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.
Thanks for the Taleb quote on Umberto Eco’s library. I sometimes beat myself up for always having a massive backlog of books (and other things,) but now I see that I’ve been looking at it the wrong way this whole time. I should be glad to always have a small library at my fingertips, full of new things to read and look at! I shouldn’t feel ashamed of my addiction for buying cheap books! I should embrace the inner Kurata in me and spend to my hearts content!!
Perhaps I’m getting too excited about a random quote, but I think it’ll allow me to think a little more positively about things.
This post also makes me see fan theories in a less cynical light. Ever since watching people speculate to no end about the Marvel movie post-credits scenes, back when they first started that, I began to think that that sort of theorizing was just a waste of time. After all, the pay off (in this case the first Avengers film) is impossible to live up to all the crazy ideas people had for the direction that the series is going towards. But it can indeed be fun to witness that sort of fan engagement when it’s taken to the extremes with stuff like Kemono Friends and FNaF’s. I certainly had fun talking with friends about all those post-credits scenes before being “disillusioned” with the Avengers.
So this post inspired me to do two things: Start watching Kemono Friends, and then buy some more books I may or may not read to add to my antilibrary.
Hi! Just wanted to say this is an absolutely fantastic piece, just what I was looking for to describe the rising fandom of this series I’ve seen on Twitter.
As someone who doesn’t watch shows until they finish airing these days, this one is a bit of a conundrum. It might be too late to enjoy the oddity of what the series represents to watch it post-airing as you point out. However I’m definitely going to follow its fanbase. The subtext people find in media always fascinates me.
Reading between the lines — the subtext inside media — can be very well seen as an interaction between watcher/reader and the subject. What one sees in those might reflect oneself. Discussing themes, motifs, memes, and then writing in a blog post like this might just be mirrors for all we know.
I find it interesting too because how much can we say are they in those works? Our fervent behavior when it comes to analyzing or relating to characters might just be ourselves at work. We want to explain something in our own words and “our own words” reflect ourselves the most.
Looking back at this post, I can tell that this post isn’t that fleshed out as most people think. Ignoring the typos that I am too lazy to fix, I can find more things to talk about with other subjects that aren’t Kemono Friends. Your avatar, Shinji from Evangelion, has sparked some thoughts: Evangelion’s influence doesn’t come from how influential its artistic and technical qualities are but how people take them. It is the timing of the anime, the sentiments people are feeling, the writings they are reading, the art they are appreciating, the media they are consuming, and more that make up Evangelion. Anno has released the show from his hands and people are free not just to interpret whatever they want out of it but also to create a thriving world inside Evangelion. This has led to Anno inserting himself in Shin Gojira with the line: “We’ve always been living in post-World War II.” There’s something about Evangelion’s everything that speaks the truth about our postmodernist reality.
In this regard, reality is layers upon layers of fiction that we deem to be true by our senses. To feel affected by Evangelion means you are going to see Evangelion in everything. The movie you are watching is influenced by Evangelion. The current politics of Japan is like Evangelion. The ramen you like to eat may have Evangelion influences at some point in its packaging life. Maybe not that far but as a fan, you are going to see its themes in everyday life. It is what makes the “cultural myths” that Barthes wrote in Mythologies, the “folklore idea” in Alan Dundes’s writings, the “memes” in various postmodernist writings, and the core beliefs and fundamental principles we now hold today work.
Fiction affects our sense of reality because we don’t see the difference between fiction and reality. JJ Gibsons’s ecological approach to perception would of course argue otherwise: whenever we tilt our heads or nod, our perception of something change. That’s how reality works — through movement. However, with the advent of virtual reality, everything changes. Grab a HTC Vive and when you tilt your head to the left, your vision does tilt to the left. Fiction is reality. A science fiction professor I had theorized that reading a book was basically the earliest form of virtual reality. It’s why we relate to fictional characters because we see them as real people who are a bit like us.
And not just that: themes from works we hold dearly in our heart do color our perception. Ideas, memes, and myths don’t make us just biased to certain perspectives but they may make us more aware or dim on certain aspects of our everyday lives. Before Kemono Friends, how many people knew what a serval cat was? Now, it’s common knowledge.
We can only come up with these observations on fiction vs reality, themes/myths/memes/folklore ideas, and so on from writing our thoughts about them. We “make” Kemono Friends, Evangelion, Utena, and others what they are through ourselves more than the work themselves. That’s why we want to share because sharing is a form of creation and contribution. A review on some blog may attract a few people to read, but it can have the potential to “build” an aspect of the work and hence a little bit of our fiction-laden reality. This is the power of the subtext you mentioned. Our mirrors become a kaleidoscope and this kaleidoscope IS the work itself.
The advent of social media has made it easier for this phenomenon of the kaleidoscope to happen. So many mythologies and memes are created every second about Kemono Friends. Fanart, theorizing, and even just speculating in tweet forms have created this “identity” of Kemono. The culmination of ideas transferred and themes building up is what makes writing posts and commenting on others’ work pretty damn fun. We’re making the “identity” of the work with every tweet we make.
Hearing Taleb on Eco’s library, reminds me of the Japanese condition of ‘tsundoku’ 積ん読。
Very interesting post. I’ve caught up to ep 7 after hearing about the show and am hooked.
One aspect of the show that none of the English-language posts I have seen yet touch on is the parallel between Japari Park and Japan itself. As Richard Hendy has documented in great detail in his Spike Japan blog*, after Japan’s economic bubble collapsed in the early 90s, there has been almost 30 years of no growth and a ballooning government debt- the highest in the world.
What that means for Japan, alongside the falling birthrate, is that there are many parts of Japan that have been essentially abandoned for 3 decades. Hokkaido is probably the worst affected for various reasons (Okinawa struggles as well) and it is shocking to see what Hendy documents in his blog- something that the international media almost never covers (certainly not NHK World.)
Watching the show, and having recently traveled in Hokkaido and seen the collapse of parts of rural Japan in person, the parallel between the collapse of Japari Park and Japan itself was stark and obvious.
> I used to have big wings,
> but I can fly more easily with these wings than when I was a regular animal
Pretty sure there’s something behind it. Or everything. The question is just what.
I have a small dedicated library, and I often get the “how many of these books have you read?” question.
If I answer “most of them” (which I had at one point), the response is “ahh, well most are kid’s books…” (i.e. manga which accounts for ~1/6 of shelf space).
If I answer “not many of them” the response is “I thought as much!”
Nowadays I just give a shrug as a response. I don’t need more negativity and cynicism, which seems to be the new cultural norm.
Is there an actual lack of content? I would argue that there is (at least to me). To focus on things like “shoddy production values” or “an inane script” only looks at the physical medium.
My subjective response to the show may or may not be what the producers of the show intended, but I think that there are many who are also charmed by the message of kindness and optimism that are what make Kemono Friends attractive to me.
It’s something I can enjoy without having to assign some sort of gravitas to it.