(This piece contains spoilers for the Kemono Friends TV series in its entirety, as it is impossible to fully discuss otherwise. I think you should just read this anyway.)
Well, if boat girls are selling, I guess they’ll go for anything.
That’s the thought process that led to Kemono (Animal) Friends. Japanese geeks have long drawn their mechanical objects of interest — trains, robots, and what-have-you — as cute girls, but a few years ago a game called Kantai (Fleet) Collection blew the doors open on this trend. Headed by a genuine lover of ships in designer Kensuke Tanaka, Kancolle (the popular abbreviation) cast the player as an admiral, recruiting Japanese WWII-era ships (de-contextualized from their actual history) to battle against aliens. The game was a hit, but the character designs hit bigger. For a few years, Kancolle was inescapably popular, dominating the halls of Comic Market in a way only the Touhou series had before it.
Everybody else in the Japanese nerd industry got dollar signs in their eyes. If all you had to do to get a popular character was turn an object into a cute girl, well… everyone has to get cracking on that, right? One title, and perhaps the most ridiculous, was Kaden Shoujo (Home Electronics Girls), a game where players collected cute girl characters based on household appliances. Never mind those stuffy ships, Washing Machine-chan is way more relatable!
It was into this boom that Kemono Friends was born, and in which it was largely ignored. The franchise was conceived as a free-to-play phone game: Sgt. Frog author Yoshizaki Mine provided the raw materials by drawing hundreds of animals as cute girls in cute costumes for it. Though anime and manga adaptations were part of the plan from the beginning, the Kemono Friends phone game failed to pick up any steam of its own. The game only survived for nine months, and its servers shut down months before the anime aired. (Ironically, the original phone game is now considered lost Friends history.)
The first time most English-speaking fans heard about Kemono Friends was actually the notice of its shutdown, as a funny story about an upcoming anime. Did you hear about this anime they made to promote a phone game? Yeah, but the phone game did so badly that it shut down before the anime could ever run! Ha! Ha! Wild stuff.
Nobody could have had any inkling at this point that Kemono Friends would be the biggest anime hit of the year.
Nor did the premiere of the anime turn any heads. The first episode of Kemono Friends is a confusing slog, as heroines Serval (a serval cat) and Kaban (an amnesiac human Serval named for the bag on her back) wander aimlessly through the savanna of Japari Park at a glacial pace that put many viewers to sleep. With extremely rudimentary CG animation (by three-person team Irodori working with indie studio Yaoyorozu) that looks like it came out of a Playstation 2 game, Kemono Friends was almost immediately filed away as a weird curiosity for ironic viewers and internet memesters who quickly caught on to the easily impressed Serval’s catch phrases. “Wow! That’s amazing!”
But once Serval and Kaban’s road trip across Japari Park begins in earnest, the series starts to hit a groove. Every week the two girls visit a new habitat and meet new “Friends”, as the animals call themselves. Each Friend of course bears the quirks of their animal. Serval is a goof with endless capacity for wonder and zero attention span (I relate strongly to Serval), Lion and Moose are local warlords, Beaver and Prarie Dog run a construction company together, you get the idea. The leisurely pace settles into a mood: it’s about exploring and spending time with the characters. Kemono Friends is sincere, gentle, and relaxing.
It also hides some dark lore. Director Tatsuki ingeniously incorporated the shutdown of the mobile game into the story of the anime, dropping quiet hints from the start that the Cerulean monsters that players battled in the game caused an apocalyptic event. Though the characters themselves aren’t aware of it, the clues the show gives the viewer — including the ending credits, which give it all away if you give them a moment’s thought — are unmistakable.
But Kemono Friends never stops to explain its mysteries, making them all the more tantalizing. Fans speculated about the mysteries of Japari Park and the Friends themselves for the whole series run, reassembling the events of the game, anime, and manga into a timeline. A lot of viewers never thought about it, though, until the situation starts to hit like a ton of bricks in the final episodes.
Knowing that sweet-hearted and gentle Kemono Friends is also a post-apocalyptic story makes its gentleness — and the modest, quiet, and happy lives of its characters — all the more precious. This weird little show knew exactly what it was doing: the show that viewers first looked down on wound up outsmarting them, and worse still, moving them! Despite the non-traditional animation and low production values, the Friends completely won over the hearts of anime otaku all around the world, but particularly in Japan. Not all of them were human.
The Kemono Friends franchise was now an underdog back-from-the-dead smash hit. Merchandise was selling out faster than they could produce it. Figure companies like Good Smile, worried about a “flash in the pan” situation, rushed to the gold mines by announcing expensive figures before the show was even done airing. Yaoyorozu even picked up a little bit of extra work doing Kemono Friends advertisements for horse racing and Nissin cup noodles. Zoo attendance skyrocketed, and an elderly zoo penguin fell in love with the cardboard cutout of the penguin Friend, Hululu, refusing to be parted from her until his death. Servalmania was running wild.
And it has been, until very recently. Director Tatsuki let fans know on Twitter a little while back that Kadokawa, mega-pubilsher and owner of the franchise, had let him go from Kemono Friends. No specific reason was given by either Tatsuki or Kadokawa, but it looked suspicious. Though not the “creator” of Kemono Friends, Tatsuki was the creative heart of the anime project, and anime producers usually don’t mess with what works. It was as though the publisher was attempting a hostile takeover of its own property from the very talent who had saved it from the brink.
Fans knew the history. They knew that everything they liked about Kemono Friends had been given to them by the animation staff and Tatsuki in particular. They immediately revolted, canceling their merchandise pre-orders and demanding Tatsuki’s reinstatement. Tatsuki’s tiny animation team stepped down from Kemono Friends in solidarity.
Kadokawa’s statement (translation via u/kjwffr on Reddit)on the matter was conciliatory in tone, trying to recast themselves as nice guys trying to keep the band together, as the mean old animation studio stubbornly insisted “no way”. This is an odd way to look at the situation when you’ve chopped off the head of a tiny indie team after the massive success of their passion project, and nobody bought it.
It’s speculated that Kadokawa’s reason for dropping Tatsuki was the unofficial Kemono Friends episode 12.1, which was released independently by the studio and which lacks any copyright info. Kadokawa describes a “leak” and “use of content without prior notification” in their statement, and this is the only thing I can imagine they could be describing. (Perhaps they wanted to use it for the Blu-Ray release?) Whether Kadokawa was actually upset by this amateur mistake or had simply found a way to seize the franchise on a technicality, this was still probably why it all went down.
(Weirdly, if things continue this way, the final Kemono Friends animation by Tatsuki and his studio will have been an adorable commercial for instant noodles.)
Despite a furious fanbase, Kadokawa actually dug the hole deeper. In what would become known as the “voice actor shield” operation, the publisher brought out the voice actresses behind the Friends to apologize (for what, exactly?) and reassure the fans that future Kemono Friends projects would be absolutely the best, promise. Staged PR like this is part of the job for anime voice actors, but it usually isn’t used to cover your bosses’ asses. This was even less effective than the original statement, insulting and offending fans who were now seeing the talent abused on screen.
This story ends with the closest thing to an apology we’re likely to see from Kadokawa, as after months of bad press the CEO announced on Twitter that he’d been in touch with Yaoyorozu again. While the vague statement doesn’t indicate that either Tatsuki or Yaoyorozu will be working on the next Kemono Friends project, or indeed that anything has changed, the CEO does admit that the company didn’t quite understand the situation.
And that’s where we are today. It’s too early to call what form the next Kemono Friends project will come in, but there is no way Kadokawa went through all that just to sit on the franchise. Rather than whether there will be another Kemono Friends animation, the question which truly remains to be seen is whether fans will ever forgive Kadokawa for what they’ve done. Speaking as a fan of Kemono Friends and someone who’s passionate about creator’s rights… I sure won’t.
Tatsuki seems to have moved on, very recently releasing new, original material (I believe this is called Keifuku-san?) with the same gentle sense of adventure as Kemono Friends. I hope that the Kemono Friends fans stick with him, and that he gets to keep doing what he does. The world needs it.
Hi! Glad you made it this far. My name is Dave and I write for a living. Not every idea is something I can sell, though, so I keep this blog for the things I nevertheless must write. If you like what you see here and you’d like to help me keep doing things like it, please consider supporting me with a small tip over at my Ko-fi. It means a lot. Thanks.