Wednesday 26 August 2020

Anime REVIEW: BNA: Brand New Animal

BNA: Brand New Animal
BNA: Brand New Animal is available in streaming form on Netflix

Between the successes of Kill la KillLittle Witch Academia, SSSS.Gridman and most recently Promare, it seems as though studio Trigger can do nothing wrong. Their combination of mesmerising animation and easy to follow social commentary has gone down a treat with anime fans, leading them to be a studio where everyone is excited to see what they have planned next. Their latest offering comes as part of Netflix's ever-growing "Netflix original anime" lineup, taking viewers to a world of anthropomorphic animals in BNA: Brand New Animals. Written by Kazuki Nakashima (Gurren LagannKill la KillKamen Rider Fouze) and directed by Yoh Yoshinari (Little Witch Academia), BNA comes hot on the heels of BEASTARS - another Netflix-fronted anime starring anthropomorphic animals. Could this be the furry revolution that we all saw coming?

Michiru KagemoriShirou Ogami

Taking place in a world where humanoid animals known as beastmen also inhabit the Earth, high schooler Michiru Kagemori one day wakes up to find herself transformed into a tanuki beastman. After narrowly escaping death she seeks refuge in Anima City - a safe haven for beastmen where they are able to live freely as themselves. Here she meets Shirou Ogami, a powerful wolf beastman who acts as its protector.

Whilst getting acquainted with the sights and sounds of Anima City, Michiru teams up with Shirou to uncover the mystery of why she has been turned into a beastman. Along the way, she'll discover strange new powers and the secrets behind Shirou as the pair become entwined in an even bigger mystery that puts all beastmen in danger.

The Silver Wolf CultMichiru meets Flip

Upon hearing the base plot for BNA it’s only natural that comparisons are going to be drawn to Disney’s 2016 hit Zootopia, and given how the story of a newcomer to a thriving animal society stumbling on a big mystery/conspiracy develops those comparisons only deepen. But whilst BNA certainly shares some strong similarities with this Western counterpart, it’s the minutiae of how it handles those broad themes that truly set the two works apart. Unlike Zootopia’s human-free world, BNA’s is one where the beastmen can only thrive when segregated from humanity - making its themes of prejudice a lot more blatant.

At the heart of BNA is the dynamic between the plucky Michiru and stoic Shirou - two opposites who naturally come to appreciate each other and work exceptionally well as a duo. Michiru quickly adapts to life in Anima City, and her experiences in getting there (briefly detailed in the show’s opening scenes) show how she’s experienced the struggles the beastmen have faced first-hand. Opposite her is Shirou, a no-nonsense wolf who’s seemingly indestructible and has his own mysteries to be revealed. Supporting them are a fine cast of extras - including Michiru’s best friend turned cult goddess Nazuna, the shady mink Marie and even Anima City’s own naked mole-rat mayor Barbaray. These all contribute to making Anima City seem like a much more thriving society, even if a lot of them don’t really get their dues when it comes to development.

The "human" ShirouMichiru's new powers

BNA gets off to a strong start as Michiru attempts to get to grips with the madcap antics of Anima City, prompting some great episodic stories where Trigger are able to really lean into their zaniness. The reaches an all-time high with the Hiroyuki Imaishi-led baseball episode, where Michiru discovers even murder doesn’t seem to be against the rules here. But on top of the laughs these episodes provide, they’re the best look at the wider world of Anima City we get, especially at its seedy underbelly. These episodes introduce a lot of interesting characters (such as Guiliano Flip, the mobster leader of “The Family”) who feel like they’ll play a much bigger part later on. It isn’t all gang warfare and child trafficking though - episodes like “Dolphin Daydream” prove to be a lot less bleak even with their odd moments of peril.

Unfortunately it’s when the main plot begins to kick in properly that things begin to go a bit sour for BNA. The show was already on to a good thing with the Shirou/Michiru buddy cop dynamic, and had it stuck around doing that longer than the more serialised part of the story might have had more impact. But instead it quickly becomes weighed down by the narrative, muddling its messages in a conspiracy that’s often too complicated for its own good. The beastmen are an obvious allegory for oppressed people, yet the Anima City residents spend the majority of their time in human form - giving the impression that they’re suppressing who they are even in the place they’re supposed to be free. The only characters who walk around in their beast forms freely are the humans that have been turned into them, which on the surface represents her becoming more comfortable in her own skin but also skirts the line of giving them a saviour complex. The narrative also throws in both corporation and cult/organised religion angles, neither of which are particularly well realised. Finally BNA tries to root itself in both science and the supernatural, further muddying the waters and making things particularly anticlimactic when the obvious villain reveals his big origin story.

Giuliano FlipBaseball time!

All of this might not be so bad if not for the sad truth that Trigger have already covered these same ideas so much better elsewhere. Promare particularly handled these ideas far more succinctly, which is quite the feat given that it was doing so with about a third of the running time. A lot of BNA’s story problems simply come down to the fact that when it properly hits it just stops having as much fun. Even when they are at their most serious Trigger productions tend to do everything with a certain loudness and bombasity, and it’s one that  always prioritises the characters above the story. As enjoyable as Michiru and Shirou are in BNA, there’s always the sense that the show could have just done so much more with them. The same goes for all the side characters, who in an ideal world would have had their own episodes to make the audience care about them in the first place.

But if there’s one thing you can rely on Trigger provide, it’s that their products are going to be one hell of a spectacle and BNA is certainly no exception in that regard. Yusuke Yoshigaki’s superb character design instantly fits in with the pantheon of memorable characters the studio has created over the years, with the added animal imagery resulting in some really clever looks. Yoh Yoshinari’s directorial style has lost any of its sharpness since working on Little Witch Academia, and BNA takes advantage of all those visual hallmarks the studio is known for while also coming up with a few new ones. The show’s use of neon lighting to express Anima City after dark is continuously impressive, emphasising the mood with only a limited palette. Michiru’s abilities also give away to some creative transformation sequences, which you soon discover aren’t just limited to her either. 

Nazuna HiwatashiGinrou

If Promare is everything great about Trigger condensed down into one two-hour movie, then BNA: Brand New Animal is everything familiar about them that you've already seen them do better elsewhere. Despite boasting a strong opening and exceptional animation and character design, BNA's main story hampers it at every turn with its rushed progression and unclear messages. Had the series had more time to revel in the every day life of Anima City its climax might have had more impact, but instead that ending comes across more as a whimper rather than the bang everyone has come to expect from Trigger at this stage. While the wonderful visuals mean this relatively short series is still worth checking out if you're a fan of Trigger's work, its story might not be one that stays with you in the long run.

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