In the opening scene of Studio Trigger’s BNA (Brand New Animal), beastman protagonist Michiru hides in breathless silence in an air vent while a group of faceless delinquents defaces a poster nearby. Michiru stares at the poster after they’ve passed on and it’s safe for her to emerge. “Beastmen must die,” the graffiti proclaims.
As with their masterpiece feature film Promare, Trigger has no interest in fucking around with such things as “subtlety.” You know exactly what you’re getting up front, and what you’re getting is an in-your-face allegory about oppression, identity, transformation, prejudice, belonging, all that good stuff.
And, most powerfully for me, about the performative, empty, and dark side of allyship and acceptance. Equally chilling as the violent message of the graffiti above is the poster it’s scribbled on top of. We’ve all seen this poster — generic, simplistic expressions of equality, of tolerance, of acceptance, of teamwork, of camaraderie. Not malicious concepts in the abstract, perhaps; but when juxtaposed with the realities of pervasive hatred and oppression — in this case, starkly, physically juxtaposed, a literal backdrop to hate speech — there’s an all-too-familiar dissonance, a hollow ring of hypocrisy.
Let me be completely honest with you: For my taste, a large percentage of queer “representation” in recent mainstream Western media rings with this same self-congratulatory hollowness of performative solidarity. There’s something inherently insidious about queer lives inserted into stories in a way that, above all else, serves to make cishet creators and fans feel comforted about doing their part for acceptance. This is….a really tricky issue, obviously, and not one that I’m going to magically solve in this piece. Increased visibility and normalization aren’t all bad and the motives of the people creating that sort of feel-good story aren’t typically sinister. There are many sides to this coin.
And yet, it hits me like a burst of fresh air when a work goes so far out of its way not to cater to the comfort of allies. When a work is willing to lean into the uncomfortable, darker nuances of oppression, beyond what can be safely labeled as hatred and prejudice. And in case we somehow didn’t get the radical anti-assimilationist message of Promare, we’re given another chance in BNA — this time spelled out even more starkly for us.
The most direct call-out of performative allyship in BNA comes in episode four, when Michiru and her friend Nina sneak to the mainland to attend a human party. Beastmen can assume human form in order to pass, but Nina is so excited to be at a real mainland party that she accidentally outs herself as a dolphin beastman. And, well…suddenly, she’s the guest of honor.
Yes, that’s a beastman mask on the host, Lisa’s, head. Yes, this is a beastman costume party, and all the young, hip, enlightened humans in attendance are beyond thrilled to have a real live beastman in their midst to fawn over. Nina basks in the adoration — and why not, when she’s spent her whole life dreaming of belonging to the vast world of human culture — until she starts to tire, and Lisa, ever sympathetic, puts her in a giant aquarium. (“She’s a dolphin, right?”)
And so the guest of honor gasps and pounds against the glass, on display, drowning in plain sight while all the humans party on. Symbolism at its most blunt and unapologetic, daring the audience to tag themselves in this scene. The only one who recognizes Nina’s pain is Michiru; and the only way Michiru can save Nina is by outing herself as a beastman — with the full splendor of a superhero transformation sequence — and violently smashing the glass.
There’s nothing I can say that this gif doesn’t say more eloquently. It’s cathartic to see Michiru’s queerness portrayed as something violent, something powerful and uncomfortable and incompatible with the existence of this gathering of ignorant “allies” who don beastmen masks in order to fetishize the suffering of people they’ve never met while they drink and party. The raw physical power of Michiru’s beastman form acts simultaneously here as a force of liberation (of Nina) and destruction (of the party, now inundated with water and broken glass).
In Promare, we first meet Galo when he’s still fully bought into the social structures of the world he grew up with. From that perspective the arc of the story is about Galo unlearning the naive ideas of tolerance and acceptance that society has instilled in him, culminating in his own coming out and in the destruction of the whole paradigm he used to protect. We meet Michiru at a different point in her journey, already estranged from the human world she used to be part of. In contrast to the clips from Promare above, the narrative perspective in this episode is entirely that of the marginalized: We know nothing about the interiority of the humans at this party, or their personal journeys, or whether they learned anything from this whole experience. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t; it’s not Michiru’s problem. We’re seeing through Michiru’s eyes, and she’s the only one who recognizes this party as the uncomfortable fetishization that it is from the beginning. Nothing about this scene is from the perspective or for the comfort of the privileged.
I’ve written extensively about the deeply anti-assimilationist ethos of Promare, how thoroughly and unabashedly it rejects “can’t you just live like normal people?” as a solution, rejects the entire society that would ask such a question, rejects the very concept of “normal.” Of course, Promare being Promare, while all of this is extremely unsubtle and in-your-face, it’s also wrapped up in layers of visual symbolism and metaphor and giant robot battles. BNA does away with most of those layers, leaving only the extremely thin “metaphor” of the beastmen standing in for the societally marginalized. And so when BNA talks to us about assimilation, it comes in the form of Pingua, an old-school beastman rights activist, spelling out explicitly to us (and to Michiru) that “equality” can be bittersweet.
The allegory here could not possibly be any more pointed: For Pingua, “equal rights” has meant literal loss of freedom, has meant violence against his kin for being true to their own nature. When “equality” is something benevolently bestowed by the powerful, it can become another method of control: Equality becomes sameness, conformity, bending yourselves to fit into existing molds lest you forfeit the “rights” that have been granted to you — or, in the case of Pingua’s comrades, forfeit your life.
To anyone who’s followed any civil rights struggle — and in particular the recent history of queer rights in the US — all of this rings extremely familiar. So much has been written about the uncomfortable costs of emphasizing goals like legalizing same-sex marriage at the expense of fighting for more radical reimagining of how society views sexuality, family, romance, gender, and so on. It is, obviously, a deeply complex issue; and to BNA’s credit, like all good stories it raises more questions than it tries to answer definitively. Does Pingua’s story mean that equal rights for beastman is a terrible thing? Well…no, not necessarily, not entirely; but the story gives it space to remain complicated. And it’s so refreshing to see a show giving a sympathetic voice to the idea that when “equality” means taking things that are different and putting them all in the same restrictive box, equality can come at the expense of justice and freedom.
In a lesser show, we would come full circle at the end, back to that graffiti’d poster in the subway station, to find the graffiti scrubbed away — maybe even by the same assholes who wrote it, their lesson learned through the magic of realizing that beastmen are people too. Maybe we’d celebrate Animal Rights Day for real this time, the camera panning out from the newly-sparkling poster to the clasped hands of Lisa and her new beastman boyfriend, strolling off to enjoy the festivities. You can picture it, can’t you? So many stories about oppression prioritize reassuring the privileged that if they just act nice enough, if they learn to be Good, everything will be fine.
Give me stories that aren’t interested in the comfort of the privileged. Give me stories that dare to problematize the ideas of allyship, equality, acceptance. Give me stories that understand that beastmen should never settle for being tolerated in an oppressive human society, when they have so much to teach the world about radical self-actualization.
When we do see the poster again, it’s been replaced with an invitation to Anima City: “The place where I can be myself.”