[Review] Kemono Friends

8/8

tlstxpk

A literal children’s TV show massively elevated by good writing and good direction.

I’d heard about Kemono Friends being a top seller despite its animation being CGI (read: terrible), its production quality being poor, and its writing complexity being nothing to write about. Both of these were pretty big turnoffs despite the continual porn of one certain character constantly popping up; I’d written it off as Japanese My Little Pony.

Then I saw this image.

61sn6ybWhy would someone make crossover art of a children’s TV show and a horror game?

Cute fanart, sexy fanart, crossover fanart, these are all common. There are a few artists who really like drawing gore of cute things for some reason, but that’s not the case here either. Why would this exist? Why of all things a videogame from a different tone and genre that’s been dead for four years[1]? It could be that this was made by a big name artist who just happened to be a really big fan of this show and that game, but it resonated with me, and it resonated with others, so it couldn’t be cha-ching or marketing. What’s the show about? Why does everyone like it[2]?

mxf14sm

Kemono Friends definitely encompasses many different demographics; as an anonymous 2channel poster points out, it appeals to fans who like cute girls, animals, ruins, road trip movies, post-apocalyptic narratives, and whatever everyone else is watching. On one hand, it follows a familiar iyashi-kei formula: cute girls with simple, likeable and easily distinguishable personalities doing not much in a picturesque setting. Their cute clothing and art style and cheerful, innocent personalities (it’s still not clear what Serval eats or how she hunts) places them firmly in the moe category: girly and sweet enough to put the viewer at ease while sexy enough to keep older male viewers coming back or fantasizing. […] Yet unlike some other moe shows, Kemono Friends eschews fanservice to keep it family-friendly, as TATSUKI intended.

It’s an anime that can be enjoyed as a basic story with simple characters and a non-threatening atmosphere and as a perplexing mystery that discloses its secrets at a leisurely pace.

[Anime News Network]

The big reveals happen in the final few episodes, and there’s a few things which hint toward it sprinkled here and there throughout the series. The reveal’s contents aren’t really unique, and the way it’s primarily revealed is through a character who is from the very beginning established to be a plot device character. The rest again is a literal children’s TV show.

really good children’s TV show. It’s not about friendship, it’s not about self esteem, it’s not about learning about different animals and their environments, it’s an adventure. We’re told in the first 5 minutes what the purpose of the show will be and it trims everything towards that. Why the characters act like children is also explained in the story, but even if it was left just to “it’s a children’s TV show”, Kemono Friends uses that to strengthen its writing. Children don’t really need explanations and children are generally simple – or in other words, fewer obstructions to the adventure.

Kemono Friends doesn’t waste my time.

pwk1xj0

The blue character says that the bus’s battery is empty and needs to be charged. The orange character barely knows what a bus is, doesn’t know what a battery is, or what it means to “charge” something. But her reaction is “Does that mean we can’t play?”. They wanted a “bus” for “playing”, the explanation sounds like the “bus” has some problem, the first and only question that needs to be asked is: is it broken in the way which means “we can’t play”? That’s all she needs to know, that’s all we need to know. What do we need to do so that we can play? All the reasons inbetween don’t really matter.

zyuhanb

The opening image[3] occurred in the first 10 minutes, after two short scenes where the hat character slid down a sandy cliff and fell into water while attempting to jump rocks across a river. The hat character apologizes in a couple of lines across a couple of following scenes, and other than a few responses from the orange character along the same lines as the one in the screencap, it’s not touched on explicitly any further. In an average American children’s TV show, that line’s existence would mean the rest would be an entire episode about poor little hat character’s self-esteem, 10~15 minutes of moping around saying sad things, and then in the final ~5 minutes of the episode, oh there was no need to worry all along, I just had to believe in myself! Then the next episode is basically the same thing happening to another character, and then another character, until they run out of characters, then it’s back to the first one, until they eventually happen run out of episodes[4].

f0p9pz9

That doesn’t happen in this show. Things both big and small are given a short reaction, and then everyone goes on their merry way. There’s one extended reaction in all the 12 episodes near the end for the plot, which all in all is understandable and easily forgiven. And even then it’s fairly short. Basically the only thing which takes a long time is travelling or getting held up by some major event. There’s no long monologues, there’s no long conversations, and the lore reveals outside of the plot-related stuff near the end are also just a few lines here and there, perhaps with a little surprise from the great voice acting cast.

A lot of it is simply left up to the viewer. The lore and plot aren’t complex, and it’s not necessary to figure it out before the simple childlike characters do, but it’s easily doable, and it’s surprising how well it’s executed. I wrote off the haunted house episode as soon as I saw it was going to be the haunted house episode, and missed the chance to actually see the plot coming before it did. In a literal children’s TV show! I turned off my brain, the show kept chugging along like it always did, and then suddenly here’s the big one. Kemono Friends does hold your hand as you’d generally expect a children’s TV show to. No violence, no sex, everything’s pretty friendly, the aesthetic fits, the music fits… but for the satisfying stuff you need to do just a little bit of work on your own.

06cmcub

It made me realize how much work is generally done for the audience in most media. High contrast lighting, strong music, multiple buildup scenes: in every aspect, well-funded TV shows and films aimed at adults will telegraph exactly what you should be feeling and what you should be thinking at every second. These are held as inarguably better for storytelling, but the cost of always being perfect is the cost of this is loss of investment from the audience. They’re interested only because it makes them feel something; beyond that they’re just waiting for the next hit. Hit them too hard too often, your story is now “melodrama”. Don’t hit them enough, it’s now “boring”. One solution is to only hit them the right amount at the right frequency, but that still leaves investment at zero. Interest without investment creates buzz, not a memory.

Characters in a memorable story need to overreact to things which aren’t a big deal and underreact or not react at all to things which are a big deal[5]. There’s other things too, but in terms of the writing these are among the things which need to happen, and Kemono Friends has this in spades. The lore has a grand mystery, yet no character reactions to it, because it’s explained why they wouldn’t really know about it or be interested in it.  Trivial things which have happened before, here’s a special exaggerated reaction face cutscene anyways, because it’s a children’s TV show. For the important bits emotional alignment with the audience is critical; outside of that, seeking alignment isn’t the best use of resources. Kemono Friends did a spectacular job in this respect.

And it succeeded with this skill in writing and direction. Characters were cute, but the season it aired in was fairly moe-heavy, and none of the characters were more than what’s usually derided as “cardboard cutouts”. Voice acting was good, but no big names, and subtlety was lacking[6]. Lighting was, with a few exceptions, nonexistent. Music usage was pretty creative, the music itself sounded like it was stock off some public domain library. Animation was terrible. Story was simple even after the big reveal.

It’s not bigger than it is, yet it feels bigger than it is.

It’s not cute animal girls alone that are selling massive numbers of buckets.

ojho1k3

4haegbf

>a show with only 5 animators BTFO’d a Kyoani production in sales
Damn. Doesn’t Kemono Friends also have more merchandise that Maid Dragon?”

“They had a shop event that was supposed to last a few weeks that had to be converted into a “gallery” with original art and signatures from the staff because they went out of stock not even 5 days in.”

“Yes, mainly because they had to start creating merchandise on the spot simply to keep up with sales.

They took pictures of the VAs in both their character outfits and normal clothes and sold them in the store for 6000 yen.

And still sold out.”

“Are there kemono friends plushies?”

“none yet since nobody actually prepared for it becoming popular

They could only mass-produce plastic wash buckets with character logos which are funnily enough, sold out”

“Japs joked that it was an art museum by day 4.”

“I don’t see how other shows even come close when:

  • Kemono Friends labeled plastic buckets get sold out to the point that there’s a 5 buckets per person quota now
  • Kemono Friends broke on demand paid view records
  • Kemono Friends are doing collaboration with zoos nonstop, now with 5 municipal zoos running promo concurrently
  • Kemono Friends shop at Shinjuku ran out of things to sell in 3 days”

“Why the fuck would anyone buy 5 buckets?”

“You mean 10. They limit it to 5 because people bought 10 of it.”

When I started writing I planned to score this show a 7/8. I like more complex stories, and I was constantly aware that I was looking at low production values. Everything is just really simple.

Upon review I have to admit it was a really tight simple. There’s enough examples out there where things have been simple and bad, and plenty more complex and bad. Or, unfortunately, complex and mixed, where it feels worse because of how mediocre some parts feel in relation to the rest. Kemono Friends, certainly due to budget in some cases, overall must’ve been intentionally created as a very cohesive narrative and experience. In many places lesser directors with poorer direction would’ve made a lot of things unnecessarily complex, taking up a lot more time, and whatever the solution that episode, ruin the flow of the story as a whole. As it is, nothing was larger than it needed to be. Problems simply didn’t arise. Simple to view is not simple to create.

Kemono Friends is not perfect.

But it is a masterpiece.

8k221an


[6] Not always a bad thing.

[5] I read somewhere that learning is a result of overreacting to a problem. Counterexample: you probably don’t remember how to solve any marginally complex problem which you googled an answer for and instantly got easily applicable results.

[4] Specifically: Dragon Tales. It’s a general problem with American TV shows, whose genetics arise from radio broadcasts, which were run and written by committees, whereas anime arise from manga, which are generally run and written by a single mind. I read this explanation somewhere a long time ago but I don’t remember where I read it.

[3] (image link)

[2] I feel this is the highest aim of fanart.

[1] There apparently is a reason, but I’m not interested in playing more Dead Space.