When I first wrote about Beastars, which you can find here, I tried to focus on its character writing. Don’t get me wrong, Beastars has an excellent story and Paru Itagaki’s world building is second to none, but her character writing is somehow even better. The issue I had at the time was that I wasn’t confident enough in my analysis to tackle the monstrous task that this manga and superb anime adaptation represent.
I’m still proud of the first essay, and that’s saying a lot, it’s not easy for me to look back on anything I write. I get butterflies in my stomach looking at essays I’m currently writing, so I usually don’t look back to the first few months of this blog. However, without stroking my ego too much, the essay does at least a competent job analyzing these complex characters.
But now we are approaching the first anniversary of the Otaku Exhibition in just a few short months, and while I have a lot of feelings about that, it means I’m much more confident taking an anime apart. I’m finally ready to look at Beastars as an allegory, and explain why that was such a Herculean task to begin with.
Explaining Beastars’ premise already took a large chunk of the first piece I wrote on it, and I already linked it, so I’ll have to condense just to make this a manageable length. Beastars is set in a high school and world of anthropomorphic animals divided between herbivores and carnivores. Legoshi, a wolf, is struggling with his romantic attachment and conflicting desire to eat Haru, a rabbit who hates being looked down on and is casually dating Louis, a deer and the most popular guy in school who takes a special interest in Legoshi for being a carnivore who won’t use his inherent strength.
Beastars immediately read as an allegory to me, that Itagaki had to be making some easy 1:1 comparison to the real world, but I wasn’t sure of what. While Itagaki has created a fully-realized animal society, she also deprived me of any easy comparisons. No matter what I tried to line Beastars up with, it never fit perfectly, and tht irked me.
So to address this complex work of fiction through the real world, we have to look at it through multiple lenses until a whole picture comes together. The most appropriate metaphors were race, gender, and class.
This is your warning that I’m by no means an expert in any of these massively complicated topics, and should not be construed as such. I’m a guy on a blog, and my perception of these subjects is not definitive nor without flaw and bias. This piece is best enjoyed as a thought exercise on how hard it is to stick labels onto art, and analysis of a serious show with a silly concept.
So let’s try Beastars as a racial allegory, or more accurately, an allegory of different ethnicities and/or nationalities. The animals in the series are organized according to their diet first, and then in taxonomic categories. Legoshi is only allowed to room with other members of the Canidae Family, but then you have things like the “biological hour” where each animal goes to a room meant to simulate their natural habitat. In the case of Legoshi and other wolves, they sit in a room “moonbathing”.
Beastars is clearly aware of how race and racism can be integrated into institutions, like people turning a blind eye to the black market where carnivores can pay for chunks off of a herbivore. It usually isn’t that straight-forward or horrific, though, and it usually just manifests in differences in lifestyle. Being forced to live only next to people you’re genetically similar to bears an uncomfortable resemblance to segregation. However, we soon run into issues with the race allegory.
Beastars is a Japanese manga written by a Japanese woman, and Japan’s population is 98.1% ethnically Japanese. That doesn’t mean they’re immune to racism, far from it, but you don’t get that same level of diversity we see in Beastars. The series could still be a take on race relations, perhaps in other countries, but that’s speculation and it doesn’t solve the next problem.
Racism is based in an ingrained fear of that which is different and unknown, it is an irrational response, it is inherently not based in fact or reason. Science has often been misused to support racist beliefs, like how slavers actually tried to justify their actions by labeling their slaves as sub-human, but it’s obviously not accurate.
The biological differences between people are minute: melanin is just your body adapting to sunlight, some people are genetically more likely to experience certain medical conditions, and some slight differences in things like facial bone structure. If Beastars is a racial metaphor, then it ignores this completely.
The animals in Beastars really are fundamentally different from each other, and carnivores pose a real threat to herbivores. Legoshi doesn’t just have the ability to kill and eat his defenseless classmates, he has the primal urge to. The existence of a biological hour is an acknowledgment that these animals have different needs and physiques, so Beastars either fails as a racial allegory, or it shouldn’t be taken as one, at least not entirely. So what’s next?
I remarked on the conversation that Haru and Legoshi have in the train station in my first essay, as it’s a major revelation to the audience. Haru tells Legoshi that he doesn’t understand the fear that every herbivore, especially small ones like Haru, has to live with. Constantly looking over your shoulder, the kind of paranoia that digs its claws in and eats away at you.
Haru’s comments sound unnervingly similar to the experiences of women in fear of being sexually assaulted. That’s not to say that men don’t experience sexual violence, but this is one of the few moments in the show with a clear through-line to a real-world counterpart. Haru is particularly vulnerable due to her perceived purity and small stature as a pure white dwarf rabbit.
I don’t mean to be overly presumptive, but the parallels in their conversation at the train station run a little too real to be ignored. I also can’t put aside that this is a manga written by a woman in a male-dominated field whose primary female character asserts herself through sexual activity. If you want to compare herbivores to women, there’s also a small detail in the author’s notes of Beastars volume two, where Itagaki remarks that she makes a point to draw Louis as feminine.
Unfortunately, the case for gender also begins to come apart after that. I mean, it’s kind of massively insulting to portray men as creatures with an instinct to hunt and kill women, or women as helpless creatures in constant fear of being victimized. Furthermore, the story doesn’t even support that conceit consistently.
Carnivores are just biologically stronger, faster, and more dangerous than herbivores across the board. Men on average are stronger than women, but that’s an average, it’s not universal. In Beastars, there’s no chance that an herbivore could beat a carnivore. Juno, a female wolf, easily overpowers Louis and pokes all sorts of holes in the gender theory. It might be more accurate metaphor for Beastars than race, but it’s not perfect yet.
And that brings us to the last analysis method that you use on every book in order to get your degree, class. While race and gender issues don’t fully encompass Beastars, things start to click when you compare carnivores to the haves, and herbivores to the have-nots. Carnivores and their biological advantages can be seen as the benefits that wealth confers on those who make it, or as Beastars implies, inherit it.
Carnivores have historically occupied the upper class and positions of power, and it’s why Louis angling to become the next Beastar is such a radical idea. But that builds into the idea of Beastars as a class metaphor too; Louis was trafficked as a child, branded and caged, but he’s determined to rise above the circumstances of his childhood. Louis is the underdog story of someone rising up through the system despite the oppression they faced. Doesn’t take a Dickens scholar to know how popular stories of rags-to-riches are.
And this analogy drastically re-contextualizes Legoshi and Haru’s relationship, and even that train station conversation. Legoshi occupies a position of power and privilege that Haru could never dream of, not because they’re a man and a woman, but because he’s a wolf. There’s a variety of physical and psychological benefits to being wealthy, and the security and peace of mind that accompanies it.
Nearly every aspect of your health can be improved or worsened depending on your level of income, and I’m not sure talking about the quality of your medical care. Merely having enough money to live comfortably reduces rates of mental illnesses like anxiety and depression, and the likelihood of contracting heart disease and cancer.
Treating wealth as an immutable biological trait also reflects the belief that escaping poverty is impossible. The way that it all just seems so much easier for carnivores line up, in addition to immunity from consequences. Personally, I never got away with sneaking off to a black market of human flesh on a school trip, but the reason for that is I’m not rich.
Beastars can’t exactly be put into one neat category of ‘what it’s about’, but by applying several lenses, you can assemble a complete picture. The part that makes this story so compelling is that Itagaki has drawn from so many different sources. That none of it can be simply attributed to one theme only speaks to the strength of her world building.
When looking at a real country or society, you can’t attribute all of its problems to one or three or even a hundred things. The discrimination I highlighted here can be a large part of that, nothing in life is ever as simple as three individual problems to solve.
That Beastars’ world has so many societal woes is a testament to the strength of Itagai’s writing, and it reflects in how she writes her characters. Every character with screen time has a believable personality, struggles, and place in animal society. That it treats no two animals the same is more of Itagaki’s intuitive approach to writing rich characters in a tangled knot of a world.
As of writing this, Beastars season two is still locked up in Netflix jail, so I’ve had to throw away my free time catching up on the manga. The art is simple and sketchy but so charming, and Itagaki does a wonderful job with atmosphere and expressive character art. Perhaps it is the furthest thing from the polish of the anime, but you can and should appreciate both for what they do well individually.
If I missed any allegory that your college professors would have loved, now’s a great time to throw them out in the comments, or to follow the Otaku Exhibition so you can see my thoughts on season two the moment Netflix decides the US deserves it. If following on WordPress isn’t your thing, my Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku has been on fire with my atrocious anime takes, so it’s probably worth checking out. Until next time, thanks for reading