Review

by James Beckett,

BEASTARS Season 1

Synopsis:
BEASTARS Season 1
Legoshi has always lived as a social outcast at Cherryton Academy, a literal lone wolf in a world of anthropomorphic animals who chose to hide his sharp fangs and destructive strength, lest his true nature turn him into as a threat in the eyes of his peers. Recently, one of the culture's greatest taboos rocked Cherryton's delicate social ecosystem: Tem, an alpaca, was devoured by some unknown predator, who may still be lurking about the campus grounds, waiting to strike again. And if the rising tensions between predator and prey didn't make things hard enough, an incredibly ambitious and wealthy red deer named Louis gets Legoshi mixed up in his lifelong ambitions to be elevated to the position of Beastar, a venerated animal who serves as the world's beacon toward the future. It is during his work for Louis that Legoshi's world is turned completely upside-down, when a night-time drama club excursion brings the enigmatic rabbit Haru enters the picture. First, she almost becomes the victim of Legoshi's own repressed carnivorous desires, but his feelings for Haru soon become much more complex and difficult to ignore, leading the wolf to wonder if it might be possible for a carnivore like him to actually fall in love with an herbivore. One thing is for certain With Legoshi, Louis, and Haru's relationships with each other becoming increasingly tangled, life at Cherryton Academy is never going to be the same.
Review:

Two things have had Netflix's adaptation of BEASTARS on my radar for a long time now. For one, I'm already a huge fan of Paru Itagaki's weird, wild, genre-defying manga, so I coming at this show as a fan from the get go. What elevated my excitement for a Beastar's adaptation into feverish anticipation, though, was the announcement that Studio Orange would be the one's handling Beastar's transition from page to screen. Orange blew the anime industry wide open with their masterful 2017 adaptation of Land of the Lustrous, which proved that a fully computer-generated anime could not only be successful, but positively revelatory. I've seen 3D animation used to varying degrees of success in my years as a critic, but Land of the Lustrous was the first time that I felt the technology was truly being pushed to its limits, and beyond, creating a show whose lush visuals and exhilarating action sequences demanded that the series rely on computer generated imagery. If any team was capable of doing justice to Itagaki's expressionistic art style, while still making a world full of anthropomorphic animals feel believable on a television anime's budget, it was Orange. My excitement for BEASTARS couldn't even be swayed Netflix's infuriating insistence on holding the western release of its anime back in service of its binge-watching model. The extra five months I had to wait for it only made me more desperate to know whether or not BEASTARS lived up to the hype.

On a purely aesthetic level, BEASTARS is a masterwork, serving as Studio Orange's mission statement anime fans all over the world. If Land of the Lustrous was a surprise success story that proved a CG series could stand toe-to-toe with the best of its two-dimensional contemporaries, BEASTARS is where Orange swings even harder and hits even further, showing us what lies ahead in the future of anime as a whole industry. Land of the Lustrous had some of the most gorgeous action scenes I've ever seen, and its fluid character animation is a sight to behold even now, but BEASTARS sees Orange taking all of those lessons and incorporating them into a fuller, richer visual tapestry. It is simply the best 3D animation I've ever seen in a TV anime, and one of the most artistically pleasing series I've had the pleasure of watching in recent memory. I would be remiss if I didn't also mention the show's opening theme, which combines the jazzy tunes of ALI with some insanely charming stop-motion animation. Never before has Netflix's “Skip Intro” button seemed like such an affront to common decency.

BEASTARS combines the best of what 2D and 3D animation can offer, allowing Paru Itagaki's black-and-white artwork to spring to life in lush, vibrant colors, with her animal characters radiating with lively personality in every scene. I will admit that I miss the scratchy and roughshod quality of Itagaki's drawings, which is very much smoothed-over and cleaned-up in Orange's style. The tradeoff is worth it when you get a world like this that is teeming with so much vivid energy. Legoshi's well-meaning but intimidating awkwardness is difficult enough to depict in static images, but Orange makes it look easy in the way they detail each of his clumsy gestures or uncertain attempts to interact with his friends. Likewise, when the show's infrequent but remarkably effective action scenes arrive, Legoshi is transformed into a genuinely vicious force to be reckoned with. In a scene that already feels destined to spawn a million works of saucy fanart, Louis the deer shoves his hands into Legoshi's jaw, his fingers delicately tracing the points of his teeth as he sneers with passionate contempt. In order to sell the reality of this hyper-emotional and surreal world that is populated incredibly dramatic animal people, these character moments have to work perfectly, and thanks to Studio Orange's incredible work, nearly all of them do.

It doesn't hurt that the story and characters are compelling enough that BEASTARS would be a damn fine show even if the animation wasn't as mind-bogglingly fun as it is. I can't help but be reminded of the 2006 neo-noir crime thriller, Brick. For that film (which is also brilliant), director Rian Johnson justified his decision to graft the plot and dialogue of an early 20th-century pulp fiction detective story onto a high school drama with the fact that every teenager thinks their life is a high-stakes game of life-or-death – it just so happens that, for the kids of Brick, that perceived reality is also a very literal threat to be resolved, and in typical noir fashion, no less.

It's much the same for Legoshi, Louis, Haru, and the other animals of BEASTARS, which is key to buying into the plot's more unexpected diversions. One minute the show might be a contemplative allegory about gender, growing up, and how one fits in to the world; another might have the show take on the form of a melodramatic soap opera (complete with betrayals, murder, and plenty of sex); at yet another minute, BEASTARS will flip the script entirely and transform into a high-octane revenge story that hinges on bloody action and deadly retribution, like John Wick by way of Disney's Robin Hood. BEASTARS might be all three of these shows and more within the span of a single episode.

Viewers are in luck when it comes to localization, too, as Netflix's dub does an excellent job of localizing even the oddest story beats into English. Jonah Scott may be a newcomer to the dubbing scene, but he nails the Legoshi's character by capturing his paradoxical blend of simmering rage and honest, goofy gentleness. Grifffin Puatu is another fresh talent in the industry, relatively speaking, and he acquits himself very well as Louis, making the deer just the right amount of terrible while still remaining strangely likable. Contrasting the newer faces is a surprise appearance from industry veteran Lara Miller as Haru, who hasn't appeared in an Anime Dub for going on ten years – fans of the original Digimon series will instantly recognize Miller as the voice of Kairi. Of all the cast members, Miller has the hardest job in getting Haru's character down right, as she is a woman who is bitter about being infantilized while still being conflicted about the overly aggressive way she has used sex as the means to form connections with other animals. Legoshi himself describes her as sounding like a “lonely child”, which could be a disastrous bit of direction in the hands of a less skilled performer, but Miller gets it perfectly right. I may have qualms with Netflix's overly fussy and bare-bones subtitles (Louis and Haru are named “Ruis” and “Hal”, for instance, which flies in the face of both the dub and the official manga's localizations), but this is one English dub that is just as good as its Japanese counterpart.

Admittedly, there are plenty of folks who will understandably get irritated with BEASTARS' insistence on being whatever it wants, whenever it wants, regardless of what viewers might have be expecting from it. For example, the very first episode make BEASTARS' out to be some kind of muder mystery, but that storyline is barely touched on at all within this season. For that matter, whole other plot points and character arcs will be introduced and framed as if they're central to the story in one episode, yet they will go unresolved once Legoshi and Haru's relationship takes center stage again, left merely as dangling threads to (hopefully) be picked up again in the already-announced second season. There's also the show's sexual content, which is much more explicit than you'll find in most anime involving actual humans, and could be very off putting who came into BEASTARS expecting a slightly edgier anime-counterpart to Zootopia. I personally think that the show's high-quality writing and production allow BEASTARS to have some of the most mature and nuanced depictions of young adult sexuality this side of Scum's Wish, but yeah, this definitely isn't a cartoon to put on for the kids at home.

So, yes, BEASTARS is obviously not for all tastes, and the lurid subject matter might get pulpy enough to even bother the viewers who didn't automatically turn their noses up at idea of “R-Rated Anime Zootopia”. Still, I cannot deny that director Shinichi Matsumi and the Studio Orange crew have accomplished something truly special; that such a unique and well-realized story could be brought to life with such care and artistry is the kind of thing I live for, as an animation junkie. What we have here is technological powerhouse that never forgets the achingly human emotions in the hearts of its furry-faced characters, and it uses 3D animation in a manner than respects and complements its 2D source-material. If I'm right, and BEASTARS really does represent a next step in the future of anime, then the future is looking mighty bright indeed.

Grade:
Overall : A-
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : B+
Animation : A+
Art : A
Music : A-

+ Astoudingly good CG animation that raises the bar for the medium at large, well-rounded and compelling characters, a story that bends genres and tones to delightful effect
Abrupt shifts in tone and pacing may prove unsatisfying, racy subject matter won't be for everyone, some plot threads lack resolution (or are outright ignored)

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Production Info:
Director: Shinichi Matsumi
Series Composition: Nanami Higuchi
Script: Nanami Higuchi
Storyboard:
Masatsugu Arakawa
Yasuhiro Geshi
Toshimasa Ishii
Takahiko Kyōgoku
Shinichi Matsumi
Kenji Mutou
Shinji Satoh
Atsushi Sunda
Episode Director:
Yasuhiro Geshi
Daiki Katō
Shinichi Matsumi
Makoto Sokuza
Kensuke Yamamoto
Atsuyuki Yukawa
Music: Satoru Kousaki
Original creator: Paru Itagaki
Character Design: Nao Ootsu
Art Director: Minami Kasuga
Director of Photography: Shiori Furusho

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BEASTARS (TV)

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