A year or so ago my need for great storytelling and strong, realistic female characters was more than satisfied when I came across an anime called The Beast Player Erin. Frankly, I’m not sure how I found it; the book series (by Nahoko Uehashi) which it’s based on has never been translated and published in America*, the anime hasn’t been released on DVD either, and on the one site that streams it legally (Crunchyroll.com), it’s currently tucked away on page 5, overshadowed by super popular shows like Bleach and Naruto. However it is that I happened upon The Beast Player Erin, I’m glad I did as it’s become one of my favorite anime and the heroine, Erin, is definitely one of the strongest heroines I’ve seen. So, without further ado, let me introduce you to it!
When it starts, Erin is a very bright 10-year-old living with her widowed mother, Soh-Yon in a quiet village. In this fantasy country, the country is governed by the Shin-Oh, a queen said to be a god, while the military is left to the direction of the Taikoh whose army utilizes giant dragon/lizard-like creatures called Tohda to protect the country. This is a key point because it just so happens that Erin’s mother is the best care-taker in this village of the Taikoh’s precious Tohda, something that Erin aspires to do herself one day. Eager to learn and very observant, Erin has all the potential to do so.
The Beast Player Erin begins as a somewhat slow-paced tale about an intelligent young girl with an insatiable hunger for knowledge and leads to much darker times with political intrigue and plots that Erin unwittingly gets drawn into. The first several episodes follow Erin through a series of small adventures within the village, exhibiting her inquisitive and observant nature and her relationship with her mother. This part is more setting up the series and although I wouldn’t call The Beast Player Erin a fast-paced series, the beginning feels more like a more innocent slice-of-life type story. However, there are hints of deeper issues that will play a large role in Erin’s life staring with the discriminatory behavior some villagers show toward Erin’s mother, Soh-Yon who comes from an aloof group of people known for their distinct green eyes who are believed to have magical powers and are thus feared.
Gender issues are also introduced early on because Soh-Yon’s position as a beastiarian gives her power that women don’t usually have. As we are shown in one of those early episodes, girls are usually married off in their teens and are limited to more traditional, domestic roles. These two issues will be part of Erin’s journey and, after some shocking events, the series shifts from its set up to a story of a determined girl with a goal.
But while we watch Erin grow and learn, we as the audience are also given glimpses of another set of lives; those in the political sphere such as the Shin-Oh, her nephew Damiyah, and her granddaughter, Princess Seimiyah, as well as the Taikoh and his two sons and a couple of other very important characters connected to these political parties. Slowly, the tension builds as we watch Erin and the rest of the cast go about their lives; the story acts in a way that makes the series feel as though it’s all in preparation for the moment when these two groups meet (but don’t disregard the journey to that point). The stakes get higher as the series gets into the darker half of the plot where Erin’s strength, which was ever-present and impressive before, grows to whole new levels. By the end, it’s an all-out drama involving the entire country.
It’s hard to go into such a complex story without spoiling it, but I’d like to talk about a few specific reasons why I loved this anime as a feminist.
First and foremost, the main character, Erin and the messages that accompany her character; as I said, even at ten-years-old Erin shows an interest in life and learning about things. She avoids being a stereotypical genius and instead we see her naturally observant nature and her enthusiasm to learn aid her. Erin never lets life or society take her for a ride, but shows initiative, following her heart and living for goals that go against the grain. For one, she pursues an education. In a society in which pursuing an education isn’t what girls typically do, Erin definitely takes a very different path and this is something that is pointed out at several points in the story. At a crossroad, Erin is given the choice to be adopted into a wealthy family by someone who becomes a father-figure/mentor to Erin. Erin declares with firm conviction that although it is difficult, she would prefer to live on her own and get an education rather than be adopted which would lead to a traditional education in domestics and later, an arranged marriage.
The other characters add to Erin’s story greatly, often either taking a stance contrary to Erin’s which makes Erin’s strength and determination shine all the brighter or support Erin, helping her grow. For example, being so different isn’t always easy on Erin, but Erin’s friend encourages her to be herself and says there is nothing wrong with who Erin is, a message I always appreciate a story for telling. Over the course of the show, Erin matures from an inquisitive girl to a highly intelligent and independent woman with responsibilities. And unlike so many other heroines, I never once felt Erin took the backseat in her own story, upstaged by a hot savior. In short, she’s a very refreshing character.
But Erin isn’t the only strong female character in the show. There are several that enter the story, starting with Erin’s mother, Soh-Yon. As I said earlier, Soh-Yon holds a unique position in the village as a person originating from a group of people who are looked upon warily and being a woman who has a job that is vital to the village. This causes resentment in certain people, but Soh-Yon takes it all in stride, showing strength by not letting it get to her and going about her job. Her job is not without dangers either; not only are Tohda dangerous creatures, but they are so important to the country that failure on the job, i.e. the death of a Tohda in her care, means severe punishment. She is also a single mother and has raised Erin since birth on her own after the death of her husband.
Speaking of which, Erin’s relationship with her mother is also something I like about The Beast Player Erin. Soh-Yon acts as an influence on Erin all throughout the story and sparks Erin’s initial interest in what becomes her goal to take care of and study animals. Seeing Erin’s interest, Soh-Yon encourages and teaches her daughter, endowing knowledge on her that will be indispensable down the road. It’s not an understatement to say that Soh-Yon is a huge part of the story, something that’s nice to see when a very big portion of fiction hardly mentions good ol’ mom.
Gender issues aren’t the main subject of the story, but rather one of the larger theme of society caging people (and animals) in with laws, traditions, prejudice, etc. Erin is unwilling to let herself or others be chained by these unfair circumstances. (Can you tell why I like this anime?) The show presents these ideas wonderfully, giving the audience a cast of complex and realistic characters that each add something to the story. With a refreshing heroine, strong cast (including a lot of good male characters as well) and story, and thoughtfully done themes, The Beast Player Erin is one of my favorite anime. And get this: there is absolutely no fan-service! None! So what are you waiting for? Check it out on Crunchyroll.com!
*Speaking of books, if you’ve heard of Moribito, a series that has been translated into English and stars another very strong female lead, The Beast Player Erin was created by the same author, Nahoko Uehashi.