The adventure is only just beginning
If you asked in me January if I’d be here gushing over Kemono Friends I’d call you insane. This was a show never on my radar given the mobile game origins, the meant-for-kids story, and the distinctively underwhelming animation. Yet gradually and inexplicitly this show became the show to watch, capturing Japan’s attention by storm, sparking a torrential stream of artwork, and even powering to the top of global (!) Twitter rankings. Of course I had to watch and see what the huge fuss was about. Never have I made a more correct decision.
What stands out regarding Kemono’s success is its incredibly simple premise. Amnesic girl wakes up, is discovered by a local resident. Both girl and resident decide to venture off and find out who/what she is. Along the way girl and resident meet other residents, solve their problems, and make new friends. Cue end scene. It’s the tried and true format of most children’s shows gracing midafternoon TV. Such a premise by itself is nothing special—certainly not for explaining the show’s popularity—but Kemono Friends does execute it flawlessly. Each Friend encounter is cute and upbeat, with the self-contained stories never particularly boring. Every Friend problem is approached positively where the answer, more often than not, boils down to teamwork and cooperation. Fun and adventure really is the name of the game here; there is no cynicism, no serious complexity, just a lighthearted story about wonder and discovery. If this was all there was to it, Kemono Friends would deserve brownie points just for its pure and honest approach to storytelling.
Where the show finds its real strength, however, is in its other story. While post-apocalypse plots are always interesting in some capacity, Kemono Friends’ seeming Muv-Luv meets Planet of the Apes backstory turned the whole show on its head. The reason for this though is not for what the backstory was about—and very little was actually said on it— but how it was told. Rather than light novel-esque info dumps, Kemono went show instead of tell, relying on audience curiosity and imagination to identify the secrets hidden in plain sight. Every episode had some clues, whether it be the rusted remnant of a tour bus, an abandoned mountain café, or a dilapidated hot springs. Even the Friends revealed snippets at times, commenting on these manmade features—particularly Boss’ talking—or remarking on their own bodily changes. A good example of the concept is episode four, where Kaban and Serval wind up in an abandoned underground traffic tunnel. Besides the usual inquisitive banter between the two as they walk around, nothing is said, and all that pierces the silence is a peaceful synth music piece. It’s a tranquil, but chilling scene; we are on a happy adventure, but something is clearly amiss in this world and we have no explanation for it. Not until Tsuchinoko drops the bomb and Shoebill asks the obvious question two episodes later is any sort of confirmation provided.
The gradual release of information under this structure combined with the well-executed premise is ultimately what made this show so infectious. Without the jovial, adventurous spirit this would be just another (potential) alien invasion story, while removing the mystery would take away a significant portion of curiosity and intrigue. Both components synergized perfectly, providing the audience a relaxing bit of escapism and something to chew on after the credits roll. Helping in this regard was the simplistic character development. Every Friend was largely defined by their animalistic traits, whether it be Serval’s curiosity, Lion’s laziness, or Beaver’s worry. Kaban in particular featured little actual development outside of her quest for self-identification. The simplicity of character and story both heavily encouraged the audience to imprint their own feelings and emotions onto the cast, grounded by the happy-go-lucky atmosphere. This investment, however, naturally forgot the apocalyptic backstory lurking in the shadows. It’s why when the adventure inadvertently goes south we feel immense shock and sadness because it was never anticipated—the tragic history was supposed to just be for show! All that buildup, all that investment, emotionally released in an instant. It’s the type of setup every story dreams of executing, a well-structured ride of emotions that hits just as the audience is ripe for the picking. And this show pulled it off with no budget and minimal staff.
Without a doubt for me Kemono Friends was this season’s black horse, and is a serious contender for anime of the season, if not the year. Everything in this show worked and worked well; it was a perfect mix of story, narrative and development. More from coincidence than design, however, Kemono Friends succeeded because it never had to succeed. Low expectations and minimal budget allowed the staff to run wild, arguably producing the conditions necessary to defy everyone’s expectations. Other shows will certainly try and emulate the format here—including Kemono’s inevitable second season—but I seriously doubt we will see something quite like this again for a while yet. It may not be the absolute best of anime, but Kemono Friends is a shining example of just what is possible when all the pieces come together right.