BEASTARS proved one of the best shows of 2019 with its fascinating fictional world, unique animal characters, and standout 3DCG visuals. It also proved to be a fantastic adaptation of the original manga by Paru Itagaki, currently serialized in Akita Shoten’s Weekly Shonen Champion. But for all the attention paid to the show since its worldwide release on Netflix, no one has yet pointed out the poignant themes that the story employs, which enjoy just as much real-world relevance as they do allegory and metaphor.
What follows is an exploration of the themes of BEASTARS, mainly based on the story as it is presented in the first season of Orange’s anime adaptation. Yet, because of the story’s ongoing, serialized nature, there will inevitably come a point where we have to move beyond the first season of the anime and cover material that has yet to be adapted. Given that the anime has now a season two, I will endeavor to make this as vague as possible, but even minor details may ruin the surprise for some. Consider yourself warned.
In exploring the themes of BEASTARS, this piece attempts to highlight the role of but one of the elements that make up the core appeal of the series. It also presupposes that art does not exist in a vacuum, that any piece of media (anime, manga, or otherwise) is, consciously or not, affected by the environment in which it is created. That is not to say, however, that BEASTARS puts forward any particular political or societal message; just that, if interpreted in a certain way, you can draw parallels with real-world issues and even find some solutions. In this sense, I looked forward to our interview with Paru Itagaki to see if any of this was indeed intentional.
Instincts and Human Nature
What makes a human truly ‘human’? That’s a question that sociologists, psychologists, and philosophers alike have been struggling with since the dawn of civilization, and BEASTARS has its own piece to say on the subject.
It might seem strange to suggest that BEASTARS, a series which takes place in a world of anthropomorphized animals, has anything to say on the subject of ‘human’ nature. But what is meant by the term here is a more general line of inquiry into what makes conscious beings (in our case, humans) tick. Is it something that is defined from birth, through instincts? Or is something that is formed throughout life, by our environment? BEASTARS tackles these questions and these issues with surprising clarity and originality.
Firstly, in the journey of Legoshi, BEASTARS makes the case that there is something deep down which drives us and forms at least one part of our being. The inciting incident of the series is the one where Legoshi the carnivore suddenly attacks Hal the herbivore because of his primal instincts.
But Legoshi is not gratified by this act, nor is he happy to indulge in his nature. The guilt that he feels as a result of this incident is what underpins the entire events of the first season of the anime, and the suspicion that his attraction to Hal might be more out of predation than attraction is something that never quite clears up, even right towards the end.
Nevertheless, the fact that the world of BEASTARS is divided into two distinct camps – carnivores and herbivores – does not mean that our characters are happy with the ‘nature’ that stems from such a division, that of predator and prey. Indeed, what we see in the journey of Louis the red deer, president of the Drama Club and star of Cherryton Academy, is that the fetters of this nature can be shaken off just as readily as they can be indulged.
Louis begins the series on an upward trajectory, enjoying his renown as an honor student and a sort of ambassador to the continued peaceful co-existence of herbivores and carnivores. Yet, a literal fall from grace soon sets him on a downward spiral, tortured by his own powerlessness in the face of his more powerful carnivore peers. In this sense, Louis comes to accept his nature.
Nevertheless, the final moments of the first season, where Hal is kidnapped by the lion gang known as the Shishigumi, shove Louis off the downtrodden path and back into the ascendancy. After being shamed for his deference to the natural order of things by Legoshi, who decides to save Hal from the Shishigumi despite her being a herbivore and despite the lion gang wielding significant influence in the underground, he pulls himself up by his bootstraps and decides to do what is necessary for his own happiness. Hal is, after all, an object of his affection.
Louis’ true refusal of his nature as prey comes after the events of the first season of the anime, where he becomes the boss of the Shishigumi. This upends the natural order of the world of BEASTARS as well as the Shishigumi itself, and shows us that our nature does not have to define us: we too, like Louis, can become something more.
In essence, BEASTARS’s thesis on the idea of human nature is thus: yes, there is something which defines us, deep down, whether that be our roles as herbivores and carnivores or humans and animals. But Louis’ journey shows us that this nature is not fixed, and can be transcended if we have the will to do so. To return to the debate of nature vs. nurture, BEASTARS clearly takes the stance that nurture plays just as much of, if not an even more important role in who we are. Certainly, without Louis’ adoption by his successful father, his will to break free from the role set for him by society would not have been so strong.
Diverse Societies and Multiculturalism
To go further, it could be said the entire world of BEASTARS functions as an allegory for our own. Not just content with mirroring the key philosophical debate of our society with its theme, the series also seeks to cast aspersions on the key sociological debates of our society, particularly in the modern, multicultural age.
Along with the rise of globalization and global markets, the social character of almost every country and community around the world has become fundamentally diverse. The idea that different people with different cultural backgrounds and different ways of life can live together in a single unit is not at all unusual to us in the modern age, and even Japan, which is unusually ethnically homogenous given its position as a world power, is no exception. Although the government only collects data on the national origin of foreign residents, which makes determining their specific ethnic backgrounds quite difficult, the fact that the number of foreign residents reached a record 1.66 million as of October last year means that Japan has, at least in a basic sense, become multicultural.
It’s not hard to see the diverse society of BEASTARS, made up not just of predators and herbivores but also animals of all shapes and sizes, as an allegory for our own. This doesn’t necessarily mean that each different species enjoys a real-world counterpart, rather signaling more generally the fact that societies in the modern age are increasingly diverse and multicultural. It wouldn’t even be the first series to do so: Disney’s Zootopia arguably did a lot with its own anthropomorphized animal premise to explore the problems of racism and discrimination in our modern-day society.
But it’s also obvious that multicultural societies are far from harmonious. The different ways of life enjoyed by those in society can often come into conflict with one another, and the innate fear of the ‘other’ can be whipped up by populist forces, particularly in times of economic crisis. Racism and discrimination are also constant problems that struggle to find definite and concrete solutions.
BEASTARS represents this ugly reality just as much as it represents reality itself. Different animal groups in the fictional society are always struggling to find the best way to live in harmony with each other, with the conflict between herbivores and carnivores being the most dramatic manifestation of this. The string of predation incidents that occur throughout the first season show that Legoshi isn’t on his own with regards to his struggle against his instincts; many people in the fictional animal society are facing the same problem. How can people with different ways of lives live together harmoniously in a society?
But even on a smaller level, such as within Cherryton Academy, there are problems abound. Larger animals worry about stepping on smaller ones, herbivores can’t help but feel anxious when carnivores eat in front of them, and sexual relations are found to be very difficult indeed. Life is chaotic, and living in harmony can, once more, often be easier said than done.
It’s clear from this that living together in a diverse world isn’t a walk in the park. But it might be worth it in the end, as the next section will explore.
Nevertheless, we must be careful with how liberally we come to interpret the world of BEASTARS and the thematic messages it poses, because the division between carnivore and herbivore could easily be taken as an allegory for our own world’s division between black and white, between races. Yet the connotations of such an allegory would be alarming, somehow suggesting that there is some kind of fundamental biological or physiological difference black and white peoples when the only real difference is the amount of melatonin in our skin. Thus, I prefer to see the diverse world of BEASTARS as a vehicle through which the problems of modern society as a whole can be explored, as opposed to a one-to-one representation. Other interpretations are welcome, however.
The Need for Social Diversity
It’s clear from how BEASTARS approaches the themes of human nature and diverse societies that it evokes some very poignant parallels with the problems and debates within our own society. But having evoked these very real-world problems, does BEASTARS offer any solutions?
In some sense, yes. But I would like to preface this section by clarifying once more that this is purely an interpretation of the story and series as it stands, irrespective of original author Paru Itagaki’s own opinions and ideas. Whether Itagaki supports these political and societal messages is something that doesn’t factor into my analysis.
First, with regards to human nature, we see in the struggle of both Legoshi and Louis that happiness does not necessarily come from simply submitting to our nature. Louis tries this and fails, and Legoshi is fundamentally uncomfortable with the implications of such a choice. There is, therefore, a need to figure out what constitutes our own happiness, regardless of our innate nature, and strives towards that.
For most people in the world of BEASTARS and, indeed, our own society, happiness is not too far removed from what is considered normal and what constitutes our nature. Just as most of the animals in BEASTARS don’t think too much about the nature of herbivores and carnivores, most people in everyday life don’t think too much about what constitutes a human, nor how what makes them happy might somehow go against that.
But there will always be actors in any society who struggle to conform, who do not find happiness in normality and what is considered natural. Many of the main characters of BEASTARS, such as Legoshi and Louis, are examples of this. What is to be done about them?
Going forward into the story of the original manga, we find many examples of what not to do: segregating Cherryton Academy out of fear of predation incidents, encouraging same-species couples through government grants, and placing heavy restrictions on mixed-species couples. In all cases, the problems do not go away, but only frustrate those who find themselves in the non-conforming minority.
What’s needed, clearly, is an understanding between different members of society, both our own and that of BEASTARS. Recognizing that what makes us happy might not do the same trick for others and vice versa is the first step to this.
Accepting this diversity in life paths is also something that is underscored by the diverse world of BEASTARS. Without coming into contact with Hal, Legoshi would never have found his happiness, nor Louis if he had never met Legoshi. This was only possible because BEASTARS is a diverse world made up of all different types of animals with different ways of life, which makes the problems of having such a diverse society more than worth it.
Multiculturalism might just offer a solution to the many problems that modern Japan faces today. On an economic level, there is a need for more foreign workers to fill key gaps in the labor market, but the introduction of more diverse cultures may offer a way out from the atmosphere of alienation and dissatisfaction that seems to permeate throughout the country’s social fabric. While quantifying this concretely is nearly impossible, I would not be the first one to point out a link between the kind of conformity that Japanese education and workplaces encourage and the increasing tendency among youth to ‘plug in and tune out,’ which is, in turn, affecting the birth rate in an adverse manner.
The Themes of BEASTARS
So what, after all of this, is the main thematic message of BEASTARS? Answering that question is hard, just as it is trying to parse whether any of this was intentional. But, if I had to take a guess, it’d be this: be kind to yourself and be kind to others. And isn’t that something we can all get behind?
You can watch BEASTARS via Netflix.