The Lucid Dreamworld of Kemono Friends

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Kemono Friends is good–and not even just in unconventional ways; once you get past the out-of-body experience of the first episode and a half, it reveals itself as a conventional adventure story with tons of fun and memorable characters, neat little episodic plots that are easy to get invested in, and a shockingly engaging background mystery which slowly comes to the forefront as we learn about the strange world of Japari Park.

It’s that world which makes the series stand out–giving it the uniquely comfy, and yet also subtly uncomfortable atmosphere which keeps the series compelling.

You know how sometimes you have those moments where your brain lights up and you suddenly feel more lucid than usual? Like all of a sudden you’re thinking more deeply, and understanding yourself better, and there’s almost a sense of disconnect from how you felt just a few minutes ago when you were living on autopilot as usual? Kemono Friends is able to invoke that feeling through the bizarre circumstances of its narrative conceits and the structure of its adventure.

Our lead character, Kaban, is a human with no memories and no idea what she is. She simply wakes up one day in the middle of a synthetic Savannah, and thanks to a chance encounter with the cat-girl Serval, she is guided on a journey to determine her species. But Kaban isn’t the only one in this world who doesn’t really comprehend what or where she is–in fact, no one in Japari Park really has the full picture of their own existence.

Some of them are aware that they were originally normal animals, which were transformed at some point to have human characteristics. Others are aware that there used to be humans in the park, and that they had built all of the now-abandoned machinery and structures which remain. They know certain things by instinct, and others by random knowledge which they’ve gleaned in their travels–but their information is half-formed. In one of the funniest scenes in the show–and I apologize for spoiling this if you haven’t watched the series yet–Kaban informs the other Friends that they are capable of removing their clothes–which literally none of them had realized.

The reason for this ignorance is that, well, these characters are really just a bunch of wild animals. They’ve been fundamentally altered by their transformation into Friends, but they’re only slowly coming to appreciate that difference; and none of them realizes the depth of what they don’t know, so they have to reason to question it. When Serval is introduced, she seems confident that she knows all there is to know about her environment–but it doesn’t take long for us to realize that she’s got no idea what the hell is going on. The only creature in this world who is in a position to fully understand it is someone with no memories or understanding of her own abilities.

About once an episode, Kaban is able to instinctively understand the human contraptions in the world around her, or to make connections and come up with plans to resolve various situations. These are the lucid moments in which the whole show suddenly seems to click–wherein, after half an episode of drifting through adorably airheaded scenes of so many goofy and ignorant characters failing miserably to piece together their situation, all of a sudden things come into clarity, and the audience experiences a moment of realization along with Kaban about what can be done to make sense of the situation and to progress on the adventure.

Perhaps the moment which most blew my mind–and I’m not even sure it was intended to, but let’s go ahead and call this a major spoiler for the next thirty seconds–is when we learn that Kaban is, as Serval had always thought, one of the Friends. In fact, in some way it might be fair to say that she’s a synthetic clone…? Whatever the case, it only amplifies the existential atmosphere of the series to realize that Kaban doesn’t have amnesia, and that she isn’t just pulling from her clouded memories to understand human ingenuity–these are just the qualities that she was created with based on the idea of manufacturing a creature with human attributes. How’s that for an anthropological mindfuck??

How Kemono Friends achieves such a fascinatingly strange and mysterious world is through circumstances so bizarre that they could be called a stroke of luck. The series is based on a mobile phone game which had gone offline before the show started; and so the reimagining of that game’s systems into a world for the anime series also included the genius decision to set it in a sort of post-apocalyptic version of that game’s world. The way that Japari Park is set up only really makes sense in the context of being a man-made amusement park which was meant to guide interactions between humans and adorable animal-girls–but since the park was abandoned, now it just outright doesn’t make any sense at all, and fuels an inherent sense of intrigue, similar perhaps to the ambivalence evoked by Adventure Time’s post-apocalyptic fantasy world.

The show gets away with a lot by being set in such a weird place. Exposition dumps, light retcons, and elements so bizarrely illogical that they defy explanation, are easy to forgive because the world is so unknown and interesting–and I’d rather it be that way instead of anything more conventional or less imaginative.

Kemono Friends has been enormously successful in Japan, and this took a lot of people by surprise because of its almost amateurish CG animation; but if I had to theorize as to what about the show is so captivating (besides the huge variety of ultra-cute character designs and interesting world), it would be how different it feels from just about any other anime.

When you’ve seen as much as I have, you start to become versed in a sort of common visual language that is spoken in the medium. Images are usually presented in familiar ways–conventional framing and camerawork, timing and editing, et cetera. Kemono Friends, however, seems to have its own distinct visual language. It makes use of the freedoms which CG animation allows for, but without abusing them in the way that a show like the current run of Berserk does. It doesn’t matter that the animation is less than stellar, or that it occasionally looks like an N64 game–the staging of scenes is engaging, and the comedic moments click; and there’s a kind of natural flow to each scene that becomes even more confident as the series moves along–and even pulls off some legitimately dramatic and emotional visuals. Yes, it’s clumsy all the way through, and not every moment clicks, but the show is so charming and distinctive that those moments are still fun just by force of doing something new.

Similar things can be said of the voice work, performed mostly by newcomers cast so bizarrely that I sometimes had to do a double-take when a voice I’d never expect came out of a character’s face. Even still, though, there’s something refreshing about not being able to tell what a character will sound like just by looking at them, as anime has taught me to do.

It is certainly a pleasant surprise that Kemono Friends is good, and its goodness takes a little while to process because it looks so different from how goodness usually looks. Not to say that I think all or even most people would enjoy it, but those who give it a shot will most likely find that they liked it more than they expected to. The feeling it gives is so unlike anything else I can think of that it even elevates the series beyond the baseline quality of its writing and production. It’s definitely not an experience I’ll soon forget, and I would very much like to see how the franchise continues from here on out, and to indulge in the incredibly fun real-life spillover that’s resulted from its existence. If you somehow haven’t heard about the penguin who fell in love with a cardboard cutout of the penguin idol character Hululu, then you need to google it immediately.

If you gave this series a shot, then let me know what you thought of it below. Did you get wrapped up in its atmosphere and mystery plot, or do you just really like animal girls? Or do you still think you’ll never understand stuff like this? Fill me in–and while you’re at it, share this video with anyone whom you think it would interest, and support me on patreon if you’d like to help me to keep making videos like this. Then check out this playlist of every video featuring me in it, because I release stuff on too many different channels to link them all at the end of the video. Thanks again for watching, and I’ll see you in the next one!

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