Kemono Friends and Nostalgic Charm
I am (gasp) an adult.
I have my own desk at work. I manage my monthly bills. I buy my own ice cream. The regular grown-up stuff. After having this greater sense of responsibility for a while now, I wouldn’t trade it away for anything.
Sometimes, though, I reminisce about my younger days. When I was but a kid, hanging out in the basement of my parents’ home to escape the sweltering summer heat. I’d watch cartoons all day and play video games all night – a perfect use of my time.
It’s tough to feel like a kid nowadays. I’m way too busy, and life in general riles up for one reason or another. Then along comes Kemono Friends. An anime about a child, her anthropomorphic animal companion, and their small journey together.
This show contains an incredible amount of charm. Charm that it uses to try and make its audience forget about adulthood for approximately four hours total. The fact that I’m here writing out this essay is evidence enough that the anime’s strange affinity for charm stood out to me in an interesting manner.
And so it got me wondering: What makes Kemono Friends so gosh darn charming?
Small Details All Add Up
The building blocks to success – or, in this case, charm – start at a granular level. For this anime, that means the deliberate, focused attention paid to the smaller details throughout the project. They form the foundation of the show, and they reel the audience in with their quirkiness.
It begins with the opening track. Entitled “Youkoso Japari Park e,” the piece is fun with its chanting and animal noises and general catchy tune. But, the very first line in the song matters most. It reads verbatim “Welcome to youkoso Japari Park,” matching with its title well. Translating the Japanese word “youkoso,” though, changes the lyric to something grammatically odd: “Welcome to, welcome to Japari Park.” Again, this detail is very small and seemingly inconsequential, but, already with this incorrect attempt at English, the track starts off nearly every episode with a distinct sense of charm.
Sound design continues to play a role elsewhere. For instance, Boss, Kaban’s tiny guide, receives an even tinier effect as he trots along beside her. In this world filled with paws and wings, his waddle provides a contrast that, yet again, gets at that overall charm.
Same goes for Yuka Ozaki’s voice acting as Serval. She has never had a lead role before Kemono Friends, but, in fact, her up-and-coming status in the seiyuu sphere gives her delivery of “Meow! Meow! Meow!” as she attacks or “Tanoshii!” as she exclaims with joy an amateurish edge that doesn’t take anything away from the charm but rather improves on it.
These smaller details appear in other forms, too. Take the introduction of each and every Friend. The anime lists out the order, family, and genus of their particular species, yet it’s completely unnecessary. The viewer forgets this information almost immediately (Besides the zoologists out there, can you remember the three-part classification of the Japanese Crested Ibis off the top of your head?), and it matters not to the plot at hand.
However, through their inclusion, the anime once more builds on its charm by going that small, extra step in educating the audience to some degree. (To answer the question from earlier and for those curious to know: Pelecaniformes, Threskiornithidae, and Nipponia respectively. Yes, I had to go back to episode three myself to look up this info.)
From the simplistic naming of the episodes – “Jungle Area,” “Plains,” “Lodge” – that explain exactly what the next setting contains to the dinky bus they travel in across the whole island, these small details are practically everywhere. They all add up, but they aren’t quite as big as some of the other decisions made.
Moving from a microscope to a magnifying lens, Kemono Friends continues with its charm through more medium-sized decisions. These items come not as specific details per se but instead bigger opportunities for the anime to capitalize on.
One of the most charming choices occurs during the transitions between the A and B parts of a given episode. Therein, the anime literally plays back phone conversations held with different caretakers from zoos around the world where they give their own personal insight about the animals that the audience watches.
This segment goes so far as to add the “neesan” and “niisan” honorifics to the speakers’ names to make the viewer feel as if they are listening to an older sister or brother talking directly to them. Altogether, not very many shows bring in actual material from the real world let alone use it in such an effective, charming manner.
Similarly, the “PPP Preview” plays out at the end of nearly every episode. Here, the voice actresses for the penguin idol group have a bit of off-the-script fun as they mention what to expect next time. In one such preview, they joke about how they could sleep for twenty hours (like a lion), record their extended nap, and sell it at a profit.
Perhaps the most “in-your-face” charm, though, is the show’s visuals. Critically speaking, they are extremely rough. The wonky CG style. The stilted animation. The unassuming backgrounds. Defying the impossible, however, this roughness surprisingly works very well.
For, more than just “getting used to” the presentation, the anime’s visuals know what they are and what they can be. They clearly aren’t trying for something fancy or awe-inspiring. Rather, they hearken back to kidlike simplicity without sacrificing apparent oddity. In doing so, what should be an unpleasant combination becomes a charming artistic direction that the audience can appreciate.
And as an extra addition, Kemono Friends also includes a subplot that follows Araiguma (a raccoon) as she retraces the “dastardly” Kaban’s footsteps to snatch back the safari hat. This chuckling aside earns its charm at its conclusion when, after learning about Kaban’s exploits and finally catching (and tackling) up to her, the raccoon ends up believing Kaban and apologizes to her for misbehaving.
Much like the smaller details, these medium opportunities can be found elsewhere throughout the anime. The characters’ personalities somewhat mirror their animalistic counterparts, the episodic nature of the narrative makes it easy to digest, and so on. These choices are bigger, but they aren’t yet the biggest around.
Large Impacts Matter Too
Finally, switching out that magnifying lens for a telescope, the charm of Kemono Friends truly shines in a larger context. On such a broad level, it becomes less about the details and the opportunities and more about the impact that surrounds this venture.
Such impact occurs when reading into the story behind the story. Led by a director who goes by Tatsuki , he, a few other collaborators, and the various voice actresses took what was essentially a dead-in-the-water mobile-based IP and turned it into a passion project. Learning about their drive either before or after watching makes no difference; the charm spills forth all the same.
The overwhelming positive response in the community counts for something as well. Skeptics were (understandably) wary of this anime upon its initial release. “How kiddy.” “The art is trash.” “Nothing cool happens.”
Arguably speaking, these complaints are still true and valid. Even so, the support for the show does not waver , like how it still receives tons of creative fanart from artists all over. The ensuing outcry on social media, the massive petitions formed following Kadokawa Corporation’s controversial firing of the director also proves the fans are every bit as in love with the show as the team who created it. And how many anime can honestly claim that they singlehandedly increased attendance numbers at local zoos?  That’s just charm incarnate.
Above anything else, though, Kemono Friends is a wholesome experience. It’s no doubt cute on a superficial level; that’s something a lot of people can immediately agree on. However, the show’s ability to showcase the importance of hard work, the need for determination, and the value in friendship creates something that everybody not only can understand but also can cherish. Such innate charm reaches out the gentlest but grasps the hardest, pulling the audience into the anime’s circle with relative ease.
Such large impacts are not as prevalent as the other items discussed earlier. Meaning, without them, the show would certainly still have charm. But it would lack the major components that encapsulate and define this anime at its core. Because, while the first lyric in the opening track and those real-world phone-call segments make up the meat of this project, the goodwill that surrounds it all provides the show with the means to leave its everlasting mark on this medium.
Sites describe Kemono Friends as PG, meaning it’s meant for children (with a bit of parental guidance). Yes, the apocalyptic subtext would argue against this notion, but the anime, with its mild jokes and its silly characters, designs itself in that childish fashion nevertheless. So, for all intents and purposes, the anime “shouldn’t” be for an adult like me.
Yet it is. The small details. The medium opportunities. The large impacts. Everything coalesces into a worthwhile balance between kidlike curiosity and adult wonder. A charm that cannot be denied even years down the line.
Does it teleport me back to my parents’ basement where I had not a care in the world? Not quite. That time in my life is too precious and too personable to be replicated by this anime or others. However, as I sit here in my comfy chair at home, eating the chocolate ice cream I purchased earlier in the week, the nostalgia wins outright. Reminding me of that fun-filled period and giving me the chance to realize that that child still exists somewhere in my heart.
I may never be a kid again – but at least I’ll forever more be a Friend.
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