Image source: アニメ「セントールの悩み」公式 on Twitter

While all pieces of media, including anime, reveal interesting social truths about the culture which produced them, few are as overt about doing so as is A Centaur’s Life. Some might consider its approach to be “heavy-handed” or “ham-fisted,” but I believe that’s an unfair assessment, in part because the evolutionary setting makes it hard not for us to see clearly and also because the social structure is much more transparent in its purposes.

A Centaur’s Life takes place in an alternate Japan which exists on an Earth where history has been both completely different and yet undeniably the same. While evolution has produced a group of several sub-species of humans with various “mythical” forms (from our perspective), including angels, draconoids, mermaids, cat people, and goat/sheep people. At first, the series focuses on three friends: Himeno (the titular Centaur), Nozomi (a draconoid), and Kyouko (a goat/sheep person). However, other characters, especially Tama (an angel) and her family become incredibly important to showcasing what seems to be the driving force behind the show.

Let’s Overthink the Evolutionary Biology of A Centaur’s Life

Image source: アニメ「セントールの悩み」公式 on Twitter

The complexity of the evolution has been covered elsewhere, and many other reviewers have commented on the show as being about “cute girls doing cute things,” but all of that is really just window dressing. While it’s true that there may be plenty of casual viewers who will stop there, they should not. Instead, the purpose of the series is actually to draw attention to social structure, the way it operates, its conflicts, its successes, and its failures. Like all of the best fiction, and specifically science fiction, the series says more about our own society than it says about one in a parallel universe. The series isn’t really about mythical kind-of-humans. The series is about us, our humanity, and the society we build. And being a product of Japan, with Japanese characters, in a Japan only somewhat politically different from our own—yet not really different culturally at all—the series is a treasure trove of considering social studies from a Japanese perspective, specifically how Japan grapples with its own internal contradictions.

In the World of A Centaur’s Life, You Can’t Escape the Overt Government Propaganda

This is why I firmly believe A Centaur’s Life is far more than just a random piece of pop culture. Given the far-reaching social commentary it presents to its audience, it deserves a place in the emerging trend of giving serious academic credence to examples of popular media. While this will come as no surprise to those who are very much aware of how the “canon” works in regards to formerly “popular literature” (think of anything from Shakespeare, largely produced for general audiences in Elizabethan England, to Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, whose author now has a major biennial academic conference). What’s new is that now academics are not waiting for a consensus about a work as “important” in order to consider it with academic principles.

Image source: アニメ「セントールの悩み」公式 on Twitter

And we really shouldn’t wait to consider what A Centaur’s Life offers because it has already offered us so much that intersects with serious discussions of any of the major branches of social studies. From the very first episode, we are confronted with a debate on the nature of “equality” and what it means for a society to be egalitarian. This is of particular importance in Japan, where there has been a struggle in the post-war period between two divergent, yet often equally held beliefs.

Japan is a capitalist country where businesses can thrive, and entrepreneurs can succeed on merit. Yet, Japan is also a socialist country where the school system has been designed specifically to encourage identification with a general classlessness. It’s a well-known statistic that the majority of the Japanese people, when polled, would consider themselves middle-class no matter their actual position relative to others in income or material possessions up through the 1990s (according to the People’s Lifestyle Poll, in Japanese Kokumin Seikatsu Chousa). More recent surveys put this at around 60% (polls conducted by the Japan Economic Newspaper, Nihon Keizai Shimbun). This seems to fit my own day-to-day experience, where in the absence of direct and incontrovertible evidence, many people in Japan assume their peers are in similar situations to themselves. And we would expect that willingness to admit different feelings publicly has not caught up with private polling.

Image source: アニメ「セントールの悩み」公式 on Twitter

Also in the first episode, we must take stock of the use of social messaging in various forms to understand how a society is maintained. Again, while some of the aspects of this social messaging seem very much overt, not all of it is. It’s easy to see overt examples such as the moral or civics education class where the characters’ homeroom teacher exclaims that equality is more important than civil rights, or the various popular media (the storybooks, the magical girl anime). However, in truth, much of what we know about our world, our society, and our place in it is come by through a very different form of social messaging. And A Centaur’s Life does not neglect to spend an entire episode (and in my view the best episode of the entire series) showing rather the importance to a society of early childhood development and education. 

The Most Human Aspect of A Centaur’s Life Is Man’s Inhumanity Towards Man

Not content to explore the society which exists at present (sociology, psychology, and political science), the series spends an awful lot of time weaving information and even flashbacks about both recent and distant past. To understand any of the social sciences, it’s important to be a student of history. A Centaur’s Life would be remiss in what I believe to be its ultimate goal of informing on our modern day social situations through a parallel social structure without explaining how that social structure came to be. Societies to do not merely exist at any given point devoid of connection what came before. In order to understand both differences and similarities, we must understand the situations in response to which they evolved. Ultimately, the history with which we are acquainted bears only superficial differences from our own. Only the surface veneer of evolutionary biology and political structure makes what we see appear so strange and different.

Image source: アニメ「セントールの悩み」公式 on Twitter

A Centaur’s Life puts this in very stark terms so we can ask all of the big questions. Which one of these Japans is the real Japan? Is personal and individual freedom compatible with legally mandated egalitarianism? What is the difference in value when considering a society that may be “equal” yet not be “equitable.” What role does social messaging, especially propaganda and compulsory education, play in creating one’s preferred society? What human differences are important, and what human differences should be ignored? All extremely difficult questions, but ones that we are forced to consider in watching “cute girls do cute things.”

A Centaur’s Life Deftly Shows How Children Learn to Navigate Their Society

Ultimately though, A Centaur’s Life does not leave us without answers. It does leave more questions than it answers, but to say we can glean no suggested answers (that we may accept or reject) would be false. The series clearly suggests that humans naturally seek to categorize and create differences, even when such differences are essentially meaningless. And that the natural proclivity to discriminate due to these differences requires social restrictions. The series also takes very dim view of colonialism by suggesting that developed nation interference in indigenous populations only causes problems. And yet it firmly comes down on the side of the importance of strong family relationships, and specifically the transmission of knowledge in early childhood development.

What we choose to do with these answers? Well, now that’s the fun part.

A Centaur’s Life can be streamed on Crunchyroll.

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