The aftermath of the American Civil War isn’t the last place I’d expect to see as the setting for a manga, but it’s pretty close. “Sacred Beasts” kicks right off with its high concept: In the face of losing the war, the Northern States resorted to using “forbidden arts” to create unstoppable soldiers based on the creatures of myth and legend. They won the war, but now these creatures — Incarnates — struggle to fit in as their bestial natures start to overwhelm their human aspects. It’s the personal responsibility of Hank, the captain of the Incarnate platoon and one himself, to track down the Incarnates who have lost themselves and put an end to the danger they pose. Even when it means incurring the wrath of their loved ones, like one Nancy Schaal Bancroft who tries to take him out with an elephant gun the first time she sees him. It should naturally follow from that violent first encounter that the young girl accompanies Hank on his job after she learns that it isn’t as cut-and-dried as it appeared to her. I mean, that’s how these stories work, right?
While the setting may be novel, the story being told within it is anything but. If you go into “Sacred Beasts” expecting to be wowed by its imaginative plotting, then you’re going to come away very disappointed. Those of you who enter with low expectations, or (perhaps more ideal) haven’t already read too many mismatched protagonists take down mythical monsters stories will probably be more engaged by its modest charms. MAYBE, the two-person mangaka team behind this title, invests the title with some gritty, detailed art that makes the setting appear as haunting as it needs to be while also standing out from other manga titles. The stories themselves are also competently executed with some token nods towards the moral ambiguity of Hank’s job and fleshing out his and Schaal’s characters beyond their initial appearances.
If you were being particularly generous, it’s possible to interpret the Incarnates as a metaphor for wartime post-traumatic stress disorder. Here are these soldiers who gave their all for their side in the war, and came back irrevocably changed by their experience and unable to fit back into society or properly relate to those around them. Unfortunately, the metaphor falls apart (or reflects a very grim perspective on mental illness) when all of the encounters with other Incarnates wind up having the same outcome. Probably best not to think to hard on the idea of “Sacred Beasts” having any real depth beyond its monster-of-the-week-killing goals and approach it as a kind of supernatural action/fantasy/horror comfort food.