BNA: Brand New Animal: A Racism Allegory That (Mostly) Worksby Kim Morrissy,
Warning: This article contains spoilers for all of BNA: Brand New Animal.
It's not appreciable from the first episode, but BNA: Brand New Animal is one of Studio Trigger's most serious works. The protagonist Michiru is a human girl who turns into a beastman due to mysterious circumstances. Because of the discrimination against beastmen in this world, she finds herself drawn to Anima City, a city that exists as a refuge for beastmen. Yet Anima City has its own fair share of problems that Michiru finds herself embroiled in, as she grapples with her conflicting feelings about her identity and place in the world.
The problems faced by beastmen in this anime are an allegory of real-life racism and genocide, to the extent that they can be too on the nose. Episode 2 has a scene with immigrant children in cages, while episode 8 has a character literally talk about their experience with the Holocaust. The show is not exactly subtle with its imagery.
This isn't the first time a Trigger work has dealt with social issues of this nature. Just last year, Promare told a story about a discriminated group called the Burnish, whose fire-wielding powers are feared and exploited by humans. But Promare's creative team has generally downplayed the social commentary of that film in interviews, saying it's meant to be escapism first and foremost.
On the other hand, BNA may be an entertainment work, but its social commentary is also front and center. Each episode focuses on a different aspect of beastman society, making it clear that it's a story that's just as much about the world as it is about the characters. It all builds up to a conclusion that emphasizes both the bonds and solidarity of a community, as well as the importance of personal choice and allowing people to be who they want to be.
As a racism allegory, BNA mostly works, and I think it's because the anime takes the time to create a society and a moral dilemma that's rooted in the day to day lives of the beastmen. Save for a brief part of the first and fourth episodes, BNA never leaves Anima City; almost all the characters you see are either beastmen or humans who have become beastmen.
Even without human characters present, it becomes evident through witnessing life in Anima City how marginalization has shaped the community's outlook and identity. Although there are festivals celebrating Beastman deity figures and culture, there are also ghettos and beastmen trafficking issues. Beastmen are particularly susceptible to a religious cult that appeals to their sense of tradition and their feelings of persecution. And boy, do they love their baseball.
Instead of becoming a blanket statement about the racism in our world, BNA is more about the plurality of beastman experiences. This is why I'm generally satisfied with how the last few episodes play out - they provide a new angle of looking at weighty issues like segregation and eugenics.
In episode 10, Alan Sylvasta - the only character who represents the human side of politics - tells Michiru and Shirou that too many beastmen gathered in one place will suffer from "Nirvasyl Syndrome," which causes their stress to boil over and rid them of their senses. Beastmen, as it turns out, aren't supposed to be segregated in one city - they're supposed to live freely across the world, and it's unfair to lump all of these different species with conflicting interests together. The albatross beastman Pinga talks about this idea in episode 7, when he says that he opposes beastmen as a whole living with the same rights and laws as humans because it destroys the migratory lifestyle of his kin.
Pinga's episode was poignant in illustrating the flaws of creating a city "just for beastmen," but as a dramatic device, the Nirvasyl Syndrome is an effective way of visually conveying the urgency of addressing serious problems in a society. A single spark can destroy the fragile veneer of peace built upon years of injustice.
BNA doesn't stop there - in the same breath that he explains the perils of Nirvasyl Syndrome, Alan Sylvasta offers a chilling and terrible plan of action: inject the beastmen with drugs that will turn them into humans. Thanks to politics and state-enforced borders, the beastmen are prevented from simply dispersing from Anima City. It's soon revealed that Alan is responsible for colluding with the Japanese government in order to make this situation happen. He has laid all the groundwork for a scenario where the only "solution" is to forcefully rid people of their identities.
Fortunately, Anima City does not choose eugenics as the answer. Instead, the crazed beastmen are soothed by the howls of the Silver Wolf, their traditional deity figure. And the drug they eventually develop with Michiru's blood soothes the symptoms of Nirvasyl Syndrome but doesn't turn anyone into a human. Instead, after the chaos has settled, Anima City decides to open itself up to the world and seek long-term solutions to discrimination with closer contact between humans and beastmen.
In the end, both Michiru and Shirou offer distinct paths forward for beastmen in their different but mutually compatible ways, although neither of them realize this at first. As the Silver Wolf, Shirou represents a unifying tradition among beastmen. Not only does he have symbolic importance among them, he also continues to fight on their behalves in the shadows. His anger at oppression is palpable and justified, especially because he has a long enough memory to know where it all started. Michiru, on the other hand, is a human girl who has become a beastman, and her existence shows that humans can learn to understand beastman perspectives. Ultimately, it's okay for there to be humans who have beastman qualities in them, and for beastmen to share blood with humans. The message of pro-multiculturalism and pro-interracial coupling feels like it has weight because so much of this anime is about Michiru discovering the rules of this society for herself and being accepted by the beastmen around her. Shirou takes a while to come around, but he gets there eventually.
I opened this article by saying that BNA mostly works as an allegory, but "mostly" is an operative word. The twist in the last episode that Alan Sylvasta is actually a "pure-blooded" Beastman himself who has been pulling the strings of discrimination for a thousand years was half-assed, no two ways about it. He's obsessed with pure blood, which still makes him an easy figure to hate, but he was already an effective villain when he was representing the Japanese government's stance of solving problems by pretending they don't exist. Making him a Beastman without any buildup or explanation adds needless complication to the story, and there are some who might even say that it undermines the theme of discrimination. (I personally wouldn't go that far, though - the humans are still culpable for their bigotry regardless of what was happening in the shadows.)
Also, the series is weaker when it transplants historical experiences of marginalized groups and applies them to beastmen with no context, like the aforementioned Holocaust reference which came out of fricking nowhere. Although it certainly communicates the point to viewers that race-based discrimination is a part of the anime's setting, it ultimately feels frivolous, like it's just a convenient shortcut to worldbuilding. It's much more interesting to see race issues spring out of the material conditions established in the setting, which I am glad that this anime does attempt to do, although it really could have done with more episodes to flesh out the setting further.
Finally, I have to mention that I have some general gripes about fantasy allegories of racism, because they often don't align with my personal experiences of belonging to a racial minority. I'm not going to relate to people with superpowers and think of them as marginalized in the exact same way as a real-life minority. At the same time, I don't necessarily need to see my own experience reflected in the story to appreciate that it is about how arbitrary divisions between people holds everyone back. BNA's portrayal of a city for beastman that is both liberating and a prison is compelling and nuanced enough that the social commentary comes through naturally. It's not a perfect show, but if you want an anime that explores issues of racism and discrimination intelligently through allegory, then this one fits the bill.
How do you feel about the themes and social commentary in BNA?
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