One pivotal moment where Kemono Friends shows its quiet excellence

December 19, 2017

Today I want to talk about the spear-point moment in Kemono Friends. There will necessarily be spoilers and what I write may not convince you, because by nature spear-points rely on the weight of story that's come before them for their power.

Spear-points are often active and loud, like last year's spear-point in Thunderbolt Fantasy, but they don't have to be. Sometimes a spear-point is a quieter moment that would not otherwise work without the weight of the spear the story has put behind it; everything has been built up to allow this moment to exist and to convince.

For most of its run, Kemono Friends was all about the cheerful adventures of Kaban and the Friends in Japari Park. Sure, there was some danger from things like the Ceruleans and the environment, but it was the danger of a kid's show; it was there to create tension and have our characters solve problems, such as in episode 9. Then, at the end of episode 11, Kaban sacrifices herself to draw a giant Cerulean away from the incapacitated Serval, ending up being swallowed by it. This was quite something, as was the effects on people watching. Although this was an extremely powerful moment (and one fully earned by the show's work to build up to it), it's not the big spear-point. The spear-point is what happens the next episode, when Kaban basically comes back from the dead.

Bringing people back from the dead is very hard to do well. To truly sell it, the story must make it not merely excusable but inevitable, the logical and emotional consequence at the tip of the spear that was built piece by piece as the story progressed. The logical steps of Kemono Friends' spear are straightforward (I've put them in a sidebar), but what that really means is that they're woven deep into the subtle worldbuilding of the entire setting; they're straightforward because they're foundational. Kemono Friends didn't surprise us with anything that went into Kaban's return because by the time we got there we already knew the pieces; we'd been shown them before bit by bit as part of previous events. As far as logic went at the spear-point of Kaban's return, it was inevitable.

But logic by itself isn't enough; returning from the dead needs effort and emotion too, to give significance and weight to such a momentous thing. So the final episode of Kemono Friends opens with an epic, climactic running fight against the giant Cerulean, one that sees all of the Friends we've met over the course of the series show up to help out with their own abilities (for good reasons that go back to that subtle worldbuilding). On the surface it's an attempt to rescue Kaban from the Cerulean and defeat it, but it also makes us feel that all of these Friends working together so hard and caring so much about Kaban deserve more than to be left with nothing. They and especially Serval have earned having Kaban come back. And so it comes to pass, with not a dry eye in the house.

(It also helps that we the audience wanted Kaban to come back, so that Kemono Friends could finish as the cheerful and good-natured show that it had been all the way through up until then. Kaban's return is firmly centered in the show's genre.)

Kaban's return from the lost is not a big explosive moment; it's not epic in the way Shang's fight was last year, or shocking in the way Kaban's sacrifice was. Instead, it's quietly, intensely emotional. It's Serval embracing Kaban, crying as she repeats what she said in the first episode, "I won't eat you!" It's a miracle that is perfectly logical and completely earned, at the tip of a meticulously crafted spear that stretches all the way back to the start of the show.

Kemono Friends makes it all look easy, when it's anything but.

(This is part of the 12 Days of Anime for 2017.)

Sidebar: The logic chain in question

Friends are created from ordinary animals (or pieces of animals), and when swallowed by a Cerulean, they are stripped of their Friend nature and reduced back to their original animal form. Kaban is a Friend, and when she was swallowed by the Cerulean she was reduced to a glowing ball which would condense to her original form. But Kaban is a human and the original form of a human is still a human, so when the ball evaporated to reveal her animal form, it was still Kaban.

I won't call Kaban's nature a mystery of Kemono Friends because it was always pretty obvious what she was to the viewers. But it was the central pivot around which all of the series revolved, and if we had any doubt about what she was, this ended them; Kaban is a human Friend (and we know her origins). To quote the Professor, "They [humans] truly are a mysterious species."

Written on 19 December 2017.
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Last modified: Tue Dec 19 19:27:34 2017
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