begin with need it? Isn't stuff like this just preaching to the choir? I've never been convinced this is a useful way to talk about any work of art or entertainment, since all entertainment is also art whether or not we're aware of it or even like it.
But even outside of that, I think the show has a lot to offer even people for whom the message would seem redundant — not least of all because a fiction constructed from the closely observed behavior of people we are fascinated by is never redundant. Just because someone has refined taste doesn't mean they have a good heart, so we need good-hearted things that also appeal to refined tastes. A show like this makes the kind of cases I wish I saw made more often in entertainments — that biology may be a physical reality, but it isn't social destiny, and that we get only as good a society as we demand from our fellow humans. And it all comes by way of a story that's a grabber and a keeper.
There are times when I feel like anime is a spent medium, where all that was once intriguing about it has slipped the leash and gone elsewhere, and it exists mainly to sell minor variations of the same things to the same self-selecting audience. Then I see something like Beastars and am happy to be proven wrong.