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The troubling link between desiring and devouring in Beastars

Sniffing around for answers in a bloody mess of ideas in this furry, fascinating manga.

Content Warning: This piece includes discussion of metaphors for sexual assault and drug use. It also includes spoilers for volumes 1-3 of Beastars.

Beastars is a series that goes for it. From fleshing out a society working to accommodate animals of all sizes to depicting a saiga antelope on the streets of a black market where a carnivore can bite off their fingers for several hundred dollars a pop. From the very beginning of the three volumes released in the U.S., mangaka Paru Itagaki deeply commits to every idea introduced in Beastars and almost all of them have some degree of mess about them. What I mean by that is each of the metaphors presented in the series are often used to work through different–sometimes conflicting–ideas.

From the first chapter, the dichotomy between carnivores and herbivores is established as the central conflict around which all other ideas turn, but the nuances of that division are where Itagaki plays. Whether it’s societal discrimination or illegal drug use, Itagaki has taken the division between herbavores and carnivores in all kinds of directions, but the path lined with perhaps the most brambles is that of linking consumption and desire. From its first volume, Beastars links the carnivores’ innate, repressed desire to eat herbivores with their sexual appetites and as the gray wolf Legoshi is the protagonist through which we follow most of the story, this leads to some uncomfortable, even disturbing places.

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Haru is a dwarf rabbit whose introduction places her sexuality center stage. She’s a character with an active sex life and is often shamed for that by other young women at Cherryton Academy. Not only is she dealing with slut-shaming from her female peers, but she struggles with feeling used by the men she has sex with as well. One moment, she’s something pure in their eyes, something worthy of protection, but after sleeping with her, she loses that allure of supposed purity and she says they “dump [her]–after using [her].” In the same scene as her introduction in Chapter 4, she is attacked and nearly eaten by Legoshi, who wrestles with what the series positions as “innate” or “natural” desires. Not only is sex at the forefront of her introduction, but Haru even refers to herself as “food” for men. Something to be desired and consumed.

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Personifying this metaphorical connection Beastars establishes, Legoshi attacks. Though what is literally happening within the world of the story is a carnivore giving into his natural instincts to devour an herbivore, the series makes it difficult–if not impossible–to separate sex from consumption because of the internal monologues of both Haru and Legoshi. The particular phrasing used throughout Legoshi’s inner monologue during this scene, as fellow AIPT writer David Brooke points out in his review, is disturbingly easy to map onto a scene depicting a sexual assault.

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Now, because this idea comes across due to the particular phrasing, it should be emphasized that I am pulling from an edition of the manga that credits a translator and adapter in the volume’s back credits. I do not read Japanese and cannot speak to what particular phrasing Itagaki chose to employ in Japanese. However, a combination of trust in the localization team as well as the repeated instances of imagery or dialogue which connects desire and consumption make me confident in my assertions in this piece as a whole, even if this particular scene might be contested should the original Japanese phrasing differ.

Even with that being said, were all words removed, the character acting rendered so richly by Itagaki leaves little to the imagination. What’s even more troubling about this scene is that a representation of what might be Legoshi’s natural instincts and desires appears, urging him to give into these murderous instincts. This isn’t the first or last time the series positions these desires as “natural” or repressed and questions whether or not it’d be better if the carnivores lived more genuinely as themselves by giving into these urges. There’s a recurring internal struggle within Legoshi to accept himself for who he is and not be repulsed by his urges. However, the link connecting those urges to consume with sexual desire make it harder to simply root for Legoshi to overcome his shame as we would most other protagonists.

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My reading of the attack scene in Chapter 4 is just that; a reading. Chapter 25, however, takes this sub-textual relationship between desire and consumption and makes it text. Legoshi ends up at a black market with some other carnivores from his drama club. This black market illegally sells meat to carnivores as a kind of open secret and several characters argue it functions as a means for carnivores to live out their natural urges in a safe, semi-controlled way. When Legoshi becomes overwhelmed by the meat surrounding him, he collapses and is collected by Gouhin, a panda psychologist who specializes in carnivores who’ve lost control of their eating habits and have become a danger to others or even themselves.

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Everything about their conversation only deepens the idea that carnivores’ urge to consume is linked to their sexuality, particularly carnivores like Legoshi. Throughout their conversation, Legoshi and his internal struggle with his desires are positioned less as a protagonist to root for in the hopes that they can accept themselves and give into their urges. Rather, the scene works to position Legoshi as a well-meaning person working to control their urges that will inevitably harm himself or others. What clinches the link between desire and consumption in this volume is Gouhin’s beginning treatment to help Legoshi control himself: a pornographic magazine featuring herbivores complete with a rabbit on the cover.

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At this point, any arguing that this connection is a “reading” to be dismissed as too far reaching rather than canonically stated in the text is moot.

This metaphor colors many scenes in the series in ways that at times enrich the scene with nuance and at others, complicate them with conflicting ideas. For example, what can be made of the scene in Chapter 14 wherein Bill dopes himself with rabbit’s blood before performing onstage? Perhaps the consumption of herbivores in that scene maps better onto a representation of illegal drug use better than anything to do with Bill’s sexuality, as one could also read into the role filled by the black market.

What can be made of the scene in Chapter 10 wherein Louis, after extensive ogling and commentary on Legoshi’s body and the power it holds, pushes him against a wall, grabs his throat, then pushes his fingers into Legoshi’s mouth and screams at him to bite down? Is this scene only about the power Louis envies in the carnivores, or is there some element of desire layered in? When he sees his reflection in Legoshi’s teeth, is his reaction one of someone recognizing their comparative weakness and despairing or is he wrestling with some complex mix of repulsion and fear of his own desire to be consumed, sexually or otherwise?

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Furthermore, what do these messy metaphors mean for us as readers? If we follow the reading thusly, are we essentially meant to root for someone struggling with their urge to commit murderous semi-metaphorical sex crimes? The idea of becoming invested in and–more importantly–sympathizing with a character who doesn’t want to harm others is an easy ask. A character who’s resisting the urge not to commit what is strongly suggested to be sexual assault, however? A much taller order. Telling this kind of story through the lens of animals in a fictional setting makes it exponentially more palatable due to the degrees of separation those layers of fictionalization offer, but no matter how charming Legoshi is as a character, when his internal conflict becomes the focus of a scene, I constantly find myself gritting my teeth and wincing as if I’m about to witness a car crash. I would argue that Itagaki has managed to avoid collision thus far thanks to those degrees of distance as well as the conveyed weight of the material she’s working with. It will all come down to whether or not Beastars sticks the landing with what it ultimately has to say about these ideas.

In short, the series thus far incites many a question with nary an answer in sight. In the U.S., however, we’re still very early into the series, so I hesitate to pass any judgement beyond the fallout I’ve endured from the emotional roller coaster that is these first three volumes. Part of the fun is in asking those questions and riding that roller coaster, as wild as it may be. In spite of the very risky premise for his character, I like Legoshi a lot. I find his awkwardness, kindness, and deep introspection very charming, and I do want him to find happiness. I even enjoy how messy a series Beastars is. I like turning the page and exclaiming at whatever stunt Itagaki is pulling from chapter to chapter and scratching my head at how each new layer complicates the metaphors at play. My only hope is that it continues to take risks that pay off with a series worth consuming, not one that makes my stomach turn.

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