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Kemono Friends: This Season's Sleeper Hit

by Eric Stimson,

What is this season's breakout anime hit? One might think it's the second season of the already popular KONOSUBA - God's blessing on this wonderful world! Or maybe it's one that relies on cute girls to cater to the otaku crowd while delivering gentle comedic fun, like Urara Meirocho or Gabriel DropOut. Perhaps it's one of the endearing monster girl shows — Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid or Interviews with Monster Girls, both of whom have taken a subgenre associated with a harem premise and made it more accessible to a wider audience. Instead, in Japan at least, the smash hit of winter 2017 has been Kemono Friends, an anime largely overlooked in the West.

Kemono Friends is based on a social smartphone game released in 2015. The kemono of the title refers to anthropomorphized animals, which in this case are called "Friends" and are a lot more anthropomorphic than usual; in fact, other than things like ears, tails, and wings, they're just humans wearing clothes that evoke the animals' coats. The game is very combat-oriented, as you can see from the video below, and didn't attract much notice at the time. Its service was suspended in December.

The anime adaptation apparently wasn't expected to be a big hit, either. Its animation production is handled by Yaoyorozu, an obscure studio; its voice actors aren't big names either. It uses 3-D CG animation, which is still mostly associated with short anime and would normally be expected to be a tough sell for Japanese audiences. The merchandising and promotional blitz that typically accompanies major anime releases is absent. According to Masayoshi Ōishi, the writer and arranger of Kemono Friends' opening theme, the staff is "at a loss" regarding its popularity. Its director, TATSUKI, tweeted that he's "estranged from the world since I've been making anime for around 500 days" and seemed perplexed that his show is trending.

But Kemono Friends is definitely trending. Its official guidebooks (which come with the Blu-Rays) have monopolized the top three spots of Amazon.co.jp's manga and anime rankings, even though they haven't been released yet. Its opening theme has topped Amazon.co.jp's soundtrack ranking and come in fourth in iTunes's song ranking. Its first episode recently reached a million views on Nico Nico Douga; as a comparison, KONOSUBA's first episode has 1.49 million views, and it was uploaded a year ago. Episodes 4 and 5 have both earned 95.9% "very good" ratings from Nico Nico's viewers, a slightly higher percentage than recent episodes of KONOSUBA.

The anime is gaining a dedicated fanbase with its own culture too. Fans are called "Friends," and Japanese Twitter is full of posts from Friends discussing their favorite Friends in the anime, or using simple lines from the anime like "Great!" or "Fun!" Companies like Joysound (which makes karaoke machines) and Sharp (which makes various electronics) have referred to it in their own tweets. Webcomics poke gentle fun at the show or celebrate its optimism. The Tama Zoo in Tokyo has seen a huge increase of visitors, who flock to their serval cat — Serval is the anime's protagonist, and a zookeeper from Tama Zoo is featured in the first episode.

So far, the commercial demand for Kemono Friends hasn't been satiated very well, as befits the unexpected nature of its success. Shonen Ace published a manga adaptation in its March issue, but it was a one-shot, and the magazine promoted Little Witch Academia on its cover instead. Even though the opening theme has sold out, it's only sold 934 units, suggesting a very low print run.

Serval recreated in Custom Maid 3D 2, a maid simulation game

This naturally begs the question: Why is Kemono Friends so popular? Yoshitada Fukuhara, the director of Yaoyorozu, admits that he's as lost as everyone else but diplomatically credits TATSUKI and Mine Yoshizaki, the character designer, for their "polished project." TATSUKI claims that even though the show airs in a late-night timeslot, he tried to make it so that kids could enjoy it as well. He further explains that he and his animators put great effort into making the characters look and act cute, despite the unconventional animation style and while remaining true to their animal origins. He expects that viewers will enjoy the hidden elements of its setting, Japari Park, and Serval and Kaban's journey through its different zones. Yet he also wanted to make an anime that "heals the exhaustion of work or school" and captures the "amusing feeling you get when you look at animals" through the characters' dialogue and interactions.

This fan webcomic shows a man falling into depression after a failed attempt at making sushi reminds him of all his other failures in life. Then Serval, who's not very dexterous either, appears. Mirroring the anime, she takes the man on a quest to find out what he's good at doing.

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. The combat that was so prevalent in the original game is almost absent, and male characters have yet to appear. (Comic Yuri Hime seems to think there is something going on between Kaban and Serval, and teased a Kemono Friends feature in their April issue.) Yet unlike some other moe shows, Kemono Friends eschews fanservice to keep it family-friendly, as TATSUKI intended.

Meanwhile, Kemono Friends also charts its own path and sets itself apart from its ilk. As the webcomic above points out using an analogy with cooking, it doesn't follow a tried-and-tested formula, but offers up something unique fans probably didn't know they wanted. Watching the show is like taking a very condensed world tour; viewers can travel from the African savanna to a steamy jungle to an Andean mountaintop from one episode to the next. They can learn something new about animals, and not the standard ones we all learned about from childhood, but more eclectic choices like serval cats, crested ibises, alpacas or sand cats. Kaban's backstory remains mysterious — why doesn't she know who she is, or how she got to the park? While calling Kemono Friends a "post-apocalyptic narrative" may seem to be reaching, it suggests that Japari Park was supposed to be some huge, elaborate theme park that went terribly awry for some reason. Why else does the mascot character/robot guide, Lucky Beast, only speak when Kaban is around? And what's with the Ceruleans, the mysterious monsters who were the enemies in the smartphone game? 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.

This fan webcomic hints at the unsettling implications when Kaban finally finds out what species she is.

Will Kemono Friends's success inspire imitators? It's hard to say it won't, given how often the anime industry latches onto the latest Big Thing and milks it for all it's worth. Japan has plenty of writers and artists who know their way around iyashi-kei and moe, after all, and anthropomorphization is an evergreen trend. But there are plenty of signs that Kemono Friends's success is a one-off that can't be replicated. Its producers weren't expecting it to hit the jackpot; it just sort of happened. Simple shows with basic storylines can't always maintain their popularity for very long; if the secret behind Japari Park is ever divulged, it'll be hard to keep the story going. And in this age of hyperactive social media and a glut of media to consume, trends can fizzle out just as quickly as they burned brightly. Nexon, the makers of the original game, may have had this in mind when it decided against rebooting the game even after the anime took off.

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