Story & Art: Paru Itagaki
Publisher: Viz Media
Being a teenager is a complex, turbulent time of life, frequently spent navigating illogical mood swings brought on by hormonal fluctuations, a growing awareness of one’s changing body and burgeoning sexuality, and the nagging fear that one social slip up could spell a lifetime of ostracization.
In the world of Beastars, those anxieties remain true for the students attending Cherryton Academy, but there is an added concern: Society is made up of humanoid animals who are classified as either herbivores or carnivores, and there has been a grisly murder of a young herbivore, allegedly by one of his carnivore classmates. Now every carnivore is made to feel like a potential killer, and tensions are running high.
The volume opens with a chase scene depicting an alpaca character whom we will later learn is named Tem, fleeing from a shadowy attacker. Tem is frightened, but he is also conflicted; this assailant is a classmate, someone he sees every day. Tem pleads for his life, but soon is made to confront his fate, bravely facing his attacker and informing them, “It’s you who are inferior to us. You carnivores are all monsters.”
School the next day proves tense, as everyone reels from the devastating news that they lost one of their friends. A wolf named Legoshi (named in honor of the famous monster-movie star Bela Lugosi) seems high on everyone’s suspect list. He’s huge — the largest of the canine carnivores at over six feet tall — and he’s odd. He spends a lot of time alone and aloof, but he is also shaken by the death of Tem, who was his friend. He is determined to fulfill one of Tem’s endearingly schoolboyish goals of delivering a love note to another classmate.
The reader is made to feel sorry for Legoshi, a clearly misunderstood character adrift in the strange circumstances of this vegetarian society. He is quiet and loping, the kind of character who likes to read books and watch insects crawl along a windowpane. He surely does not seem like a vicious killer, even if the dark silhouette at the opening of the volume bears a remarkable resemblance to his own lupine features.
But even Legoshi is made to confront the darker parts of his psyche when asked to act as lookout for an after-hours rehearsal in the school’s auditorium. As he sits and broods, a classmate named Haru, a dwarf rabbit, stumbles into his range of scent. In short order, he is grappling with his pent-up urge to devour her, though the reader could very reasonably wonder if Legoshi is fighting other, more teenage urges as well.
Add into the mix the concept of the “Beastar” — that is, the title given to an individual of greatness within this animal society. Louis, a red deer and head of the drama club, is determined to achieve this rank someday, and his actions as a de facto school leader set him apart as uniquely suited to the job. Legoshi seems to have some quality that appeals to Louis, and Louis is determinedly unafraid of carnivores. He serves as an interesting foil to Legoshi, a brazen, authoritative herbivore set against the timid wolf.
Having animal characters might lead one to assume this is, at its heart, a childish manga. In actuality, its tone is serious and introspective. This is part of its genius, too — setting up a seemingly happy, Disney-esque world where all animals get along in utopian bliss, no one eating anyone else. It pokes holes in that idea within the first 10 pages, however, and continues to pursue dark topics without flinching.
Beastars does a good job of setting up a world fraught with internal conflicts, a world which asks us to question our prejudices about others, but also our biases against ourselves, fed to us by the society in which we live. The first volume acts as part murder mystery, part high school drama. Paru Itagaki’s artwork is lovely, and strikingly different from what most readers would consider a more traditional manga style. It is loose, almost sketch-like, but with a clear understanding of animal anatomy and how that would translate into humanoid shapes and expressive movements.
For readers who are intrigued by this lone wolf’s exploration of self in the face of tragedy don’t need to wait long; Viz Media will release Beastars Vol. 1 on July 16, 2019, and appears to be releasing subsequent volumes on a bi-monthly basis. You can preorder volume one here.