Let's face it: there's no way to talk about BNA: Brand New Animal without also talking about Beastars. Both came out in the U.S. within months of each other; both deal with anthropomorphic animals attempting to live in harmony and not always succeeding. But the two shows are only alike in the way a Mazda resembles an Aston Mini; they tell entirely different kinds of stories and to markedly different ends. Beastars had no humans, only animals, and so its story was one giant multifaceted allegory about race, power, sexuality, gender, conformism, and so much more. It was large, it contained multitudes. With BNA, there's not much of an allegorical aspect; what you see is pretty much what you get. But what you get is still pretty watchable.
Again, with Beastars, the world was all animals, all the time: not a human in the mix. BNA proposes a world where humanity has lived for aeons with "beastkind" in their midst — those who can shift between human and some human-hybrid animal for on demand, or when their emotions get the better of them. Prejudice and distrust in both directions make life difficult, but moreso for beastkind, as humans still run the whole shootin' match.
One such beast-person is Michiro, a teenaged girl who'd rather be shooting hoops and sharing earbuds with her friend Nazuna. She morphed into a raccoon-like creature one day, and took to the road to avoid capture. Her destination is "Anima City", an offshore freehold where beastkind are meant to live together without prejudice. The trip is perilous and costly: not only does she nearly get killed by humans who patrol the shore, she only makes it to the island by way of a profiteering mink-human who fleeces Michiru for most everything she's got.
Anima City isn't quite the paradise Michiru expected it to be, either. Despite the fun times had at the festival that's in full swing when she shows up, beastkind tend to be at each others' throats. And she's barely had time to have her wallet swiped by a pickpocket when she gets mixed up in what appears to be a terrorist bombing. To the rescue comes wolfman Shirō Ogami, a trenchcoated arm of the law whose shapeshifting powers come in a distant second to his ability to take multiple lickings and keep on ticking.
Nobody knows what to do with Michiru at first. They don't believe she was once human and now can't shift back out of her animal form; she has to jump through several flaming hoops to obtain proof of this. And while doing so, she discovers something ... actually, several somethings strange about her body. It transforms in ways that other animal bodies do not. At one point she's able to stretch her arms like Plastic Man; at other times, she sprouts wings, or cheetah-like legs. But these discoveries don't make her feel any more kinship with beastkind, who she sees as being even more flawed than humans (whether or not oppression and environment have anything to do with it). Her plan is to find a fix for what's wrong with her, turn back into human for keeps, then get the hell out of town.
The multi-headed plot hydra
This setup has the makings for a good story, and there is a good story in BNA, but it's been wrapped in a lot of plot and tied with a lot of plot threads — some of which snarl up the others. One major thread is Michiru and Shiro, who at first want little to do with each other but find in time they have common goals, or at least common adversaries. Based on the way they're thrown together at first, I kept thinking the story would eventually settle into a groove where the two of them work side-by-side on the beastkind-crimes beat. They sort of do, but only as one element among many.
The other two big elements involve Sylvasta Pharma, the big company whose largesse keeps Anima City afloat. This being a Studio Trigger project, a company like that has to be up to no good (as Kill La Kill and Promare had their share of malefactors in high places), and all doubt on my part was annihilated the moment the oleaginous head of the company Alan Sylvasta minced his way onscreen. His intentions are ostensibly good — he wants to help Michiru, you see, because everything that happened to her was a horrible accident, but this is anime and your gut feelings about someone do tend to be proven right by Act III.
That leads to the other major plot strand, arguably the most interesting of the bunch — although each strand tends to trade off between interest, successful execution, and relevance to the story's themes in about equal measure. It involves Nazuna, Michiru's bestie from the human world, who also suffered from the same kind of spontaneous transformation one day and was hustled off by men in black. She surfaces in Anima City as the incarnation of "Ginrō", the "Silver Wolf" of legend and over-deity to beast-kind. Is she really? No, not really — but it's the fulfillment-of-a-kind of her lifelong dream to be an idol (both the dancer-and-singer variety and the thing-of-worship variety). Disgusted as Michiru is with this, because of what it's done to someone she once called a friend, she can't deny there's power in it — the power to give beastkind something to unify them.
This for me was the most effective and interesting of the storylines, pitting what Michiru and Nazuna once were against what they have become and what they must now confront. I also liked the way the Bad Company plotline is given hints of a larger dimension: Sylvasta is, or so it claims, trying to save beastkind from itself, but at the cost of beastkind essentially ceasing to exist. These are all great ideas, but they're crowded out by so much of what else is going on, so they end up developing as tertiary concerns instead of actual drivers of the story, and turn out to be mostly red herrings anyway. I also disliked the way Shiro's mythic past is used in the story, because it seems at odds with everything else thematically. That his life is ruled by the grudges of antiquity feels less compelling than just awkwardly back-ended onto everything else. It plays out as merely another of many plot twists designed to make things complicated instead of deep.
Beastars vs. BNA
The more I thought about why Beastars and BNA feel so fundamentally unalike, the more I was able to put my finger on why the former has so much more payoff. I think the key difference is that while both shows have a lot of material and plot details about the mechanics of beastkind life, Beastars frames all that material in terms of its significance, both to us and the characters. What the mechanics mean adds up to far more than what specific story spins out from them. Here, the mechanics are the story, and while they don't amount to a bad story, they're just not quite as interesting a one.
The other key difference is in scope and focus. Beastars is focused on what happens now and what could happen in the future. The past exists not as a history to be run down in detail, but as an intractable force that exerts its pressures on everyone. BNA, again, goes into some mythological directions with the origins of beastkind, but instead of broadening the scope of the story, it dilutes it. Beastars's approach feels existential. BNA's just feels goofy.
I always like to give Studio Trigger projects a chance even when half the time they just remind me of how spotty their track record has been. Kill La Kill was terrific, and Little Witch Academia put a big smile on my face, but Kiznaiver was a limp biscuit and Promare felt like it needed a full series and not a movie. BNA is a good step, even if still something of a stumble. It's certainly more accessible than Beastars, and for some that's a plus: a few folks I know couldn't make it through Beastars because of how confrontatory it could be, but stuck with it and realized it had a lot of replay power. BNA is that much more watchable, but totally surface-level: if you've seen it once, you've seen it all.