Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
In a world similar to our own, humans do not exist, with animals instead taking on human form and action. The animals are divided into two groups – carnivores and herbivores, and at a special boarding high school, the two are as integrated as possible in order to ensure that everyone gets along. Things are going relatively well, too, until one day an alpaca boy is murdered. Was it a carnivore he attended school with? Does Legoshi the gray wolf have anything to do with it? And what does it portend for his crush on Haru the dwarf rabbit?
If there is a single thing that might prevent you from enjoying BEASTARS, Paru Itagaki's Manga Taisho Award-winning title, it is the anthropomorphic animals who star in it. There's no doubt that the conceit is used well – Itagaki's story not only works within the genres of high school drama and mystery, but also uses the herbivore and carnivore designations not only to split the animals, but also as reminiscent of the way the terms can be used in Japanese slang about sexual activity. But the art hits an awkward and uncomfortable place between animal and human – unlike its close cousin Zootopia (which also came out in 2016), these beings have not only their distinctive animal features (realistic heads, tails, fur), but also more human appendages, such as hands and feet. It can be unsettling to the point where it distracts from the story.
If that isn't an issue for you, there's a lot of interest to be found here. Most notably is the division of the students into the two groups of carnivores and herbivores. As some readers may be aware, “herbivore” can be a derogatory term for a man who is not aggressively sexually active, or perhaps not sexually active at all, with the natural opposite being a carnivore, although I have most frequently seen that term applied to women in manga, again as a derogatory term. In the context of BEASTARS, Legoshi, the gray wolf protagonist, is actively trying not to stand out, to be as nonthreatening as he can because he doesn't want other animals to fear him. This begins to bleed over into the slang meaning of “herbivore” when he meets Haru, a dwarf rabbit girl. Legoshi is immediately attracted to Haru, but is afraid to act on it for the dual reasons of not wanting to scare her, but also because he worries that his feelings stem not from his heart, but from his gut, or rather, his instincts as a predator.
Haru is an herbivore by species but a carnivore in the slang sense – she's got a reputation as promiscuous that appears to be earned. When Legoshi clumsily tries to spend time with her while on an errand for the drama club he's a part of (she's the only member of the gardening club), she assumes that he wants to have sex with her, and brings him to the garden shed, where she strips down. Legoshi is horrified and flees, nicely reversing their roles in terms of their respective labels and setting up social conflict on top of the more manufactured species-based one and the murder mystery aspect, as well as answering some of your NSFW Zootopia questions.
With Legoshi as the main point of view character, we don't know much about Haru's motivations, although she is visibly surprised that Legoshi ran away from her attempted blowjob. We know that Haru has been ostracized by the other herbivore girls as a show of disapproval of her so-called “slutty” ways (the pejorative is used in the text) – they seem to believe that Haru is seeking out their boyfriends to seduce, which particularly rubs a harlequin rabbit the wrong way. There's no real evidence of this, however, and prior to the moment in the garden shed, Haru is no different from the other girls as they are presented. This implies that she may be acting as people expect her to after one incident we don't yet know about as opposed to doing what she truly wants. Sex has become something of a validation for her, and Legoshi's flight from the garden shed could be the catalyst that helps her to see herself as something more than the girl who sleeps around.
Both volumes work hard to establish the idea that Legoshi is afraid of himself as a wolf, and Haru's not the only herbivorous animal to outdo him in carnivorous appetites. Louis, a red deer who heads the actors' pool of the drama club Legoshi is part of, harbors major ambitions the likes of which never cross Legoshi's mind – not only does Louis aim to be the lead in all plays, he's also aiming to become the Beastar, a sort of all-star student ambassador at the school. He's aggressive in both of these pursuits, which may in part be due to his antlers – male red deer have been observed to be more prone to aggression during the part of the year they have them. He can't understand Legoshi's reticence, and in terms of character is far more similar to Bill, a tiger who appears in the second volume and who “dopes” with a vial of bunny blood before he goes on stage. While Louis hasn't resorted to such measures (yet), he's got the same drive that leads Bill to do it, leaving Legoshi alone among the male characters in the story as someone who'd really rather hide in the wings.
BEASTARS is undeniably an interesting story. It merges animal themes with more human ones, looking at the stereotypes and labels that can shape or break a person. The use of the anthropomorphic characters does work with this, but again, it can be unsettling with its mix of human and animal features. The art otherwise has a deliberately rough feel that furthers the story's otherworldly (yet familiar) sense, and it makes good use of light and shadow. It's worth picking up and giving a try to see what you make of Paru Itagaki's not-quite-fantastical world.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B
+ Interesting use of animals to explore human themes, good blend of genres
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