The Winter 2020 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
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How was the first episode?
There's something almost impressive about Nekopara's premiere, though not in terms of its own craft. It takes a certain kind of genius to take a concept as simple and obvious as “cat cafe where the servers are actually catgirls” and expand it into the nightmarish reality posited by this show. I expected lots of catgirl fanservice, but I didn't expect to leave this episode filled with questions about dystopian eroticism, or the relationship between pee fetishism and power dynamics. Those thoughts aren't going away now, though, so I guess Nekopara at least distinguished itself over the season's utterly unmemorable premieres. Let my viewing serve as a warning, then: once you watch Nekopara, it is impossible to be unwatched.
Nekopara is a bit of a rarity these days, in that it's a show based on an adult visual novel. Visual novel adaptations were common back in the early '00s, but have more recently been largely replaced by light novel adaptations. Structurally, Nekopara demonstrates its roots largely through this episode's heavy focus on introducing lots of girls, as well as its unabashedly horny world-building. Of course, that world-building also plays into more general anime trends, like the emphasis on increasingly dependent women - love interests who might once have been childhood friends first started becoming little sisters, and at this point often take the form of the protagonist's literal slaves.
So it goes in Nekopara, which posits a world where cats are essentially just as intelligent as humans, but are still raised and owned by human masters. Nekopara's world is terrifying, and it is extremely proud of it; the disconnect between the intended “aren't cats funny” charm of a sequence like the one where their slave-bells (the markers that let them travel unchaperoned) are introduced and its actual, mortifying substance made for serious tonal whiplash all through this first episode.
Still, porn is porn. There's nothing wrong with enjoying power dynamic fantasies within the play-acting of fiction; more damning for Nekopara is the fact that if you set aside its specific kind of horny, there's just nothing interesting about this premiere at all. The episode moves very slowly through basic introductions, none of the characters have engaging personalities, and the humor is consistently underwhelming. The show's idea of a joke is “here is a catgirl engaging in a vaguely cat-like activity,” which is something all catgirls in every show have done forever, and which does not in my view count as an actual joke. Dystopian horniness and pee jokes are one thing; Nekopara's truly damning flaw is that it's just plain boring.
So in this setting, cats actually are catgirls. They mature as fast as cats and have cat ears and tails but otherwise look human. They can't go anywhere without their Masters unless they go through some kind of tough tests to earn bells. They also have whatever kind of cat affectations might look cute, like curling their hands into paws or hissing at each other while on all fours with their butts sticking up high to simulate the arched back.
Yeah, there's nothing fetishy at all about this series. Basically, Nekopara (a portmanteau of “neko paradise”) is trying to take the whole catgirl thing and simultaneously play it two different ways: for both cute factor and sex appeal. In the former case, just about everything the girls do that isn't fan service is carefully calculated for cute value. Even the naming conventions figure into that, as all of the cats are named after ingredients used in making desserts; so far Chocola, Vanilla, Maple, Cinnamon, Coconut, and Azuki have been introduced, with Chocola seeming to be the primary cat. In some cases their appearances are even connected to their names; Chocola has brown hair and Vanilla has off-white hair, for instance. So of course most of them are serving as waitresses at their Master's patisserie. Even exercises like just getting out of bed are laden with cutesy behavior.
For all of the cute factor, sex appeal is also clearly intended. Some of the cats have prominent busts, and the camera makes sure to linger on regular doses of cleavage. One of the cats even has lesbian fantasies about another cat. This content is being kept relatively tame for now, so this hardly a fan service fest, but that kind of appeal is there.
The premise also raises all kinds of questions that the series probably is not prepared to ever answer. Since these cats age rapidly by human standards, does that mean that they will only have the lifespan of a normal cat? Where are the male cats, or do these catgirl just reproduce with human males? Clearly they have inferior rights to humans, but how do they feel about that? This kind of fare is not at all intended to be deep, so I will be shocked if the series ever bothers to try addressing any of them. It does at least look like it's going to deal with the matter of strays pretty quickly, so at least that's something.
Overall, this is a series which feels like it might have worked better as 8-10 minutes shorts. It might have also worked better if the production staff had more firmly committed to one or the other of cute appeal and sex appeal.
I have a particular aversion to any anime that makes me feel like I'm supposed to treat its characters less like individuals in a story and more like the subjects of a voyeuristic hidden camera documentary. Nekopara has all the hallmarks of an eroge adaptation where any flimsy pretense of narrative or conflict is merely an excuse to watch a bunch of differently shaped anime girls go about their days while the audience leers at them, with the added bonus of all the girls being hyper-infantilized cat people who spend as much time batting around fluff toys and serving their “Master” as anything else.
These are girls with names like Chocola, Vanilla, and Cinnamon, and they exist in a nightmare world where they are treated for all intents and purposes like literal cats, albeit the kind that walk around on two legs, wear sexy underwear under their maid costumes, and cook and clean for the customers who frequent the café La Soleil. Forget plot, or funny jokes, or interesting dialogue, or any of the things an anime would usually set out to deliver in its first episode – the only thing Nekopara is concerned with is showing off as many cat-girls as possible, who all indulge in off-putting cat behaviors for the audiences viewing pleasure. Cat-girls playing with cat toys? Check. Cat-girls kneading the breasts of other cat girls?
That is, unfortunately, a check. A pair of cat-girls hissing and yowling at each other on the front yard while the camera scoots right in close to their nether regions? You betcha. Have you recently thought about animals' ability to regulate the flow of their urine, for the purposes of marking territory and what not? No? Well, Nekopara is determined to rectify that error by taking multiple opportunities to reference a cat-girl's desire to let just a little bit of pee out and soak her undies while the bathroom is full.
There is an audience for Nekopara, and I do not begrudge any of them for enjoying what this franchise has to offer. Everyone gets something different out of their media, and far be it from me to judge someone for wanting to pick up what the show is putting down. I'm going to have to pass, however. It's not smutty enough to work as actual porn, it isn't funny or charming enough to work as a sitcom, and it's too weird and fetishistic to serve as a low-investment slice-of-life story. If you have to go for an anthropomorphic animal comedy this winter, I guess Seton Academy is the better choice. That show is all kinds of dumb, but it at least makes an effort to appeal to an audience outside of the very specific niche that Nekopara is catering to.
Now look, I love cats. Three of my five were sitting with or on me while I was watching this episode. But Nekopara's particular blend of catgirls and CGDCT antics resulted in a half-hour of weirdly uncomfortable television that seemed set on asking the question, “What if cats were only female and kind of sexy and all called you 'Master?'” Its front of innocence feels very much like a façade, and the disconnect between the girls' appearances and actions, along with the episode's insistence that they're cats, just doesn't quite work. Probably the best example is when Chocola is sleeping on her back and Vanilla starts kneading her stomach. When Chocola wakes up and protests, Vanilla tells her that it's a “breast kneading instinct we cats are born with,” before zeroing in on Chocola's actual human breasts. (We don't see what happens next, but it isn't hard to guess.) Two cats getting annoyed because one wants to touch the other when the other doesn't want it is one thing; by anthropomorphizing them to this degree, it just comes off as an excuse to have girls touching each other with minimal consent.
That the action of the plot isn't all that exciting simply adds to the issues. Basically, this functions as an introduction to all of the characters for three-quarters of its runtime, with Chocola finding and unwittingly bringing home a stray kitten being reserved for the very end. Otherwise we see which cats get along with whom, learn some stuff about the world via exposition, and get to ogle a couple of the catgirls in vaguely compromising positions, plus two separate jokes about catgirls peeing their pants. The most exciting bit is when Azuki cuts a block of tofu by holding it on her palm and just cutting into it with a knife; that was mildly terrifying.
I will say that a few of the voice actors do very impressive angry cat noises, and the scene where Coconut and Azuki face off in the yard at least sounds good and has nice feline body language in terms of bristling tails. It also looks generally good, with cute Goth Loli outfits and bright colors. But the using humanoid cats as pets/servants thing is uncomfortable and the plot for this episode anyway is negligible. I didn't think I'd be saying this, but right now Seton Academy is looking like the better animal-girl bet this season.
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