How Similar is Beastars to Zootopia, Really?

by ZeroReq011,

As more and more people watch, come to like, and recommend BEASTARS, many have ended up comparing it to Disney's Zootopia. It's hard to blame them for this connection. BEASTARS and Zootopia are both stories about talking animals in a society, and in general, short comparisons are just simpler to put together than whole summaries or synopses. Zootopia has enjoyed popularity ever since its release in theaters, enough popularity that even if most people haven't watched it themselves, they'll probably know something about the movie. Like Harry Potter, critics of Zootopia have pointed at certain story elements as being shorthand for addressing real life social issues.

Arguments have sprung since BEASTARS' debut as to which animated tale about animals in a society is better or deeper than the other. I'm not really interested in that discussion. Instead, I'm more interested in the differences in how both these stories use their animals in a society, in how those differences ultimately end up making BEASTARS and Zootopia apples and oranges. They are stories with similar settings, but fundamentally different themes.

Talking Animals as Allegory

But before we discuss these two works, let's first talk about the use of animals in animated storytelling. Why are talking animals so prolific in cartoons? To start off with, young kids like animals. Western animation remains largely targeted at family audiences. It's no small wonder that American cartoons, and Disney ones in particular like The Lion King, feature so many instances of talking animals in their features. Zootopia is no exception to this trend in family-friendly media, with kid-targeted Japanese anime starring talking animals too, such as Kimba the White Lion. BEASTARS is primarily targeted toward teenagers, however, and it features graphic violence and sexual imagery. Zootopia has been highly praised by adults for including humor and themes that still relate to their generation despite its kid friendly rating. Zootopia has jokes about sloths running the DMV and themes of prejudice against minorities.

Both BEASTARS and Zootopia feature themes that would be difficult for your average grade schooler to understand, themes that leverage its animal society setting to communicate a more complex message. That leads me to the next reason for talking animals: allegory. Storytellers can use talking animals as allegory for their human audiences. The way storytellers do this can be broken down into a spectrum, with two poles on either end. One pole (let's call it the human pole) treats the animals as effectively humans who, save for the skins they inhabit, think and behave just like normal people. The other (animal) pole treats the animals as basically animals, from how they think to how they act, with the exception that they can talk. Speech is kept as a constant in talking animal stories so that its characters can achieve a minimum amount of relatability with audiences. Other than that, talking animals can find themselves placed in any section of this spectrum.

On the human-animal spectrum, I'd place Zootopia closer to the human pole and BEASTARS closer to the animal pole. Accordingly, Zootopia leans harder into allegory more than BEASTARS.

These placements make the difference in where BEASTARS and Zootopia's themes diverge. How deeply talking animal stories lean into how allegorically comparable talking animals are to human audiences is key. One simple function of the talking animal allegory is that it can make certain messages more receptive to people who would otherwise react with hostility or ignore them altogether. Sharing that function with fantasy and sci-fi, talking animals provide morality conscious storytellers with an avenue for providing creatively biting commentary on controversial issues, issues such as prejudice in general and racism in particular. A more complex function of the talking animal allegory is that it can highlight and play with how single-mindedly bestial its characters are vis-a-vis their real life human counterparts. Philosophers have contrasted the standing of humans to animals for millennia — typically as humans placing higher in rank and animals lower because of their inability to exercise "civility": a lack of free will, an inability to reason, etc.

Zootopia leans harder into the human comparison compared to BEASTARS with its more animalistic cast, justifying their closer placements on the spectrum to the human and animal poles, respectively.

Similar Settings: Predator and Prey

Now let's talk more directly about BEASTARS and Zootopia, starting with their settings. There will be spoilers for both BEASTARS and Zootopia, so please beware. In addition to basing their narratives around talking animals in a society, both BEASTARS and Zootopia utilize another common trope in talking animal stories: carnivore/predator and herbivore/prey living together. Both stories have a pre-established history of carnivores predating on herbivore prey. Both stories feature carnivores as the minority of the population and herbivores as the majority.

Zootopia is the story of a diligent, aspiring bunny cop named Judy and a sly huckster con-artist fox named Nick. With dreams of making it as a respectable cop doing important police work to protect the community, Judy slams into a prejudicial reality of her larger animals colleagues. She's dismissed for her diminutive size and assigned to the menial labor of a meter maid. As a child with hopes of being inducted as a respectable member of the boy scouts, Nick is muzzled by the homogeneously herbivore membership of the troop. He's taunted for thinking he'll ever be accepted by respectable folk like them, causing him to believe henceforth that the only way he'll make a decent living at all in this prejudicial reality is to become a dishonorable grifter. Society does both Judy and Nick dirty by judging them for what they were born and dismissing their individual potentials and merits. They both decide to work together to overcome these prejudicial impediments whilst solving an ongoing case of carnivores going berserk, with Nick helping Judy into being taken seriously as a cop and Judy suggesting to Nick he could join the police like her when everything's done.

Their bond nearly falls apart when Judy lets slip her own casual prejudices toward carnivores in a public statement, stating pseudo-scientifically that the case of carnivores going berserk may have something to do with their genetics, way back when integrated animal society had yet to be a thing and carnivores did hunt herbivores for food by instinct. Judy's casual prejudice is suggested to be informed by an childhood experience of being nearly mauled by a ill-tempered carnivore neighbor, a neighbor who's since regretted it all and has reformed when she next meets him. Combined with her discovery that plant toxins can turn any animal berserk if forcibly injected, she rushes back and makes up with Nick for her bigoted remarks. They come together once again to put a definitive close to the crazed carnivore case, eventually discovering the mastermind. The villain is revealed as the assistant mayor-turned-head-mayor and herbivore supremacist. She's been using a combination of her image as a harmless meek sheep, the agitation-inducing toxins, and Judy's unfortunate statement to acquire political power and marginalize carnivores.

BEASTARS is a story of many characters, but its most prominent are a kind-hearted but self-deprecating grey wolf named Legosi and a self-deprecating yet free-spirited dwarf rabbit named Haru. They have two types of first encounters that establish the tension and conflict that define their relationship for the rest of the series. In the first, Legosi nearly eats Haru. In the second, he falls in love with her. Normally a soul who takes great pains to not even accidentally hurt beetles, Legosi suffers from a condition that most carnivores share: namely, a powerful and sometimes overpowering craving for meat that's baked into his genes. Used to herbivores giving him a wide berth as one of the alpha predators of the animal kingdom, Legosi is taken aback and becomes lovestruck when the rabbit he nearly ate cordially invites him into her company and hangs out with him, with neither pretension nor aversion. Used to living with constant reminders of danger as one of the animal kingdom's weakest herbivores, Haru invites and encourages a relationship with her canine attacker, having already resigned herself to being eaten someday.

Legosi and Haru's relationship is one built on a sense of mutual respect for each other's characters, respect that both face doubt over due to constant reminders of their antagonistic status as predator and prey. Even if it's due deep down to her death-resigned complex, Haru takes extra pains to make sure Legosi's carnivore status doesn't affect the way she interacts with him. Because of her efforts to not judge him, Legosi falls for her and takes extra pains to keep himself from appearing like a threatening predator. The feelings that grow from that respect are complicated by their primal impulses as carnivores and herbivores. The sincerity of Legosi's feelings are challenged over the series by suggestions that those feelings are being confused with his genetic predatory desire to eat Haru. He attacked Haru in a predatory fit shortly before getting to know her, and he has caught himself before claiming ownership of her as his prey. The sincerity of Haru's feelings also face challenge, as she finds herself instinctually climbing into Legosi's maw at one point. It's framed as the primal drive of prey to be consumed, a drive that compounds her already low regard for her life's value.

The Civilized Human Pole of Zootopia

In Zootopia, its talking animals are closer to humans wearing animal skins. The movie falls on the spectrum closest to the human pole. From this set-up, Zootopia uses its talking animals to communicate an allegorically universalist message: Zootopia is about prejudice, and that prejudice is objectively unfounded and wrong-headed. The way Zootopia chooses to portray its predator-prey dynamic is a reference to the language employed when comparing majority-minority relations in countries such as the U.S. In the U.S., a widespread prejudice exists of racial and ethnic minority peoples. These prejudices include beliefs that African and Latino Americans are naturally more predisposed to committing violent crime compared to White Americans. "Superpredator," a term coined in the 1990s to describe the prediction of rising potential for violent crime committed by youths, has since become a dog whistle to demonize minority adolescents and young adults and become the basis of many "Tough on Crime" policies that would disproportionately impact minority communities for the worse.

The conflation of minority-predator genetics with more crime in Zootopia references a long and regrettable history of use of pseudo-scientific discourse to justify prejudicial attitudes and public policy toward minorities. Two of the biggest criminals in the movie, the Godfather-style arctic shrew mob boss and the sheep prey-supremacist, are both herbivorous animals. Nick's activities of petty swindling seems tame by comparison, and the reasons he gives for why he turns to petty crime in the first place match a phenomenon sociologists have dubbed the "Self-fulfilling Prophecy." Nick from a young age was treated as a criminal-in-the-making by the herbivores that dominate his society because of his carnivorous origins. Having been told he will never make a respectable living no matter what he does, Nick comes to believe he has little recourse but to give in to bigoted expectations and turn to crime to make a living at all. In lieu of prejudicial pseudo-scientific explanations, the self-fulfilling prophecy has been used as one alternative explanation for the relatively high rate of young minority members falling into crime compared to their majority White American counterparts.

The Bestial Animal Pole of BEASTARS

In BEASTARS, its talking animals are closer to animals that possess human-like intelligence. The show falls on the spectrum closest to the animal pole. From this set-up, BEASTARS uses its talking animals to communicate a more in-universe message: BEASTARS features prejudice, and that prejudice is justified to a degree. That prejudice is based on the fact that carnivores have a genetic craving for meat that they struggle controlling it and it at times overwhelms them. Predation attacks against herbivores persist despite the prevalence of alternatives to meat that more than fulfill the nutritional needs of carnivores and the strict penalties met by the government on those who it catches in acts of predation. An entire back alley economy exists to provide carnivores of all walks with meat, and many of society's more respectable carnivores lead double lives working alongside herbivores whilst consuming black market herbivore meat in secret. Many carnivores do go through their lives managing their urges better than others, but that real danger persists to give the prejudice they face from herbivores some (if not complete) credibility.

This genetically autonomic dynamic of predator-prey that persist among carnivores is a scientifically established fact in the BEASTARS universe, a fact that has no close bearing to any real life human experience. Racial and ethnic minorities do not have an ingrained tendency for violence and crime like how carnivores have a programmed impulse to kill and eat herbivores. The dissonance between worldbuilding and reality doesn't make all connections between the talking animals and human audiences of BEASTARS completely inapplicable. It does, however, make BEASTARS' sweeping conclusions about real life social issues like racism and majority-minority relations suspect. Unlike Zootopia's characters, BEASTARS cast are not animal stand-ins for humans dealing with allegorically human issues. They are animals that talk and also have to deal with animal-unique issues.

Different Themes and Better Comparisons

On a superficial basis, BEASTARS and Zootopia have their similarities. Their narratives are both grounded in talking animals in a society, and the hopes for and tensions that arise from carnivores and herbivores living and working together as neighbors. They both feature and comment on prejudice. They feature characters trying to navigate a society defined by prejudice. But whereas Zootopia is about how prejudice is objectively wrongheaded in its universe, BEASTARS offers some justification for prejudice in its world. Zootopia's characters have evolved from their savage genetic roots due to the civilization of their society. BEASTARS characters retain their congenital bestial instincts despite their society's civilized trappings. This distinction doesn't necessarily make one franchise more compelling or problematic over the other. Neither animated work is trying to be the same kind of allegory. Zootopia is a movie that invites one-on-one comparisons between its talking animal characters and real human experience so as to communicate an unambiguously progressive moral. BEASTARS is a show that's about its talking animal characters struggling with genetic predispositions that have little comparable basis in real human experience.

On a fundamental level, BEASTARS has more in common with anime like Sankarea and Kara no Kyoukai than Zootopia, anime that don't feature talking animals at all. Sankarea is about a zombie girl, and Kara no Kyoukai is about a fighting girl. What these characters have in common essentially with Beastar's wolf boy is the struggle with single-mindedly destructive, bestial impulses they were created with. Much like how Legosi was born as a carnivore and struggles with his genetically predatory instincts, Rea Sanka from Sankarea struggles against degrading into a mindless flesh-eating zombie, and Shiki Ryougi from Kara no Kyoukai struggles against giving into her congenital predisposition as a killer. All three have love interests, and all three, to different degrees, struggle with not confusing them as fodder for their destructive perversions.

Veiled anime recommendations aside, what are your thoughts on BEASTARS and Zootopia?

Social Scientist & History Buff. Dabbles in Creative Writing & Anime Criticism. Consider following him at @zeroreq011


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