The Humanoid Monster Bem franchise has its origins in a 1968-69 series by that name. It was remade into a second anime series in 2006 and then a live-action drama with a TV series in 2011 and a movie in 2012. This 12 episode reboot is thus the franchise‘s 50th anniversary project.
Though the franchise has gone through significant design and stylistic changes over the years, its core elements remain the same: a trio of humanoid monsters who fight true evil while trying to become human (or at least accepted as human) themselves. It also involves horror elements of varying degrees. Based on what little video I could find of original anime, it was aimed at younger audiences. The 2006 version had stronger horror elements but still a simpler and more youthful sensibility. This version, which features a weightier and more complex take on some of the same issues, is more in line with the live-action version in being aimed distinctly at older audiences while still holding at least some appeal for younger ones; it has separate segments featuring preteen and teen characters as well as ones featuring adults.
At essence, the series is a story about seeking acceptance amongst the most fallible of creatures: humankind. Bem, the seemingly oldest of the lead trio, is a dignified figure who accepts humanity with all of its warts and probably believes in its nobility much more than most humans do. He finds his strongest link to humanity in his encounters with Sonia. In earlier versions Bela (Annie to her friends) took on a mature, vampiric appearance in human form but here she poses as a high school girl with red hair more consistent with her monster form and plays the part of a popular girl at her Upper school. She clearly seeks a place among humans even while having a more pessimistic view of them than Bem does, but as the series progresses she gradually starts to find her link more with an unpopular boy who is fascinated by the rumors of humanoid monsters and thus might be the one human who can accept her for what she is. Belo looks the youngest but has the most cynical character as he questions how worthwhile their goal is. Even so, he makes his own reluctant connections to a group of kids with rotten home lives who hang out with him at an arcade. That the trio regularly debates the merits of their actions while standing atop the bridge carries great symbolic significance; they are on the border between humanity’s best and worst sides.
The enemies they face are a mixed lot, varying from monstrously transformed humans to a resourceful boy on a revenge kick to the darker scheming of the city council. The first case dominates the early stages of the story in a series of episodic confrontations which play out as each of the lead trio’s circumstances are examined in turn. (Interestingly, most of the transformed humans are examples of obsessions being taken to monstrous extremes.) The entry of the boy, who is clearly a new version of a character who appeared in the original 1968 series, establishes the first recurring plotline, which eventually partly entangles with the government angle which dominates the series’ final third.
The weakest part of the series is easily the finale, which feels rushed in trying to bring all of the story’s elements together and set up a high-stakes final battle against a mastermind character. It also leaves one substantial plot thread hanging. However, along the way there are some strong individual episodes and potent scenes as well. The other main unfortunate quirk is that the somber tone occasionally gets disrupted by some bizarrely cartoonish elements, with the worst offender easily being the bowler-themed assassin who appears in an early episode. Thankfully, these end up being bumps rather than derailments; for instance, the bowler episode quickly resumes its more compelling story shortly after he’s out of the way.
And what would a series like this be without a substantial action component? Nearly every episode has at least one major fight scene, and they can get graphic. (The central trio all having green instead of red blood softens the visual impact of the graphic content, though they are not the only ones suffering massive blood loss.) The quality of the fight scenes varies, with some having interesting choreography and a lot of movement while others take big shortcuts. The animation also varies in other ways, especially the degree to which the central trio move their mouths while talking in monster form. There are also infrequent issues with staying on-model. The animation is sharpest and most consistent in transformation scenes, and that and a commonly-dark color scheme help promote the horror elements. Characters carrying over from previous animated versions all get significant make-overs, with Bem’s human form and the monster forms changing the least and Belo and Bela practically being entirely different characters in human form. These updates are unquestionably improvements. Background art is also very solid.
The musical effort on the series is less consistent. The jazzy opener “Memories of the Universe” by long-time seiyuu Maaya Sakamoto (who also voices the boss villain) is a sharp and enthusiastic number which ranks among the Summer 2019 season’s best, while closer “Iriumi” is roucher and more contemplative number more remarkable for some its visuals, which almost exclusively feature Bela. Soundtrack numbers hit the right notes in poignant and heavily dramatic scenes but are all over the place at other times; I think a jazz-infused sound which harkens back to older series was being aimed for here, but it doesn’t quite work. The musical support is, unfortunately, weakest at the end.
Funimation simuldubbed this series. Deep-voiced Gabe Kunda makes a perfect Bem, while Dani Chambers and Felecia Angelle suit their roles well as Bela and Sonia, respectively. I am less keen on Aaron Dismuke as Belo, as his delivery style is a significant departure from the original performance and doesn’t quite capture the tired cynicism of the original. Other roles sound fine.
The bulk of titles that get passed over for episode reviews on our site each season were not worthy of them anyway, but BEM joins The Demon Girl Next Door as the most deserving omissions of the Summer 2019 season. Despite a few hiccups along the way, it mostly succeeds in its aspirations to be more than just another monster fest and fully succeeds in updating the story and design merits for a new generation of viewers while still paying tribute to its earlier versions. (One shot in the epilogue of the final episode is lifted directly from one of the earlier series, for instance.) If you skipped over it the first time around, it may be worth going back and giving it a try.