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Kemono Friends Breathes New Life into Japanese Zoos

posted on by Kim Morrissy

I'd never seen so many people around an otter enclosure before. The otter, which was darting around in the waters of its bite-sized enclosure, was already difficult to spot in the best of times, but when surrounded by the crowd, it was like looking for a needle in a haystack.

It was obvious from a single glance that these were not your average zoo goers. There were no kids or parents in this crowd, mostly college-aged men armed with expensive-looking cameras. Although they were clearly fascinated by the animal on display, they were equally keen to snap photos of the anime girl cutout on the side of the enclosure. Nobody had to tell me that I'd just stumbled upon a group of Friends—the affectionate moniker used among fans of the Kemono Friends anime series.

It's difficult to overstate the phenomenon that is Kemono Friends. The first episode has been viewed over 8 million times on Nico Nico Douga, and the publishers have reported that over 120,000 copies of the first two Bluray volumes are now in print. Not bad for a low-budget CG anime that was initially created in conjunction with a failed mobile game. (For more context about the Kemono Friends phenomenon, read this.)

The Kemono Friends craze has even inspired fans to take to the zoos to observe the real-life counterparts of the characters in action. One such zoo that saw an influx of Friend visitors is the Tobu Zoo Park in Saitama, which has been hosting a collaboration campaign with Kemono Friends since April. This zoo also happens to be the backdrop of the infamous “Grape-kun love story”. One of the real-life Humboldt penguins became fixated with the cutout of Hululu, the anthropomorphic Humboldt penguin girl depicted in the anime, inspiring an internet meme and a metric ton of fanart.

By the time I set foot in Tobu Zoo, it was June and the collaboration with Kemono Friends was nearing its end, but there was still no shortage of zealous fans in sight. Surprisingly, however, the most popular exhibit was not actually the penguin one. The fans congregated around the otter, giraffe, lion, brown bear, and beaver enclosures to hear the zookeepers talk about the animals and do live demonstrations. The demonstrations themselves had absolutely nothing to do with the Kemono Friends anime, but they were advertised on the Tobu Zoo website as part of the collaboration effort, and were only held once a month.

It may have been the Kemono Friends name that brought the fans to the zoo, but it was the animals that made them stay. At the giraffe exhibit, the zookeeper (referred to by everyone as “the oniisan”) showed the crowd how the giraffes ate and some of its other quirks. The fans paid close attention to the zookeeper's explanations and laughed along at all of his jokes. I was amazed at how engaged everyone seemed to be. When the zookeeper said, “You can ask me any questions you like,” plenty of hands went up, but nobody asked him about Kemono Friends. Instead, they asked questions strictly related to the giraffe, like how long its eyelashes were. And when the crowd eventually dispersed, everyone laughed and chatted with their friends, looking highly satisfied with the time they had just spent.

Thinking about it a little, it made sense to me. The exhibit was essentially no different from any other interactive lesson at a zoo, but this crowd had gotten in touch with their inner sense of childlike wonder and curiosity in a way that most adults seem to have forgotten. In the Kemono Friends anime, there are short segments where a zookeeper or animal enthusiast relates facts about the animals featured in the show. It didn't surprise me that, for at least some of the fans, their interest in Kemono Friends would translate into genuine interest in zoo animals.

After watching the animals for a while, it also occurred to me that, in their own way, they were just as moe as the designed-to-be-cute anime girls who populate the world of Kemono Friends. The peacock strutted about like nobody's business, the penguins flapped their wings and waddled about aimlessly, and the kangaroo was lying in its own excretion. This shouldn't be news to any animal lover, but even the creatures that aren't conventionally cute are so incredibly endearing to watch. I came to Tobu Zoo to cover the Kemono Friends event, but before I knew it, I was charmed by all the animals too.

There really is something to be said about the social experience of being a fan and how it can enhance your level of engagement with something. The rest of the Tobu Zoo, while certainly nice to look at, was nothing outside the bounds of convention. The establishment doubles as a theme park, but most of the rides were low-key and clearly aimed at very young children. The variety of animals also didn't match up to the more high-profile zoos, like the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo. And the Kemono Friends merchandise available for purchase at the Tobu Zoo was nothing to write home about either, just cheap pins and badges.

And yet the buoyant mood from the fans was infectious. I sometimes found myself exclaiming “Sugooooi!” and “Tanoshiiiiiii!” to nobody in particular, just like the characters would in the show. I say that even though I don't normally count myself a big fan of Kemono Friends!

All in all, my experience at the Tobu Zoo was light on Kemono Friends content but heavy with fun. The whole thing wasn't over-commercialized, as anime promotional events tend to be; it was simply a pleasant day out at the zoo. And in the end, I think that's how the fans like it to be.

Photo credit: Callum May

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