Title: Beast Complex, Vol. 1
Author: Paru Itagaki
Release Date: March 16, 2021
Publisher: VIZ Media
Beast Complex is a compilation of short stories written before the popular manga and anime, Beastars. The nature of instinct mixed with emotion and personal motivation is explored in a high school setting for the latter. Beast Complex takes a gander at society outside of that box, answering lingering questions regarding how this world of mixed herbivores and carnivores can live in supposed harmony.
Each story is named after the two primary animals who serve as the main characters, a herbivore, and a carnivore pair. This gives each story a fairytale-like aura with a taste of Grimm, as the subjects are sometimes strange and terrifying.
The first story, The Lion and the Bat, reminded me of the primary elements of Beastars. Raul, who is the perfect student outwardly, faces the pressures of who he is supposed to be and is rewarded by going against his stereotypes as a lion. This story touches on the paradoxical nature of how a carnivore must be calm at all times, lest they be subject to the ever-watchful eyes of this mixed society. We also witness the pressure of their own species’ clique, whose pride rides upon how they can embody the virtues of their instincts.
The titular bat, Azmo, serves mainly as a mirror for Raul to express himself safely. While Raul comes to his own conclusions about how animals should really act, this story does not provide a clear conclusion to the problems that its society faces. However, that isn’t necessarily a poor decision, as these kinds of issues may not, in fact, have a solid solution.
Highlights of Beast Complex include The Camel and the Wolf and The Crocodile and the Gazelle. Similar to how modern romance manga has flirted with the idea of more adult settings, these stories seek to define the line between professional work between the two factions of animals and where both animals feel it is wrong to do something but decide to do so anyway. The uncomfortable atmosphere of a crocodile and gazelle working together on a cooking show provides the snappy dialogue and witty commentary on all factors of these societal pressures that a short story manga needs.
However, stories like The Tiger and the Beaver and The Fox and the Chameleon stay within the confines of growing up with these stereotypes. While the animal themes elevate these stories above mere literal retellings of childhood bullying, these kinds of tales do not offer much that hasn’t already been seen in Itagaki’s other work. While the schematics of raising young carnivores and herbivores together are interesting, the complexity of the narrative also suffers.
It is difficult to fit two characters’ worth of personality within the confines of ten pages. Still, the world-building that is the hallmark of Itagaki’s work fills in the need for elaborate backstories. Despite being a short series written before Beastars, having the context of that world will definitely increase your enjoyment and understanding of the forces that are pressuring the animals of Beast Complex. Present in an intriguing setting, the characters themselves become curious cases that decide to sate their emotional and physical needs, despite the mortal danger that their civilization presents.
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