What’s it about? Anima City was established ten years ago as a safe haven for beastpeople, though its tenuous existence requires its leadership to bend to shady politicians. For tanuki girl Michiru, the city looks like paradise, but when night she arrives she witnesses a terrorist attack and crosses paths with imposing wolf investigator Ogami Shirou. And Michiru has one more secret: she says she’s a human!
Content Considerations: Flashing lights during the fight scene.
Good ol’ reliable TRIGGER. You generally (okay, usually) know what you’re getting from them: beautiful colors, loose and kinetic animation that serves their love of cartoon physics during fight scenes, and narratives that are bursting with heart and generally about half as much brain. Give or take a bucket of camel toes, depending on the director.
The last point is thankfully moot here—instead, we have Yoshinari Yoh in the director’s chair for the first time since Little Witch Academia, and the premiere at least features no fanservice of its multiple female characters. Heck, aside from Michiru’s stuck-halfway design, all the beastpeople we see (when not in humanoid disguise) look like actual animals. No fantasy sexual dimorphism here.
Everyone on the AniFem staff who’s dipped their toes into BNA, the latest title to emerge from Netflix jail, has had a great time with it, and I count myself among them. This first episode hits the ground running and never quite stops, yet it still finds time to suck the viewer into the setting with carefully placed story beats that know just which parts of the fairly archetypal setup to showcase.
Michiru is an immediately endearing protagonist even before the end-of-episode curveball. The side characters we catch glimpses of are also enticing, both in their own right and because of how much fun it already is to watch them interact with our heroine.
The color palette is drenched in the same ’80s neon palette that looked so gorgeous on PROMARE, shifting into bloody red for the fight scene that makes up the episode’s finale. There is a masterful grasp of conveying tone through environment on display here, even if I did find myself wanting the token Good TRIGGER Action Scene to wrap up so I could go back to watching Michiru explore. It’s a beautiful action premiere that sets the stage for its conspiracy plot and the oddball team-up of its leads, and I will absolutely watch at least two more episodes.
Having said all that, now I have to put on my Feminist Killjoy hat for a few minutes and talk about how truly sick to death I am of fantasy oppression metaphors. About halfway through the premiere there’s a beautiful scene where Michiru rushes into the town square of Anima City. Shadowy figures congregate, boxing her in as she appears to shrink… only for a switch to flip and reveal that these are all her fellow beastpeople, here to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the city’s founding.
Michiru, overcome at being surrounded by others who look like her, throws off the cloak she’s been wearing and at last feels free to enjoy herself. It’s a powerfully staged scene that, for me (and not just me), evoked the feeling of entering a queer space for the first time.
But… are there queer and trans people in BNA? It’s too early to say (the cast we’ve been introduced to so far does include a Black character in the form of trickster and walking delight Marie), but that question of representation-without-representation lingers.
This is the double-edged sword of the genre. At their best, these fictionalized stories transcend into a kind of timelessness that can cross generations or sneak progressive stories past bigoted censors (hello, Star Trek!). At their worst, fantasy oppression narratives mimic stories about marginalized groups while keeping the people in question off the screen entirely.
Putting real-world diversity into the cast of your fantasy oppression can at least combat erasure. Even so, it doesn’t address the multitude of thematic pitfalls that come from trying to keep your metaphor as broadly applicable as possible (a.k.a. “the Mutant Metaphor problem”).
This is something TRIGGER has struggled with in the past. Their stories often involve battling against societal oppression. But they’re also tripped up by their own shortcomings with the sexualization of women or playing coy with cases of on-screen queerness, like Ryuko and Mako or Galo and Lio. At worst, they end up falling so hard that we all have to contend with Leeron (in proto-TRIGGER project Gurren Lagann) or the sexualized assault scene in Kill la Kill.
Fortunately, BNA being in Netflix jail has allowed me to cheat just a little, and I can at least look to an interview (spoilers in the link) of series composer Nakashima Kazuki claiming that the creative team wanted the focus of “women’s empowerment” rather than the more painfully generic “living together.” While I suspect the series will still end up messy in places, it’s heartening to know that the studio isn’t just skating by on nonspecific “Oppression Is Bad” narratives that forego any kind of meaningful look at how specific oppression forms.
I don’t hate Studio TRIGGER. I’m literally wearing a PROMARE shirt as I type this. I’m captivated by their work and their intentions enough to want to see them push themselves. And though it’s not BNA’s fault, maybe it’s a little harder to take those broad strokes when 2020 has so effectively ripped the mask off of the bloodshed that was always happening in the streets.
Still rooting for the tanuki girl, though.