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There’s been a common sentiment nearing the halfway point of 2017 that it’s been a trifling year for anime. Sure, you’re bound to hear this conjecture any given year, but it feels like a consensus within the community this time around. Most series have tended to be flashes in the pan, exiting the conversation as soon as they finish airing. Writing about Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid on my own blog less than a month after the final episode yielded far below average traffic, and I’ve heard similar stories from others in the analytical community. It’s not uncommon for the majority of seasonal series to drop off in due time, but those in recent memory have felt particularly short-lived. Heck, with the current season it feels like discussion of most series has heavily dropped off before they’ve even concluded.
And yet there’s an exception, an unlikely series that captured the hearts of both Japanese and Western audiences and continues to be the subject of fan jubilation over two months after airing: Kemono Friends.
Yes, Kemono Friends, that strange series in which a human and a humanoid serval journey through the many terrains of Japari Park (think Disney’s Animal Kingdom turned up to eleven). Upon airing, the series’ popularity was surprising to many given that– save for a few basic watercolor backgrounds– it’s rendered entirely in CGI, a practice heavily stigmatized within the Western anime community. Don’t get me wrong, the perception of CGI anime as cheap isn’t necessarily unwarranted; very few series of this type have risen above the deal-breaking shortcomings of lazy direction and canned animation. Series like 2016’s Berserk continuation suffered from such issues, in Berserk’s case failing to deliver on the gritty, visceral battles integral to why people love the franchise. Large scale battles devolved into sluggish shots of swords slowly gashing through poorly sculpted 3D models and bafflingly bad shot composition that made it nearly impossible to discern what was happening at most times.
Where Kemono Friends differs (outside of generally being better in all of those categories) is that it works within its means. In a tweet translated by The Canipa Effect, it’s stated that the series was made by 10 people over the course of 500 days on a budget so limited that it took them 7 episodes to make the wheels of the Japari Bus spin. And yet the series is still better animated than its CGI kin because it opts to save any moments of sakuga to accentuate the characters’ quirks. Scenes such as Serval scampering up trees or the penguin idol unit PPP’s Love Live-esque dance number make Japari Park’s inhabitants feel more believable than constantly having them moving around, a common trapping of CGI series. In fact, it’s the few moments where Kemono Friends tries to break from its subdued mold that its seams show, most notably in the big action scenes of the final two episodes. The character models simply aren’t robust enough to handle much more than simple animations, a limitation I’d say is the case for all CGI TV anime I’ve seen. But, again, Kemono Friends otherwise plays to its strengths by opting for minimalistic animation while letting the characters take center stage.
My own experience wherein I became a fan of Kemono Friends’ characters before watching the series proves its success in this regard. Like many, I saw the series start to pick up traction some weeks into the Winter 2017 season. Even with a handful of community voices I respect vouching for its quality, I couldn’t see past the CGI models. Cue a few months later when a friend started dropping fan art of the series’ various human-animal amalgamations into our Discord chat, talking up each’s idiosyncrasies. I quickly became attached to a variety of Friends such as the curry-loving owls and menacing-looking-but-actually-soft-spoken shoebill (that a background character such as this could become the focus of fan adoration is a testament to the quality of the series’ character designs in its own right).
But perhaps Kemono Friends’ greatest character is Japari Park itself. What once was a fully functional wildlife reserve/amusement park hybrid was abandoned by humans after being overrun by the dangerous Ceruleans (amorphous plot-device creatures). Throughout Kaban and Serval’s travels they come across a variety of human constructs in various states of disrepair. It’s eerie and borderline post-apocalyptic, not at all what one would expect from a series that advertises itself with cute animal girls in its key visual. The writers smartly leave much of the park’s backstory and the status of humanity’s existence beyond the park’s borders ambiguous, allowing fans to fill in the blanks for themselves. As is the case with many great waterbeds for fan theories, the truth is bound to be less interesting than the endless possibilities, and the longer that future continuations of Kemono Friends can hold off on showing their hand, the healthier the series will be for it. That the series’ writers may not do this is my worry for the “new video project” announced for the series back at the end of March. Balancing what you do or don’t tell your audience is tricky and where many stories have faltered in the past.
Getting back to fan art for a minute, I’d be remiss to not point out the irony in it almost exclusively being hand-drawn. Perusing image boards to see what people are drawing (spoiler: it’s often lewd) has begged the question of whether Kemono Friends would have cultivated the same fan base if it had been drawn in a traditional style. My honest belief is that it likely wouldn’t have. For as much as I’ve praised the series’ ability to create lovable characters and an engaging world of mystique, the fact that these things are attached to a CGI oddity that makes it stand out. It’s the surprise of being captivated by a style you never thought would appeal to you that makes watching Kemono Friends such a blast. I’m not at all of the opinion that being different for the sake of it is valuable, but being different while also delivering something of worth is an important part of how new ground is broken for a medium. After Kemono Friends I’m convinced that doing CGI anime well is possible and that the failed attempts’ reason for floundering isn’t purely budgetary. In fact, that this series proved to be such a success shows that a dedicated roster of talent can make a great series on a relatively small budget. If this model catches on then it could lead to a whole new wave of professional DIY anime, the medium’s own indie scene. The incentive is certainly there as Kemono Friends has raked in big profits in Japan.
Regardless, I do hope that the impact this series has is in showing naysayers that an all-CGI anime isn’t inherently bad on principle. It’s an inevitability that we continue to get more of them in the future given that they’ve proven to be popular in Japan. The best thing we can do is approach them with optimism, even if there’s an inherent layer of skepticism baked beneath it based on all the ways we’ve seen it go wrong in the past. What I learned through Kemono Friends—other than various trivia about animal species and that I really dig servals—is that the era of CGI is here and has the potential to be more fruitful than we thought.
Edit: A Twitter user pointed out an innacuracy in my piece in which I criticized low frame rates as a flaw of a swath of CGI anime. I’m not a sakuga expert, nor was the point of this piece to talk about sakuga. My broad overview of the animation was necessary given the stigma of the style, but the point of my piece was more to talk about narrative. Given my lack of knowledge on the topic I’ve removed the comment on frame rates from the article so as to not detract from my focus. Thank you. – Tim