A Centaur's Life Episodes 1-2
by Gabriella Ekens,
How would you rate episode 1 of
Centaur's Life ?
How would you rate episode 2 of
Centaur's Life ?
Though it's based on a manga, A Centaur's Life is the latest in a minor phenomenon that's popped up over the past few years: monster girl anime. While the genre's popularity never quite lived up to the hype promised by its inaugural entry, Monster Musume: Everyday Life with Monster Girls, the times when it has popped up (Interviews with Monster Girls, Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid) have marked some of the more well-regarded slice-of-life fanservice anime in recent memory. Regardless of whether you're into the titties or not, there's just something fun about watching beastly babes – who may have the back end of a horse, a snake, or a spider – try to navigate our human-sized world. With all this in mind, it's no surprise to me that these shows have grown progressively more anthropological as time went on.
This season's offering, A Centaur's Life, represents the culmination of this trend so far. Right off the bat, this show distinguishes itself through the special attention it pays to worldbuilding. That's not to say that hasn't always been a part of these shows – Interviews with Monster Girls emphasized the everyday struggles of its demi-humans, and even Monster Musume broached important questions like “how does a snake wear underpants?” A Centaur's Life, however, is the first I've seen to get into the geopolitical situation of a world populated by fauns, angels, and merfolk. The show is quick to establish that there are no regular humans in this world, but that a history similar to our own still occurred with various types of demi-humans standing in for different races. From what I can gather, there are winged humanoids where Europeans should be, fauns in Africa, and centaurs in continental Asia. (I'm still not sure whether the merfolk are supposed to be represent any one group in particular, while the Antarctic snake people also seem to be doing their own thing entirely.) In olden times, these races conquered and exploited one another, but that doesn't matter any more since society has moved past discrimination and everyone is equal now, yessiree.
At least, that's what the teacher says under the careful gaze of those ominous men in suits. I'll quit burying the lede – the show clearly wants us to think that there's something fishy with this world, which is otherwise quite utopian. Have all differences truly been overcome? And what's with all the armed patrols running around? It's this potential thoughtfulness that could make A Centaur's Life unique among monster girl shows. While Interviews and Musume did touch on discrimination sometimes, they tended to do so in singular instances of cruelty, not addressing the big systemic issues that would matter most in real life. A Centaur's Life just might be doing that. Now I don't think that this is building up to a cheesy reveal like “the government is secretly killing centaurs to make glue” or something like that. It's probably going for something more subtle about how the government's professed (to the point of authoritarianism maybe) commitment to equality obscures the fact that equality hasn't been achieved at all.
That's illustrated a few times over the course of these two episodes. First, the enforced unwillingness to talk openly about how our centaur protagonist, Hime ,differs from her classmates (for example, she has a horse for a butt) almost ends in disaster when they fail to properly accommodate for her in the school play. Later, some legged folks bully a mermaid for dating one of “their” kind. This mermaid also bemoans how much it costs to buy a mechanical walking device, bringing financial inequality into the mix. Clearly, fishy stuff is still up in this world, no matter how much the guys in suits may insist otherwise. A few other pointed comments (“if people just had different skin colors, it's unlikely that there'd be serious discrimination” – oh, if only) solidly mark this show as a satire of real-world discrimination. It's not purely a racial metaphor either – there's a lot of disability stuff mixed into the discussion, and I'm sure that the uncomplicated existence of a lesbian couple (alongside whatever's going on between Hime and Nozomi) is meant to raise some eyebrows.
A Centaur's Life is treading on some sensitive topics, and while it hasn't done anything to make me wary yet, I'll be waiting to see where it goes with all this. I'll also try to be careful about how I talk about some of this stuff, since there's an additional challenge in this being a Japanese work. Now I'm not Japanese, but I know enough to say that discrimination discourse operates pretty differently there from how it does in the West. Some stuff will probably go over my head, but I'll try my best considering what I know about Japanese culture, as well as my own experience with these topics. There's been a push for awareness in anime and manga about disabilities lately (A Silent Voice being the most prominent example), and I'm fairly familiar with the (also increasing) portrayals of LGBT life in anime. That's my context going into the show.
Of course, this is a lot of discourse and disclaimer for something that's a fairly small part of the show so far. Otherwise, it's mostly been Hime-and-friends' slice-of-life adventures, which are all solidly adorable. Hime lives up to her name ("princess") as a kind, gentle, and slightly ditzy young lady. She and her friends have great chemistry – the show reminds me a bit of Please tell me! Galko-chan in terms of natural girl talk, although it's not quite that filthy. For yuri fans out there, the show seems to be genuinely gay in context and not all that salacious about it. Nozomi has a pretty obvious crush on Hime, and there's a nondescript lesbian couple in the secondary cast as well. Unlike similar shows, there isn't even a passive dude protagonist who exists to stand in for the presumed male audience! While female anime fans, in my experience, have generally liked monster girl stuff more than most other fanservice shows for boys, this is the first one that seems to actually be intended for a more general audience.
Really, my only qualm with A Centaur's Life so far is the production work. This is a Chinese co-production, a type of anime with no track record for looking at all decent. This show's first episode – which should be among the best from a production standpoint – is already pretty janky. Background characters are universally off-model, and even the close-ups look rough. They're doing this weird loose-edged thing with the character designs that makes them always look a little scrambled even when they do manage to be on-model. I see shows do this with the linework sometimes and don't know how to describe it better, but it looks bad. I'm sure it doesn't help that these poor animators have to draw lots and lots of horses, one of the most difficult animals to render anatomically in motion. Maybe that's why we don't get more of these monster shows? Folks just don't want to animate Rachnera's truck-sized spider butt.
Anyway, I half expect this production to fall apart midway through. I'll give them points for achieving even close to this level of consistency most of the way through. (Folks who've seen Bloodivores or Hitori no Shita: the Outcast will know that I'm not being hyperbolic about the way these productions can collapse.) Hopefully, the story will remain strong enough to keep me interested anyway. A Centaur's Life looks to be the monster girl show that resolves most of my issues with the genre – the relentless male gaze – to cut right to the fun stuff: fantastical antics alongside examinations of how people live in a world where the exceptional has become normal.
A Centaur's Life is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
Gabriella Ekens studies film and literature at a US university. Follow her on twitter.
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