Story & Art by Paru Itagaki
Translation by Tomoko Kimura
English Adaptation by Annette Roman
Touch-Up Art & Lettering by Susan Daigle-Leach
Cover & Interior Design by Yukiko Whitley
Edited by Annette Roman
Beastars begins with a striking single-page sequence that perfectly embodies the themes and tensions of the series. On the very first page, we see the soon-to-be murdered alpaca man Tem slowly reacting to encroaching darkness. He shrinks away in the following panels until finally, in the last one, the gray and black lines overtake the entire panel, and he is nowhere to be found. While not solidly defined, the dark black splotches in these panels represent Tem’s murderer. In the first three panels we only really see his hand – in the first he appears to be pointing, and in the second, in response to Tem’s apologetic dismissal, his hand lowers in disappointment. In the third, he outstretches it in response to Tem leaving, and it takes the form of a claw. Finally, in the fourth, we can clearly identify the full silhouette of Tem’s pursuer. His rage communicated through the sharp, violent brushstrokes that indicate he’s furiously swung one of his claws, and we can clearly make out his fangs and other claw, as well as get a sense that he’s running – chasing – after Tem.
This sequence is entirely wordless, and yet it says everything you need to know what this series is about. It’s a tense scene between two friends, distance and uncertainty keeping them apart. It’s a scene where someone extends their hand, and when they refuse it, they are violently chased down in retaliation. It’s a scene where one person is desperately trying to hold their urges back, while another gives into fear. It’s a scene where two people are navigating a messy, emotional situation where they’re separated by their differences and not being able to understand the other. It’s the breakdown of the communication – the act of one person leaving the conversation – which causes things to become violent and leads to one side overwhelming the other. Beastars’s first volume stews in this uneasiness, exploring the necessity of understanding and the consequences of misunderstanding in the relationships between people, and the profound effect one interaction or a simple conversation between two people can have on their lives.
Paru Itagaki’s linework is very loose and inky – almost giving the sensation of being drawn with a ballpoint pen. There’s a sense of lankiness to her character designs, particularly her wolf-boy protagonist Legoshi, whose hunched, slender build characterizes him as unbalanced in both his weight and frame of mind. Despite the lively looseness of her lines, her character designs retain a solid sense of form and figure. Beastars’ greatest strength is the imaginative variety of anthropomorphic characters present in the series, ranging from more simplified caricatures to more realistic appearances. Itagaki’s makes every character design feel anatomically believable, even with characters who have absurd proportions thanks to their animal attributes, like the giraffe girl’s long neck or the elephant boy’s big head. Another striking asset of Beastars’ aesthetic is Itagaki’s muddy watercolors, which depict an air of dirtiness to the world and characters. There’s a sense that no one is clean, and everything in their lives is messy – the unevenness in the textures reflecting both the world and themselves.
Beastars’ art makes it a gripping, fascinating read from its first few pages alone. It’s an intense thriller right off the bat, dripping with tension as Tem races through an eerie, empty school building to seek shelter from his menacing, silhouetted stalker. The paneling is absolutely fantastic at conveying information while depicting the urgency and paranoia and pain of the situation, as Tem desperately is trying to make sense of what is happening, and why his former friend is trying to hurt him. Then, the series delivers a gut-punch of a line.
“You never… really thought of us as equals, did you? To carnivores like you… we’re just… food.”
This one sentence encapsulates the crux of Beastars’ theme and message. From the onset, Beastars posits that the solution to most conflicts lies in communication. What makes this difficult is that at the root cause of most conflicts, however, is based in inequality – which makes communication on mutual terms nearly impossible. Beastars examines how people otherize those different than themselves, not considering their humanity but thinking of them merely as tools to be used for their own purposes, or to use Beastars’s metaphor, food to be devoured for their own nourishment.
Beastars uses the tension between herbivores and carnivores as a multi-purpose metaphor to explore how much one’s race, ethnicity, class, or sex defines them as a person. Beastars will most likely remind many western readers of Disney’s 2016 film Zootopia, as both feature anthropomorphic animals classified into two distinct groups as a means to explore ideas of race and identity. While that film was lauded for its anti-racism messaging, it also demonstrates some of the pitfalls in using the relationships between animals as a metaphor for race relationships. Simply put, the distinction between a fox and a rabbit is very different than that between two humans of different races, because foxes and rabbits ARE different species, while all humans belong to the same one. Trying to make a parallel between a fox and a rabbit learning to get along despite the former being known for, in nature, trying to eat the latter isn’t really the same two people of different races befriending one another in spite of their prejudices. Zootopia’s contrast of predators and prey classifies one group as inherently having power and posing a danger to the other. The conflict between predators and prey in nature, which is based on survival and dietary necessities, is incomparable to that between racial groups, which is based on a history of systemic oppression and socio-economic motivations of exerting power and control. In nature, a rabbit being cautious of a fox is necessary for it to stay alive. That isn’t the same as racism – racism is not a natural construct nor is it necessary; it is learned behavior that is based on politically motivated ideas that are taught and perpetuated for the benefit of those who have to gain, socially and economically in the classist structure of a capitalist society, from prejudice.
Where Beastars differs is that the series doesn’t posit one to one parallels between herbivores and carnivores and specific discrimination towards other racial groups. This works to the manga’s favor, avoiding the pitfall of perpetuating racial essentialism when exploring the complicated, messy relationships between different social strata. What’s more, classifying the two groups as carnivores and herbivores provides a much more neutral observation of the relationship between them; simply asserting that one group does, in fact, eat meat and the other is primarily vegetarian. While Beastars does suggest carnivore characters murdering or intending to devour herbivore characters, this delineation allows more nuance in where the rift lies between the groups and prevents the carnivores from being characterized as having an inherent predatory relationship with the herbivores as with, well, the predators in Zootopia. Zootopia’s classification of characters either being predators or prey muddies the movie’s intended message of combating prejudice, because the very terms of “predator” and “prey” are loaded with the connotation that the former group are aggressors and the latter are victims – which is a whole lot of yikes if you’re trying to apply the movie’s message to modern-day racial politics in America. By avoiding specific parallels, Beastars allows its metaphors to be flexible and open to more nuanced intersectional interpretations.
So while the divide between herbivores and carnivores is made the most explicit, there are several other conflicts present between these groups. Jack is told not to associate with wolves and hyenas by his friend, despite them all being Canidae. Kai resents the rich and elitist members of the drama group like Louis, and those who’ve unfairly been promoted over him. The production and tech crew are considered to be weirdos and a lesser, subservient group to the actors’ pool. Mizuchi the harlequin rabbit considers herself “a lot more valuable” than a common dwarf rabbit because her species is endangered and she’s a pure-bred. Animals of different species are consistently stigmatized, whether it be a squirrel criticized for not being able to crack a nut or a goat being accused of eating their script because it’s made of paper. Casual assumptions stigmatizing entire groups of people are prevalent – whether it’s that goats are lazy or wolves are violent – and seemingly everyone seems to believe some sort of stereotype about how other groups of people are. These beliefs serve to designate an in-group/out-group sense of identity, wherein people are viewed by their differences and those with similar traits and strengths and valued above those who don’t have them. Consequently, people become segregated into a mix of classist, racial, sexist, and social cliques, which are based around the dehumanization and fear of “the other.” By centering its story around a diverse cast of animal characters, Beastars is able use exaggeration and metaphor to explore how the emphasis on people’s differences and the tendency to form in-group/out-group cliques serves to disharmonize and create conflict in a diverse society, even in a liberal culture mindful of accommodating each other’s needs.
Perhaps more than other social conflicts, Beastars seems particularly interested in exploring themes of sexism and sexual assault. This is presented as subtext early on; both Tem and Els’s encounters with carnivores have an undercurrent of being betrayed and assaulted by a trusted friend, and the metaphor of being eaten can often be used in a sexual context. Moreover, many elements of the first chapter feel like observations of rape culture, from the carnivores victim-blaming the herbivores for being cautious, to Els commenting on the way Legoshi was staring at her like she “were his prey,” to the Prosimian girl and other girls being protective of Els and wanting to walk home with her and check up on her to make sure she stays safe. Legoshi’s hunger for Haru is also stepped in the subtext of him exploring his sexual desires. The bodily connection during his and Haru’s embrace is emphasized, noting her heartbeat, warmth, the touch of her fur, and her smell among other things. These are described sensually, and the following conversation he has with his inner demon compelling him to give in to his urges screams of someone giving into sexual temptations. The hungry as horniness metaphor is prevalent throughout the book. Earlier, Els angrily cries out to Legoshi “But now you’re hungry and I’m just food to you?! Do you think my life is worthless?” and in the context of her being assaulted, it reads like a furious condemnation of rapists prioritizing their sexual desires over the humanity and well-being of their victims.
These themes are made much more explicit in Haru’s story, which is directly about how she has repeatedly been targeted by men who project their desires onto her, abuse her, and leave her to deal with the fallout. She becomes the target of a bullying campaign because the girlfriend of the man who sexually assaulted her blames her for leading him on, on top of already having classist disdain for her. While Haru puts up a strong front to depower the satisfaction her bullies can have in her suffering, she is emotionally drained by both her history of sexual assault and the sexism and social ostracization she faces on a daily basis. Tough she runs away when assaulted by Legoshi, she’s already mentally given up, ready to accept more abuse or even death because that’s been her daily reality for a long time. Haru’s story is a raw and brutal exploration of traumas women in particular face because of gendered social imbalances and the effect that has on someone’s sense of self-worth. The ways in which Beastars will continue to explore these particular themes and elaborate upon them will be something to take notice of in future volumes.
More broadly, I’d say Beastars is interested in observing how people’s self-identity becomes affected by being boxed into stereotypes. Legoshi, as the protagonist, serves as its focal case study; testing how someone whose personality contrasts society’s stigmas of him fights or gives in to them. Wolves are characterized as aggressive and violent, but Legoshi is a peaceful soul by nature: kind, thoughtful, and observant. Unfortunately, he’s socially awkward, and not very good at communicating and expressing himself, which causes people to misunderstand or mistrust him. He’s soft-spoken and gentle, melancholic but appreciative of life – best observed during a series of panels where he playfully watches a ladybug crawl on his hand. He prefers to not interact with people, and just watch them from afar. Only when he is invited to speak his opinion and join the group, or feels compelled by responsibility, does he engage in conversation and interact with other people. He notices his squirrel classmate was having trouble cracking a nut, so he helps them by breaking it himself. His tall and lanky appearance characterizes him as intimidating, and his awkward social behavior makes people uncomfortable – so people are cautious around him, already deciding in their mind that he’s dangerous and untrustworthy.
Rather than resent his social rejection like his mongoose peer Kai, Legoshi genuinely wants to understand how other people feel, and help other people feel more comfortable around him. In the scene where Legoshi shines the spotlight on Els, he’s trying to be comforting and helpful – turning on a light to help her see and commiserating over the loss over a mutual friend, as well as being honest about his intentions. However, he’s seemingly unaware of how he threatening he comes across, oblivious to his own strength and Els’ vulnerability. There’s a sense that Legoshi wants to understand people better because he doesn’t understand why they react so fearfully to him. He’s come to expect their mistrust and has given up on being accepted, but truly desires to communicate confidently with others. He’s internalized the dangerous stigma others have cast upon them, and these have translated into him having violent urges that conflict with his peaceful nature. It’s as if he wishes to discard the pain he’s suppressed and lash out, becoming the very monster people see him as. He’s conflicted about what kind of person he is and what kind of person he wants to be, and it looks like the manga will explore what conclusions he comes to as he better understands his own identity and learns to control his impulses.
While there remain many questions left to be answered about its world, Beastars is exceptionally skilled at weaving its world-building into the story in a seamless way. While the series doesn’t call attention to these details explicitly, it rewards readers who notice them by revealing more information about the world to stew on. There’s a particularly brilliant recurring background detail in the series where fliers around the school building provide some insight into the precautions this society has to take to accommodate different species with different needs living with each other. Like the large carnivore and herbivore students being required to help move the large mats after drama practice, or a note about how people shouldn’t run in the hallways because if two animals from different species collided with each other they could seriously get hurt. Some view these measures as unfair, like the carnivore students complaining about helping clean the herbivore students’ dorm, reflecting an in-group/out-group mentality people in this society have internalized. Both the need to communicate with and be considerate of different people is the crux of the conflict in the series, and create the rifts that form different factions of people. In this way, Beastars exaggerates and highlights the reality that an inclusive society must be considerate and accommodate the needs of all the very different people within it. Similarly, this exaggeration also calls attention to the schisms that arise because of different groups have specific priorities and require particular necessities at odds with those from other circles. The world of Beastars is as imperfect as our own, but its titular symbolic honor speaks to the dream of a world in which our differences are celebrated and not stigmatized.
Paru Itagaki considers Beastars to be “an animal manga that is a human drama,” and I’d definitely concur, because the manga’s aims at its core are wholly humanistic. Its anthropomorphic cast serves as exaggerated reflections of the differences between human beings, and the series seems keen to explore themes of racism, sexism, classism, diversity, inclusivity, sexuality, and conformity from an intersectional perspective. This first volume alone provides a lot of food for thought and plenty to analyze and contemplate, as should be evidenced by the length of this review (and I could easily have gone longer if I did a panel by panel analysis). It’s an exciting read for those looking for a manga actively engaging in a multi-layered social commentary. Most importantly, it’s a compelling character drama between young people trying to figure themselves out in a world that’s already dictated who they’re supposed to be and how they’re supposed to live. That, at its core, gives it a sort of universal appeal that I think anyone can latch onto. Beastars is a fascinating beast of a comic and a shining star that stands out in the manga world, and I enthusiastically recommend it to any open-minded fan of great comics.