Beastars. Gleipnir. BNA: Brand New Animal. Three of the year’s hottest anime series are what you might describe as “furry,” in one way or another. These series all share an introspective, animalistic thread that, while not new to the medium (coughWolf’sRaincough), does make for one of the most hyper-specific anime trends in recent memory. Rather than being just a character design choice like, say, making Sonic a hedgehog or Mickey a mouse, these series use casts of anthropomorphized animals to uniquely explore unmistakably human emotions.
In Beastars’ society, humanoid carnivores and herbivores co-exist in relative harmony. Its high-school setting has all the trappings of a high-camp teen soap opera like Riverdale or The O.C., but all the interspecies love triangles, murder mysteries, and lion yakuza wars serve as vehicles for a beautifully messy meditation on sexual desire and self-discovery.
Beastars may look pretty niche even by anthro standards (a deer having human hands and fingernails instead of hooves looks inexplicably odd), but the series has won over many anime laypeople friends of mine with its penchant for inventive storytelling and surprising levels of character depth. One of the show’s biggest charms is that rather than use different species as an (unseemly and played-out) allegory for race, each character’s species emphasizes their individual differences as people and the way their feelings manifest.
For Louis the red deer, being an herbivore gives him an inferiority complex and a mean case of fang envy. He harbors intense jealousy toward carnivores’ physical strength, causing him to act prideful and overly dominant to those around him. Another character, a dwarf rabbit named Haru, is always treated as if she’s a fragile little thing, liable to be devoured at any moment. As such, her promiscuity is motivated both by her perceived lack of time and the fact that sex is the only time she doesn’t feel infantilized and pitied by others.
As for Legoshi, a gray wolf, he’s all at once discovering himself as a carnivore, a sexual being, and a person. Society considers his kind, submissive, quiet personality highly abnormal for wolves, as well as his attraction to Haru. In an obvious parallel to what our own society tells queer people about their own attractions, everyone around Legoshi tells him his feelings for Haru are unnatural, predatory, or wrong. Legoshi can’t understand what his feelings mean, with even Haru believing their love could be dangerous; after all, everyone knows carnivores are mere slaves to their instincts.
Instincts are a central part of the show’s conceit, often comparing hunger with sexual desire and power. I’m torn. On one hand, it requires you to shrug off a lot of the messier points (like sexual awakening being compared to literal predation). But much like X-Men stories often use mutants as metaphors for any number of oppressed classes, I find it’s best not to expect the finer points to translate one-to-one, and to just enjoy the homoerotic fight scenes that result.
Beastars is very horny, but more importantly, it is horny with meaning. In fact, the series lacks much of the empty fanservice common to many contemporary anime, with each moment of hypersexuality feeling completely genuine and intrinsically woven into the show’s narrative. I don’t think I’ve seen a show more skillfully and accurately portray the anxieties of attraction, the warm nervousness that comes with getting intimately acquainted with a new lover’s body, and the vulnerability that comes with laying bare the desires society has taught us to resent.
Like Beastars, BNA: Brand New Animal focuses on a society of animal people, but in this world, the beastmen exist as a separate but similar species alongside humanity. One day a human girl named Michiru suddenly transforms into a tanuki beastkin and, fearing persecution, ventures to Anima City, a safe haven for all beastfolk, to try and discover a way to turn back.
BNA enjoys Studio Trigger’s usual visual appeal and a premise full of interesting concepts. It’s pretty fun overall, but very little of its plot sees any follow-through. It’s clear the show is trying to say something, but never entirely apparent what that might be.
At first it paints racial discrimination between humans and beastmen with woefully broad strokes. Then there’s a baseball episode, followed by a sudden shift to exploring the parallels in how society treats religion, celebrity, and fandom. That tangent was interesting and I wanted to see more! But by the end it veered off into beastmen rampaging against each other and some sort of commentary about the self-imposed homogenization of Japanese culture? I wish I had more to say about it, but it’s not really coherent enough to dive into. If anything, BNA is a great example of why not to use animal people to tell a story about racial prejudice: It’s corny and it doesn’t really work.
Gleipnir is the odd pup amongst these series, bizarre in both its premise and how it qualifies as “a furry show.” It differentiates itself from other prestige furry shows because it doesn’t technically feature any anthros. Rather, the main character, Shuichi Kagaya, is a human who can turn into a super-powered fursuit that fights monsters. You know, typical teenage shenanigans.
As far as plot, Shuichi wakes up one day horrified to learn he can transform into more-or-less a typical Japanese mascot character, but with heightened strength, smell, and agility. He soon discovers the existence of others like him, known as gatherers, humans who’ve collected special coins for an alien who, in exchange, grants them monstrous powers. (Shuichi doesn’t remember how he got his, though.) Soon, a girl named Clair discovers his secret and blackmails him into investigating this crazy shit and fighting the gatherers with her.
Shuichi is intelligent, loyal, and well-liked, but hides deep reservoirs of depression, self-loathing, and fear. His transformation represents these hidden aspects of himself. When he changes, he becomes a large cartoon dog with patchwork skin, a huge, fixed grin, and a large zipper on his back. When Clair dares to unzip him, she finds the dog is a completely empty costume with a fleshy interior and no sign of Shuichi. He doesn’t exist even within himself. So Clair leaps to the only logical conclusion: to enter the cavity herself and pilot him like a mech to fight the monster people. Duh.
When Shuichi tries to fight on his own he’s clumsy, barely able to control his movements. Unlike him, Clair has no special powers. She lost all sense of agency in her life when her sister became a gatherer and killed their parents. When she takes control of Shuichi’s body, she relishes his power and utilizes it in ways he never could, with ruthless precision and aggression. Violence terrifies Shuichi, but Clair, driven by her strong survival instinct, fights and kills their enemies with ease, much to Shuichi’s horror. What brings one partner euphoria fills the other with tremendous guilt.
Clair is particularly fascinating as the only prominent character who isn’t a gatherer. She’s collected the coins and met the alien, but lacks any desire to change into something else. When the alien asks whether she likes or hates herself and offers her a wish, Clair replies, “If you can’t find anything to like about yourself, you should just die.”
Surprising, since she and Shuichi only met when he rescued her from a suicide attempt. When Shuichi asks whether she might use the coin at some point in the future, Clair replies she has no desire to, because she’s now happy with her life. Clair’s finally found somewhere she belongs: literally inside of Shuichi. In a series where everyone transforms and gains tremendous powers, she is the only person completely comfortable with who they are, and that’s largely because she has a supportive partner.
The dynamic between the two leads is just as sexually charged as it sounds, with Clair often teasing and dominating Shuichi and remarking on how right it feels to be inside him. But much like in Beastars, this eroticism has meaning, examining the way sexual and romantic relationships affect us. Clair refers to entering Shuichi as “becoming one,” and the two are able to sense each other’s emotions. The more often Clair enters Shuichi, the stronger they become as a team and as individuals, in the same way growing more intimate can strengthen bonds between lovers and teach each partner more about themselves.
But Gleipnir also examines how bonds can become detrimental.
Clair dominates Shuichi, and because he only wants to protect others and lacks the ability to care about himself, he’s happy to let Clair use him to achieve her goals. While both are comfortable with this arrangement, the bond between them becomes codependent, with both insisting Shuichi is useless without Clair.
When he eventually bonds with a fellow gatherer who shares his kindhearted values, and this girl inevitably fills his hole to pilot him, they find their bond synchronizes even more easily than his with Clair. They truly do become one, turning into an altogether new, more powerful being. This terrifies Clair into realizing she may have been taking Shuichi for granted, and that she needs him as much as he needs her. Overall, Gleipnir’s psychosexual action brilliantly delves into how the intimate bonds we build with others affect us as individuals.
All these shows came out fairly close together and a heartfelt thread of humanism runs through each. Beastars, BNA, and Gleipnir each make points about the human condition through their furry casts, with the two stronger series both telling high-concept, melodramatic stories about what we need to nurture personal growth, such as intimacy and self-knowledge. And despite its plot weaknesses, even BNA, in its more cogent moments, shows a propensity for thoughtful introspection into the value of community.
I’ll admit I was hesitant to get into Beastars for all its hyper-realistic anthro eroticism, but I’m glad I explored this particular rabbit hole (horrible pun fully intended). It turns out this very specific micro-genre of deeply thoughtful storytelling, told with a cast of emotional animal people, can end up feeling like a lot more than the sum of its furry parts, making for some of the most stimulating anime this season.
Chingy Nea is a writer, comedian, and critically acclaimed ex-girlfriend based out of Oakland and Los Angeles.