Lost in the huge zoo enviroment known as Japari Park, a little girl searches for herself among the many animals. Due to a mysterious element called "sandstar", all the animals have turned into humanoids that nevertheless retain various animal parts (and clothing that somehow resemble their earlier coloring and patterns.) She first meets Serval, a catgirl who's looking for something fun, and decides to help Kaban find out what kind of "friend" she is. Serval names the girl "Kaban" since she carries a backpack, and advices her to seek out the library to find the answer to her many questions. And since Serval is always up for a fun adventure, she decides to join Kaban on her journey to find the mysterious library.
While I checked out this franchise through sheer morbid curiosity, I was originally set to drop it after the second episode. Not because I thought Kemono Friends was bad, mind you. It'd make for pretty good children's television, actually, but that was also the root of it. At first impression, Kemono Friends is incredibly childish and pedantic, sounding like something made for five year olds, and I was fine to leave it at that.
Once I had watched the second episode, though, curiosity had taken over. The thing about Kemono Friends is that it carries a rather bizarre undertone that I'll go into a bit later. In a weird way, I have to commend Kemono Friends for being able to weave a story that might very well fly over the heads of five year olds, but strike a chord with whichever adults might be watching it, and one that's rather complex for children's TV in general.
Another potential knock against its own first impression can be found in the visuals. They're simply not that good. You'd probably be forgiven for thinking it looks more like a videogame, and in fact, the first descriptions I've heard can be summed up with "Playstation 2 era 3D", including the floaty way the characters in the show interact with their surroundings. That being said, the show does occasionally show some pretty nice, if somewhat fuzzy enviroments, so it's not like it is a total loss in the visual department. Still, it will probably not impress anyone anytime soon, at least not people who are looking to be impressed.
The characters themselves have some pretty nice designs, though. I mentioned earlier that the clothes the girls have are based on the color patterns of their animal selves, which was a nice touch. It's a bit obsessed with humongous bowties, which is not a favorite of mine, but that's more of a personal bent rather than something I want to hold against the show. As far as builds go, all the girls in the show do look obviously human, even when they're based on clearly non-human animals, like the hippo -- who does not have a giant mouth -- or the birds -- who do not have beaks, and their wings seems to be fastened to their heads instead of their backs. But fly they do nonetheless, and in Crested Ibis's sake, sing. And rather awfully at that. (I think the joke is supposed to be that a humanoid throat is new for her.)
Our characters will be meeting a lot of animals (friends) during their trip. Though Serval remains the only friend who sticks with Kaban to the end, they are also being trailed by two other animal friends, Raccoon and Fennec. The two of them show up at the end of most of the episodes, filling the audience in on whatever mysteries the show is working on while reminding the audience how important it is that they find Kaban right away. (But for what purpose?!)
Kaban is clearly a human, and that's where the main root of the mystery lies. Serval and the others seems to think of her as a friend -- basically animals turned humanoid through "sandstar", a mysterious element that is occasionally expelled from a volcano in the park -- but any adult watching this will realize that her quest to understand what kind of friend she is really is a quest to find out just what happened, both in Japari Park and to the human race.
And therein lies the feed to my morbid curiosity and the reason why I chose to see Kemono Friends the whole way through. About halfway in, I had decided to try to angle my review as some kind of post-acopalyptic conspiracy theory hidden within a children's show, but Kemono Friends more or less decided to run with that idea all on its own. See, at around three to four episodes in, it became increasingly clear that the animal "friends" had slowly taken over all the aspect of a park meant as a zoo, including a mountaintop restaurant with a cable car device leading up to it, and even before that, our party of Kaban and Friends had to figure out some way to transport a car over a river, since the bridge had more or less collapsed from disuse and presumably the passing of time. The same turned out to be the case for said cable car equipment, as well as the fact that the bus Kaban and Serval -- with the aid of Lucky; some kind of robot rabbit racoon thing -- salvage is completely out of power and needs to be recharged.
More than that, Kaban and the animal friends have to watch out for something referred to as "Cerulean", mysterious beings that take on various forms that are clearly non-biological. When defeated -- by destroying their crystal -- they shatter into square bricks before dissolving into some kind of stardust material. Supposedly, they are the reason why no other humans can be found in Japari Park, and it's also theorized that they feed on sandstar. Since that is also the element that creates the animal friends, that might also explain why they are a danger to said friends and attack if approached. That's as far as I'll delve into the mysteries of Kemono Friends, though, because I wouldn't dream of taking away this pleasure from people curious about this show.
I originally said that Kemono Friends felt like a children's show, but honestly, I wonder about that too. The original game is supposedly an RPG of sorts where you recruit "friends" to fight in your party, presumably against those aforementioned ceruleans. But more than that, I also noticed that all the "friends" are girls, which strikes me as otaku bait more than anything else. That said, the show doesn't really have a whole lot of fanservice, so it's not like watching it will make you feel dirty inside, given how absurdly innocent the characters in it is. All the little episode arcs are really uplifting stories about finding your place in this world, or doing things that are fun (as well as helpful to others.) And despite the fact that something awful might have happened to almost all the humans, it's still a celebration to some of the better accomplishments of the human race. (Save perhaps the zoo's, depending on how you feel about those, though Japari Park seems more like a huge reservation than some kind of caged zoo.) Despite its ominous undertone, Kemono Friends is a largely positive show with some surprising depth to it.
Of course, whether you'll enjoy this is going to depend on how you feel about the fact that you are watching what basically amounts to a children's show, something that shines through with just about every line spoken. People who are no fan of idol stuff -- like me -- are also going to have to skip or suffer through episode 8, which is almost entirety an idol vessel of sorts, and I'm not entirely convinced that people who are fans of idol franchises like Idolm@ster and Love Live will be all that impressed with "PPP Live", the lineup of five penguin "friends", and their live performance. Said episode is more or less a diversion where Kaban's journey to the library, or the Cerulean menace, is put aside for a whole episode. But potentially more important than that, Kemono Friends doesn't come to an end. It has managed to lay out a number of interesting plot hooks to reel in the audience, but while some of the many mysteries of the show is explained, the ending is very much a "to be continued" kind of a deal, and we don't even know if it will be continued. The game might've helped in that regard, if not for the fact that it was discontinued last year, and was probably never available in English to begin with.
On the whole, though, the show has a certain charm to it, and its frankly astounding popularity out of the blue cements that easily enough. I guess it goes to show that Kemono Friends had enough heart to it that it could rise above its middling visuals and childlike glee and capture the interest of an impressively large audience. And darn it; I would like to see the ongoing adventures of Kaban and her animal friends, if only so that I could find out whether she found the answer she was looking for.
A pretty decent, not to mention weird, show that disguises its mildly unsettling undertones with fun adventure and a large cast of (pseudo) animals that you can learn about. If you need something for your kids or can watch stuff like that completely unironically, add one star. — Stig Høgset
Recommended Audience: There is some light violence in how the show fights and defeats Ceruleans, but all the "friends" dietary needs seems to have been replaced with Japari buns, so you'll never see one "friend" hunt down and eat another. Kaban and Serval encounters some animals that seem to be at "war", but it all turns out to be some kind of battle-like event where nobody is harmed, much like the one they hold in Dog Days.
Version(s) Viewed: Digital stream on Crunchyroll, Japanese with English subs.
Review Status: Full (12/12)
Kemono Friends © 2017 Yaoyorozu, Nexon.
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