Beastars – Manga Review

Japanese Title: Beastars

 

Related: Beastars (anime)

 

Genre: Action Drama Slice of Life

Length: 196 chapters (22 volumes)

 

Positives:

  • Unique art is full of expression
  • The world building
  • Louis’s and Legosi’s arcs and themes
  • Memorable side characters

Negatives:

  • Introduces concepts only to leave them unresolved
  • Forgets so many characters
  • Abrupt and rubbish ending

This may be the most difficult review I have had to write. I finished the Beastars manga months ago, the week of the final chapter’s release. However, I have been stuck on what I think of it and thus, what I would write in a review. This might end up being an incoherent ramble. I have to get it out.

Beastars is an excellent manga set in a world of anthropomorphic animals where an uneasy peace rests between the herbivores and carnivores, the latter often viewed with prejudice as bloodthirsty killers. Some carnivores have killed herbivores; therefore, all carnivores are murderers. This tension is perhaps no tighter than at Cherryton Academy, a mixed diet school of herbivores and carnivores, an arrangement on which it prides itself. Public relations take a turn when an unknown attacker eats an alpaca on campus. Legosi, a massive grey wolf and friend of the victim, searches for the predator while grappling feeling of lust and hunger of his own for the small white rabbit Haru.

Most of the first arc centres on the drama club, of which Legosi partakes as a stagehand. His shyness precludes him from the stage. Then we have the red deer Louis, Legosi’s opposite in every way – slender, upright, confidant, popular, and destined for greatness as a Beastar, the most prestigious position in society.

The heart of Beastars’ greatness is in its handling of themes as told through a cast of compelling characters in a rich world. Prejudice, nature versus nurture, and belonging play a major role throughout the narrative. It’s a brilliant twist on the premise to have the carnivores be the “lesser” part of society, those discriminated against. Even within the carnivores, some groups suffer more than others do. The venomous, for example. Instinct for such a setting is to have carnivores dominant, like vampires dominating humans. Beastars’ approach flips the concept and leans into social and political conflict instead of going for the expected violent conflict of such a dynamic. Yes, there is violence, but that hides in the background most of the time.

Legosi struggles with his love of a rabbit, his potential prey, and his care for all living creatures in general. How is a hulking creature with immense jaw strength to be a friend of the herbivores? Who’s going to buy that? On the other side, Louis is envious of carnivores for their strength and inherent superiority. He sees carnivores hiding their true strength as weakness. Why was such strength wasted on them instead of given to him? He could do great things, if only…

The dynamic of these two characters, whether on screen together or walking their separate yet mirrored paths keeps you turning the pages. Many of the side characters are similarly compelling, but more on them later.

Then we have the world. Wanting to know how this society operates raises endless burning questions. If they don’t eat meat, how do carnivores survive? How do interspecies relationships work? Procreation? Are marine mammals intelligent as well? If so, how do they communicate and live? You want to know more.

I love the answers to all of these questions.

Then you notice the forgotten and half-finished concepts. First one, then a few, and then many until you have more incomplete content than complete. Everything starts to devolve past the halfway mark.

Beastars is a rubbish manga for how it presents so much and discards most of it, from characters to plots. Never have I read a story that neglects so much of itself.

When a group of writers get together for a TV series or movie, they will often brainstorm ideas of what needs to go into their story and what optional elements could they include. Do we want a romantic subplot? What about two? Do we include family drama? How are the backstories going to work? And so on. Anything and everything goes on the board before they refine those ideas into a tight narrative full of engaging events. Unused ideas might find a place later. Beastars is like reading that brainstorming board. Seemingly every idea the author had went in without thought of where they would lead or how they integrate with other ideas already in place.

This predicament is particularly egregious when it comes to the side characters. Author Paru Itagaki has a real knack for memorable characters, even minor ones, with such efficient and impactful introductions. You don’t see this skill that often. It recalls J.K. Rowling’s ability to make every character in Harry Potter memorable after one scene. There is the giant snake working as the school security guard (one of my favourites); then we have the beloved “seal bro,” nudist extraordinaire (another favourite); the Michelin Star egg-laying chicken; the rodent leading the newspaper club; the stripper zebra giraffe; and so many more. Each of these are worthy of recurring roles in any story. Sadly, Itagaki likes to buy new toys every few chapters before throwing them away for the next thing. For some of these characters, it’s okay, they need mere chapters. More often than not though, many have such a strong presence and importance in the story (as presented by the author) that you expect them to return. You’ll get to an incident further along and think, “Oh, we’ll see that character again! This is the perfect moment for them.” But no, she’s forgotten they exist.

Let me reiterate. The problem isn’t the plethora of minor characters. The problem is the promise made by the author of their importance each time, yet rarely delivering on that promise. It gets worse.

Major characters also suffer. Most notably, Haru, the main love interest and a driving force in Legosi’s arc, drops off the face of the plot for what feels like a dozen volumes at times. The anime has given her more screen time (for the material covered) and developed her into a better character within two seasons already. If all you have seen is the anime, then you probably can’t imagine a logical way to remove her from the [potential] upcoming seasons. How do you remove the third most important character? Of course it isn’t logical, yet the manga does so.

Every problem comes to a crescendo in the final arc, which introduces a herbivore-carnivore hybrid villain to present a possible outcome for Legosi and Haru’s future. The world expands with a ton of lore, more questions, and even more characters. Almost none of this comes to fruition. Furthermore, the style of the story turns into a battle anime with superpowers (don’t even get me started on these, which also appear once before she forgets them next battle), combat training arcs, and a climactic fight. Gone is the subtlety and social commentary of the earlier arcs – for that matter, gone is the commentary setup at the start of this arc. Yes, the second arc/season has a climactic fight, but it isn’t about the action.

Beastars is up there amongst the most disappointing endings of all time, and not just across manga. I have experienced an absolute ton of stories and few come close to going from such a high quality down into absolute rubbish. Off the top of my head, only Game of Thrones (TV) has outdone it in terms of the quality drop.

You could create a several-page list of characters, subplots, and questions on which Itagaki fails to deliver. When I read the final chapter, I didn’t believe it was the end at the time. I called my friend who introduced me to Beastars to ask if this was right, if it really was the end. Perhaps this was a Naruto situation, where it returns as a “sequel” Naruto Shippuden, surely.

That was it. The end.

The author gave up. There’s no simpler way of putting it.

She has continued the franchise by returning to the Beast Complex series that introduced this world, but it’s just a series of single-chapter stories independent of each other. You know, those short stories that make you want to see a grander continuous story set in this universe…

I don’t really know what to rate Beastars the manga or whether to recommend it. Do I recommend a series with moments of absolute brilliance knowing where it all leads? Do I rate it well for the high points or poorly for the atrocities?

I truly hope that the anime changes a great many things in future. Season three will still be great, but season four onwards will need to change 50% of the material to avoid disaster.

Art – High

Story – ?

Recommendation: Try it. Maybe? Beastars is a great manga until it isn’t. By reading this, you will find many elements to capture the imagination in this animal world, but much of it leads nowhere. Beastars is a fascinating study in storytelling and the dangers of concept bloat.

(Find out more about the manga recommendation system here.)

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