Surfing the Netflix: Animation Edition #2

If my first post on this new website didn’t appear any sooner, other than the usual bouts of writer’s block, it was simultaneously working on three different reviews at once. They were all meant to be shorter and featured together but each went on longer than intended, and I decided to make a separate entry for each show.

As indicated in the previous installment, this one will be about…


Beastars (Season 1)

Anthropomorphism describes a phenomenon where qualities specific to human beings are projected onto non-human entities but, in this case, I am largely referring to other animals than the representation of abstract concepts or forces of nature. Said phenomenon has gone as far back as prehistory and a notable trait of Ancient Egypt’s religious pantheon along with the still-extant faith of Hinduism (e.g. Ganesha and Hayagriva) but, within my lifetime and perspective, it is a nearly universal trait in family-friendly and kid’s entertainment. And then, there are the furries

As repetitive as this may sound, I’m rather perplexed at the bewilderment towards the subculture as if formed from thin air (Where have they been? Under a meteoroid-sized rock?). There’s been this trend in which anthropomorphic female characters in animated family-friendly and kid’s entertainment are given hourglass figures and ample bosoms of women that – far from only being cosmetic – is portrayed sensually. When it comes to having a favorite animal, it can cause…odd and disturbing feelings. As a child who really liked rabbits (still do as an adult), even having four as pets I named after the main characters of Ghostbusters, there was something rather unsettling when first watching Space Jam at ten years old – having an awkwardly early prepubescence – and being introduced to Lola Bunny. I say “unsettling” because, on one level, the idea of being sexually attracted to a non-human animal is both grotesque and unthinkable yet, on another level, I can see the appeal when intellectually and physically humanoid with superficially animalistic traits. So, I think I found Lola Bunny to be a hot piece of ass…?

Gee, talk about being conflicted!

That is not to say I am a furry as – besides being very fond of the feminine form in its many variances – I’ll always prefer flesh-and-blood ladies ’cause drawings, CGI, and costumes can never be the same as the real deal. Simply put, I understand the appeal of furrydom insofar as that aspect goes. Nonetheless, I continue to indulge in and greatly enjoy works that heavily feature anthropomorphic animals. There’s a reason I’ll literally never shut up about BoJack Horseman or why Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Street Sharks, Battletoads, Bucky O’Hare, and Biker Mice from Mars are etched into my mind for time immemorial.

Beastars, the anime based on Paru Itagaki’s manga series, is now one of those. It’s also the only work of fiction featuring anthropomorphic animals that, next to Space Jam, made me feel uncomfortable but primary due to its surprisingly nuanced social commentary. Managing to deal with racial/ethnic discrimination, the politics of sex/gender, biological determinism vs. social conditioning, and how “civility” as well as “peace” in “developed” nations obfuscate the exploitation they’re built upon in ways that a certain film (i.e. Zootopia) or vaguely similar series sharing a streaming platform (i.e. BNA: Brand New Animal) failed miserably at otherwise.

The setting is one where society is largely stratified between carnivores and herbivores that – while intersecting with economic class and politics – acts as the main impetus driving most matters, even its black market that (unsurprisingly) is based around practices used by humans to make animal-based products. Since there are no humans in the setting, it only makes these practices being forced on animal-people by other animal-people far more unsettling. When it’s not evoking cannibalism, there’s drug smuggling and human trafficking as well as the selling of internal organs obtained via back-alley surgery, all hidden under this accepted practice where carnivores – to curtail their hunger for flesh – largely consume protein-based substitutes imitating meat-based sustenance (huh, that sounds oddly familiar…). There’s also an accepted level of segregation by institutions and an intense concern about miscegenation…or, to put it another way, an irrational fear of “race-mixing.” All the animal-people of the setting can, in fact, interbreed with each other and spawn mixed-animal children but whether it’s between two different herbivores, carnivores, or (considered most egregious) between a carnivore and a herbivore is downright taboo to the point its treated like a mental illness by others.

“Wait, what?! Isn’t this about some kind of quirky prestigious boarding school romance?” you may’ve wondered and the confusion is understandable. If anything, that part of the premise acts more like an introduction to the world these characters inhabit, rather than the overall structure of the narrative – which, much like Dorohedoro, takes a “big picture” approach and emphasizes world-building. It makes perfect sense when considering so much of the cast is comprised of teenagers who, perhaps due to financial privilege, have been sheltered for a good part of their lives. Their anguish from catching a glimpse of society’s dark underbelly is palpable and the adults who they’re surrounded by – much like in our reality – often appear either well-meaning but ineffectual, genuinely concerned yet overly cynical, annoyingly oblivious, frustratingly deferential to the status quo, or unapologetically abuse their power with little consequence. As far as that introductory romance goes, involving a wolf-boy and a rabbit-girl, it’s not as quirky as it is…troubling. On so many levels.

Legoshi (as in Bela), the wolf-boy, is infatuated with Haru, the rabbit-girl, but – given what has been stated – he’s greatly confused as to whether this means he actually loves her as another animal-person or…wants to devour her out of unquenchable bloodlust. The intriguing part is not that interpersonal dynamic alone but in how it deals with a number of real-world issues including the infantilization of women in media – specifically the “moe” trend – and how such depictions are both indicative of men’s sexual insecurity as well as the fear of female promiscuity. Haru is frequently victim to slut-shaming and that seems odd given she’s a rabbit, a creature usually characterized by their promiscuity despite a supposedly “innocent” appearance (it’s like Peter Quill being a dick about Rocket Raccoon’s scavenging instinct all over again), but it speaks to a common double-standard in our human society men are so often unwilling to acknowledge.

Badge Bunny v. Snow Bunny: Dawn of Lepus

Though Haru is seen as a “homewrecker” by other females, for having slept with their unfaithful boyfriends (or whom they mistakenly perceive as such). The same males who seek her out for carnal pleasure – which she, who enjoys the activity (no past trauma attached thankfully), can oblige – act ashamed of themselves when one comes to realize he is, in fact, far from the only classmate she’s been intimate with and it makes them hate her. This adverse reaction isn’t solely due to this setting’s weird version of miscegenation, though that’s part of it, but that men in general greatly dislike being reminded their sexual “conquests” are not all their own or that women do, in fact, have sexual agency. This disdain is exacerbated when it’s considered how a woman may be more sexually experienced, especially when being pursued by potential paramours in great number, than they may ever be in their lives.

Natural behavior being suppressed to one’s detriment is a running theme throughout and it’s telling the only character to not partake in the slut-shaming, other than Louis the Rich Racist Red Deer, is Legoshi. He, too, is publicly shamed albeit for different reasons. Encumbered by such severe self-hatred and constantly walking on eggshells to be unintimidating to herbivores makes him an emotional mess, especially when given no effective means to deal with it in a healthy manner (even their version of psychological therapy involves kidnapping and restraining them in a straightjacket with chains). Yet, no matter how reserved and respectful he may act to achieve acceptance, others always expect the worst of him based on appearance alone, only entrenching that sense of self-hatred further.

It’s something I greatly sympathize with, not only as someone who’s been described by others as physically intimidating and intense, but in how being treated as a ticking time-bomb by them – regardless of how I was actively behaving otherwise to avoid such – caused their fears to become a self-fulfilling prophecy as it only made me frustrated. Though I don’t have an unshakeable urge to feed upon others, of course, it still applies to animal-people as the major source of their societal ills are in how they prefer methods of suppression over honesty and open dialogue just like humankind. The reaction many herbivores have towards Legoshi can also be read as how white individuals are both overly judgmental and paranoid of black individuals (men particularly, in this case).

I mean, it’s hard not to interpret it that way when his romantic interest is a diminutive white rabbit who, at one point, tells him – misunderstanding his intentions at the time – that she’s never been intimate with a carnivore before, or when having an argument on a subway platform, police approach him as if he were committing assault from lightly grabbing her arm. The first scene in which he extensively interacts with anyone starts with him trying to deliver a posthumous love letter to an Angora-girl (who Louis obviously hates ’cause all goats eat paper like slack-jawed yokels – he says about as much!) from a murdered Alpaca-boy student, she reacts by pulling a knife on Legoshi and threatening him under the assumption he was going to attack her, despite no reasonably apparent sign of danger, because he’s a carnivore. At a time in the U.S. when white women call the cops on black individuals, children included, for innocuous actions as if sinister and many of those cops are more trigger-happy than usual – arresting and convicting them disproportionately to white people wasn’t enough, of course – it’s downright impossible for me to avoid seeing the parallels.

This is made more interesting by how other carnivores treat Legoshi as some kind of “race traitor”, whether it’s for having a romantic interest who isn’t just like himself (e.g. Juno the wolf-girl) or just not meeting some arbitrary criteria for how one is “supposed” to act like a carnivore. It reminded me of the intra-racial conflict present in Dear White People, as its characters try to define their own blackness and deal in how it clashes with their peers’ perception of identity. It is common for one person – whether it comes from arrogance, ignorance, or hiding their insecurities – to absurdly demand their version of blackness is the “correct” way to behave (the hotep episode is a great example).

“This is my design…”

Isn’t that the case with most unwritten social rules, though? That they’re arbitrary? Not arbitrary in the sense they don’t serve a function, they obviously do, but in that they’re the result of utterly subjective sentiments – as opposed to reason or empirical evidence – being factualized. It makes claims of “that’s just how it is” come off as either astonishingly ignorant or simply disingenuous because there’s usually someone with social clout that decided other people should follow a rule they made up for their own sake. It’s a common occurrence whether it’s casual or political – there’s always some asshole out to dominate the conversation, while shouting down every dissenting voice. Unfortunately, we tend to enable such behavior as opposed to discouraging it. Why else would we ever have someone as incompetent yet egotistical as Donald Trump in the position of President of the United States? He’s clearly the result of the Republican Party, opportunistic and hypocritical as they are, normalizing the most base instincts of the world’s worst people for their own benefit. It certainly doesn’t help the onus is put onto those victimized by them to be “the bigger person” as if that kind of moral victory actually means anything, ’cause it doesn’t. Not when you’re still treated like shit – regardless of how nicely you take their punishment. In fact, it only validates them further.

The phrase “Hell is other people” is associated with French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, from his play No Exit, but is frequently misunderstood as a blanketly misanthropic statement rather than a comment about the conundrum humans face as social animals – we need others around us to properly function yet, simultaneously, those same people are what causes most of our frustrations. Honesty and open dialogue are impossible to practice when you know your personal validity is up for debate by others based purely on what you say and do, even when it doesn’t negatively effect them on any level; nor could they possibly understand your perspective due to the limitations of their own. If the phrase was blanketly misanthropic, rather than a poignant observation, it would echo a legitimate concern from those profoundly disappointed by the constant failures of humanity.

Or, in the case of Beastars, zoomanity – as Hell is now other animal-people.

Needless to say, I’m ecstatic there’s going to be another season and, though this entire piece could be about the masterful social commentary and world-building, I’d prefer to save it for next year when more has been developed to analyze further. So, instead, I want to bring up elements of the series I’ve liked outside of its narrative with a final statement.

To start, I can’t help but think that Paru Itagaki might be a bit of a Francophile – and, by proxy, those producing the anime. The setting of Cherryton Academy and city surrounding it have this Parisian aesthetic – particularly the architectural style and background music used – that can be blissful or haunting depending on the scene. Louis’ namesake is one shared by numerous French kings, thus apropos given his own affluent social standing. Itagaki herself admitted in an article by the French publication Le Monde to using actor Mathieu Amalric as the basis for Legoshi’s facial expressions. Other than just being appreciative as someone of French heritage (my ancestor was a grandmaster of the Knights Templar and his death actually fuels much of the conflict in Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven!) and having been to Paris many years back, it brought back some fond memories of that visit as well as Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie in lighter moments with darker ones reminiscent of Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible.

What made the opening credits sequence incredibly amusing to me wasn’t just how the stop-motion animation is evocative of Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox

…but that ALI(Alien Liberation International)’s “Wild Side” sounds like it could be a track from French electro-swing band Caravan Palace, whose music video for “Lone Digger” can easily take place in Beastar‘s setting:

Another aspect the show shares with Dorohedoro is how well it blends CGI and traditional forms of animation together, if not better. Perhaps, due to the cast being anthropomorphic animals straight from a Disney or Warner Bros. cartoon (including young deer with traumatizing backstories and sexualized female rabbits), it was less distracting overall than full-on human characters given the animalian facial features. With the exception of Kaiman, obviously, as his Muppet-like mouth movements are more endearing than bothersome – looking like the Cookie Monster from Sesame Street whenever he obsessively scarfed down potstickers (“Me eat gyoza!”). I suppose, when it comes to non-exaggerated human facial features in CGI, it’s hard to not fall into the uncanny valley (or, as I’d prefer to say, drop off Mori‘s peak – credit to Fred Van Lente for that one). As much as a certain Robert Zemeckis film (i.e. Polar Express, at least Beowulf was written by Neil Gaiman) and videogames strived for photorealistic facial features, it’ll always be off-putting because we evolved to recognize the facial features of other human beings and most imitations will feel like something hideously inhuman such as the Mi-Go in sheep’s clothing (wolves would be preferable). Maybe that’s why eschewing realism or, well, the usage of anthropomorphic animals tend to fare better.

Though, unlike Dorohedoro, more traditional forms of animation are seldom used save for dramatic close-ups and a few other moments. The show’s crew seemed to spend more time on this lovely visualization during Haru’s internal monologue about her background and personal motivations (which, again, refreshingly doesn’t involve rape or molestation as a reason for her promiscuity). The best way to describe it would be as if someone spent three to five years doing elaborate drawings on each page of a flip book, featuring a rabbit-girl walking through a forest to only then step into a shallow pond that drags her down deeper until she drowns. It’s obviously more effective when experienced first-hand and in context – as it is for all forms of entertainment – but nicely punctuates the scene it’s used and I really appreciate the extra effort put into it.

The Panda from Beastars Is Basically Black Jack | OGIUE MANIAX
Dr. Gohin: Action Therapist Panda!

Unlike other admirers of the medium, who’re still stuck in their habits as collectors than pure enthusiasts, I’m someone who buys and read comics and manga digitally over physical copies these days. Not only is it an issue of having enough space for storage but that, unless there’s a proper store nearby, it’s gotten expensive – moreso if you need them delivered. There’re very rare exceptions, of course, such as the omnibuses for Alejandro Jodorowsky and Juan Gimenez’s The Metabarons or Jack Kirby’s Fourth World – but, given how many series are collected in tens of paperback volumes, that doesn’t apply as much to manga. I might enjoy Blade of the Immortal and Lone Wolf & Cub or finally get into Berserk, but I also don’t want them to take up entire rows on my bookshelf when there’s already so much taken up.

As digressive as this all may seem, I do have a point: the last manga I’ve bought a physical copy of was Osamu Tezuka’s two-volume Ode to Kirihito after reading the equally grueling-yet-intriguing single-volume MW (it was hard, at times, to believe it was from the same guy behind Astro Boy). That was five years ago, if I remember correctly, and yet am nonetheless considering to buy physical copies of Paru Itagaki’s manga – at least, once it’s been completely translated and released in English.

It’s not just due to my newfound fondness of the material and wanting to financially support it further but that, as much as I like the anime, there’s a level of expressiveness in Ms. Itagaki’s artwork that’s downright charming – much like Tezuka’s own style – and can’t be fully captured with the animation style used on the show. It’s not something I want to see displayed on a monitor, but on a page I can also feel through touching paper and sense by the smell of ink.

If that isn’t one of the best compliments I can give a manga creator, I don’t know what is…