Did you know Beastars wasn’t Paru Itagaki’s first manga? That honor goes to Beast Complex. The book is a collection of short stories set in the world that would later inhabit Beastars. Don’t get the idea this series is just a proof-of-concept; Beast Complex has its own worth and value separate from Itagaki’s more well-known work. While Beastars has a big-picture view of the world, Beast Complex uses the anthology format to tell focused, small-scale stories about two characters understanding each other. It’s also an interesting journey through Itagaki’s growth as an artist.
The Lion and the Bat
Raul is a lion and king of the school. He’s a natural-born leader, but something is missing from his life. He finds that something in his classmate, Azmo the bat. Azmo is at the bottom of the school food chain and runs away from his troubles. He hides away in an abandoned building, forcing Rault to convince him to come back. As Raul tries to persuade Azmo, they both learn more about each other and themselves. If you were ever a Raul or Azmo in high school, their struggles are very relatable. As this was her first published work, the art is a bit on the sketchy side. Speech bubbles are placed in ways that make it hard to know what to read first. This gets solved in later stories. For eagle-eyed Beastars fans, Legoshi makes a cameo in the first couple of pages.
The Tiger and the Beaver
The Tiger and the Beaver follows the familiar story of a friendship of opposites akin to The Fox and the Hound. Elementary kids Gon, the tiger, and Mogu, the beaver, are life-long friends and inseparable. But outside forces do everything to keep them apart. It’s an interesting look into how systems can cause division. At Gon and Magu’s boarding school, herbivores and carnivores have to sleep in different dorms. This creates social separation. Society also expects the two types of animals to behave certain ways, causing the carnivores to act aggressively and the herbivores to either take it or retaliate. Separation is meant for the student’s protections (animals still eat each other) but instead it causes more harm. The art is a big improvement, though Mogu’s tail changes from a flat tail to a “regular” tail throughout the story.
The Camel and the Wolf
This story feels like a modern-noir romance. The protagonist is a depressed journalist camel, writing his last article as he smokes a cigarette. He encounters a sultry wolf that changes his life forever. She is a femme fatale, one that the camel is wary of but can’t resist. Certain scenes are in the dark and cast moody shadows. While I liked the atmosphere, the story itself was so-so. The central relationship wasn’t developed enough and it made the camel’s character development seem sudden and without much logic.
The Kangaroo and the Black Panther
This is my favorite story from this volume. The friendship between the shaded hotel-owner kangaroo and the spunky panther tenant was a joy to read. Their individual personalities are both strong and clash constantly, making for entertaining interactions. The world’s dirty underbelly gets exposed in this work, introducing concepts such as the meat market. It all builds toward an ending that is both thrilling and beautiful. It’s very hard to tell a resonating story in such a short amount of pages, but Itagaki scores a homerun here.
The Crocodile and the Gazelle
The premise for this story is strange but Itagaki pulls it off. The gazelle is a host of a cooking show that is falling in the ratings. To help with that, the producers bring on a crocodile as a new co-host. They’re not just of a different species, but different taxonomic classes! This boils over to their cooking styles, and the crocodile's tendency to make meat-flavored dishes. While the concept may be out there, using food as a thematic device proves a good idea. Everyone has different experiences and preferences with food. Anyone who asks “What should we eat tonight?” to a group knows the contention it can cause. But if you’re willing to share and be open-minded, you can find something great.
The Fox and the Chameleon
It was hard to pick between this story and The Kangaroo as my favorite. I love when stories about animals use their physiology to explore themes. The chameleon uses his camouflage abilities to blend into his high school class. Disappearing also hides his insecurities and allows him to avoid responsibility to his friend, the fox. The fox has no way to hide herself away from her bullies. Instead, she presents her full self to everyone she meets. These stark outlooks make their friendship, and potential romance, more meaningful. The fastest way to get complex ideas across in manga is through visuals, and Itagaki takes advantage of that with this story.
As a whole, Beast Complex serves as a good introduction to the Beastars universe for new fans and a good expansion for old timers. As a fan of Itagaki’s art and storytelling, I’m glad I got to see how she started out. Though the art starts a bit sketchy at first, her talent is immediately apparent. Seeing that talent grow with each story was inspiring to read. Her writing, though, started as strong as ever. From the first story, you can tell she has some deep ideas. Luckily for us she has good stories to show them off with.