Beast Master, Vol. 1
By Kyousuke Motomi
Published by Viz Media
Yuiko Kubozuka is a seventeen-year-old animal lover whose over-exuberance unfortunately sends the animals she so loves running away from her in fear. When Yuiko’s intrusive attention finally drives her own cat up into a tree, a mysterious young man emerges from the tree’s branches, rescuing the cat and running off into the night. The young man is Leo Aoi, who is soon officially introduced as a new student transferring into Yuiko’s high school class. Leo, who was raised on a remote island and later lived in other areas sparsely populated by humans, is more comfortable with animals than people, a trait that makes him appear frightening to the other students in his class. Eager to thank him for rescuing her cat, Yuiko follows him up to the roof of the school, where she easily befriends Leo, who is grateful to meet someone who isn’t scared of him.
As she gets to know him, Yuiko discovers that Leo actually has a warm, almost childlike personality (as well as a close connection with animals that Yuiko truly envies). Unfortunately, he also has a rather terrifying mental condition that sends him into a violent frenzy whenever he experiences intense fear coupled with the sight of blood. Though this reaction served him well in the wilderness (where he was frequently under attack by wild animals) it makes him a real danger to other humans, and even his legal guardian, Toki, is unable to control him by any means other than shooting him with a strong tranquilizer. It is Yuiko, then, who discovers that she alone has the power to soothe the beast in Leo and bring him out of his frenzy.
Despite its horror-movie title and fairly implausible premise, Beast Master‘s opening volume can best be described as sweet. Both Yuiko and Leo share a kind of open innocence that is undeniably adorable, even when it is responsible for some of their greatest areas of ignorance (such as Yuiko’s consistent failure to understand animals and Leo’s difficulties with humans), and watching the two of them together is pretty charming. This volume includes standard shojo-friendly elements like cute animals, gang leaders with a heart of gold, innocent cuddling, and people doing their best, but regardless of the levels of believability and cliché associated with any of these items (and more) there is an unforced warmth running throughout the story that is pretty difficult to dismiss.
Also, though the premise is pretty simplistic, there is some real depth to be found in the execution for anyone who’s looking. Yuiko’s inability to connect with animals is incredibly painful for her, blinding her to her own strengths. Despite her focus on animals, she possesses an understanding of people that is unusually well-developed, a fact finally pointed out to her by a friend late in the volume, which is undoubtedly responsible for her ability to recognize Leo’s true self while everyone else views him with fear and suspicion. Because of this, she’s able to offer Leo the opportunity to actually live with other humans instead of being caged by them, something she clearly does not recognize the significance of at this point. With Yuiko at his side, Leo is able to safely make a place for himself in the human world, while Leo offers Yuiko the opportunity to learn how to truly love animals rather than simply forcing her will on them, something of which perhaps he truly does not recognize the significance.
With both characters maintaining a level of innocence unusual for their age, the thing that seems most difficult to imagine is romance, though the artwork gracing the volume’s cover (as well as its individual chapters) would indicate that this is where things are headed. This incongruous tone is a bit jarring at this point, and it will be interesting to see how smoothly the author manages to pull that off as the series continues. That said, the fact that the two leads are currently unconcerned with romance is one of the story’s nicest characteristics. Both characters are strong and nicely layered, even early on, and it’s nice to read a school-based shojo manga in which the heroine’s focus is on something other than getting a boyfriend. This is quite nicely reflected in the internal artwork, which is effective (if unremarkable) and nicely restrained, especially in terms of toning.
Though Beast Master is not as immediately addictive as some of its soapier shojo neighbors or as emotionally complex as others, it is both warmer and more thoughtful than its premise would suggest, making it a promising new addition to Viz’s Shojo Beat lineup.
Review copy provided by the publisher.