The Winter 2021 Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
Kemono Jihen ?
What is this?
In a quiet rural village, many domestic animals die unnatural deaths in a strange incident. To resolve the incident, an odd-looking man from Tokyo who goes by the name "Inugami" comes to the town to investigate. In the town, he meets a young boy who has a mysterious air about him called "Dorotabō."
How was the first episode?
Kemono Jihen wasn't on my radar at all before the start of the season, but wow, this premiere just came and blew my actually-nonexistent expectations right out of the water. This just might make up for the series I was looking forward to that turned out to be disappointments!
The first thing that struck me was just how gorgeous this episode is. I'm lucky enough to have experienced the beauty of rural Japan in person, having spent a month traveling around Shikoku, and this episode pulled me right back to that time. The forests and their fauna, as well as the mountaintop farms and their stunning views, are all realized in sumptuous detail. It was nearly enough to make me weep with nostalgia for the world outside the two-mile radius around my apartment. The shonen-style character designs come to life with clean lines, bright colors, and fluid motion; at first I was skeptical, since Inugami was wearing his sunglasses over his bangs, and who does that really? But I got over it quickly as the story and animation drew me in.
The action was surprisingly brief, only a couple minutes of the episode's runtime. It's intense and gory, and involves violence against animals and children, which may upset some people. It is also, like the character animation and the background art, beautiful in its own terrible, primal way. It reminded me a lot of Princess Mononoke, albeit with monstrous demons instead of forest gods; a few shots even seemed to directly reference the film.
But what really mattered to me, what always matters to me more than art and animation and action, was how warm it was. All the time not devoted to action was spent instead on character work, examining Dorotabo's mental state and his developing bond with Inugami. People can be so cruel, and Dorotabo, marked as an outsider from the start for reasons he doesn't understand, had no chance, especially as his peers pick up on the way the adults treat him. The way he opened up under Inugami's kindness touched my heart and got me invested immediately in the characters and their relationship.
The ending hook of the show intrigued me. What is Inugami's relationship to the other, presumably also hanyo, children? Will Dorotabo, now called by his birth name Kabane, make some Kemono Friends?
After Jobless Reincarnation and EX-ARM crapped the bed, Kemono Jihen was a real breath of fresh air: an anime that I was already intrigued by from the get-go, and I only enjoyed it more as the premiere continued. Supernatural procedurals are well within the wheelhouse of “Things that James likes to see in an anime”, and the ostensibly sleepy mountain village setting of the episode was another point in Kemono Jihen's favor, though I initially didn't know what to make of our hero detective, Inugami. As the inn-keep who is serving as his client in the village of Kanoko points out, his getup is a bit ridiculous, and we don't get much of any context as to who he is, what kind of supernatural mysteries he specializes in, or what his ulterior motive is (because he obviously has one).
Thankfully, Kemono Jihen is an anime that doesn't confuse “being vague and unsatisfying” with “deliberate pacing”, and it understands that the key to telling this kind of story well is giving the audience just enough to go on with every passing scene that they remain hooked to the story, while playing its cards close enough to the vest to keep things exciting. I knew something would be up with the local dirt-boy, Dorotabo (aka Kabane), what with his mysterious “life stone” trinket and his genuinely creepy aura. I also predicted that the show would make it seem like he was behind all of the recent animal mutilation, but then it would turn out to be something different (it's a common ploy when a mystery show is introducing a character with spooky powers like Dorotabo/Kabane here). I didn't call that Kabane would be a nearly immortal human/ghoul hybrid, or that Inugami himself would also be a kemono in disguise. When a show is working within fairly recognizable genre beats like Kemono Jihen is, it's the little unique twists like these that make experiencing those tropes feel fun all over again.
Between the well-rounded story and the endearing dynamic that develops between our tricksy hero and his adopted monster son, Kemono Jihen handily won me over by the time the premiere was done. What complaints I have to level at it are minor, for the most part: The Kabane's aunt and obnoxious cousin aren't ever allowed to be more than broad caricatures, and it sometimes feels like the plot is rushing just a little bit in order to get Kabane out of Kanoko and into Tokyo. Also, while the show makes some admirable attempts at being creepy, its direction and control of atmosphere is mostly just short of being genuinely great. Still, I'm eager to see more of where this story of Inugami's found family of weird monster children goes. Anyone looking to add a little bit of spooky-spice to this season's offerings would do well to check out Kemono Jihen, too.
This manga adaptation is another of those “supernatural detective” shows, with Kohachi Inugami serving as what appears to be a human detective from Tokyo. In truth – which comes out late in the first episode – he's not normal himself; he is a bake-danuki, a kind of tanuki yokai which has a reputation for being a shapeshifter. He doesn't do that here; he just has a tail he keeps hidden and can manifest a handgun from thin air. In this setting, supernatural entities whom he refers to as Kemono have increasingly started to interact with the human world, and he is apparently making a career out of investigating such matters under the guise of the Inugami Strangeness Counseling Office. His first case in the series involves a rural investigation where he meets a boy who, based on advertising art and his prominent place in the closer (which will presumably be the regular opener), is going to be a regular cast member. As one might expect, the boy isn't normal, either. He goes by Dorotabo as a derisive nickname because of the way he smells, but I will not mention his real name here because it would provide a big hint as to what he really is. (Let's just say that, upon hearing his name, comparisons to a certain other anime franchise will be inevitable.)
Although a couple of other kids – who are shown in the closer/opener and promo art as regulars – are introduced at the end of the episode, this is a much more darkly-shaded series than it may appear to be at first. Brief shots of what is happening to the animals in the rural village are gruesome, and when the violent nighttime scenes come, they can be quite graphic. There's also a certain irony in what Dorotabo ends up wearing at the end of the episode which would probably escape younger viewers, who would just think it looks cool.
Just as significantly, the story told here has more heart to it than I would have expected. Sure, to an extent it is still a basic “downtrodden boy gets to be the special one” scenario, but the way Kohachi interacts with Dorotabo has depth and effectiveness as a relationship-building process without being heavy-handed about it. That gives me real hope that the series could amount to something more than just another “dealing with the strange stuff” show. (It's certainly going to be more palatable to audiences than its chief competitor this season, Dr. Ramune: Mysterious Disease Specialist, in any case.) Technical merits are nothing special, but this one might be worth watching.
I wasn't really sure what to expect from this one when looking through this season's upcoming offerings. The key visual and trailer looked neat, but after a while you get tired of the same old kids-with-supernatural-powers shtick, y'know? If there's not a deeper hook to it than seeing some anime tweens with half-demon forms or psychic powers, it's real easy to lose me. So far Kemono Jihen hasn't done much to stand out from the pack in that respect, but I was impressed by the amount of heart put into this premiere.
Mostly that comes down to the odd but sincere bond forged between Kabane and Inugami. You know from the moment our eccentric supernatural detective spots the ostracized boy that he's going to become his mentor and/or dad by the end of the episode. But something in the pair's vocal performance and direction makes it work, even as the episode's spooky mystery goes through the motions. By the time Kabane's turning into a half-demon and ripping a deer-ghoul's head off, you know how everything's going to end, but the moment where Kabane accepts his apparent death for the good of others still tugs on some heartstrings. Of course that's not actually the end of his story, and his death is just a ruse for Inugami to get him out of the village and into a fresh start as his ward.
The whole production is similarly familiar, and outside of some odd choices like Inugami wearing his sunglasses over his bangs, there's not a ton to mention about the visuals. The animation is solid, if subdued outside of action scenes. Direction gets the job done and occasionally comes up with some neat perspective to capture the spoo~ky nature of the light horror elements. Some design quirks like Kabane's striking eyes are memorable, but otherwise don't leave much impression. In general this seems like a solid, adequately put together supernatural battle show, and while I'm not sure I'll watch more of it, there are certainly worse options in this genre.
A show about yokai with weirdly dark undertones? Sign me up! I think we all know at this point that folklore is my thing, so when this episode introduced a kid as “Dorotabo,” my interest in it jumped a hundredfold. A dorotabo, as you may remember from GeGeGe no Kitarō, is a mud-based yokai, said to be made up of the ghosts of old men who died toiling in the dirt only to see their well-tended fields lie fallow after their deaths. Since the child called by that name is first seen working in the fields of a rural village, this seemed to be an indication that the story would have at least some links to Japanese folklore – and the kid's family certainly seems to be the sort of farm owner whose lack of care would help to spawn a dorotabo in the first place.
As it turns out, they're really more like Cinderella's stepfamily, because Dorotabo (real name Kobane) is the unwanted child they took in, apparently just to abuse him. Kobane is persona non grata because he always smells bad, although how bad seems to be up for debate a bit, because his foster mother very much knows that the nickname he's been saddled with is at least in part a truth about him. It's the fact that he's got otherworldly origins and that livestock has been mysteriously dying at the new moon that sparks the story, because the woman has grown so upset and fearful that she's hired a “detective” from Tokyo to come and murder a child.
Fortunately for Kobane, the detective is Inugami, himself someone with a bit of the otherworld about him. He's a bake danuki – a magical tanuki yokai, often shown with enormous testicles – and the woman's story about Kobane is enough to make him wonder if that's the truth of the situation. We can guess that it isn't, but that doesn't stop this episode from going some very dark places before the hopeful ending, including a child being shot in the head. We can make inferences about the reality of the act and situation based on Kobane's evil foster brother Yataro's story about when they were younger, but it's still a disturbing moment, and it's aided by some more fantastical horror scenes of oni deer and a partially yokai-fied Kobane. Despite the fact that most of the characters in this episode (and possibly going forward) are kids, this doesn't seem like it's going to be much of a kids' show, comparisons with Kitaro notwithstanding.
What it could be, however, is an interesting urban fantasy rooted in traditional Japanese folklore. Inugami seems to be running some sort of home for kids with yokai blood (I think we meet a tsuchigumo and a yuki-onna at the end), and presumably they'll be helping him with his cases, which means that this could combine two of my favorite genres: folklore and mystery. That may be giving me an inflated sense of how good this episode is, but I'm okay with that, because this definitely has the potential to be something really neat.
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