BEASTARS, Volume 4
Translated by Tomoko Kimura
Edited & English Adaptation by Annette Roman
Touch-Up Art & Lettering by Susan Daigle-Leach
Cover & Interior Design by Yukiko Whitley
BEASTARS’ world evolves with each volume to unearth more of the depth and darkness lurking behind the fragile peace of its tumultuous society. With every revelation, the conflict between carnivores and herbivores distances itself from real-world comparisons and makes any such definitive commentary untenable. The divide is truly a beast of its own, and Itagaki explores this fictional class struggle through a complicated intersectional lens that takes into account an incredible number of factions and perspectives. Her socio-political insights are deft and incisive, and while it’d be folly to box BEASTARS’ messages into neat and tidy boxes, it is still very much informed by Itagaki’s observations and musings on real-world social issues. As such, BEASTARS has its cake and eats its too as it can explore its fictional conflicts without the baggage of direct real-world references while still explore its intersectional themes in a thoughtful and provocative manner.
Perhaps the most direct metaphors are found in the series’ exploration of the intersection of race and sex, which are really brought front-and-center in this volume. The social taboos revolving around interspecies sex and marriage bring to mind uncomfortable phobias against interracial relationships, especially with this society’s obsession of leaving behind “purebred offspring.” The idea that interspecies couples only stay together until graduation is also reminiscent of “gay until graduation” tropes in a lot of yuri and BL manga, though the series hasn’t introduced any explicitly queer characters as of yet. Regardless, BEASTARS presents us with a sexually and socially repressed society obsessed with keeping different species apart. “Separate but equal” is the unspoken law of the land that everyone must conform to, and straying from one’s caste is strictly frowned upon. It’s this ideology that makes Louis comfortable having sex with a rabbit, but laughing off the thought of loving or marrying one. It’s what makes everyone instantly react with discomfort or derision to the thought of Legoshi being sexually attracted to or romantically interested in a rabbit. Co-existence is tolerated, but the intermixing of communities is considered an aberration of the status quo.
The love square between Legoshi, Haru, Louis, and Juno is a fascinating exploration of this conflict between community and conformity; the former two yearn to break the barriers around interspecies love, and the latter two desire to find love within social mores. The dichotomy between Louis and Legoshi is particularly integral to the series’ exploration of how emotional repression can elicit toxic behavior in response. Louis clearly has feelings for Haru, but doesn’t act upon them because of his orderly beliefs. Rather, he tries to push Legoshi away from entering a relationship with her by pushing the idea that he should be together with a gray wolf like Juno instead. Louis is so obsessed with reputation and obtaining a position of power in society that he’s unable to show vulnerability or be true to himself, and resents Legoshi’s disregard for decorum and willingness to explore. Consequently, Louis puts down and discriminates against other people out of this resentment, leveraging the power he has to reinforce a status quo he’s comfortable with. Meanwhile, in spite of other people discouraging him from acting upon his feelings for Haru, Legoshi finds himself acting out in awkward ways in response to his emotional suppression. He realizes that the healthy thing for him, emotionally, is to be true to his heart and confess his feelings. Legoshi allows himself to be more honest and vulnerable than Louis, and consequently, he matures more emotionally in spite of the latter’s gentlemanly facade.
Another metaphor explored in this volume is the relationship between predator and prey in the context of sexual violence. There’s a specific conversation in which Legoshi mansplains to Haru that he doesn’t think she should be so sexually active, and an annoyed Haru derides him for not knowing what it’s like to be a prey animal, always in danger of being violently assaulted or killed. The metaphor is consistently reinforced in the dynamic between Legoshi and Haru and in the ways he makes her uncomfortable. This reading also recontextualizes Legoshi’s attack on Haru in the first volume as akin to a sexual assault, which makes the relationship between them doubly complicated in terms of exploring Haru’s trauma and Legoshi’s repentance.
Of course, in BEASTARS’ world, Haru is doubly vulnerable as both a woman and prey animal, which is where an intersectional element of the series’ exploration of race and sexuality comes in. While a gray wolf like Juno is still a victim of sexism and discrimination, she also has certain advantages in the form of physical power than a small rabbit like Haru doesn’t have, and is easily able to pin down a male of her size like Louis. This moment really cements that power dynamics in this world are complicated by different factors of race, class, and gender much like our own, but even more stratified because of how much more extreme these differences are. These examples show that while BEASTARS’ story provides a lot of situations that reflect on some real-world realities, the nuances of privilege and disenfranchisement between different groups are even more complicated in its world, which makes it really fascinating to dissect its social commentary in different contexts.
While the series spends much of this volume exploring the intersection of race and sex, it really brings Louis to the forefront in its exploration of class and power dynamics. We learn that Louis was once a victim of child trafficking, raised like cattle for carnivores to buy and eat alive in the Black Market. Louis was rescued from this fate by Ogma, an adult deer who runs a business conglomerate, rewarding the traffickers with a “generous donation” in exchange. This story is very revealing about the actual state of BEASTARS’ society and the reality of who holds power in this world; namely, rich socialites. It’s evident that while The Black Market’s existence is frowned upon, it’s not forbidden. In fact, it seems to be an essential part of preserving the peace and the power structures of this society. Ogma is unconcerned about the wellbeing of the other herbivore children, and in fact funds the traffickers selling them. We saw previously that poor herbivores are forced to sell their flesh to The Black Market to make ends meet as well, which emphasizes the sobering truth about BEASTARS’ world; equality is an empty promise, offered only to those able to buy it. We learn in this volume that the status of Beastar itself is coveted by different groups to push their social status above others. If anything, the diversity in BEASTARS’ world is resented, celebrated only as a means of placating and controlling different groups in this society, with no interest from those in power to actually work towards genuine equality. How Legoshi or Louis may challenge the power structures that perpetuate inequality will be fascinating to explore as they continue to confront the ugly violence and animosity casting a dark shadow over their daily lives.
BEASTARS explores so much and yet continues to masterfully juggle different tones and seamlessly blend them all together thanks to Itagaki’s beautiful artwork. The way she can shift from the dramatic to the goofy is simply flawless. Her particular bug-eyed reaction poses for characters when they are taken off guard or shocked, and generally simplified or goofy expressions, are always very endearing. There are some particularly meme-worthy poses in this volume that I recognized and appreciated, namely Louis’ stance and pouting at Juno’s popularity. The stand-out piece of art in this volume, however, is definitely Legoshi admitting to himself that he likes Haru. For such an important moment of self-actualization, Itagaki depicts it very ominously and violently, with Legoshi licking up the blood-like red paint from his claws as it drips down his fangs. All while giving a menacing, determined look. It’s an image that perfectly describes the complicated nature of Legoshi’s feelings and reflects the dichotomies that lurk within BEASTARS’ world through the contrast of sentiment and sensation. BEASTARS is a fascinatingly drawn tale that’s fully realized both narratively and artistically, and with every new volume, I find myself increasingly immersed in the going-ons of its wild world.