by Steve Jones,
How would you rate episode 3 of
The gang's journey to Island Six is fully underway, as their half of a subway car crawls slowly down the tracks. Ritsu glibly remarks that this might be their last expedition, and while the first two episodes provided a pretty good idea of how badly off the world has gotten, this episode paints a much more desolate portrait. It'd be easy to write off Kemurikusa as an inherently lesser anime due to its CG limitations, but to do so would be to ignore its confident command of aesthetic. This gets flexed particularly well as their car exits the tangled concrete of the first island and enters the vast space in between. The dark blue sky is offset beautifully by the bright red ocean of fog, whose hissing clouds wisp dangerously close to the lone curling stretch of rail that leads to their destination. There are no signs of life. There aren't even any bugs in this episode. Something went terribly wrong in this world, yet Wakaba still drinks up this vista with his characteristic glee and curiosity. While there's no nature to observe, he still finds a naturalistic pleasure in observing the way the car and its tracks fit together, as an echo of a civilization long gone. Like the best post-apocalyptic fiction, Kemurikusa is interested in the nature of “humanity” outside of familiar civilization, and its uncommonly good-natured and quirky way of exploring that angle remains one of the story's best qualities.
Kemurikusa needs that levity too, because it's a merciless world out there otherwise. This episode is suffused with a heavy and melancholic atmosphere as Rin and the others can't help but reminisce about their lost sisters. Incidentally, this is where those short prequel clips that Tatsuki posted on his Twitter come into play, since they provide a brief glimpse of what these characters were like. They aren't necessary, however, since the dialogue also does a good job of sketching out their personalities, and the more important point is that even though these sisters' lives have been full of loss, they still persevere and support each other. Ritsu especially is interested in making sure that Rin gains the confidence and conviction to follow her own path, and it's not hard to see why. Ritsu already looks like she's in perpetual need of a nap, but her waning strength turns front and center when they're forced to make a pit stop in the middle of the theme park. The sisters are hardier than normal humans, and their lives are supported by the mysterious Kemurikusa leaves, but they're still mortal. Ritsu knows her day is coming, and Rin probably does too, but it's not something they're going to talk about. Ritsu will continue to put on a brave face as much as she can, and Rin will continue to be overly considerate of her health, because they love each other and that's how they've decided to show it.
One of Kemurikusa's strengths is how much it's been focusing on its characters over its mysteries. I'm definitely intrigued by their world and eager to learn more about what makes it tick, but I wouldn't be nearly so invested if the characters weren't so likable. Of the three sisters, Ritsu is currently my favorite. I'll admit that the tired fox mom aesthetic is very strong with me, but I also tend to have a soft spot for characters who project strength despite their inner weakness. Ritsu strikes me as someone who took the role of leader out of necessity rather than desire, but she's nonetheless committed to it so she can help all of them survive. Meanwhile, Rin holds her own contradictions. She's tough and ruthless when it comes to the bugs, but that stems from her dependence on her family and her determination to not lose any more of its members. The Rinas haven't quite displayed the depth of their older sisters, but they mostly make up for it by having the weirdest powers and primarily being motivated by food, which is highly relatable. In no universe am I going to dislike someone who eats an entire piece of metal scaffolding in a single chomp. I also like how much they relish being able to act like a know-it-all older sister to Wakaba. In fact, Wakaba's kind and inquisitive personality generally makes all the dialogue more interesting. The Rinas get to explain things to him (and to the audience). Rin gets constantly owned by her ridiculous crush. And Ritsu seems to understand that he's not an enemy, so she just enjoys the extra company. The scene where they all share water is a great example of something that teaches us about the world (the girls metabolize water much different than Wakaba does), but more importantly highlights their common humanity through kindness and selflessness.
It's a good thing that the character interactions tend to be fun, because very little happens plot-wise in this episode. Basically, they leave Island One, then take a break in order to let Ritsu rest, and we don't get much farther than that. Kemono Friends was similarly paced, but it benefited from being able to introduce new characters in each episode. That's not something I imagine Kemurikusa will be able to do, so it's important that it takes the time to establish the rapport between its ensemble in these early episodes. Whether or not it can keep that up for a whole season remains to be seen, but so far it's working for me. I'm also amused that Tatsuki can't seem to extricate himself from the creepy abandoned theme park aesthetic. It is a good one though, and it makes a statement when the ground opens up and we see the space shuttle and ferris wheel begin to collapse. In addition to everything else, the earth itself is falling apart, but it's also in this moment that Wakaba's reckless heroic streak continues. He doesn't know what it is he's saved, but he knows that it was important to Rin and the others, which is a pretty great metaphor for the narrative's concerns at this point. There are enough contextual clues to reasonably assume that those are the dead Kemurikusa leaves of their fallen sisters, and I really like that this is left unspoken for now. The anime trusts the audience enough to figure that out, so instead it focuses on the actions and emotions of its characters. It's smart writing.
With the all-important third episode down, Kemurikusa asserts itself as a story that's content to let its mysteries unfold naturally while it focuses more on the relationships between its characters. I'm not much closer to understanding what “Kemurikusa” is even supposed to be, but I am having fun watching these lively humans (or “humans”) clash against the backdrop of their beautifully desolate world. Tatsuki definitely knows how to write a road trip full of heart and charm, and even though I can tell there's pain on the horizon, I'm hopeful that the journey will be worth it.
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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