Review/discussion about: Kemono Friends
Kemono Friends reminds me of one of my most favorite films of all time: Toy Story.
The CG style, the presentation aimed at a younger audience, and the fact that the premises align to an extent (non-human entities become “human”) are the first comparisons that come to mind. The biggest factor, though, is an extremely famous song from the Pixar movie that became an instant Disney classic that’s still hummed and whistled by people today: “You’ve Got A Friend In Me.”
This two-minute track exemplifies the heartfelt feelings behind friendship with its measured, easygoing pace and lines like “There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for you.” If nothing else, the over 44,000,000 plays on Spotify should indicate well enough this song’s immense popularity.
Now, truth be told, Kemono Friends does not contain a musical phenomenon let alone holds a candle to such a pioneering project of cinema. But, when this anime similarly focuses on friends and crafts something strangely magical, it makes it tough to not appreciate such a thoughtful outing.
Kemono Friends begins on a normal day like any other in the Savanna area of the Japari Park. There, Serval the serval lazes about as the sun shines bright overhead. However, she notices another creature moving through the underbrush, so she gives chase, only to find an animal she has never seen before. This animal, unsure of who she is herself, is given the name Kaban (on account of the bag she carries), and the two decide to go on a park-wide trek to discover Kaban’s mysterious origins.
It’s quite easy to dismiss Kemono Friends before giving it a shot. Considering the age demographic of most anime enthusiasts, this show technically lands far outside of their range with its PG (or “parental guidance”) rating. Combined with words from passersby and the promotional posters, the first words that come to mind for some take a similar form: “Why would I want to watch something so childish?”
These naysayers technically aren’t wrong in their assumptions. Many of the jokes take on a super-simplistic nature, like when Otter shows Kaban and Serval how to play with rocks as Jaguar paddles on by behind them with the makeshift raft. Or how, for the most part save the final two episodes, the anime doesn’t strive for too much intensity beyond a few cyclops blobs. Or that the educational dialogue from Boss doesn’t exactly serve the plot but rather acts as a method to teach the audience something relatively unimportant yet definitely interesting. That is, at its core, Kemono Friends is no doubt a kidlike show.
However, if one embraces this characteristic, a very pleasant, very interesting experience awaits.
A lot of that is thanks to the anime’s innate sense of charm, for it’s something the show focuses on constantly throughout its run on many different levels. From the biological introductions that detail the order, family, and genus of a given species, to the literal real-life phone conversations with zookeepers the world over, the anime’s charm is almost something that has to be seen to be believed. Even something as simple as calling the characters “Friends,” as if the audience has been buddies with these creatures for a long time, demonstrates well enough just how charming Kemono Friends can be.
The episodic nature of the narrative also does a lot for the anime. Kaban and Serval go on this “global” journey, visiting environments from all corners of the Earth. Savannas. Jungles. Deserts. Forests. Mountains. Plains. As they traverse Japari Park’s multiple settings, the audience as well find themselves engrossed in their trek, taking in the interesting locales and the diverse scenery.
Kemono Friends understands that that is not enough, so, to combat some of the kidlike feeling, it chooses to incorporate an apocalyptic subtext that serves as a glue to hold the whole project together. While nothing outstanding, the weathered signs, the rundown lifts, and the forgotten mazes underpin this tale with a twinge of darkness that adds a new layer to the show for the audience to think about. It doesn’t outright outline the doom, and the gloom doesn’t take over the mood itself, but, without the post-apocalypse content, the show would be missing a key feature that ultimately contextualizes Kaban’s origin-learning adventure.
And while the jokes are rather simple, the show deserves credit where credit is due. In episode six, Kaban and Chameleon “fight” each other, but not before they exchange polite words and bows. In episode nine, the classic hot-springs scene plays out slightly differently in that the show takes advantage of the premise when Kaban shocks the others about an invention known as “clothes.” And Kaban’s running gag of “Please don’t eat me!” makes for a silly contrast when considering the nice, welcoming personalities of the Friends.
This anime also targets a thematic presence, for (true to a children’s television show) Kemono Friends keeps itself as wholesome as possible with a focus on togetherness. With each passing episode, this sentiment becomes ever clearer. The Friends collaborate to fix a strange contraption called a “bus.” They support one another when pairing up unlikely duos and keeping an idol group from losing their important fifth member. They protect each other from evil Ceruleans. Whatever little bits of comedy, action, and drama that Kemono Friends depicts eventually leads back to this togetherness, continuing the camaraderie which describes the characters’ collective title.
In doing so, the show captures that nostalgic time when one didn’t have to worry about anything besides what mom and dad were cooking for tonight’s dinner. For, per usual, these elements are not anything profound or inspiring. However, the anime’s sincere, almost gentle approach to these topics allows for this story to maintain that wholesome feeling the whole way though.
Nowhere does this feeling strike hardest than in one of the anime’s strongest writing moments. In episode twelve, Kaban saves Serval from the giant Cerulean that then eats her in turn. As the situation becomes dire, all the Friends that Kaban met and helped throughout the entire season arrive to reciprocate her kindness. Seeing them there, working paw-in-hoof to save their newfound companion, not only reinforces that general sense of togetherness but also acts as a meaningful conclusion to the episodic structure overall. The sweet shot of the whole cast with the title of the anime floating overhead is simply icing on this nice-writing cake.
The story here is by no means perfect. Choosing to reveal Kaban’s human origin halfway into the season as opposed to prolonging it until the finale somewhat defeats the purpose of constructing the narrative around this goal to begin with.
But the anime does more elsewhere. A small world-building detail in the Japari Buns explains how the hunter-prey dynamic no longer applies. And the extra subplot which revolves around Raccoon not only revisits the aftermath of Kaban’s various exploits but also provides context to her existence in the first place.
All in all, the anime accomplishes a lot with its story without ever shying away from its kid-friendly foundation.
ART & ANIMATION
Arguably speaking, Kemono Friends’s artistic direction stands as its most contentious aspect. One has to look no further than Serval’s opening chase of Kaban. The janky camera perspective and the stilted movements as they run certainly do not give the best first impression possible.
This roughness continues in other areas of the art as well. Most notably, the CG style of the characters’ designs stand out from the two-dimensional environments. Action scenes almost always use a speed background to simulate intensity. The locations depicted, while able to define the setting well enough, lack much in the way of higher detail. Often, the anime will reuse walk cycles as opposed to creating them from scratch. Errors can and do appear, like asynchronous mouths during speaking segments or how, all the way over in episode eleven, the artists forgot to maintain the texture of the tree that Kaban climbs from one shot to the next.
In most shows, so many problems easily and adversely affect the overall presentation. Yet, for Kemono Friends, such roughness surprisingly works quite well.
A large reason as to why it works derives from the visuals following in the footsteps of the content it portrays. Such simplistic artistry matches the story in that the jokes and the plot and the ideas likewise form their own sense of simplicity.
In having the art hold hands with said story, what could have potentially been a huge distraction instead turns out to be a sensible, intriguing artistic endeavor. It takes a little bit of time for the look and feel of the anime to grow on the audience, but, once it does, its charming style and slight hiccups maintain the notion that it completely understands what it is and what it can be.
That’s not to say that everything is forgiven. Indeed, it’s unfair to brush off all the noticeable issues as part of the charm since doing so would unfairly permit any mistakes as acceptable no matter how egregious.
Moreover, the anime demonstrates that it can include deliberate artistic choices which clearly benefit the show. For example, Serval and other catlike creatures will often scrunch their fingers into a half-balled fist as an homage to the claws they once had.
Then there’s the characters’ designs. Despite the less-than-ideal CG forms, every Friend seen takes inspiration from their past animal selves, incorporating lots of outfits, colors, and ideas that give them each a distinct look while staying true to their origins. For example, Shoebill’s long hair recreates her menacing stare and allows for her side ponytail to reference her big, yellow beak. Even Kaban’s design, while decidedly plain, goes for something a bit more androgynous so as to make it that much easier for the audience to relate to the main protagonist.
Episode two, though, showcases one of the best examples. Therein, Kaban looks around the jungle to find nearby Friends. To which the camera “pretends” to search for them as if in a nature documentary or taking part in a kids’ spot-the-animal game. A small moment, but one that reflects the thought and the charm put into the visuals of the show.
Within the realm of Kemono Friends, Japari Park houses species from everywhere imaginable. Hippos to elephants, giraffes to bears. The anime is more or less a zoo in anime form.
Granted, they aren’t really animals. Their ability to speak coherent languages and act as regular people backs up this notion easily enough. However, in their anthropomorphic state, the show builds these so-called “Friends” with their animal counterparts in mind.
For instance, in episode four, the anime introduces Sand Cat. A native of the desert, she can regulate her body temperature between hot and cold to combat the swift changes of the environment. So, as a Friend, she shows a “hot-and-cold” level of interest in the things around her, swiftly switching between very intrigued to wholly uncaring on the spot.
Given their low impact and low importance across the episodic events, these Friends technically and arguably don’t contribute much. Yet because Kemono Friends commits to this animalistic characterization for every Friend in the cast, the anime maintains a consistent motif that gives each one their in-the-moment spark. A spark which gives them just enough time to shine before moving on to the next animal.
Understandably, then, Kaban and Serval rightfully earn the spotlight for this tale.
Kaban is a young girl who wakes up in the middle of the savanna area of the Japari Park. She doesn’t know who she is, where she came from, or why she is there to begin with. A (seemingly) harsh case of amnesia. So harsh, in fact, that she cannot even explain to Serval the type of Friend she would consider herself as. Thus, at Serval’s suggestion, the two head for the library in the hopes of learning about Kaban’s mysterious background.
From the very beginning, Kaban’s limitations spring forth. She cannot climb down a hillside or jump across rocks with the same dexterity and agility as Serval, leaving her apologetic in her failure. And that’s just in episode one. Throughout the whole season, the anime highlights more of her inherent weaknesses. She cannot fly like Japanese Crested Ibis. She isn’t strong like Moose. She cannot endure the cold like Silver Fox.
However, true to human form, what Kaban lacks in physical prowess she makes up for in mental fortitude. Unlike the Friends who can mimic voices or swim in the water, Kaban instead uses her brain to solve the various problems that occur along the way. She creates a paper airplane to distract a Cerulean. She formulates how to build a bridge to cross a dangerous river. She connects the dots of the exit signs in the underground labyrinth. She invents a whole new game for the “warring” parties of the plains. She follows a recipe and cooks food to eat. She deduces the “ghost” of the hotel.
During Kaban’s adventure of self-discovery, Serval almost never leaves the young girl’s side. She’s the brawn to Kaban’s brains so to speak, clawing at what needs to be clawed and carrying what needs to be carried. The other Friends somewhat tease her, and Boss refuses to speak directly to her (which makes for a fun little scene near the finale of the season). Despite these putdowns, Serval remains the cheerful, optimistic feline no matter where they may be in the park.
And that’s arguably her most important characteristic. For, more than simply accompanying Kaban and befriending the kind girl, Serval serves as the confidence-boosting cheerleader that keeps Kaban’s spirits high. On more than one occasion, Serval will excitedly talk about Kaban’s amazing exploits, causing her to shyly smile and scratch the back of her head out of slight embarrassment. She puts it best all the way back in episode one: “Don’t worry about it. Different Friends are good at different things.” Serval is a Friend by definition and a friend by character, the perfect sidekick for the young human.
Interestingly, this dynamic, while not portrayed in exactly the same fashion, is found in almost every episode. Upon each new area, Kemono Friends includes or otherwise focuses on a pair or group of characters whose friendship bolsters the anime’s main message: that friends have each other’s backs.
One of the best examples of this idea comes from episode five. Beaver cannot seem to finish any of her wooden blueprints, and Prairie Dog cannot seem to envision an end goal. Thus, the two work together, benefitting from each other’s strengths. The unification of Beaver’s smart planning and Prairie Dog’s fast building not only allows them to create harmonious structures but also demonstrates the harmony in what their friendship provides (no matter how bizarre such a real-world pairing would be to see).
Kaban as well defends this sentiment on a personal level. During the final conflict of the season, and after the giant Cerulean consumes Serval, Kaban doesn’t back down. Instead, just as Serval was there for her, she is there for Serval. Concocting yet another intelligent solution, she channels her inner meow, leaps into the beast to rescue Serval, and leads the monster away with flame in hand to protect the serval outright. Her ability to stare death in the face for her dear friend means more than whatever physical or mental capabilities she may have at her disposal – because these actions come straight from the heart.
And, true to cheerleader form, Serval doesn’t let Kaban take her next journey beyond the shores of Japari Park alone. Just as that situation seems to be the case, Serval hops on a makeshift boat of her own and follows her friend in earnest. The two ready to tackle and experience whatever their new adventure has in store. Because, at the end of the day, these two close friends have one another to rely on no matter what.
That’s the extent of these characters. So, are Kaban, Serval, and the many other Friends noteworthy? No. Not really. Much like the story they find themselves in, they are a simple lot that do not strive for anything too extraordinary. But, in the context of Kemono Friends, how they all highlight the importance of friends and friendship in general, their characterizations and representations are no doubt meaningful.
MUSIC & SOUND
Two areas of the music stand above the rest in Kemono Friends: the opening theme and the various pieces from the original soundtrack.
Titled “Youkoso Japari Park e,” the OP opens with a signaling horn before giving way to animal noises, background laughter, and a moment of counting. Piano, drums, and the occasional bells form the base for the catchy beat, and the vocals, both in their individual and harmonized parts, invite a sense of silliness and sincerity to make the piece as happy as can be. The ending “la, la, la, la…” segment is not only fun to sing along with but also a cute way to finish off the song. Altogether, the OP kicks off each episode by putting a smile on the audience’s face to get them in the right state of mind for the wholesomeness ahead.
Not to be outdone, the OST includes many small yet strong tracks that support the aims of the show quite well. “Doukutsu no Oku” repeats high keys on the piano and brings in the eventual violin to invite a somewhat spooky atmosphere during mysterious times. “Cell Ria N” (most likely “Cerulean” given the context) goes completely galactic and techno when the occasional battle heats up. “Tenyawayan” is quick and silly and all over to mirror those similarly fun scenes. “Kawaii 2 Hiki” provides the everyday mood once events go back to normal.
But the crown jewel, and what could arguably be described as the main theme of the anime, is “Kaze wo Kanji te.” Its acoustic guitar, xylophones, wind instruments, and other sounds lift one’s spirits with a calming tone and a serene nature feel.
While the OP and the OST indeed stand strong, unfortunately the ending theme does not. Titled “Boku no Friend,” the piece lacks the same fun and creativity that permeates the other musical offerings. Moreover, the drums drown out the guitar too much, and the vocals don’t extend beyond their middling range. On its own, the ED ends up as a rather mediocre song.
Despite the weak ED, the voice acting performances get back to Kemono Friends’s strong side. In particular, Yuka Ozaki – in one of her first major roles – as Serval definitely sounds as if she is new to the field, but her amateurish delivery of her lines gives the sidekick her cheerful, heartfelt charm. Aya Uchida as Kaban also deserves a shout-out for her cute, childish way of speaking. And, in general, the multitude of different inflections, accents, and tones for the various Friends add to their personalities and their animal origins once again.
And the anime also includes a lot of extra sound-effects to round out the experience. Boss’s waddle. Serval’s swipes. The scene transitions. These tiny additions are probably expected to an extent, but they still support the show’s sound design in a positive manner.
Admittedly, I didn’t originally pick up this anime back when I was making my choices for the season. I can only choose so many, so I must be careful. Its synopsis, key visual, and unknown status all contributed to me skipping over the project way back when. However, once a few of my friends and my readers wondered and asked about me writing on this show, I wanted to follow through on their suggestions.
And I’m very glad that I did.
I had a ton of fun watching the show from start to finish, and I obviously have my favorites. Japanese Crested Ibis in episode three had me chuckling hard with her “incredible” singing skills and soft-spoken manner. Tsuchinoko in episode four was making me smile when she couldn’t stop herself from getting super excited about the ruins and artifacts to the point that she ran and hid out of embarrassment. And both Beaver and Prairie Dog made episode five my favorite from the series. Beaver’s dejected, cute responses and Prairie Dog’s hyperactive behavior created in them an awesome duo that I liked a whole bunch.
And it perhaps goes without saying (writing?) that I am a fan of Kaban and Serval, too. Kaban’s “Please don’t eat me!” and Serval’s “Meow, meow, meow!” were enough to get me liking them right away. Yet it was Kaban trying her hardest to help the others, Serval remaining optimistic about their situations, and the two sharing a fun friendship that really got me liking them as a protagonist pair.
The rest of the show was entertaining, too. I learned a lot about various animals and their habitats. The charm throughout the whole ride inspired me to write about the show at length in another essay entirely. I even got slightly emotional when Serval and the other Friends presented Kaban with a new boat for her to use to cross the ocean in search of more of her kind.
Overall, this anime is simply something different than the norm. It has its drama and its comedy, sure, but those aren’t the mainstays. Instead, its ability to craft an experience that is childish yet worthwhile, simplistic yet intriguing, weird yet welcoming is what invokes a bit of uniqueness that gives this strange project such a lasting impression.
Kemono Friends understandably doesn’t appear all too enticing from an audience standpoint, but, once it is given its fair shot, that perspective swiftly changes. A charming story filled with themes on togetherness. Rough visuals that align with the content therein. A cast of characters who focus on friendship. Lots of interesting musical offerings. A large amount of entertaining scenes. There may not be any cowboys or spacemen, but the audience can still count on these Friends all the same.
Story: Good, while not perfect, this childish, charming tale uses wholesomeness, an apocalyptic subtext, and several nice writing moments in its jokes and plot points to craft a neat narrative about anthropomorphic animals and togetherness
Art & Animation: Fine, despite the noticeable roughness, the visuals work well with the simplistic nature of the story, and the different, deliberate techniques employed prove that not everything lacks polish
Characters: Great, Kaban’s journey of self-discovery represents how people are both strong and weak in different ways, Serval is a kindhearted sidekick, the other Friends have their own sparking characteristics, and everyone involved connects back to the theme that friends have each other’s backs
Music & Sound: Good, a lively OP and a strong OST make up for a weak ED, the VA performances bring their own flavor, and extra sound-effects help to round out the experience
Enjoyment: Great, a downright fun adventure filled with a likable cast, a few interesting moments, and a slight difference from the norm
Final Score: 8/10
Thanks for taking the time to read my review. If you want, take part in the discussion below! :3