by Rebecca Silverman,
How would you rate episode 1 of
Kemono Jihen ?
How would you rate episode 2 of
Kemono Jihen ?
Anime and manga about the many varieties of native Japanese monsters, collectively known as yokai or ayakashi, are hardly rare. There are at least three airing as we speak – Jujutsu Kaisen, Yashahime, and this one, Kemono Jihen – and that's not counting the Demon Slayer movie or outliers that could be construed to have yokai-ish roots, like Otherside Picnic (because what are urban legends but new folklore?). I know I've made no secret of my deep and abiding love for the 2018 GeGeGe no Kitarō series (and its source manga), and while it's definitely too early to declare Kemono Jihen its spiritual successor, there are plenty of signs to suggest that it is going to tread a similarly dark horror-infused path.
The clearest of these signs comes even before this week's infestation of tick-like bugs that totally grossed me out: in the very first episode, we're introduced to Inugami, a P.I. who has been hired to come out to the countryside to kill a thirteen-year-old boy. The reason for that is part Cinderella (or I guess Ash Lad, since the unwanted child is a boy) and part plain-old awful – the boy in question is hanyo, or half-yokai and the aunt who was charged with his care cannot get over her disgust at the fact that her sister had a kid with what the show terms “an immortal demon.” For years she's let the kid believe that his parents abandoned him and that he's a terrible freak of nature, encouraged her son (his cousin) to bully him, and even robbed him of his name, calling him “Dorotabo” rather than “Kabane.” And now, fully fed up with housing and feeding (although I'd definitely question how well she did either) her nephew, she's hired a guy who specializes in taking care of supernatural problems to murder him.
What she doesn't know is that Kabane is not the child of a dorotabo. The name is a very good piece of misdirection, actually; as you may recall from the episode of Kitaro that dealt with that particular yokai, a dorotabo is a mud-based yokai born of the restless and angry souls of farmers whose lands are left untended (or worse, developed). Since Kabane's primary task at his aunt's inn appears to be tending the fields, it's easy to just take that name as his actual yokai parentage, putting him in a category somewhere between “dorotabo” and “golem.” As well, many cruel statements are made about how he smells, which also fits the description as well as links him back to the Ash Lads of other forms of folklore – he stinks because he's in the mud, like Ash Lad is ashy because he's made to stay in the cinders.
Of course, like Ash Lad, once Kabane is removed from the offending area, things straighten right out. In his case it's because Inugami, himself a bake-danuki (shapeshifting tanuki) teaches him how to cover up his natural yokai musk, but also not being stuck in the mud all the time results in a cleaner Kabane. What's not entirely clear is whether Inugami was being completely altruistic when he offered to pretend that Kabane, who is next to immortal thanks to his dad, was dead and take him back to Tokyo. At first it looks a bit like that, especially since he's housing two other yokai or hanyo kids, Akira and Shiki. But the conversation he has at the end with a mysterious woman whose smile is distressingly predatory might suggest otherwise – and while bake-danuki are often cast as lighter-hearted than their shape-shifting fox cousins, they're also much more classic trickster figures, which means that we should be very cautious about Inugami's motives.
Not that Kemono Jihen is being strictly faithful to the basics of all of its yokai. Episode two pits Inugami and his kids against something that he calls “sanshichu” or “three corpse bugs,” but that's less of a concrete being and more a play on a concept in Daoism that holds that there are “internal deities” inhabiting the human body; the sanshichu are three that cause illness. In the episode, they're represented as a swarm of ticks attracted to guilt, and Kabane is able to stop them because as an immortal demon, he has no blood for them to feed on. (I'm still not entirely sure what the “immortal demon” is meant to be, but I'm going with some form of oni, especially since when Kabane activates his powers his skin and hair take on a reddish hue.) Shiki also offers that his mother is an “Arachne;” possibly this is just the subtitles' effort not to get too obscure by naming her a jorogumo (spider yokai who takes on the form of a beautiful sex worker to trap men for her supper). It still stands out as odd, however, and I'll be interested to see what Akira eventually reveals himself to be, since he's got a lot of the characteristics of a yuki-onna, or snow woman.
Good as it is, this looseness with some of the folklore and the grimmer aspects of these two episodes may not work for everyone. While we can understand Kabane tending Inugami in the bath as a facet of Japanese culture (and let's not forget that Inugami was called in to kill him, which is arguably way worse than requesting him as a bath attendant in a non-sexual way or pulling down his pants to show off his bake-danuki tail), the whole child-murder angle is a little hard to stomach, as the whole abandoned hanyo/yokai child thing might be. Really it was those damn bugs that did me in this week – I'm not typically squeamish, but ticks are the absolute worst as far as my Lyme-recovered self is concerned, and I really hope they don't come back in another episode. But even if they do, this is shaping up to be really fascinating and I'm looking forward to seeing where it goes from here and hoping that Kabane learns to become the person his evil aunt wouldn't let him be.
Kemono Jihen is currently streaming on FUNimation Entertainment.
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