Affection That Devours: Beastars and Relationships

“Oh, please don’t go—we’ll eat you up—we love you so!”

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are

This post contains major spoilers for Beastars season two

In Beastars, the friendship between a deer and the wolf who bites his leg off might be the healthiest one there is. Does that sound bananas? Yes? Excellent, welcome to Beastars. This series about anthropomorphic animals trying to navigate their teenaged years (feat. a murder mystery) has always been deliciously weird, and always been layered thickly with themes about power. Chiefly, power imbalances, and the many ways those might manifest. Season two delves even deeper into those quandaries and reveals some intriguing new commentary on the topic.

Whether or not Beastars is a love story is, at this stage, up for debate (we’ll need to see what happens between Legoshi and Haru in the end), but I think it’s becoming clear that Beastars is a story about love. Love, and the ways that even a positive emotion like it might become destructive; and how a relationship might devour the people within it.

This is not the definitive take: Beastars is about many things, and contains many overlapping and interlocking metaphors that can map onto many different real-world ideas. The search for a single, 1:1 allegory at the heart of this story has kept me up at night, to the point where I have to conclude there might not be one. Plus, there’s more material that hasn’t been adapted/I have not read yet, and as the story continues, more plot elements might pop up that create even more of a thematic tangle. This is a series where a lot of stuff happens, I cannot stress that enough. But here is one reading of some of that stuff, which I think reveals some fascinating subjects well worth discussing. So let’s take a bite, shall we?

Who’s afraid of the big, bad wolf?

The knife-edge tension between carnivores and herbivores has always been at the heart of the series, present in background worldbuilding and in the two key inciting incidents: alpaca Tem getting devoured on school grounds (the murder mystery) and wolf Legoshi nearly eating dwarf rabbit Haru (the love story).

Legoshi grapples with his strange feelings for Haru throughout season one, earnestly wondering where the line between wanting to eat her and wanting to date her is drawn. With this as the central focus—Legoshi trying to wrangle his animal instincts in order to navigate a potential romantic relationship—it seems like sexual awakening is tied pretty directly into the concept of “devouring”. Legoshi’s internal monologues about Haru tangle the distinction between carnal desire and literal appetite: there’s much talk of how soft she is, how good she smells, how his mouth is beginning to water as the result of some deep physical instinct.

The power imbalance between Haru and Legoshi (which Haru talks about directly) also maps neatly onto the real-world power imbalance that exists between vulnerable young women and the bigger, physically stronger, systemically more powerful men who might prey on them. Though I retain my review that their relationship works weirdly well (mostly helped by Haru retaining a lot of agency, and Legoshi genuinely respecting her), there is a somewhat uncomfortable thematic undercurrent if you equate bloodlust with… well, the regular kind.

We can read Legoshi’s hunger for Haru, and the way he deals with it, as a direct metaphor for the “animal instincts” of men and how they all have destructive hormonal desire within them inherently that they must overcome to be functional in relationships. It’s a metaphor that somewhat relies on gender stereotypes that are… worth discussion, I think, but are also quite reductive and don’t give men a lot of credit.

Though admittedly, it does also allow for addressing the idea that men are forcibly slotted into “predator” or “protector” archetypes when they’re assumed to have these inherent strengths and instincts. You can either be the hero or the monster, the big bad wolf who eats the girl or the huntsman who slays it and saves her. But that’s a post for another day.

The question is, then: is the base, carnivorous instinct a stand-in for sexual desire? And if so, is devouring a metaphor for sexual violence? This would track pretty neatly, but it’s complicated in season two when we see more devourings and near-devourings, each between carnivore/herbivore relationships that hold parallels to Legoshi and Haru but aren’t necessarily all romantic or sexual. It’s throughout season two that the metaphor in “devouring” becomes, if not entirely unhinged from sex, more complex. It’s here that those deeper underlayers are revealed, and the conversation about relationships and power within the series really gets buzzing.

The right to bear arms

Let’s set aside the love story for a moment and get back to the murder mystery. Season two reveals that Tem was not killed and eaten by an enemy, but by a friend: brown bear Riz, a charming and happy-go-lucky pal from the drama club. What on Earth could send Riz into such a frenzy that he’d eat his friend? Not hate, but love. Love that Riz didn’t know what to do with, so his instinctive response was claws and teeth.

Beastars portrays a lot of its characters altering themselves and hiding parts of who they are in order to maintain polite society—that’s definitely one of the other big themes/metaphors at play. Riz has a lot of practice at this. As an enormous, strong carnivore, he has to work to fit himself into a more acceptable (read: less terrifying) mould. Socially, he makes sure to be nice to everyone, to come across unthreatening and not flex his abilities unless it’s helpful.

Physically, he’s also restrained by muscle-atrophying medication that bears over a certain size are legally required to take (medication that has painful side effects). Riz keeps so much of his nature hidden away that he’s baffled when Tem seems to accept him as he truly is. Baffled and delighted, so much so that he stops taking his medicine for a few days… long enough that his true, immense strength resurfaces, and he injures Tem by accident.

But even then, Tem is still willing to be friends: trying to diffuse the stressful situation, Tem says that carnivores are monsters but that’s okay. He sees the parts of Riz he was hiding and accepts them, and Riz is so overwhelmed by this positivity and emotional intimacy that a hug turns into a murder. In that moment, he is so moved, so overcome with friendship, that he consumes Tem whole.

It’s a gruesome reminder of the worst-case-scenario for Legoshi and Haru; a scenario they’ve managed to avoid. It’s also a surprising answer to the murder mystery. Riz is not portrayed as nefarious or bloodthirsty. He’s a genuinely nice guy, and his relationship with Tem was genuinely a positive one. They were friends, they had found their way past the inherent power imbalance between herbivores and carnivores. They shared their secrets and felt seen by one another. And in the heat of the moment, Tem was so special to Riz that he had to eat him.

Riz rationalises the devouring as not only natural but beautiful: it’s a sign of the strength of his bond with Tem, it’s a special moment they shared, Tem is always with him now and he can’t let the memories of that time be tainted. Riz’s motivations for wanting to kill Legoshi are, interestingly, not to keep the truth hidden but to stop him from further meddling with this idealised version of the devouring that he holds close to his heart. It’s also not brute strength that defeats Riz in the end, but a demonstration that things didn’t have to be this way.

Teeth as a love language

But before we get to that, it’s worth acknowledging that season two shows us two other near-devourings, and each is linked to positive emotions and positive relationships. Cosmo, an okapi who works as an exotic dancer, is nearly eaten by a repeat customer right after he declares he loves her. This scene is much more intimate and sexually explicit in the manga (a private encounter, rather than the on-stage attack in the TV show), and thus much more directly links strong, overwhelming, personal feelings with the “need” to devour.

Later, Louis is nearly eaten by Ibuki, the criminal lion who has come to have a protective, pseudo-paternal relationship with him. Ibuki cares for Louis, and Louis has made him the happiest he has been in his tragic and bloodstained life… so he declares, right before going in for the kill.

There’s a little bit of magic in devouring, too. Before his fight with Riz, Legoshi eats a moth larva, and has a spiritual conversation with the insect it would have grown into. Because Legoshi respects and acknowledges this life that he’s taken, he’s imbued with new power that gives him the upper hand. Likewise, he gets his final power-up when Louis arrives and asks Legoshi to eat him.

The two cement their bond by a consensual devouring that actually, genuinely, has mutual benefits: Louis loses a leg, the same leg branded with his Black Market product number and the symbol of his past trauma, and Legoshi goes werewolf Super Saiyan and is able to kick Riz’s ass. Now that’s the power of friendship!!

Although, it’s not physical strength that turns the fight. Riz sees that a herbivore and a carnivore can become close without the herbivore needing to die, that love can be expressed without the beloved being consumed. It convinces him to let go of his romanticised memory of Tem’s death and recognise that what he did was truly terrible, thus conceding defeat and turning himself in.

There is, suffice to say, a lot to unpack about this. Legoshi has done the unthinkable, embodied the fears of what can, and must, go wrong between carnivores and herbivores who get close to one another. Except this power imbalance has become balanced because this was consensual devouring that both parties discussed, agreed to, and mutually benefited from. Legoshi and Louis have some sort of soul bond now that lets Legoshi get really buff. Louis is also still alive, proving (to Riz) that you can have a close relationship where both parties survive, and the dichotomy of devourer/devoured isn’t something inherent.

Love does not have to be a thing that devours. You can carry someone in your heart without also carrying their flesh and bones in your stomach.

I’ll eat you up, I love you so

There’s something to be said for how the world of Beastars encourages unhealthy relationships, between animals and individuals. Examples like Riz’s medication suggest that this is a society with a lot of repression built in, naturally resulting in a lot of self-loathing. Riz and Ibuki are lacking in healthy emotional intimacy, and don’t know how to express it other than panicking and going for the throat. Legoshi, who is working to overcome that instinct, is steadily becoming an outlier (though his methods are expressed to not exactly be healthy, either).

To some degree, this society also encourages isolation. Juno muses that she’d be alright with the school becoming segregated because, on some level, it’s easier to avoid bonding with herbivores and just not thinking about them as people. It’s easier, because then you don’t have to worry about what might go wrong if those power imbalances—which are giving everyone anxiety, but no one in authority is really addressing in a helpful way—get tipped. She’s distraught when she begins to bond with Haru… which tracks for the audience, as we’ve just seen several close relationships culminate in someone nearly being eaten.

If we take devouring not as a metaphor interlinked with sexuality, but more broadly related to relationships, new avenues of discussion open up. Even positive relationships can contain power imbalances: one party can take and take from the other, whether they mean to or not, until that person is consumed. That consumption can be romanticised, like Riz waxing poetic about carrying Tem’s essence and memories around with him. But Tem is dead. Tem is gone, and it’s a tragedy, no matter how much his death is poeticised or presented as something inevitable.

Louis volunteering to be devoured, and Legoshi respecting his boundaries by only eating his leg (God, what a sentence), presents an alternate vision of relationships. And tangled in here amidst all the fangs and fur is Beastars’ commentary: devouring as, if not a direct metaphor for unhealthy relationships, certainly an eye-catching method of talking about them. Cosmo and her customer, Louis and Ibuki, Tem and Riz, and even Haru and Legoshi, all let us discuss the ways even good and ordinary people can become “monstrous” if they’re left with unhealthy conceptions of intimacy and their own self-worth, and if they keep “devouring” rather than seeking balance and communication with their friend or partner.

Carnivores eat herbivores, it’s just the way of the world, right? At any given time, society is seconds away from crumbling into chaos, and any given carnivore is seconds away from sinking their teeth into someone they care about. This leads to a world riddled with anxiety and tension, and carnivore characters convinced of their own monstrosity and their inability to form happy connections. Is it any wonder, then, that when they’re pulled out of that isolation and into a relationship that makes them feel good, they self-sabotage and revert to “the inevitable”? Is it any wonder that Ibuki wanted to eat the deer who had made him happy, to prevent him from leaving, to preserve that happiness? There was no other alternative he knew of. He does not know how to love without hurting people.

Just as Legoshi protecting Haru did in season one, Louis and Legoshi’s climactic leg-bite breaks this pattern. You can be emotionally intimate and vulnerable with someone without being consumed by them. You can give them pieces of yourself (literally) so long as it’s on your terms, and you can acknowledge your repressed needs and “instincts” if you also respect others’ boundaries. It’s not what this world expects, and by and large it’s not what this world has taught people, but it’s possible. And so, the deer and the wolf that bit his leg off have the healthiest friendship in the cast.

There may yet be even deeper machinations in the motif of “devouring”, but season two presents a space to play with these ideas. These devourings and near-devourings (and leg-devourings) show how relationships might become destructive, how social ideas about the “inherent” nature of groups might convince people of their own monstrosity, or convince people to romanticise the violence or emotional trauma they inflict. How trauma can make us latch onto positive connections, and how we might lash out and harm people if we can’t stand the thought of losing them and have no healthy way of communicating that. How love—be it romantic, platonic, parental—can often be socially accepted as something that eats you whole. But it does not, and should not, have to be this way.

This is something that’s not always easy to talk about, which is where stories enveloped in allegory and magic and utter bizarreness come in handy. Do not let yourself get eaten alive by someone else, even if they love you; even if they don’t have sharp teeth as obvious as a lion’s or a bear’s.

All that said, don’t eat your friends’ legs, either. That part’s definitely meant to stay allegorical.

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This post was inspired by a long, in-depth, and galaxy-brained conversation with my Writing Buddy Jason. I’m not feeding him my leg, but I’d still like to extend my gratitude for his valuable insights about this series and many other things.

3 Comments

Filed under Fun with Isms

3 responses to “Affection That Devours: Beastars and Relationships

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