Like any other person, I gave Kemono Friends a pass when it premiered back in Winter 2017. In fact, I originally dropped it immediately after the first episode, dismissing it as a cheap production solely made to market a mobile game (which oddly enough, got shut down before the anime aired). But gradually, I began to hear from people who stuck with the show about how it’s actually quite good. That the show also happened to turn a sinking ship into one of the biggest hits in Japan in 2017 raised my eyebrows even further. Naturally, curiosity would end up getting the best of me and after giving Kemono Friends a second chance, I must say that it is much better than I expected.
Kemono Friends is set in Japari Park, an absurdly large and diverse park populated by “Friends”, animals who have somehow taken human form (and naturally, they’re all cute anime girls). It’s a largely peaceful place though occasionally, there are mysterious monsters called Ceruleans that can give the Friends some trouble. One day in the Savannah area, one of the Friends, Serval (Yuka Ozaki) comes across a young, amnesiac girl whom she names Kaban (Aya Uchida). Together with their little robot friend, Lucky Beast, they set out to find out what species Kaban is, all while meeting various other Friends along the way.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: Kemono Friends is a very ugly anime. I don’t know how to put it more kindly. It’s an entirely CG production and even by anime CG standards, it looks incredibly rough. Characters move stiffly and awkwardly, often coming across as lifeless dolls as opposed to real people. Even their lips look like it’s trying to keep up with the dialogue they’re meant to spout. The backgrounds fare better but their rendering still looks very amateurish, often looking like textures ripped from a video game made over a decade ago.
Things fare much, much better in the story department. Mind you, it’s far from perfect. The first episode establishes the routine of Kaban, Serval, and Lucky entering a new area and meeting new friends and it largely stays that way up until the finale, thereby often leaving things feeling very aimlessly. It doesn’t help that most of what happens in the show are hijinks; fun and charming hijinks that do vary between episodes but nevertheless sidetrack Kaban and company from her goal. And for that matter, said goal is a bit underwhelming. Kaban traverses Japari Park to find out what species she is…which you, the viewer can correctly deduce from the very start of the show…spoiler alert: she’s a human!
Despite all those setbacks, the characters of Kemono Friends did end up winning me over. Admittedly, there’s a lot of them and only the most diehard fan will really want to commit all their names to memory. Despite that, some of them do stand out and are incredibly charming such as the tone deaf Japanese Crested Ibis (Kaneda Tomok) and Racoon (Saki Ono) who spends a weeky subplot, tracking down Kaban to reclaim something she thinks the latter stole. And at the center of all this is the dynamic between Kaban, Serval, and Lucky. There’s some good chemistry with these three with Serval’s adventurous and fearless attitude playing off well against Kaban’s timidness and creativity. Lucky, meanwhile, is an amusing mascot character with its running joke being that it’ll only talk to Kaban and none of the Friends, much to Serval’s chagrin.
Most surprising and most impressive about the narrative is the worldbuilding. You wouldn’t think this would be the case but there is a legitimate backstory surrounding the existence of Friends and Cereuleans as well as why Kaban is seemingly the only human roaming around the park. Kemono Friends is quite subtle about it too; gradually revealing details through recorded messages played by Lucky and clues left around in the environments. As you piece it together, the world begins to take a more post-apocalyptic tone. The areas in Japari Park turn out to be ruins and you’re left wondering where other humans, if there are any, have gone. Fortunately, this is still left in the background, giving viewers something to look out for and interpret while still enjoying the cutesy scenarios that still transpire on the screen.
That Kemono Friends is even good on any level impresses me. The art and animation is unsalvageable but if you are able to look past that, you still have a fun adventure story backed by a charming cast of characters and an impressively crafted mythos. It really goes to show that good storytelling is where it can count the most with any piece of entertainment. If you’re looking for a well-executed cutesy adventure anime, consider giving Kemono Friends a chance. And if you had initially dropped this show at the first episode, consider giving the whole show a second chance.
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