Two years ago, an anime director only known as ‘Tatsuki’ exploded onto the scene. Faced with the seemingly impossible task of keeping a failing multimedia franchise afloat, he was somehow able to make his 2017 show Kemono Friends into a domestic, and even international success. Now, the franchise has become another key part of otaku culture, evidenced by its continual strong showings at the bi-annual Comiket event.
But Tatsuki was not allowed to bask in his success. Desperate to continue with the Kemono Friends franchise’s expansion, Kadokawa found themselves at odds with Tatsuki’s creative vision and subsequently took the decision to fire him as director of season two. Kadokawa had, in their greed, failed to recognize that it was precisely Tatsuki’s creativity that had made the show so appea ing in the first place.
Tatsuki’s trajectory as a professional thus far means that the controversy surrounding the Kemono Friends anime is unavoidably linked with his new series, Kemurikusa. In fact, you could say that Tatsuki’s decision to press on despite setbacks by launching an entirely original anime project at his studio Yaoyorozu seems to be, at least in part, a bold, direct response to the entire situation.
My question going into Kemurikusa was therefore clear. Was Kemono Friends just a fluke, or is Tatsuki really a talented creator thwarted by corporate maneuvering? Thankfully, things seem to be looking up for the downtrodden director.
Questions are an important part of Kemurikusa. In essence, Tatsuki has taken the best part of his work on Kemono Friends – the overarching mystery of the world – and run with it.
Things are strange as soon as we enter the world of the show. In the opening scene, a small red-haired girl called Rina is killed by a giant red robot or “red bug.” Her sister, Rin, mourns her, but quickly things are not as they seem as four other characters with the same face and personality as the supposedly-killed Rina come on screen. They are then followed by a floating pair of cat ears attached to a glowing green tree trunk, seemingly moving at the behest of the nekomimi older sister, Ritsu. It’s clear from the get-go that this is not your typical world, and how things ended up this way is constantly at the forefront of the viewer’s mind.
In the face of such an atypical world, making Wakaba the protagonist was a great move. Wakaba is an amnesiac who is endlessly curious about the world around him, and can’t help but launch question after question to the three sisters, Rin, Ritsu, and Rika. This allows him to act as an effective cipher for the viewer, as he earnestly asks the questions we would like to be answered.
Presenting such a bizarre status quo is also an effective way to intrigue the viewer in the world, not only in order to uncover the mystery behind it but also simply because it is clear that the world is much wider and detailed than we get to see over the show’s twelve episode runtime. This world has existed long before we ever entered it and will exist long after we leave it. Leaving certain questions answered also maintains that curiosity for what I hope will be many years to come.
Beyond first impressions, the show also makes use of clever world building to this end. However, this is not done by your regular exposition dumps; explanation and information are always predicated through characterization. Wakaba is, by nature, curious, and pushes the sisters to perform world building through dialogue. But even irrespective of Wakaba, the sisters end up doing so anyway as they talk about the world and how it functions in order to better coordinate their survival in it.
The world that is created in Kemurikusa highlights in turns the main difference between it and Kemono Friends – that fact that this time it is Tatsuki who is calling the shots and not Kadokawa. As a result of this, Kemurikusa’s world feels like a product of Tatsuki’s wild imagination through and through. We certainly got a taste of this in Kemono Friends, but Kemurikusa is something else with its weird lore, character design and, above all, breathtaking landscapes as our characters make their way through sunken cities to climb on floating cranes, up huge tree trunks and through oceans of red mist. The world is not only intriguing but also one of the most visually unique settings I’ve seen in anime in a long time.
All of this, however, is predicated on your attitude towards 3D animation. To be honest, I’ve never had a massive problem with it, so perhaps that sways my opinion a little. But even the most stalwart haters of 3D animation would have to concede that it is a far better production than some of the more egregious 3D projects in the past couple of years – I’m looking at you, Berserk.
What many projects such as Berserk get wrong, among other things, are character designs. Having visually interesting characters on screen can downplay, or sometimes even entirely mitigate the more awkward side of 3D animation.
Luckily, Kemurikusa gets this right as it is clear that the design of each and every character in the show has been carefully crafted to make them as visually distinct as possible. These designs are also perfectly suited to their personalities. Bear in mind that this is achieved despite six of these characters actually being based on the same basic design formula, and with only one human character in the show deviating from the said formula.
Yet good character designs do not necessarily make a good character. And this time, unlike with Kemono Friends, Tatsuki didn’t have cute anthropomorphized anime girls to rely on to do the heavy lifting. Instead, he was faced with the challenge of creating a good cast of characters largely from thin air – and he met this challenge head-on with excellent results.
While the mysterious nature of the world might be what sucks you in initially, Kemurikasa’s endearing cast of characters is what will keep you there. As I’ve already mentioned, Wakaba is the perfect type of character to lead the show – curious and with good intentions. But the real star of the show is the three sisters, who will no doubt be the basis for many “waifu wars” to come.
Rin is hot-headed and stoic, caring deeply for her sister but not enough for herself. Her character development over the course of the series is also what forms the emotional core of the series to heartwarming results.
She is backed up by her older sister, Ritsu, and her younger sister(s), the Rinas. Both of these characters are odd, but endearing in their oddity. Ritsu speaks like a cat, saying “nya” at the end of every sentence and speaking with a very slow, relaxed parlance. The Rinas, on the other hand, are high-pitched and energetic, ending their sentences with the affirmative “na.” These two characters do take a back seat to Rin but act nevertheless as a great fold to her stoic personality.
There are other characters that are equally as good, but these share less of the screen time and warrant a spoiler warning so I will omit them. But I think it’s safe to say that the cast of Kemurikusa match, and even, in some respects, outshine the likes of Serval and Bag from Kemono Friends. In this sense, Tatsuki was able to face up to one of the biggest challenges presented to him by Kemurikusa with excellent results.
That being said, giving Tatsuki complete creative control over the show has had some unfortunate consequences. Unfortunately, Tatsuki’s background as an innovator in animation and production first, and then as a writer second seems to have brought to the forefront some of his biggest weaknesses as a creator – particularly when it comes to writing engaging screenplays.
The main fault of the screenplay is in its unengaging structure. Scenes last either for far too long as characters statically deliver lines of dialogue, or simply pass by far too quickly. One particularly egregious example of this was in episode nine, which opens on an exciting action scene only to then suddenly cut to a stifling long scene of character dialogue. For a viewer, this is frustrating; we want to see the exciting stuff, not the static stuff – especially when the static stuff is far too static.
It was around episode nine where I had an epiphany; in its current state, Kemurikusa would make a really good video game. I mean, think about it – hack and slash arcade action against the red bugs God Eater style, but still revolving around the current story of the show. The long, stilted nature of many of the scenes mean that it wouldn’t take much effort to make them work in a game, either.
All of this comes back to Tatsuki’s profile as a creator. He is known for his excellent work in animation, not in storytelling. And while his wild imagination is able to take him so far in world building and mystery, when it comes to the nitty-gritty of storytelling, his shortcomings are revealed. In essence, what was needed here was a second pair of eyes – someone else to pen the scripts, while Tatsuki tackled the overall series composition. That would’ve made the series infinitely better, and perhaps even one of the best anime of the year.
The show also falls short in the production department towards the end. This is fairly normal for most anime productions, and I totally understand why this happens. In some senses, it’s a miracle that any anime gets made at all. But the result of the drop-off in animation quality towards the end, in particular, robs the climax of the show of much of its punch and spectacle – especially when the animation is otherwise very solid.
To conclude, Tatsuki is young. He’s worked on barely a handful of projects, and yet due to controversy is now one of the most well-known anime directors of our time. While other greats such as Akiyuki Shinbou have had to earn their legend, Tatsuki has had legend thrust upon him – and perhaps he wasn’t ready for that.
So many aspects of Kemurikusa show immense promise. Imagination seeps from every pore, from the landscapes to the character designs. The mystery is all-pervasive, keeping the viewer on tenterhooks while slowly revealing some, but not all of the answers to our many, many questions. Tatsuki’s world is also one that is sure to remain in the hearts of viewers for years to come.
Yet Tatsuki cannot do the impossible. He cannot do what he does not have the talent to do. And while the production side of Kemurikusa is mostly good, the story suffers as a result of his own shortcomings. As stated, what was needed here was an experienced scriptwriter working in tandem with Tatsuki to better realize his vision – an outcome which I’m sure would have pleased everyone, not least of which Tatsuki himself.
But this is not the end for Tatsuki. Kemurikusa shows that he is, indeed, an incredibly talented creator with a bright, bright future ahead of him. Kemono Friends was not a fluke, but merely the beginning of what I hope will be an incredible career. What he needs now is talented friends to help him realize his own potential.
Kemurikusa is available for streaming via Amazon Prime (North America only).