Himeno is a sweet, shy little centaur girl. In her world, everyone seems to be a supernatural creature, and all her classmates have some kind of horns, wings, tails, halos, or other visible supernatural body part. Despite their supernatural elements, Himeno and her best friends, Nozomi and Kyouko, have a fun and mostly normal daily school life! – MAL
Episode 1 Summary: Himeno, Nozomi, and Kyouko are your normal, everyday high school students. In their world, however, “normal” means sporting some kind of super-human marker, whether that be animal ears and tails, extra limbs, wings, or other fantastic traits. Evolution took a vastly different course in this universe, and six-legged mammals eventually evolved into the variable humanoid sub-species that we might consider mythological. That said, Hime and her friends lead an especially average life, concerned with the things that might take up any student’s time and energy, like gym class or being in the class play during recital week. Of course, this present day scenario is downright idyllic compared to the atrocities and discrimination of the past, where centaurs were used as slave labor or were thrust into caste-like roles in society. But everything nowadays is fair and equal… or is it?
Impressions: I had every expectation that this show would be a silly, frothy, potentially (too?) fanservicey slice-of-life with some monster girls thrown in for flavor. What I didn’t expect was for there to be even the slightest suggestion of an unsettling backdrop to the story. While this isn’t an unwelcome variation on the theme, I’m concerned that the theme of the series might turn out to be a little bit too unsavory for my tastes.
The first half of this episode is devoted to a story event already in progress. The students are putting on a romantic short play, and Himeno is tapped to play the princess. The gag is that this has been the role she’s played since she was in kindergarten, possibly due to a pun on her name (the “Hime” in “Himeno” meaning “princess”), but more than likely due to her good looks and delicate personality. There’s a vaguely comedic mix up when a male student tries to position himself in the role of the prince but is found out and one of Hime’s female friends gets the role instead (allowing for a girl-girl smooch that seems perfectly aimed at a presumed straight male audience hankering for some yuri action), as well as a moment of tension when the set piece upon which Hime stands collapses under her weight (she is half horse, after all). It’s mostly kind of goofy and dumb, and serves mostly to introduce the main characters and make a few jokes at the expense of the titular centaur.
The second half of the episode, though, has a much more sinister undercurrent. In science class, the characters learn about human evolution from their teacher. All the humanoid variants in their world are the result of fish that evolved to have six fins, which began mammals with six legs, and eventually humans with several different varieties of additional limbs, horns, tails, and other accouterments. Much like our own society, these various differences had the effect of causing discord and discrimination among the different tribes. This is all mildly interesting, and even sort of funny in that the assertion is made that four-limbed humans would only have been different in their skin color rather than their overall body composition, from which no sort of discrimination could possibly have resulted. Perhaps the creepiest part of this whole line of exposition occurs while two very shady individuals monitor the classroom from outside the door. Their faces are mostly hidden but they appear to be listening intently to what the teacher is saying. The line she speaks seems perfectly rehearsed; she proclaims that equality is ultimately more important than anything else, including civil rights. Barring the fact that those two things are pretty darned related, in my opinion, the entire scene feels like some sort of bizarre authoritarian propaganda report. And the creepy men outside the door seem pretty pleased by it.
It’s difficult to know exactly how these statements are meant to come across. I interpret them as indicative of some kind of extremely subtle dystopian society, where personal freedoms have been traded for peace and control, and that unsettles me. I’m not sure if the creator is making these statements to criticize moves to legislate equality, as have been done via various civil rights acts in real life (to varying degrees of actual success); while I might interpret these laws as meant to protect marginalized groups via the (imperfect) legal system, others (wrongfully) might think that they’re being instituted to give some people “special treatment” (ugh). It could also be a statement about the harm that’s done when we’re made to think of everyone’s experiences as being the same, when in fact they’re very different based on a number of factors. There’s a large chance that I’m overthinking a small aspect of an otherwise goofy show, but I think there’s also the potential that the show is making an attempt to be political, and I have the feeling if it goes that route it’s going to be really ham-handed about it.
A third potential interpretation, though, might not end up too bad. The creator could have set the story anywhere, but chose to use a high school as the backdrop for the story. We always hear about how the Japanese school system trains students in conformity and emphasizes sameness and group-think in order to maintain harmony. Knowing even what little we already know about what’s going on in the background of this society, that setup sounds kind of familiar, no? There are already tons of anime, manga, and films that criticize this type of school environment, so it’s definitely not the first (and probably not the best, either). But it does result in kind of an interesting variation on “cute girls with animal ears doing stuff,” so that’s a plus.
Of course, there’s still a hefty dose of “cute girls with animal ears doing stuff,” for good or ill. There are some errant panty shots, a few suggestive yuri situations (basically the first shot of the show is two girls kissing each-other on the lips… but it’s okay because they’re in a play together), and lots of “girl talk” that feels pretty manufactured and occasionally needlessly voyeuristic about body functions. I’m sure we all have questions about how centaurs wipe their butts after going to the bathroom, but I don’t need a fantasy anime series to go into detail about those things when I just want to watch something dumb and silly. The up side, though, is that the characters are actually pretty cute. Somehow Himeno seems delicate despite being three times the size of her friends, and that in itself is amusing.
The character designs are cute, but the animation quality is mostly just serviceable. This is another Chinese partnership anime, and while this one in particular doesn’t feel like it was transported straight from the late 1990’s, I feel sad that seeing a Chinese hand in the production still seems to mean that the show is lacking in quality control somewhere or that the show isn’t given the resources and the time it might deserve. Then again, there are plenty of Japanese (and American) shows with similar issues, so perhaps picking on China in particular is wrongheaded of me.
This show isn’t life-changing and I don’t think it’s that “holy grail” monster girl anime that I’ve been wishing for ever since Monster Musume turned out to be a horny sex-fest of uncomfortable proportions. But if A Centaur’s Life devotes some time to the issues of its broader society (I’m not sure how much the manga goes into it, either), I think it could be kind of interesting in spite of its various issues.
Pros: The story might have more depth than originally indicated. The characters are pretty cute.
Cons: There’s some fanservice that doesn’t sit well with me and seems like yuri bait. The overall visual quality isn’t great. It’s hard to say if the setting and authoritarian rules might be suggesting something worse than “the Japanese school system sucks.”