Once-upon-a-time, I watched the anime Tokyo Ghoul on the recommendation of a gaggle of nerdy middle schoolers. I didn’t really like it. But, for my students, maybe I could enjoy their enjoyment of the show even if I regret lying to them that I did like it to win some “cool teacher points.” It was, at least, something to talk about.
Now though, with the conclusion of the fall 2019 anime Beastars, about a high school for anthropomorphized animals struggling through a conflict between herbivores and carnivores that results in the murder of an alpaca, I finally have something good to suggest to my students in Tokyo Ghoul‘s place — because Beastars does everything that Tokyo Ghoul tried to do, just better, from themes about discrimination and growing up to its general production quality (even despite Beastar’s sometimes awkward 3D animation).
First then, I suppose I should briefly re-explain my distaste for Tokyo Ghoul before moving on to my recommendation for Beastars itself:
~ because it’s not like anybody’ll click that over-sized link above!
Tokyo Ghoul disgusted me not for its depiction of quasi-cannibalism but for the basic setting that established the need for that cannibalism to occur in the first place. The premise locks humans and “ghouls” into an ecological conflict by which ghouls prey on humans for food. In response, the human police forces hunt down and murder would-be ghoul predators, thus causing a spiraling cycle of violence that degenerates beyond self-defense into street executions, terrorism, blood sports, torture, and whatever other audience-titillating gorefests I’ve since forgotten. But despite the lead protagonist Kaneki’s unique position as a half-ish ghoul and his privileged membership among a group of non-violent ghouls that feed on suicide-corpses, Tokyo Ghoul’s premise precludes a clean resolution. After all, the ghouls need to eat but, to do so, a human will always have to die…
With that setup then, I think that interpretations of the series that take it as some kind of allegory against racial discrimination miss that the zero-sum, predator-prey premise underneath the allegory resembles the intellectual foundation of some of history’s most virulent racists*. Imagine if minority groups didn’t just want human rights, they wanted to eat your family! Or don’t, because that’s gross and the reason why I can’t appreciate Tokyo Ghoul’s thematic content no matter how enthusiastic my students were for Kaneki’s tale of youthful rebellion.
* [for example, the white-nationalist “bible” The Turner Diaries includes a scene in which black people eat white children!!!]
By contrast, Beastars lacks the same sort of ecological essentialism despite a similar predatory divide between herbivores and carnivores. Instead, it takes an approach maybe more like social constructionism than some kind of naïve absolutist ‘realism’ – though carnivores do attack herbivores on occasion, most animals get along with their neighbors by adopting semi-vegetarian diets (which include eggs… yuck). The greatest trouble comes from social systems that enable commercialized predation by Yakuza-like criminal syndicates buoyed by the tacit complicity of timid politicians. Or in other words, despite the more or less real instincts that drive the series’ animal drama, unlike in Tokyo Ghoul, the conflict in Beastars has a plausible resolution if the characters involved would only choose to act better. The ambitious deer Louis dreams of ending the live-meat trade and the gentle wolf Legosi struggles to overcome his predatory instincts for his crush, the white rabbit Haru (who suffers from her own self-destructive impulses). Contrasting side stories like a tiger’s use of illegal blood for ‘doping’ or a group of carnivore high-schoolers’ first visit to a meat market establish the ways that early social experiences construct and reinforce the inter-group tensions between herbivores and carnivores. Ironically then, even bound by instinct, Beastars makes for a much more effective and realistic basis for an examination of human vice than Tokyo Ghoul‘s dark grit and gore.
And then Beastars does better again by layering that setting-level conflict with more nuanced character portraits. For example, the most compelling of them considers how Legosi’s resistance to his assigned social role as a powerful carnivore doubles up with a gender conflict in which his quiet personality clashes with expectations of his virility as a wolf. Against his herbivore best-friend in Louis and his would-be lover in the she-wolf Juno, who both cultivate extreme, self-conscious auras of masculinity and femininity respectively, Legosi struggles to find comfort in his own awkward body (again, mirrored by conflicts in his actual-lover Haru, though she receives less point-of-view screen time than Legosi). Pushed into the real world, the series perhaps leans into themes emphasizing the acceptance of different gender expressions which, again, puts Beastars so far ahead of Tokyo Ghoul with its bizarre, stereotyped depictions of gay men. On other issues explored through the herbivore/carnivore dynamic, like a sympathetic contrast between ambition and modesty or natural talent versus hard-work, Beastars achieves similar thematic depth.
I’ll hold off on any more rigorous thoughts for now because it’s the New Year holiday and I’m lazy. And oh, I might even have a good excuse to stop here too: though this first season ends with an acceptable resolution, the last episode already promises a season two on the way. Plus, English audiences have to wait until nex– this year for it to appear on Netflix anyway (and shhh… Netflix maybe-kinda thinks I’m still in Japan).
So, I’ll stop here with a solid recommend for anyone waiting to watch it because of region-locking. And, if you still might prefer Tokyo Ghoul for its adolescent nonsense (I can relate), I can promise that Beastars has plenty of violence and romance to keep it in good competition even on that front — and in much better humor too.