Studio Trigger’s more recent fare is interesting from a critical standpoint because it’s very clear that they are a studio that does not shy away from being political and generally attempting to be progressive. They’re also a studio who, rather than directly addressing Japanese politics, tends to address their narratives through the lens of American politics, often through the X-Men books, which means that due to their distance from American politics, they can stumble into some rakes that are otherwise avoidable, and BNA: Brave New Animal is a great example of this.
BNA follows Michiru Kagemori, in an alternate universe where for millennia there have been anthropomorphic animals, or “beastpeople” living aside humans, in hiding, and often persecuted when they are discovered. At the start of the series, for the past 10 years, beastpeople have had a haven in the city of “Animacity”, off the coast of Japan. Michiru had been born a human, but due to a recent happening, she has turned into a Tanuki. So, she flees to Animacity in the hopes of finding a place where she can be safe, and to find a cure to whatever sort of disease she thinks she’s been stricken with. There she ends up meeting up with Shirou, a wolfman who works as a troubleshooter for the Mayor of Animacity, Barbara Rose.
So, let’s get this out of the way now. Trigger’s affinity for superhero comics in general and the X-Men, in particular, is written over a lot of their works, and BNA absolutely brings that to the fore. In short – Shirou is Wolverine, Michiru can work as either Shadowcat or Jubilee or Armor, among any other of Wolverine’s younger female sidekicks, and Barbara Rose is something of a gender-flipped Professor Xavier, with a little bit of Magneto’s backstory in there.
It’s also completely clear from where they’ve used X-Men references in Promare that they are 100% aware of the Mutant Metaphor. Consequently, it clearly comes across in their work that they are trying to use the Mutant Metaphor and the X-Men analog to try to do some commentary on societal issues.
The problem is that while the Mutant Metaphor is a valuable narrative tool, representation of an analog for real-world bigotry and discrimination without addressing seriously actual real-world bigotry and discrimination blunts the message at best, and can unintentionally erase the actual victims at worst. In the X-Books, Magneto being a holocaust survivor due to his (depending on the author) either Jewish or Roma background makes the Mutant Metaphor work because does not forget the real world human cruelty of the Holocaust and takes it as it is. Having Eric Lensherr sent to a concentration camp as a child because he’s a Mutant, with no mention of the other people who were victims of the holocaust diminishes that cruelty in the narrative.
So, when BNA tries to discuss racial prejudice and discrimination based on societal treatment of beastpeople, both outside of Animacity and in terms of the Japanese government’s interactions with Animacity, because the story omits other human prejudices, the application of the metaphor is weakened.
Where things land a little better is in the context of the class divide, and discussion of that, though even then there are some missteps. Several members of the show’s supporting cast are from the slums of Animacity, who are introduced in the show’s baseball episode (which is one of the best episodes of the show). They’re painted in something of the same way as the residents of the slums in Kill La Kill, particularly Mako and her parents. Which means they’re partly played for laughs.
Now, it’s clear that the situation that the characters are in is horrific. Their quality of life is very poor – they don’t have access to clean water, good food, or generally have many prospects for the future. They’re also portrayed as also somewhat blithely accepting of the situation, without any actually objecting to the situation, acting with a degree of blind joy born out of ignorance of anything better.
I understand, in terms of narrative and tone, why Studio Trigger wouldn’t want to necessarily put into this story the ways that poverty wears on a person, psychologically and physically. Trigger, on shows that are strictly theirs, tends to keep a certain degree of lightness to their works, particularly writer Kazuki Nakashima (who also wrote Kill la Kill and Promare and is working on this season’s Back Arrow), even at their darkest moments. Same with director Yoh Yoshinori. And, to the show’s credit, it omits the problem from Kill la Kill of having an episode where the Poverty Supporting Cast gets out of poverty and is worse off and more miserable when rich than when poor. Still, as someone who grew up poor, and now is a little more middle class, but still is pretty poor, that bit didn’t quite land for me.
Don’t get me wrong – I like the show. It’s incredibly well animated, and definitely shows Trigger’s strengths as a studio. I also like that they’re willing to be political, and the depictions of the themes they’re presenting have improved with time. BNA is a problematic fav – but that doesn’t make it not a fav.
Currently, BNA is available for streaming on Netflix as a Netflix original. No word yet on if the show will get a Blu-Ray release. Also, there isn’t much merch for the show yet – Tokyo Otaku Mode has some mascot keychains right now.
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