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BEAST COMPLEX

BEAST COMPLEX: How Paru Itagaki’s Debut Shaped BEASTARS

Rarely do mangaka get it exactly right the first time around. Even the incomparable Eiichiro Oda, for whom One Piece was his first long-term serialization, started out with the initial Romance Dawn one-shot(s) and had to make several changes based on that. More recently, Horikoshi Kohei’s success with My Hero Academia was preceded by a slew of comparable failures, such as Barrage and Oumagadoki Doubutsuen.  In this sense, Paru Itagaki of BEASTARS fame is no exception. What came before was BEAST COMPLEX: a collection of short stories published intermittently in Akita Shoten’s Weekly Shonen Champion throughout 2016 and 2017.

BEAST COMPLEX

Many have called BEAST COMPLEX a sort of ‘prototype’ for BEASTARS. In this respect, they are exactly right. We can see in the very fabric of the various short stories the beginnings of many of the elements that would go on to make BEASTARS so compelling: the focus on the often tenuous relationship between herbivores and carnivores; a multi-layered and realistic world; and Itagaki’s iconic character designs, which are wholly different from the western ‘furry’ tradition.

Yet, we can also see in the stories of BEAST COMPLEX the beginnings of some of BEASTARS’ failures, which dragged down its opening chapters most especially. Her character designs, while technically impressive and most certainly unique, simply were not suited for long-form storytelling and weekly serialization. Her singular focus on and obsessions with creating a complex world above and beyond individual characters would, too, lead to a lack of focus and clarity of purpose. Akita Shoten may have had a part to play in this, but we have no evidence of that fact.

So while things may have improved over the years, analyzing BEASTARS in tandem with BEAST COMPLEX, reveals that success often comes hand in hand with failure – giving the short stories a complex legacy that deserves much more discussion in the years to come.

Carnivores and Herbivores

The individual chapters and stories of BEAST COMPLEX are almost entirely episodic, but there is one thing that binds them together: a singular thematic focus on the relationship between herbivores and carnivores in a society of anthropomorphic animals. Sometimes this is through love, other times it’s through friendship – the form may differ, but the basic thrust is the same.

Such a premise will sound very familiar to anyone who’s watched or read BEASTARS. As I explained in my previous article, the whole conflict between carnivores and herbivores forms a key part of the thematic and narrative bent of the series, and the doomed love between Legosi and Haru is but one way in which Itagaki explores the fascinating concept of human nature. In this sense, it’s not hard to see how Itagaki took the basic idea for this concept from her previous work.

Yet, the kind of carnivore-herbivore stories that BEAST COMPLEX tells are quite different from the ones we find in BEASTARS. For one, there are quite a lot more adult protagonists, whereas BEASTARS takes place almost entirely within the confines of Cherryton Academy and the relationships between its students. Chapters 3 and 5, for example, follow the stories of a camel reporter and a gazelle cooking show host as they find themselves coming into conflict with a mysterious grey wolf and a threatening crocodile respectively. And even when there are stories cantered around school-age characters, they don’t tend to have the same effect: whereas Haru and Legosi’s relationship is all about murderous instincts and predation, the relationship between the wolf and the chameleon in chapter 6, ‘Wolf and Chameleon,’ is more about unrequited love and flirty banter. Chapter 1, too, enjoys yaoi undertones as a pampered lion comes into contact with a self-isolating bat.

BEAST COMPLEX

Even so, it’d be hard to deny the similarities between the basic thematic identities of BEASTARS and BEAST COMPLEX. No matter the form that the stories take nor the characters they employ, their message is one and the same: people live in conflict with one another, and there is no one easy answer to this conflict. What’s needed is respect and admiration, not an abstract set of ideals or norms. In this sense, Itagaki stays consistent.

Complex Character Design

The same cannot be said for another hallmark of BEASTARS that saw its first appearance in BEAST COMPLEX: Paru Itagaki’s unique character designs and anthropomorphic artwork.

As stated during the introduction, this artwork is distinct from the western ‘furry’ tradition for two main reasons: its attention to detail, as well as its realistic nature.

Part of the reason for this is due to differing influences. Whereas the western furry tradition enjoys as its origins the more stylistic works of Kimba the White Lion (Jungle Emperor Leo) and Disney’s Robin Hood, Itagaki seems far more influenced by the work of her father, Keisuke Itagaki. That is not to say that Itagaki was not influenced by such things as Disney – she even argues that the series wouldn’t exist without the studio’s works – but that her eye for realism and detail fits more in line with the art of Baki than Wolfgang Reitherman.

Take, for example, the crocodile Benny who pushes Luna the gazelle’s buttons in chapter 5 by insisting on recreating the taste of meat in the soy hamburger that they make live on air. His large mouth and small, inset eyes perfectly capture the reality of what it would look like if a crocodile suddenly became a human. Chapter 3’s camel, too, perfectly captures the imagined reality of a camel-human: his long neck, flowing hair and glass perched on the end of his snout do much of the heavy lifting in this regard.

Chapter 5’s crocodile (above) and chapter 3’s camel (below)

But this is, unfortunately, the first way that BEAST COMPLEX would go on to negatively affect BEASTARS and account for some of its shortcomings. In essence, maintaining such complex, realistic character designs is fine when you are dealing with intermittent serializations – at most four weeks between issue no. 14 and 17 of Weekly Shonen Champion’s 2016 run – but doing so on a weekly basis is bound to lead to trouble. Either you cut down on detail and go for more stylized designs or lose out on visual fidelity and consistency as a result. Your choice.

For a long time, Itagaki chose the latter approach when it came to writing BEASTARS. As I mentioned in my initial review of the series, Legosi’s design changes rapidly over the course of the opening chapters of the series, to the point where it is barely recognizable a story arc later. But even in the earlier chapters, more time and effort has clearly been put into some pieces of artwork than others: Legosi’s body may be nice and detailed, but other parts of the background and side characters often feel hastily thrown together, lacking fidelity as a result.

Eventually, it became clear to Itagaki over the course of BEASTARS’ run that she needed to abandon the realistic approach that she had opted for when writing BEAST COMPLEX and instead go for a more stylized approach that would be more suited to regular serialization. It took her a while to make this change – with her hand no doubt being forced by the cold reality of manga production – but once she did, the results speak for themselves. Never have Legosi and others looked as good as they do right now, and it all runs counter to the influence of BEAST COMPLEX.

BEAST COMPLEX: A Wide World

Even so, I don’t want to bash on Itagaki too much. As mentioned, the author perhaps felt more comfortable with using the more realistic designs on BEAST COMPLEX because of its limited nature and shaking this habit when it came to BEASTARS was, perhaps, something that necessarily took a little bit of time. And she did eventually make the change, so there’s that.

This final section, however, explores one of the most obvious ways in which BEAST COMPLEX influenced BEASTARS: its setting and structure. Telling episodic stories in a shared fictional universe, Itagaki’s preoccupation with world-building over character development is exactly what would make the opening chapters of BEASTARS so unfocused and imperfect – that is, until Studio Orange got their hands on the source material and made it a whole lot better.

Attached to the end of the collected volume version of BEAST COMPLEX is a short making-of manga drawn by Itagaki that explains how the short story series came to be. Itagaki’s avatar – at that point not fully developed into the grotesque chicken head that is now quite ubiquitous – walks us through how the author was preoccupied from a young age as to how a world of anthropomorphized animals would really work while her friends were content to mock the inconsistencies; how this idea stuck with her through her university years, after which she decided to try and become a mangaka while doing part-time jobs; and how the manuscripts that she submitted during this period to Akita Shoten would eventually become what is now known as BEAST COMPLEX.

BEAST COMPLEX

Just from this short narrative alone, it’s obvious that what Itagaki was really interested in was creating a story about a world of anthropomorphic animal characters and not necessarily the characters themselves. I’d argue this is exactly what drags the early chapters of BEASTARS down. Too many characters are introduced at once and too many elements of the world – such as the existence of the titular ‘Beastars,’ for one – are set up only to lack explanation and proper contextualization. Things do get better later on, but it’s still worth pointing out.

It’s also interesting to note that when Itagaki came up with the ideas for BEAST COMPLEX, her first instinct was to create stories with a mix of characters of different ages. Given that this was something she was creating in her spare time, I think this speaks to her desire to explore the realities of her fictional world in many settings, not just that of a school. And while there’s no evidence of this, I can’t help but that think that the school focus of BEASTARS was something that came from above – at least initially – in order to make it more palatable to the shonen demographic. Perhaps that’s why so many of the series’ best arc take place outside Cherryton – but that’s just a matter of personal taste.

Nevertheless, you can’t bash the world of BEAST COMPLEX and its narrative implications too much. For all it may have contributed to its sister series’ lack of focus, it more than makes up for this in terms of texture and a lived-in feeling that stems from Itagaki’s lifelong attention to detail. The fact that the author pretty much used the same basic world from her short stories – including such elements as the outlawing of meat consumption, the widespread and common nature of predation incidents – in her long-term serialization speaks to this fact. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

BEAST COMPLEX: A Complicated Legacy

To conclude, rarely do we ever get a chance to see so readily the evolution of a story and its author. Comparing BEAST COMPLEX and BEASTARS is like finding the key to a treasure chest: inside we can trace the origins of so many of the elements that would go on to make Itagaki’s award-winning manga so compelling: its thematic focus on the relationship between herbivores and carnivores; its unique character designs based on realism and attention to detail; and a unique world that captures the imagination and entices the reader. Other mangaka certainly do have their own ‘prototypes’ – Kohei Horikoshi has Boku no Hero and Eiichiro Oda has Romance Dawn – but many of these are one-shots and thus tend to be limited in what they offer. The six stories that make up BEAST COMPLEX, however, are a treasure trove of information that deserves so much more analysis and explanation. I can only hope that this article is but the beginning of this.

Yet, it must be said that BEAST COMPLEX also informs many of the faults of its sister series. Whether it is the inconsistent art direction or a lack of focus in the opening chapters, many of BEASTARS failings can be traced back to the stories of BEAST COMPLEX. For however much this may have been affected by publication environment or editorial directives, the blame for this ultimately falls with Itagaki and her relative inability to roll with the punches.

Even so, I don’t want to come off too harshly. Most of BEASTARS faults lie at the beginning, and these faults have been mostly resolved over time – so much so that the current arc of Itagaki’s series is head and shoulders above anything that you can find in her short stories. And that’s saying something, because BEAST COMPLEX is incredibly entertaining.

Furthermore, if this analysis has proven anything, then it’s that Itagaki has enormous creative potential. She was able to develop a world so detailed and lifelike in just six chapters that it could be used almost wholesale in a different story and setting, which bodes well for her future career. If BEASTARS really is coming to an end sometime soon, then BEAST COMPLEX shows us that the life and times of Paru Itagaki are just beginning.


BEAST COMPLEX is available for purchase from Akita Shoten. While it is only available in Japanese as of the time of writing, it’s very possible that VIZ Media may step up to the plate and translate the short stories if their English version of BEASTARS sees enough support. So, if you haven’t already, go and buy BEASTARS! You can also stream the anime on Netflix when it launches worldwide on March 13.

Be sure to check out our features month on BEASTARS as well for exclusive interviews from series creator Paru Itagaki, the team from Studio Orange behind the anime, and more!

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