Let’s have a serious talk about the appreciation of art based off this season’s most profound and rich title. Kemono Friends, of course.
If you pay attention to seasonal anime and the reactions of the Japanese fandom to it, chances are that you’ve noticed a certain title garnering tons of attention. And even if you don’t quite follow that sphere, there have been so many western thinkpieces and attempts to explain the phenomenon to raise awareness about it. Long story short, Kemono Friends is a low profile anime based off a defunct smartphone game; this isn’t just an amusing anecdote, since the show depicts life after a vague cataclysm ended the previous civilization – hence after the game, sort of. Despite this post-apocalyptic concept, the series is actually very heartwarming, constructed in a way that could be easily aimed at children if it weren’t for the detail that it airs around 2 am. The mix of intriguing and sometimes flat-out unsettling implications and the very sincere, positive adventure is quite special, so it’s no wonder that it’s caught this much attention.
There’s a catch, however. To put it mildly, Kemono Friends isn’t an impressive production. If I were blunt I would call it an absolute mess for a professional product. There are no end to the issues you could isolate in regards to the craft. The 3DCG models could almost get a pass, were it not for the fact that they keep on clipping with the environment and with their own selves. The aesthetic clash between them and the stylized 2D backgrounds is no joke either, they clearly don’t inhabit the same space. And speaking of the scenery, the show struggles really hard at keeping a consistent sense of scale, with the surroundings seemingly reshaping with each shot. The movement is floaty, capable of neither acceleration nor impact. The whole thing feels like an independent/graduation project, and the truth is not that far off from that. The director Tatsuki belongs to an indie crew, while the animation director Yoshihisa Isa supervising the entire series has no previous credits in the industry. The show they’ve been making is undoubtedly charming, but it’s also very poorly put together. Blatantly so. To the point that no matter the visual literacy of the viewers, they will notice it’s a very weak attempt. So what if people enjoy the series because of that, rather than in spite of it?
That theory is easy to support. Much like its cast, Kemono Friends feels like a helpless animal you can’t help but cheer for. It’s too much of an earnest effort to appear like it’s knowingly exploiting its visual weaknesses, but intent doesn’t really matter here. There are scenes that are undoubtedly more amusing due to the bizarre comedic timing of floaty CGi, and the overall package comes off as weirdly charming. And this can be the launching platform for interesting broader arguments. Can rough anime have an inherent advantage over polished productions? If you look at it conceptually, of course. Intent does become an important factor in this case, since it’s deliberately coarse art that tends to understand how to weaponize its unique, subversive appeal. That is a massive argument entailing art as a whole though, so I’d like to scale it down to the actual anime industry. Are our cartoons more effective when they’re rough?
Well…no. Not at all. The idea that polish suffocates expression in anime is a disingenuous attempt to discredit excellent projects people happen to dislike – sure that looks nice, but what that just means it’s soulless! The industry does have a problem with characters that feel inert, but projects that try to sacrifice any acting in favor of pretty drawings at the end of the day can’t even achieve their misguided goal; this should be no surprise, you wouldn’t expect creators who don’t really understand the appeal of animation to succeed. Thoroughly corrected anime that feels notoriously lifeless is so rare I struggle to come up with exceptions, and Love Live! (the movie in particular) is the only major case I can think of in recent years. And even then it’s not as if the level of polish itself is at fault; what makes the characters robotic is the lack of proficient character animators and people who can conceptualize their actions as people, not the abundance of skilled supervisors and having enough time for them to do their job. It’s generally the other way around – the few projects graced with strong staff and schedules that allow them to put extra care into their work end up being the most vivid and articulate depictions of life. An animation director’s objective isn’t to restrict every drawing to the design sheets, but to ensure the quality of the animation. By and large, that’s what their corrections entail. Implying that when they’re in environments that allow them to properly do their job the results are worse isn’t only wrong, it’s a very nasty attitude.
I’ve been dancing around the issue and trying to be careful with the wording, but the other major problem here is that anime fans are notoriously bad at judging the quality of the craft. Any off-model frame causes an uproar on the internet, with fans yelling about it being cheap and poorly made. When idiosyncratic animators clash with intransigent fanbases you get meltdowns that last for many years – I feel like some people will never get over Naruto Shippuden 167, which is still a fantastic spectacle as far as I’m concerned. When an animator like Tamotsu Ogawa simulates wild pencil strokes and deforms the drawings, he doesn’t do it because he’s suddenly forgotten how to draw. He does it because he’s attempting to create an effect that standard tools can’t achieve. And while this is mostly a problem with fans who don’t tolerate weird animation, it sadly goes both ways. Masaaki Yuasa masterfully altered perspective and toyed with unique registers as an animator already, and those have become major assets in his projects as director as well. That’s why despite having led some of the best animated TV anime of all time like Tatami Galaxy, you’ll find plenty of people who say his work is poorly drawn. But even his genius is susceptible to this industry’s messy state, and when it came to Ping Pong his team had to work under such awful conditions that the results were unsatisfactory; it was particularly apparent during the TV broadcast, which was missing entire cuts, had to loop animation to make up for it, and was in dire needs of corrections all around. It was frankly bizarre to see something conceptually strong but heavily limited by the execution being held on the same draftsmanship level as his previous projects by a non-trivial number of viewers. If you want a more recent example, KonoSuba gets the same reactions (for the good and for the bad) whenever Kikuta’s loose pen is supervising and when there’s a simply poorly drawn episode – “this is off-model” is the only thing that is considered, all nuance is lost. Please don’t assume that all people who enjoy unique visuals are immediately more knowledgeable than fans who reject art that deviates from the norm. The poor grasp of anime’s production is a more widespread issue. And addressing that, with the ultimate goal of enhancing your experience, is still the main reason this site exists.
The mandatory disclaimer after all of this is that I’m talking on technical terms, of course. Your preferences will never be wrong, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Do I believe Kemono Friends is just intentionally using techniques that could be perceived as poor by the untrained eye, then? As if! I don’t even believe it’s more effective than a potential equivalent manufactured by much more capable creators; sure we might lose these magical moments where the comedy is boosted by the hilariously bad craft, but the potential gains of thoroughly competent execution would be much greater. But the show has allowed me to talk about a couple of important topics, and it’s been very amusing to get away with an article about goddamn Kemono Friends in a site meant to highlight outstanding animation.
And for the record, I really do like Kemono Friends.
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