[There’s so much more I want to say, but this topic got too big sooo… eh, hit publish and move on.]
A deserted island centered on an active volcano, the ruins of civilization hiding an abandoned laboratory, a dangerous forest where animal-human hybrids lurk, and a sole survivor trying to escape back home to make sense of it all.
Am I describing H.G. Wells’ 1896 sci-fi horror classic The Island of Doctor Moreau or the beloved children’s anime Kemono Friends, or … oh, I guess the title gives it away, so um… both, apparently!
Of course, I’m exaggerating the similarities. Kemono Friends is a cute and friendly and upbeat while Doctor Moreau is lurid and horrifying and intensely pessimistic. For all of their differences though, I couldn’t resist the urge to re-read The Island of Doctor Moreau after watching the first three episodes of Kemono Friends’ second season. It’s one of my favorite books, so how better to pair it than with one of my favorite anime?
Along with The Time Machine, I think Doctor Moreau is Wells’ most philosophically interesting scientific romance. It goes beyond the simple moralizing tale against the cruelty of vivisection (surgery performed on living subjects, often without anaesthetic in the 19th century) described on the dust-cover to explore deeper issues rocking late-Victorian Britain after the publication of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution; issues like the social control function of religion, the fragility of scientific and civilizational progress, and the uncertain status of humanity in the animal world.
For now, I’m most interested in that last issue for its connection to Kemono Friends. As a simple children’s show, Kemono Friends doesn’t engage in the same sort of serious philosophizing as Doctor Moreau. But like the novel, it does imagine a world populated by human-animal hybrids, whose very concept recognizes a categorical difference between the mixed groups (by analogy: you can hybridize a golden retriever and a poodle to make a golden doodle, but you can’t hybridize two purebred golden retrievers). However, in light of evolution’s assertion of a common origin for all animal species, that’s a pretty heavy-duty assumption! The question that Doctor Moreau asks explicitly, Kemono Friends asks implicitly: what distinguishes the human from the animal?
So let’s set off on a Japari Safari to explore what it means to be human among the adorable anime(-al) girls of Kemono Friends…
…and what it means to be animal on the blood-splattered operating table of The Island of Doctor Moreau.
[A couple quick housekeeping notes: I read the public domain, plaintext HTML version of Doctor Moreau from Project Gutenberg. It doesn’t have page numbers… so I guess Ctrl + F is my citation method. On Kemono Friends, I’m restricting myself to the first three episodes of season 2 because it’s currently airing and I just don’t have the time to rewatch the whole first season. Both seasons follow the same formula though, so they are quite similar thematically. **Edit: maybe they aren’t, see the comments!** And yes, yes, I know I’m being silly trying to compare a low-budget children’s anime to a classic of English literature, but as Doctor Moreau itself concludes, in a post-evolution world we all have to distract ourselves from our animal existences somehow. And Good God knows I’m bored.]
First, a quick summary of the two works:
Kemono Friends takes place in “Japari Park,” an abandoned safari zoo on an island conveniently equipped with every conceivable biome and terrain for the animal residents. The island also has a giant volcano which erupts out a mysterious substance called “sandstar,” magical glowing crystals with the power to transform animals into half-human, half-animal girls called “Friends” (in uncanny 3D CG!). However, in rare cases, the sandstar can also produce fully human children (named Kaban in season 1, Kyururu in season 2) with uncertain origins among the park’s now-absent guests and guides. So, in both seasons, the amnesiac girls set off on a quest to find their home and the rest of humanity with their cheerful cat-Friend Serval (joined in season 2 by another cat, Caracal).
Kemono Friends is a sweet children’s program with educational segments to explain the real animals the girls encounter in Friend form through the journey. The show has no tension: in most episodes, the Friends brush away the only antagonists, inorganic products of sandstar called “Ceruleans,” with a single swipe. By contrast, The Island of Doctor Moreau is an absolute horror show that catches Wells at his most pessimistic regarding the uncertain advance of science and human civilization (the novel has none of the utopianism characteristic of his later career, when he would remember Doctor Moreau as “an exercise in youthful blasphemy”).
Doctor Moreau takes the perspective of Edward Prendick, a British amateur biologist shipwrecked in the deep Pacific somewhere west of South America (probably by no coincidence, in the same general region as Darwin’s Galapagos Islands). By a stroke of good luck — or terrible misfortune — an animal-transport ship bound for a deserted volcanic island rescues him. On the island, he discovers Dr. Moreau, an exiled surgeon who uses cutting-edge (for 1896…) methods of vivisection to reshape his captive animals into demi-human “Beast People” and hypnosis to suppress their primal instincts under a quasi-religious “Law.” However, disaster strikes and the Beast People begin to flout The Law. A bloodbath ensues as Moreau’s mock society degenerates back into unrestrained predator-and-prey animalism. Prendick barely escapes alive, returning to England with severe psychological trauma and a distrust for all human affairs.
As Doctor Moreau follows the escalation of Prendick’s loss of faith in humanity, it rips away traditional assumptions asserting human superiority over animals. Before he arrives on the island, Prendick believes in a clear hierarchy that places humans above animals, and, in the racialized thinking of the late-Victorian age, specifically elevates white, Anglo-Saxon humans like himself to the top. To this end, Prendick aestheticizes and moralizes physiology, variously describing the Beast People as “ugly,” “brutish,” “grotesque,” and “evil-looking.” More specifically, throughout the book he repeats three points to justify his superiority: the human ability to stand-upright against the “groveling” Beast People with their miss-proportioned limbs, “clear-cut and exact” English speech against their “guttural” animal cries, and his own whiteness against their “black negroid” features.*
* (An interesting aside on whiteness: Prendick constantly notes Moreau’s white hair, hands, and face and, to a lesser extent, Montgomery’s white face. After they incorporate Prendick into their mythologized “Law,” the Beast People begin describing him as “white face” too. For his part as the most civilized Beast Person, The Sayer of the Law has grey fur to fit his role as an intermediary between the white Moreau and black hybrids. Meanwhile, the Beast People who work as Moreau’s servants hide their brown skin under white long-sleeved shirts. But it’s so ironic: though Prendick associates blackness with evil, in fact, Moreau — the whitest person on the island — is without compare the evilest.)
It’s telling that despite his own use of physiology to rank humans and animal alike, Prendick rejects the Beast People’s attempts to build a status hierarchy based on the number of fingers on each hand. He calls the Monkey-man “little better than an idiot” for asserting “on the strength of his five digits, that he was my equal” (in late-Victorian medical terminology, “idiot” being the modern equivalent to “mentally retarded”). He seems to treat the Monkey-man so badly because Prendick takes intelligence as an essential defining feature of humanity, or as he puts it: “I never before saw an animal trying to think.” Prendick believes that animals only act out of pure, automatic instinct. They do not have emotions or complex thought and some “lower animals” cannot even feel pain. The Monkey-man’s crude attempts at reasoning out so-called “Big Thinks” thus threaten Prendick’s status at the top of the animal-human hierarchy. But here, Doctor Moreau makes an ironic point: Prendick’s hypocrisy on the status of physiology reveals his own irrationality, thus calling into question the actual uniqueness of intelligence in humans.
Despite all of that, by the end of the book, Prendick completely flips his older opinions. Beyond simply doubting his own capacity to reason, he questions his own humanity in a passage that describes the height of his post-escape malaise:
“And even it seemed that I too was not a reasonable creature, but only an animal tormented with some strange disorder in its brain which sent it to wander alone, like a sheep stricken with gid [Coenurosis, a neurological disease in sheep that can cause depression, paralysis, and death].”
What changed his thinking? As Moreau’s society begins to collapse, Prendick comes face-to-face with Beast People unshackled from the artificial restraints of The Law. His closest of such encounters affects him the most. When a half-complete Puma-man hybrid escapes from Moreau’s vivisection laboratory, Prendick joins the hunt. But when he closes in on the cowering creature ahead of Moreau’s fanatical mob, he pities it. He “forgives” it for what he had previously viewed as degenerate animalism and shoots it between the eyes as an act of mercy, to spare it further torture on the operating table of Moreau’s “House of Pain.”
“It may seem a strange contradiction in me, –I cannot explain the fact,– but now, seeing the creature there in a perfectly animal attitude, with the light gleaming in its eyes and its imperfectly human face distorted with terror, I realised again the fact of its humanity. In another moment other of its pursuers would see it, and it would be overpowered and captured, to experience once more the horrible tortures of the [laboratory]”
The scene goes further than Prendick simply recognizing the artificial humanity of surgically constructed hybrids. During his first attempt to escape confinement in Moreau’s compound, the Leopard-man had methodically stalked Prendick through the jungle in much the same way he had pursued the Puma-man. Human ingenuity saved him – he invented a makeshift sling to hit the Leopard-man with a rock – but he too had cowered in terror. However, he did not succeed when he repeated the experience during his second escape, this time with the human Moreau hunting him. In that context then, the Puma-man acts like a mirror in which Prendick sees the animal in himself. Humans could become prey just as easily as animals; they do not occupy a privileged position on top of a natural hierarchy of animals. Evolution and natural selection apply to all organisms equally, with no care for human morals or aesthetics or even intelligence. Humans might be a unique species, but so is every other.
So, what about Kemono Friends? (I haven’t forgotten it!) Perhaps surprisingly, I think it tacks more towards the views of the unreformed Prendick by emphasizing an innate, categorical difference between humans and animals. Though Kemono Friends does not explore the question with the same philosophical directness as Doctor Moreau (or any of Prendick’s meanness), it does offer some revealing subtext to help tease out an answer.
The most important evidence comes from Kyururu’s own statements about her uncertain identity. When Serval observes that Kyururu is an omnivorous animal, the girl objects, saying “I’m not an animal … probably.” Caracal suggests that Kyururu might actually be a human, just like the girl Serval had once travelled with (in a brief flashback, Kaban from season 1). Without any other leads, Kyururu decides that it’s probably true and, as the series progresses, becomes more sure of the idea. By episode 3, she shows a tad more assertiveness in her identity, introducing herself to Dolphin with “I’m not an animal. I’m a human, I think.”
More subtly, Kyururu never calls her a living place a “den” like Serval or Caracal. Instead, she calls it “home” while recalling nostalgic memories that it was brighter, nicer, and warm. Like with her categorical separation between human and animal, she keeps the terms distinct. For example, when red Panda asks if a home is like a “territory,” Kyururu responds politely to the negative. The implication is clear: humans have homes, animals do not.
But here’s the interesting part: even though the amnesiac Kyururu wakes up with precisely zero evidence to support her beliefs, she still has an innate feeling that she’s not an animal. We might imagine a similar educational children’s program working through each episode to help the protagonist decide if she’s a cat-Friend or a panda-Friend or a sea-mammal-Friend. But Kyururu doesn’t do that. Instead, in her quest to find “home,” she excludes herself from the entire category of “animal” altogether. She just knows that she’s human perhaps ironically, as if by instinct.
Of course, throughout the adventure, Kyururu does discover some evidence for her uniqueness. Unlike all of the other Friends with their “Special Skills” like Serval’s high-jump or Panda’s ability to sleep anywhere (I envy this), Kyururu alone uses reason to interact with the world. As Caracal puts it, “Huh… You can’t run fast or jump high, but you’re pretty good at stuff I don’t understand.” Kyururu can use the abandoned technology in the park, figure out how to rebuild the playground for the pandas, and even invent new toys for the sea mammals. Like Prendick before his traumatic epiphany, Kemono Friends defines humanity by its unusual intelligence.
On the other end of the dichotomy, the series associates animals with unreasoned, automatic action driven by instinct. For example, when Caracal first goes to the beach, she feels an urge to chase the waves like she would a rodent if she were still a real cat. Later in the same episode, Serval says “I can’t stop myself, I just wanna jump!” when Kyururu invents a new ball-on-string toy. Unable to resist her animal urges, she leaps off the boat …into the deep ocean… where she would have drown if Dolphin had not saved her. For her own part, Dolphin just continues to run the same automatic, behaviorally conditioned routines from her former life as a Seaworld-style show animal. Though she express boredom at playing the same game everyday, she continues to do so out of instinct until Kyururu arrives to create new ones.
The animal instinct theme is strongest in Spot-billed Duck. When the girls ask Duck for directions to the tram station, she instead provides an elaborate escort in a single-file line, saying “I just have to lead … it’s my nature!” The girls follow, but Duck stops them further down the road when they encounter an “extremely dangerous gap” that any of them could easily step over. Always skeptical, Caracal says “A gap? This is no big deal. No one’s gonna fall into that.” to which Duck replies “It’s a very big deal! If even one of us falls down there, it’ll be real trouble!” Duck’s response is obviously irrational (look up the cognitive bias known as “catastrophizing”), but she lacks the ability to even realize that. Echoing Doctor Moreau, there’s a certain uncanniness in seeing an animal mind occupy a human body, just without the human capacity to reason to resist it’s maladaptive instincts:
Before, they had been beasts, their instincts fitly adapted to their surroundings, and happy as living things may be. Now they stumbled in the shackles of humanity…
The animal friends aren’t that pitiable, but hey, the 3D CG is super creepy, isn’t it? (in a cute way… usually)
To summarize, Kemono Friends takes a similar approach to the pre-crisis Prendick when imagining the distinction between humans and animals. It implies an innate separation between human and animal, identifies human intelligence as the core “Special Skill” of the species, and emphasizes the irrational, instinct driven behavior of animals (or maybe more neutrally, “nonrational”).
However, there’s still one crucial difference: Kemono Friends never considers a hierarchy of organisms or asserts human superiority via moral and aesthetic judgements the way Prendick did. Even after his transformation, Prendick holds on to the idea of hierarchy. Though he no longer believes that humans have a guaranteed place on the top, he still speaks in terms of progression and regression. While wandering through London’s crowds, he imagines the people decaying into their primal forms and human civilization collapsing, that “presently the degradation of the Islanders will be played over again on a larger scale.” It’s a profoundly pessimistic conclusion, one that might encourage even greater animosity towards groups lower on the hierarchy in an effort to protect white, Anglo-Saxons’ place a the top.
By contrast, if the post-transformation Prendick learns that humans are an animal like any other, Kemono Friends teaches that all creatures deserve equal respect despite their differences. The diversity of the Friends makes them all better off, like when Giant Panda used her strength to battle the Ceruleans or when Red Panda used her climbing skills to build the playground swing set. And though Kemono Friends categorically separates humans from animals, the cats still think of Kyururu as just another Friend with her own “Special Skill.” Befitting a children’s show, it’s a much more friendly, optimistic approach that recognizes humanity’s genuine uniqueness while still finding value in the rest of the animal world. Even if it lacks the philosophical maturity of Doctor Moreau, that’s an equally profound conclusion.