Review

by Faye Hopper,

BEASTARS

Synopsis:
BEASTARS Volumes 3-4
After the bloody performance of Adler that left an entire school shocked, reeling and enraptured, the Gray Wolf Legoshi—though once able to blend into the background and keep his head low—now has his face plastered all over the school paper. And yet, not much has changed. The school year ends without much further conflict or consternation. The Meteor Festival—a celebration of the Dinosaurs, the ancestors of all animals—is approaching, and all the school clubs are preparing for the festivities. And Legoshi is getting to know Haru, the Rabbit girl he is growing more and more enamored. But even without their opposed roles of predator and prey, things between them are not so simple as to let them be friends easily. Louis, the Deer practically destined to be the next Beastar, is sleeping with Haru, and Haru has fallen for the esteemed pride of the school. And there is also the freshman Juno, who has been developing her own crush on Legoshi and wants to seize the Beastar status from under Louis' nose. The summer has begun, but it is not set to be relaxing. Between visits to an illicit black market of herbivore meat, even more deaths of innocents and the ways and wiles of the heart, life for Legoshi and his peers is only going to get more and more complicated.
Review:

After the bloody climax of Volume 2, BEASTARS Volumes 3 and 4 appear to be a lot calmer. The focus is less on advancing an arc, building to moments of intense conflict, and more on worldbuilding, set-up and theme. In other stories, this lack of crucial event could result in wheel-spinning and a dearth of real narrative. But BEASTARS uses this more placid story moment to flesh out the psychologies of its characters and advance its core themes in profound, compelling ways.

As a follow-up to Volume 2, Volume 3 is a simultaneous come-down and escalation. It is split between depicting the aftermath of the violent onstage fight between Legoshi and Bill, and Legoshi's surprise visit to a ‘black market’ where carnivores can get access to meat they are forbade from eating in polite society. This back-half (featuring Legoshi being abducted and lectured to by a combo fighter-therapist Panda Bear) is especially interesting, as it is the moment where BEASTARS central conflict is laid out at its most clear cut: are Legoshi's feelings for Haru sincere, or are they his sublimated, repressed desires for predation? This question can be extrapolated to a broader thematic question: in a world like that of BEASTARS, where the dichotomy of predator and prey is built into the world's social hierarchy, is it possible for a sincere connection between the prospective ‘predator’ and ‘prey’ to occur or is any attempt at empathy always a mask for a deeper, baser want on part of the ‘predator’ to hurt and devour? Will the ‘prey’ always be hurt and scared and put-upon, and will the ‘predator’ always be a vector of violence and harm?

What these thematic questions represent should be obvious; BEASTARS is, in part, about gender. There's a scene in Volume 4 that makes this explicit; Legoshi is confronting Haru at the train tracks about their previous near-sexual encounter. He condescends to her for her sexual promiscuity, says she should have ‘self-respect’. Her response is succinct: ‘We prey animals are always in danger…you have no idea what it feels like’. Haru is not just talking about the furry, high school hijinks of the manga. She's talking about the way women can't walk down the street at night without the eternal fear of being hurt gnawing at their mind. She's talking about the distrust; the anxiety we have toward men. It's not an accident that Haru is a woman and Legoshi is a man, and that as a man Legoshi is ignorant of Haru's struggle. Haru's sex life, after all, is her way of reclaiming power and agency in a world that robs her of them at every turn. How would Legoshi know this? He's allowed to get into bloody fights and not face consequences; as a predator—as a man—he has never had to fear for his life in simply existing. The lives of BEASTARS' characters being informed by designations of predator and prey is directly parallel to how our lives are informed by gender designations, and this scene is one of the clearest examples of why.

But what is BEASTARS saying about gender? If we consider the last aspect of BEASTARS' central thematic question—whether or not these roles of ‘predator’ and ‘prey’ are static or if they can be shifted—it is best to note how the series frames the connection between Haru and Legoshi. After the Panda Bear therapist informs Legoshi of how any relationship between him and Haru is impossible because all Legoshi wants is to eat her, Legoshi begins to distance himself. He stops trying to visit her in the Garden Club and cements himself in the role society has carved for him more and more. And then he sees Louis flirting with her. And he becomes so jealous that he symbolically stains his hands in bright paint. In this moment, he realizes that he likes Haru for who she is. As a person, not just as a slab of meat. In the text of the story, Legoshi's romantic feelings are real, and not just a desire to consume and ravage. Legoshi and Haru are friends. Is connection possible? Absolutely. Will that connection always be informed and made more dangerous to navigate by people's social roles (recall: Legoshi's first meeting with Haru was him almost devouring her)? There is no doubt. BEASTARS is saying that there is a world outside that of predator and prey, outside of our assigned patriarchal roles that stifle and limit us. But it is also saying the realities of these conditions are not easily overcome, and that so long as animals continue to eat other animals, so long as one animal hurts another, people are going to be resigned to these awful, oppressive conditions and forced to navigate them.

I've talked a lot about BEASTARS as an allegory for the gender dynamics of our world, but it's worth noting the story is not just that. It's also an allegory about demographic supremacy (Louis and Juno are always talking about how their desire to seize the Beastar status is as much for the good of carnivores and herbivores as themselves), for meritocracy, and for the illegality of illicit substances. This lack of specificity in meaning can sometimes work in the manga's favor, as it allows it to resonate on a multitude of levels. At its worst, however, it leads to contradictory messaging. The deliberate murkiness of whether the predator/prey dichotomy is socially engineered, or biological imperative, is central to the series, but not interrogating directly results in some stickiness for the story as an allegory for real-world circumstances. Patriarchy, after all, is an institutional fabrication. It is the result of the historical dominance of a certain class of people, and its core precepts distort scientific and biological truths for the purpose of maintaining that dominance. When BEASTARS frames Legoshi's predation as innate, it makes it harder for the story to resonate as allegory for patriarchy or any number of social systems—because again—hierarchies are constructed and can be torn down. Patriarchy is not a natural human instinct, and without this acknowledgment it leaves a lot of BEASTARS without pointedness and implying potentially squicky things about human nature.

BEASTARS volumes 3 and 4 are best viewed as transitional. This is the point where the elevated high school drama of Beastar's first arc turns to something else; something a lot more intense, something a lot more violent, and something a lot more insane. But what is it transitioning to thematically? This is the other thing I'm puzzled by in BEASTARS: I don't know what point it's building to. Consider now how Volume 4 ends, with Haru being kidnapped by the Lion Mafia. You have not just a startling tonal transition here, but a thematic one as well. Though the series did start out with a murder mystery, implying that at some point the stakes would heighten, the first 4 volumes focus more on how the predator/prey status quo informs the character's everyday realities. This shift in story style means we're no longer exploring the psychological effects of this society, but the society itself. And I don't know how well BEASTARS is going to function as more direct social commentary. But you know what? It almost doesn't matter. The characters are so well-written, their struggles so resonant and every story turn so shocking and captivating (did I mention there's a point where Louis pulls a gun on someone?), that even when BEASTARS is thematically disjointed it is like absolutely nothing else. Even when I am sitting here trying to sort out all its messy, contradictory parts, I still love it and can't wait to read the next volume.

That has to say something, right?

Grade:
Overall : A
Story : A-
Art : B+

+ An engaging and moving exploration of gender dynamics through a violent and salacious furry frame; mines what could be a slow-paced or uneventful narrative point for substantial, profound advancement of core themes.
Beastars' central allegory gets more and more muddied by the volume; feels like it's uncertain of its thematic endpoint

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Production Info:
Story & Art: Paru Itagaki

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BEASTARS (manga)

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