Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Kemono Friends: Welcome to Japari Park!
Nana is starting her dream job today as a caretaker at Japari Park, a vast preserve inhabited by animal/girl hybrids known as Friends. Nana's thrilled to finally be living at the park and interacting with various Friends, but the first one she's put in charge of, Ezo Red Fox, looks like she's going to be more difficult than Nana ever expected. Can Serval, Koala, and Reindeer lend a helping hand?
The surprise hit anime of last year, Kemono Friends, is only one portion of a multimedia franchise – there are games, apps, and a variety of other bits and bobs to accompany the anime. Fly's two-volume manga Welcome to Japari Park, collected into a single omnibus by Yen Press for English release, is another piece of that puzzle, and while it definitely has its moments, it ultimately feels lacking when compared to its animated counterpart.
Of course, this isn't an entirely fair comparison. Kemono Friends: Welcome to Japari Park isn't intended to adapt the anime series, nor is it necessary to have seen the anime to read this manga. While there are some familiar faces who pop in and out of the story, the main characters are either side roles from the TV show or entirely new creations. Nana, the human protagonist in the book, is fully aware of the Friends as Friends – in fact she refers to them as “animal girls” several times in her inner monologues and narration. Her job at Japari Park is to be a caretaker for them, and she's assigned to Ezo Red Fox, who had a relatively minor role in the anime. While she's still supposed to help any Friend who needs her assistance, Ezo Red Fox is her main concern.
All of this does raise a disturbing angle that was largely downplayed in the anime. Essentially, Japari Park is not just a zoo, it's a reservation for people with animal characteristics. Since the Friends are shown basically acting like regular girls and even attending school, the fact that people pay to visit the park and that it hires “caretakers” for each of the Friends implies that they are treated more as animals than people – they're an oddity meant for the viewing pleasures of “normal” humans. While this aspect is unlikely to have been intentional, it still results in an uncomfortable atmosphere at times. The book's seeming lack of awareness about any troubling insinuations only makes them marginally more bearable; there's a tone-deafness that does detract from the otherwise cute and harmless story.
It's clear all-around that this is intended to be good clean fun – the only time anything remotely off-color comes up, it's Koala trying to feed other Friends her pap, which is a type of fecal secretion fed to baby koalas in order to prep their systems for a diet of poisonous eucalyptus leaves. Watching all of the characters try their hardest to stop Koala from explaining what pap is to the readers and other Friends is amusing, while still being the dirtiest thing in the entire omnibus. Otherwise the jokes are at the expense of Crested Ibis's bad singing or Ezo Red Fox's self-centered meat-bun-filled lifestyle. The latter is the main plot insofar as the book has one; each chapter is basically its own short story, and while there's a sense of slight continuity, it's essentially an episodic journey. This only becomes an issue when seasons are randomly skipped and reordered, presumably to enable special holiday-themed stories at the appropriate time during serialization. It's definitely noticeable, but not enough to be a major problem.
The one place where Welcome to Japari Park unequivocally succeeds is in its art. Fly's designs are instantly recognizable as the same characters we've seen other places, but there's a sweet softness to them that adds to their charm. Although it's a style fairly typical of any “cute girls doing cute things” story, it really works in this manga, especially for the more laid-back or fluffier characters like Koala or Marguay, and Tsuchinoko gets a wistfulness that really works with her personality. Reindeer is another standout, as she gives off a barely-repressed energy that allows her to remain happily oblivious to the fact that not everyone is going along with her on her ride. Page and panel layouts are also easy to read, with a nice balance of black, white, and grey spaces, making this one of the better-looking cute manga to come out in recent memory.
If you're a big fan of Kemono Friends as a franchise, this may be worth picking up, but if you're strictly looking for a continuation in the style of the anime, not so much. With less narrative substance alongside accidentally unsettling implications that are never acknowledged, this manga largely succeeds at making its characters look good while leaving pesky things like plot movement out in the cold. It's an okay read, but your investment in the franchise and characters may ultimately determine how much you enjoy the manga.
Overall : C+
Story : C
Art : B
+ Cute art, fun short stories, engaging art makes for easy reading
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