Welcome to Cherryton Academy, where the high school students are real animals. Quite literally.
In a darker version of Zooptopia, predator studies next to prey as a tenuous peace is kept through strict regulations. This is the premise of Paru Itagaki’s Beastars, winner of the prestigious Manga Taisho Award, which recognizes newer series limited to eight collected volumes or less.
The story begins with violence as an herbivore member of the drama club is murdered on school grounds. The school immediately spins into chaos, with students turning on one another in suspicion. Within the tightknit drama club, a seemingly gentle wolf named Legoshi takes center stage as the main suspect. Legoshi, formerly the victim’s closest friend, must not only deal with his personal grief, but also the very public suspicions of his schoolmates. Complicating matters further is a dwarf rabbit who awakens unfamiliar feelings in the lone wolf that oscillate between long repressed instincts and perhaps something a bit more complicated. Add to this the school wide pressure to become the next Beastar—a role model fit to lead a very divided world—and you have the ingredients for a thoroughly engaging read.
Thematically, the book covers a lot of territory. With its anthropomorphic characters struggling to coexist, there is constant tension in place. The social hierarchy gives carnivores the physical advantage; however, they must suppress their natural instincts. In fact, it is the gravest sin to kill an herbivore. The author and illustrator, Itagaki, also explores the role of prejudice in the form of speciesism. Both sides of the dietary spectrum have preconceived notions about their counterparts and it is rare to see predators and prey intermingle. In fact, close friendships are typically determined by one’s taxonomy. Only a few animals are able to transcend this divide, including Legoshi, Naru the dwarf rabbit, and Tem, the alpaca whose murder forms the book’s central conflict.
The book also features a drama within a drama, as the characters prepare to put on a play mirroring the stark reality they face. It is no accident that an herbivore plays the grim reaper, a role that places life and death in the hands (or in this case hooves) of the prey. The part belongs to a red deer named Louise, a natural leader who shines as much for his acting abilities as his strict control over the drama club. Many believe he will be the next Beastar; however, his arrogant and condescending nature makes readers ponder the true qualities of a hero. As the polar opposite of Legoshi, who is surprisingly caring and compassionate, we see how discrimination can cloud judgment. In this case, our reluctant hero is mistrusted and misunderstood based on his genetics, not on his character.
Matching the book’s intricate storyline are the detailed pen-and-ink illustrations. The realistic style is fitting for an anthropomorphic world in which the animals face very human problems. In fact, the degree to which the animals resemble humans in both facial expression and body proportion can be downright unnerving. Itagaki’s choice to render the background in a more cartoonish fashion also heightens the realism of the animals through juxtaposition. The images also reflect the duality of Legoshi’s nature. He is, in turns, scary predator with sharp and jagged lines that dominate the page, and lovable canine with softer shading and a much smaller stature. Itagaki also effectively conveys emotional intensity through expressive lines that often become entangled and frenetic. Eyes also are a window to the characters’ inner emotions, with some frames containing nothing more than a pair of eyes infused with fear or rage expressed solely through the masterful artistry. Also noteworthy is the use of light and dark to contrast predator and prey, a divide which is further accentuated by visually separating the animals within the frame. The tension is palpable as opposing pages feature one “tribe” or the other. Tension also is created by allowing the readers to see more than the characters themselves, as when an unknown predator spies on its potential prey. Only we see the massive paw with the sharp and gnarled claws just waiting for the right time to strike.
Overall, I enjoyed the murder-mystery element, which compelled me to keep reading. I felt like I was on pins and needles with a killer at large, and sympathized with both sides. While the herbivores were vulnerable and scared, the carnivores were villainized simply for being meat eaters. Can we blame them for their genetics? In this authoritarian society, the answer is apparently a resounding yes. I also liked the book’s back matter, which featured a behind-the-scenes look at the characters in addition to a fun little comic.
I look forward to reading more Beastar adventures, especially with the cliffhanger ending and compelling characters. I would recommend this book to teenage and adult readers.
Beastars, vol. 1
By Paru Itagaki
VIZ Media, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: T+