This year marks the 50th anniversary of Akita Shoten’s Weekly Shonen Champion, and conversation has necessarily turned to the enduring legacy of the weekly manga magazine. Having published many seminal series and innovated in the practices of publication in the past, can the magazine face up to the changing world of manga to secure the fruits of its legacy, as well as its future? BEASTARS shows that it can.
In a relatively short space of time since the series’ debut in 2016, Paru Itagaki’s BEASTARS has quickly cemented itself as a core pillar of the weekly manga magazine alongside Baki, penned by her father Keisuke Itagaki, earning the prestigious Manga Taisho award along the way.
Now, with an anime adaptation by Studio Orange set to premiere this October, along with the original manga being picked up for an English translation by VIZ Media, there’s no better time to explain why so many are excited about BEASTARS – and why it might just represent a bright new future for the shonen genre.
Paru Itagaki’s Inventive Art
One of the first things that drew me to Paru Itagaki’s series when I first saw it in a Japanese bookstore one year ago was how unique the character designs on the front cover were – an experience that I’m sure many others share.
Focusing on a cast of anthropomorphized animal characters is unusual in the first place. Perceived wisdom in editorial practices has long since insisted that humans have trouble relating to characters that don’t look like them, and many publishers avoid anthropomorphized characters as a result. Think about it – when was the last time you saw a cast of characters that weren’t human, at least in form, in a magazine such as Weekly Shonen Jump?
You could say that shonen as a genre (however loose its characteristics may be) is, at heart, an iterative one. This stems not only from audience expectations, but also from the hectic nature of weekly serialization that many shonen magazines tend to employ, which often forces an author to fall back on a particular set of standard conventions – such as the tournament arc, the school setting, or even a teenage, human protagonist.
BEASTARS stands from that crowd purely by virtue of its unique anthropomorphized animal character designs. We’re not talking about the kind of stuff you can already readily find on Furaffinity.net, either; much like her father, Paru Itagaki creates a realistic portrayal of what an anthropomorphized animal would actually look like through an intense focus on anatomy.
Take the character of Legosi, for instance. Instead of being your normal cute wolf fursona, he instead invokes the real form of a wolf with his hunched posture, disproportionately large hands, and lanky physique.
Itagaki also focuses on creating character designs that are distinct from another, owing to their different species. In this sense, the wolf Legosi obviously looms over the dwarf rabbit Haru and the bald eagle Aoba stretches up to Legosi’s height by virtue of an elongated head, yet enjoys a stockier stature in accordance with the hunched form of an eagle when perched on the ground.
This is all impressive as Itagaki could’ve easily gone with simpler character designs and still ended up creating a series that stands out from other shonen series – particularly in a bookshop setting – yet she chose to put the time and effort into creating some seriously impressive character designs with an overwhelming amount of attention to detail.
Nevertheless, it’s these detailed character designs that end up dragging the overall art of the series down, particularly towards the beginning of its serialization when Itagaki was forced to grapple with the serious challenge of drawing these complex characters design up to dozens of times each page.
Even when Itagaki becomes more used to the complex character designs as the series goes on – improving their quality and consistency as a result – her paneling can often fall flat, damaging the flow of the art as a result. But the sheer amount of artistic inventiveness on offer here through the character designs were more than enough to get me, and many others, hooked.
Put that together with compelling characters and fascinating worldbuilding, and you have a winning formula.
BEASTARS: A Society in Discord
Some people have joked that BEASTARS is essentially just ‘anime Zootopia,’ and while author Itagaki was definitely influenced by Disney and Pixar works, what makes the anthropomorphized animal world of BEASTARS stand out from such works as Zootopia, The Amazing World of Gumball, and even Sonic the Hedgehog is that this world is not exactly a peaceful one.
If you were to force all kinds of different animals to live together in one society, conflict would necessarily arise. Aside from the obvious differences in lifestyle and habitat, conflict would necessarily arise from the fact that the animal world is divided between carnivorous predators and herbivorous prey.
Paru Itagaki takes this conflict as the starting point for the story of BEASTARS, which follows the grey wolf high school student Legosi as he struggles with his inner feral nature.
Legosi had lived his entire life in defiance of his predator instincts, until one day they awoke in what becomes the inciting incident of the story, where Legosi attacks the dwarf bunny Haru.
The young grey wolf ends up becoming quite infatuated with the dwarf bunny, but he can never be sure if this comes down to genuine romantic attraction or a desire to eat a small animal. In this sense, Legosi is forced to reconcile with his innate nature and social nature.
Yet, another interesting question is posed: is there really such a thing as an innate ‘nature’? There are plenty of animals in the story who actively fight against their inner desires, and some have even managed to overcome them entirely. Such characters include the lion mayor, who removed all of his fangs and underwent plastic surgery in order to appear less threatening; the buff panda Gouhin who has managed to become a tough warrior despite his herbivorous diet; and the secondary protagonist of the story, the proud and ambitious red deer Louis, who attempts to rise to the top of the world despite his vulnerable herbivorous nature.
The question of ‘human nature’ and to what extent are we molded by our instincts vs. our environment is one that scientists, psychologists, and philosophers have been debating for centuries, and it’s not about to go away anytime soon. Our own chaotic world, divided by race, creed, religion, nationality, and language resembles the world of BEASTARS in uncanny ways, giving the series’ world and characters a true resonance that goes against its goofy, anthropomorphized appearance.
All of these real-world comparisons and parallels, reflected in the characters’ own struggles, is what makes BEASTARS truly a joy to read – along with the fact that Itagaki’s art is so unique. The way that Itagaki also peels back the layers of her disharmonious fictional society throughout the story by creating a fictional history, politics and sociology are also fascinating to watch in a serialized format.
The Beauty of Adaptation
BEASTARS is not, however, a series without flaws. As previously mentioned, Paru Itagaki’s art does indeed start off a little rough around the edges due to how much extra effort was needed for the unusual and complex character designs, and her paneling often leaves something to be desired.
We also see the same type of give-and-take relationship, where one good point of the series gives way to a negative, in the story structure of the series. Owing to the expansive, layered world that Itagaki has created, story developments often come out of nowhere and can often lead to unexpected places.
Take, for example, the first arc of the series. It follows the story of Legosi and Louis in the Drama Club, as they strive to make their play a success. At first, you think that the outcome of the play will be the focus of the arc, but, in fact, halfway through the arc, a new narrative focus is introduced which concentrates on the buried, feral nature of Legosi and the flaws of the ambitious Louis.
There is, therefore, a certain sense of narrative dissonance that can’t be escaped when reading the series. Often times, it’s unclear where the story is headed. In general, this seems to stem from the fact that the wide, detailed world of BEASTARS provides Itagaki with too many possibilities than she knows what to do with – perhaps a bit of focus was needed.
Would I change any of this, though? Not one bit.
Many of BEASTARS flaws come from its own inventiveness. That makes sense, in a way; by diverting from the norm and attempting to be more inventive than many of the other, more iterative shonen series out there, more mistakes are bound to be made. But, ultimately, I’d rather have something flawed but unique than something solid but iterative.
No doubt about it, BEASTARS is one of the most inventive and unique shonen series right now. Starting with its unusual cast of characters, it manages to craft a believable and compelling world with parallels to our own, all the while placing the characters and their own arcs firmly within it. That’s why it’s gotten so much attention recently, as well as an anime adaptation.
Speaking of that upcoming anime adaptation, I couldn’t be more excited. Not only will it introduce more people to this fantastic story, but it might actually end up fixing many of its flaws.
If I was to describe my problems with the series’ art in one word, especially at the beginning, it’d be consistency. An anime adaptation doesn’t have that same problem. Studio Orange can literally maintain the same level of quality across the board by creating and using decent 3D models, which were already shown off back when the second trailer dropped.
Studio Orange’s anime could also help firm up many of the manga’s narrative missteps by cutting scenes or adding them when appropriate. That’s a task that will also be made much easier with adaptational hindsight – a luxury Paru Itagaki is not afforded in the chaotic maelstrom of weekly serialization.
BEASTARS: The Future of Shonen
It’s easy to look at the current state of shonen manga and despair. New series such as Samurai 8: The Tale of Hachimaru and Beast Children truly show off how unoriginal and iterative the genre can be. Even when new series try something different, such as the heavy political leanings of Tokyo Shinobi Squad, this can backfire horribly.
Anyone who’s read something like Hunter x Hunter or Bakuman. knows that the loose definition of what truly makes a ‘shonen series’ other than demographic should liberate and inspire authors, not force them to rely on iterative conventions.
BEASTARS is not an entirely unique series – it can be comfortably classified as a high school drama alongside the likes of Fruits Basket – but it is one that stands out among the crowd due to inventiveness. Everything from the character designs to the detailed world to the complex characters shows that shonen manga don’t have to rely on convention to excel – creativity and inspiration can go a long way.
Given the success of Paru Itagaki’s series, I have no doubt that several copycat series will emerge in the coming years. That’s fine, as long as they try to copy Itagaki’s creative flair as much as they do the world of anthropomorphized animals.
The upcoming anime adaptation should also serve to introduce more people, especially in the west, to the incredible appeal of this story not just on its own merits, but also in the context of shonen manga as a whole.
And when it comes to the enduring legacy of Weekly Shonen Champion, where the series is currently serialized? Between it and Baki, it’s safe to say that it’s in very capable hands.