by Steve Jones,
How would you rate episode 12 of
Smoke 'em if you got 'em, because Smokeweed has sadly reached its conclusion. Last week's bloody cliffhanger foreshadowed an epic final clash between Rin and the nefarious red Kemurikusa tree, and that's pretty much exactly what we get! There are plenty of surprises along the way (mostly that Wakaba is much sturdier than expected), but the animators pull out all the stops to cap off Kemurikusa with an unusually action-packed episode.
It's been funny reviewing this show alongside Mob Psycho 100. The two of them arguably span one of the season's widest gaps in terms of animation style and fidelity. On one hand, you have Mob's carefully selected team of artists injecting nearly every episode with a staggering variety of flavor. On the other hand, we have a smaller team of CG animators working in a format that's still young and evolving. Both shows have consistently impressed me on an aesthetic level, because they're both trying to accomplish the most they can with the resources available to them. Mob refuses to squander an iota of its extremely rare nexus of talent, and Kemurikusa builds on a strong atmospheric base that consistently sucks me into its strange world and eccentric characters. It's a mood that works well for its quieter transitory moments and scenes of character banter, but it begins to fray under the stress of an extended action scene with multiple moving parts. Moments of 3D wonk aside, this finale still packs a punch thanks to creative storyboarding, a strong narrative foundation, and some truly badass moments.
It's worthwhile to step back and reflect on the bizarre coolness of this final fight. The enemy is a gigantic poisonous sentient tree with an infinite supply of tentacle roots at its base, a venus flytrap for a head, a freaking laser beam for one arm, and a giant mace for the other. A little girl made it by accident, and its single-minded purpose is to destroy the material our protagonists are made out of. Rin flips and jumps between tentacles to attack the tree and save Wakaba, even while it lops off entire limbs. Meanwhile, Ritsu, the Rinas, and Shiro are fighting to hold back the entire army of robots that the tree commands. There's a short but absolutely exquisite cut of Ritsu squaring up to throw some hands, and Rin's dead sisters show up just in the nick of time to cut through the tree's defenses with their super anime smokeweed laser powers. Rin then bodies the tree with the core branch of Midori herself, finally putting an end to their battles. It's all great weird stuff, making for a surprisingly exciting finale.
Thematically, Kemurikusa wraps up in a super satisfying place as well. One major focus throughout the show has been the conflict between one's “purpose” and one's desire. This manifested bleakly with the family of Shiro robots who desired nothing but orders and fought to the death under Wakaba's instruction. That's one way to find a purpose, but it's ultimately self-destructive, and this is the subject of Rin's major arc. At the start of the show, she sees herself solely as her sisters' protector, and she balks at the idea of Ritsu trying to force her to make the decision about whether to push forward or not. Selflessness is a virtue, but not if it comes at the cost of your own self-actualization, and as the show has progressed, so too has Rin's comfort with accepting what she wants to do. The other sisters have also had similar moments, like Ritsu's outpouring of guilt over giving their water to Midori, which everyone is quick to shut down. They all want each other to embrace what they love, because loving another person means wanting them to be happy. It seems like an obvious message, but in times of crisis it can be attractive to eschew your own desires in pursuit of survival. Thankfully, Kemurikusa has never been about just surviving.
I love the clever way the episode's climax emphasizes this point. Wakaba apparently sacrifices himself to seal the bad tree and Rin finds herself on the other side of the wall—the exact position that Riri found herself in with her own Wakaba. A more conventional narrative would have embraced this as a manifestation of destiny, that Rin saving Wakaba would be a fulfillment of the wish Riri made when she split herself up. Kemurikusa emphatically does not do this. Riri saw Wakaba's body right before her metamorphosis, but rather than succumb to hopelessness, her final act is to give her “children” the right to live as they see fit. Rin doesn't save Wakaba because that's what Riri wanted her to do; she saves him because that's what she wants to do. Fully embracing what she loves gives her the strength to save everyone she loves. Even Ritsu and the others manage to win their battle. It's an unequivocally happy ending for everyone, and Kemurikusa earned it a long time ago by making all of its characters so lovable.
There are so many questions left open by this finale, particularly in the post-credits scene—and this is a good thing! Kemurikusa's core appeal was never unraveling the mystery of its world. It was nice extra flavor, but the show has always been more about character and mood. That follows through to the final scene, where Rin and Wakaba look out from the crack in their “ship” and see the verdant forest of a surprisingly normal-looking Earth stretching beyond them. It's a tantalizing image for the audience, yet for Rin and Wakaba it's the unbelievable relief of knowing that their family will never be desperate for water again. It's enough to make Rin cry, smile, and finally confess her feelings for Wakaba. They've had one of the strangest and most awkward romances in recent memory, but the earnestness of Tatsuki's writing made it work, ending the season on a wonderfully warm note. I do want to mention the bizarre brilliance of what I can only describe as “Chekhov's Bondage,” where a piece Rin's makeshift Wakaba leash ends up saving his life. I have no comment about the fact that Wakaba was still carrying it, but it certainly supports that they're a perfect match for each other.
I would hope it goes without saying at this point, but I liked Kemurikusa a whole lot! Tatsuki and the rest of the Kemono Friends veterans took their unlikely success and transposed its formula into a more ambitious original project. It was a risky prospect for a team in the sophomore spotlight, but Kemurikusa managed to retain that tanoshii appeal while improving on almost all of the technical and narrative aspects of Kemono Friends. It's a shame we couldn't have quite as many animal girls in this anime, but otherwise I'd call it a triumph. With two great shows under his belt, Tatsuki has firmly established himself as a master creator of oddly charming travelogues, and I can't wait to see what he works on next. I'm confident Kemurikusa will continue to shine bright as one of this year's hidden gems, and I'll continue to urge people to look past its rough exterior and see the warm heart, cute robots, and good weed it has underneath.
Kemurikusa is currently streaming on Amazon.
Steve is a friend who's good at watching anime and can be found making bad posts about anime on Twitter.
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