For the uninitiated, Kemono Friends is a phenomenon more bizarre than the likes of Girls und Panzer and Kancolle. For the latter, one could point out military fetishism and Azuma’s database animals theory. But Kemono Friends is a CGI-animated anime with horrible voice acting, shoddy production values, and an inane script that can be described as “contentless”.
This is the current Western reaction to the anime, but the same cannot be said when you look at the Japanese fanbase. A certain fanart piece went viral, “arguing” that the first episode is nothing special but the second episode gets interesting and the third episode is tanoshii. Once you get past the third episode, all you can think is about the show and mutter the word “Friends” forever and ever.
It is quite sugoi when you realize how this show out of nowhere has become a cult hit on Japanese social media. Yamaha references it in a random tweet and the official Tokyo Zoo Twitter account has contributed to the fandom as well. Fans have mobilized to find everything about the show — from reading the manga to looking up details of the defunct soshage that came before the show. An awardwinning Hayakawa SF writer has also been commissioned to write that the show is following traditional science fiction conventions as well. The hashtag #けものフレンズ考察班 has sprouted crazy, wild theories about the show: one tweet sees the structure of the show as a symbol of the cognitive abilities animals are gaining to be as intelligent as humans; another suggests that the name Japari Park, the setting of the show, might have derived from the word “Jeopardy”; and the creepiest tweet observes that the extinct animals that have become Friends have no “light” in their eyes.
Before we get into the crazy absurdity of all this, we should take a step back and talk about what the show is. A human girl wakes up in Japari Park, but she doesn’t understand who she is. An anthropomorphic serval cat comes up to her and gives her the name Kaban-chan (literally Backpack-chan). Kaban-chan has a talking robot called Lucky and its purpose is to guide them around the safari and describe the anthropomorphic animals they meet. Together, Serval and Kaban-chan decide to go to the library to find out the identity of the latter.
With a plot like that, it’s easy to think of the show as a Dora the Explorer thing — except it aired as a late night anime. The more you watch the show too, the more you realize the Japanese fanbase might be onto something. There seems to be a cynical, dark past to Japari Park amidst all this cute girls doing cute things crap.
Abandoned attractions, rusty metal, and barely working vehicles seem abundant in this happy wonderland. The ending sequence of the show features dismantled roller-coasters and Ferris wheels around the world. It wouldn’t be difficult to see the show be post-apocalyptic, right?
As of this writing, no one knows what the real truth of the show is and everyone is flinging theories left and right. The current chronology according to fans is that the soshage came first — when the park wasn’t even opened — and then the manga happened which occurred during its opening. Some kind of event has happened and time has passed; this is when the anime takes place. The current theories suggest that Japari Park is a Noah’s ark of sorts — with the last animals, including a human, on Earth placed in this safari. People have become animals and it explains why the vocabulary level of these anthropomorphic animals is very low — they just say, “Tanoshii” and “Sugoi”, to questions that always have a standard reply. The last remnants of civilization are trying to be intelligent once more, which lends credibility to the tweet that analyzed the structure of the show. And it also explains the existence of the library, which might be a storage of knowledge long lost to time.
All of this can be bullshit as far as we know at this time. It could just be a cute show that is sugoi and makes you go waaaai. But it doesn’t stop the fans from encouraging people to watch more of the show and even I have to admit I am swayed by the theories at the moment.
It does raise up a question: Is this show good? I suppose it depends on how engaged you are with the fanbase. In the Japanese media community, we have always had works that are similarly “contentless” but we like to fill in the gaps as series continue: Touhou is the biggest culprit when most characters are nothing but empty shells filled in by our silly delusions.
But the better comparison, I feel, is the Western cult horror hit Five Night at Freddy’s. A miracle of indie gaming, FNaF first began its life not as the creepy game with automatons in a diner but as a kid’s game. Its visuals freaked players out and that made the developer sad until he realized that could make a good horror game. What came out of it is a minimalist series that doesn’t really comment on its characters. The FNaF lore is comprised of fan theories, some confirmed and acknowledged by the creator and some up in the airs but well-loved all the same.
This kind of storytelling can annoy people who want to see everything in concrete detail. When elements are not told, it is an artistic decision to let the reader interpret whatever they want. But there is a threshold that a work cannot pass if it’s going that route; else, the work becomes something like Five Night at Freddy’s — a “contentless” work with a raving fanbase that inflates it with theories, much like stuffing a turkey for Thanksgiving.
The rise of social media has caused this phenomenon in art to happen. This isn’t to say this has never existed before social media; people have always discussed fan theories about their favorite franchises before — but not in the scale that is today. We have seen this with another series we all love to hate, Umineko no Naku Koro ni, where the writer might have used some of the fan theories to actually beef up the work. Not many people were complaining about the game’s writing when the series was undergoing, but now it is the punching bag of the visual novel community.
Livetweeting, live reactions on YouTube and Reddit, and more have connected fans to one another and this can make certain series feel overwhelming. Fan favorites Maidragon and Youjo Senki have “disappeared” amongst the flooding of Kemono Friends in a fanart.
You may also see a connection between FNaF and Kemono: the theories are always about a slow death. Post-apocalypse, a science fiction that could be labeled as paranormal cosmic horror, and more seem to color the fan theories. It is a continuation of creepypastas like the theory that Ash from Pokemon is in a coma — and much like the two works, this theory has never been debunked officially.
This kind of negative thinking might be reflective of how we see the world today. It is crumbling — maybe not physically but mentally and spiritually. A shared connection of pessimism colors our perception of these “contentless” series. We may not be pessimists or cynics, but we understand where others would get these ideas.
Any of these theories can be confirmed baseless and wrong, but it is impossible to deny them in the context of the text. It’s why theories like Ash’s coma never seem to die and remain referenced to this very day. If the theory still works, don’t abandon it. Therefore, these silly conspiracy-like theories are always in a cycle of being embraced by pessimistic fans and acknowledged by other people.
But that might not be true for Kemono Friends because it is a one-cour show. The characters will at some point learn about something. They might reach the library at the end of the show. There will inevitably be a conclusion, even if there is a possible sequel hook. The theories will have to end.
The show might actually backfire spectacularly at the end as the truth is always less interesting than the theories. What drives people to watch Kemono Friends is the endless speculating about how sugoi the setting is. But whatever the ending of the show is, there is no way it will live up to the hype of the theories. The fact it’s a one-off thing will destroy the fandom of the show.
When you look at the longevity of FNaF and Touhou, it’s not that hard to conclude their success comes from the fact they are never going to finish. Fans are allowed to add whatever fluff they want to the franchise. But Kemono Friends has an ending, so it will probably be forgotten in the next season.
Nassim Taleb in The Black Swan observes people’s reactions to the late Umberto Eco’s library. People must have thought the library was sugoi. It must be tanoshii to read these books forever. Eco must be a goddamn intelligent man.
But Taleb snorts at these thoughts:
He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others — a very small minority — who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.
The library of read books is unnecessary, but the anti-library of unread books is what makes everything work. That’s why it’s ironic that Kemono Friends‘s goal is to enter the library. When the show reaches the end, it might lose its value to the whole fanbase. The show will then becomes “contentless” when the hype dies out. What it needs is to live forever and go to the antilibrary, but that looks impossible at the moment.
For now, let’s embrace the tanoshisa of Japari Park. There is still “content” no matter how superficial and abstract it might be to some fans, but don’t expect it to be anywhere as good as it was when it’s finally done.