#1 No idea what it wants to be about
In the world of A Centaur’s Life, Human evolution took a turn for the strange. Instead of boring, bipedal people that all look the same, evolution in this universe made real the creatures of folklore that we would consider myths. Centaurs, lizardmen, faun, angels & demons, mermen, they’re all real and living in a modern society.
Much of the anime revolves around the daily lives three high school girls living in this world: the elegant centaur Himeno, the tomboyish demon Nozomu, and the satyr Kyouko. We follow the comedic antics they get up to in and around school, which frequently involve a large cast of bizarre friends. Except, the plot sometimes goes very far off the rails.
While the stories surrounding our three protagonists are lighthearted, there are jarring shifts in tone throughout the series. It feels like the author started writing a slice-of-life story, but then later realized that he wanted to explore the drama of this fantasy universe he created instead. This leads to the introduction of various political storylines that feel misplaced in such a carefree story, and which subsequently get little to not payoff.
There are hints that war might break out between the fantasy races or that conspiracies are being hatched, but these hints never stick. We just return to the daily lives of Himeno and friends, where not a shred of such tensions can be found. There is a particularly unsavory episode that’s a World War II flashback with centaur Nazi’s, where we follow a kid starving in a concentration camp. The episode right after that is about the cast spying on a friend that’s going on a date.
I believe that a “serious” story about this world could have worked, but it needed commitment. A Centaur’s Life keeps flopping between serious drama and carefree slice-of-life without any synergy between the two. It ends up being a series that is somehow incompatible with itself.
#2 Strained justifications for fanservice
A Centaur’s Life struck me as a fairly innocent anime. It started out cute and wholesome, with the few times it addresses sexuality being meaningful moments. There’s a great episode that touches on Himeno’s anxieties about her body and how that affects her love life, for example.
Alas, this too does not last. As the show proceeds, it gets increasingly more excited about throwing in fanservice everywhere and anywhere. Himeno is the main target for such fanservice, as she is semi-frequently stripped down or harassed by her classmates. Many of these scenarios feel forced, like a never-before-seen side-character diving into her breasts as his initial introduction.
But the straw that breaks the camel’s back comes in episode 8, where the mermaids are retroactively changed to be naked. Every mermaid up till then wore normal clothes, but now they are suddenly bare-chested for this one episode. The author tries to frame this as a cultural thing; they are traditionally naked, but cover up when near other races. This explanation seems strained considering the modern, interconnected world that A Centaur’s Life is set in. Firstly because they still wear underwear, secondly because cameras and the internet exist.
#3 Blunted social commentary
A final failure for A Centaur’s Life is how it ruins its own social commentary. The world our characters live in is suspiciously inclusive. All the races living in harmony, equal rights for everyone; it’s a social justice wet dream!
However, this inclusive society comes at a cost. The anime plays around with the notion that this co-existence is maintained by strict government regulation. It’s not that people aren’t racist, it’s that they aren’t allowed to be. The goverment is incredibly afraid of social unrest, so discrimination is strictly illegal and closely monitored.
The first few episodes handle this in an interesting way. There are subtle hints and background details that explore how the government handles this, in a way that I found to be fairly believable. Later episodes throw such subtlety straight out of the window. Secret agents pulling guns on teenagers, certificates proving that you aren’t self-discriminating, spies monitoring interracial dates; absurd ideas that only get weirder in their proper context.
A Centaur’s Life often tries to frame this comedically, but it makes the anime’s politics a strange amalgamation. Inclusivity is presented as absolutely fantastic, but simultaneously miserable and a product of government tyranny. I have no clue what series author Kei Murayama was trying to say here. You could argue that people should be inspired by this anime to think about these topics themselves, but the situations it presents are far too outlandish to project unto our own world.
And, again, why is this kind of drama tossed into such a happy-go-lucky series. Mentions of government black sites and persecution are wholly out of place in this comedy series. Especially when scenarios presented as a big deal in one episode become throwaway jokes in others.