Reviewby Nick Creamer, Apr 3rd 2017
(Episodes 1-12 Streaming)
Welcome to Japari Park! Here in the park, everyone is a different kind of Friend - there's Serval, Zebra, Hippopotamus, and all sorts of other Friends. Apparently, this park was built by humans, but it doesn't seem like there are any of those around anymore, though they certainly left plenty of their stuff around. Oh, and there are also the Ceruleans - weird blob creatures that seem related to something called “Sandstar.” Stay away from those guys, and you can feel free to check out any of the park areas. The world may have ended, but Japari Park is here to stay!
I'll get this out of the way right at the start: Kemono Friends is not a beautiful show. Combining relatively pleasant painted backgrounds with jarring, simplistic CG characters, it's not going to be winning any best art or animation awards. The show's underlying character designs are good, but Kemono Friends is not graceful in motion. It is as visually scrappy as scrappy can be.
That's not the only thing working against Kemono Friends. If you watched just the first episode, you'd likely come away with the impression that this is an inoffensive but not particularly inspired children's show with no notable qualities. Kemono Friends' setup appears simple enough - in the mega-zoo Japari Park, there are a variety of Friends, who are basically just anthropomorphized animals with personalities vaguely based on the animals they represent, who all live in zones reflecting their original habitats. Starting in the savannah zone, we're introduced to Serval, based on the wild cat, and Kaban, a creature who doesn't know what kind of Friend she is, who we can clearly see is a human. And so, in order to find out what she is and where she's supposed to go, Kaban and Serval head off to the Japari library.
Kemono Friends' first episode proceeds as a whimsical, vaguely educational, somewhat slice-of-life adventure, as Kaban and Serval navigate the perils of the savannah on their way to the adjoining jungle zone. After fending off a strange, massive creature known as a Cerulean, they're greeted at the park's edge by Lucky Beast, a small robot who seems designed to be some kind of park navigator. And so the adventure of the trio begins, as they follow Lucky Beast's sometimes helpful, sometimes misguided instructions through the fading attractions of Japari Park.
Kemono Friends' overt tone is upbeat, innocently funny, and endlessly curious. Its general episodic mode is “the main three make their way through a new zone, meeting Friends and going on mild adventures along the way.” The trio runs into an anxiety-prone beaver who's too frightened of failure to build her home, a warbling crested ibis who can't find an audience for her songs, and many other quirky characters with problems of their own. The overall effect mixes the warm contentment of a slice of life show with the inherent wonder of a trip to the zoo, an effect compounded by the fact that each episode's ad break is marked by actual conversations with zookeepers discussing that episode's signature Friends.
If you're a fan of slice of life shows and can get over Kemono Friends' questionable art, the show is already its own reward. Kemono Friends' humor and characters are charming, its episodic adventures well-paced, and its overall conceit solid. The music is also reasonably effective, headlined by the show's earworm-ready opening song and its propulsive ending. But beyond its immediate appeal, Kemono Friends' ace in the hole is its intriguing, understated worldbuilding.
The big trick of Kemono Friends is that it takes place in a post-apocalyptic world. The more we see of Japari Park, the more we realize that it's a creaking ruin, and Kaban's quest may end in the realization that humans no longer exist. The identity of Friends, the purpose of the park, and the nature of Ceruleans are all mysteries seeded with clues throughout the show, mysteries made much more compelling by Kemono Friends' light touch. The fact that Kemono Friends hews so close to a slice of life tone actually assists its larger storytelling aspirations, and it never feels like the show is leaning on twists to maintain interest at the expense of its immediate pleasures.
Ultimately, Kemono Friends' character-focused storytelling and its larger mysteries come together in a shockingly well-constructed finale arc. While the low-key dystopian worldbuilding is undoubtedly the show's most marketable feature, the show's secret weapon is just plain decent writing. Characters have solid arcs, narrative setups pay off in satisfying ways, and questions are answered without betraying the show's consistent emphasis on friendship and the beauty of our diverse personalities and talents. From a slice of life safari with a scifi edge, Kemono Friends eventually evolves into a great overarching narrative.
In spite of all that good narrative stuff, Kemono Friends' visual execution does remain a consistent hurdle. But ultimately, even its art design ends up offering a variety of perks. There are traditional strengths to it, like how well its character designs convey the visual personalities of real-life animals or the show's keen sense of visual comedy - but also unintentional strengths, like the easy humor of watching the show's simplistic CG models attempt to convey things like a cat sharpening its claws. Kemono Friends never becomes pretty, but its awkward execution ultimately feels like a natural element of a story that celebrates quirky differences. It's a strange show, but it won me over in the end. There's a lot to explore in Japari Park.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : A
Animation : D+
Art : C-
Music : B
+ Mixes slice of life appeal, scifi worldbuilding, and consistent plotting to offer a charming safari adventure
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