Kemono Friends 2 is plenty of fun! …and some less fun thoughts on fandom

Yay!

[Here I am, the most cynical, pessimistic person I have ever met, asking people to be less cynical …not that I expect to succeed. After all, you can hardly convince anyone of something that they don’t already believe. Futility! Anyway, Kemono Friends 2 is good fun, even if it disappoints the expectations of the excellent first season]

Well, Kemono Friends 2 is finished. I liked it! It’s so simple that there’s not much to say: a young girl named Kyururu wanders around an abandoned zoo looking for her human home alongside her anthropomorphized cat Friends Serval and Caracal, all while learning about the other animal Friends they meet along the way. It’s cute, it’s kind, it’s fun  …a perfect inoffensive late-night sleep aid. I can’t ask for much more.

But follow the online discussions around the season, and you might encounter some of the most uncharitable comments for any anime I’ve seen:

“What a pile of trash,” “blatant cashgrab,” “failed fanfic attempt,” “the definition of a disaster,” “they managed to do everything wrong,” “an elaborate April Fools joke,” “What a shitfest,” “it absolutely disgusted me,” “abomination of an anime”

Though I won’t try to refute an opinion, most of those seem unfair, hyperbolic, and maybe even a little cruel. I mean… it’s a children’s show! What more could you want than a handful of simple moral tales and some light educational bits about biodiversity?

In many ways the negative reactions remind me of a similar online backlash against another children’s animation: My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and its spin-off Equestria Girls. Like Kemono Friends, the series’ first season attracted an ironic following of hate-watchers that exploded into a genuine subculture of mostly male adult fans (the so-called “bronies”) when many discovered that the show was actually pretty fun. However, as Friendship is Magic entered its second season and the novelty of the odd subculture began to fade, outrage brewed following the departure of season one’s popular executive producer Lauren Faust amid rumors that the IP-owner Hasbro had pressured her to resign (in Kemono Friends case, this would mirror the actual firing of season one’s fan-favorite director, Tatsuki, by the publisher Kadokawa). A polarizing third season fractured the community after the main character transformed into a princess, but then discontent achieved an absurd vehemence that degenerated into harassment against the animation production studio ahead of the release of the Equestria Girls spin-off movie (again, with parallels to the harassment against Kemono Friends’ season two studio). So much for the fandom catchphrase “love and tolerance,” huh?

Anyway, what drove the vitriol of the angriest fans? I try not to psychologize (or anymore, even read) pseudonymous online commenters, but I think much of the backlash resulted from a failure of empathy.

My impression from within the brony subculture six years ago (it’s been so long!) was that the worst actors in the fandom expected the Equestria Girls movies to cater to their geeky, adult male tastes, rather than those of the 12-and-younger year-old girls in My Little Pony’s primary audience. The early seasons of Friendship and Magic included several winks to the adult fanbase, for example, by releasing collectible figures alongside the usual playsets and even incorporating fan-made characters like “Derpy Hooves” into the show itself. But by contrast, Equestria Girls made few concessions to the surprise 18-34 year-old male demographic. It created a new generic high school setting that refocused the story on problems faced by teenage girls like school bullying and awkwardness in their changing bodies, expressed by transforming the ponies into humans to accompany the release of a new line of dolls for younger children. Essentially, Equestria Girls returned the franchise to its traditional target audience …and a portion of brony fandom weren’t having it.

One of the new 2018 lines of children’s dolls for Equestria Girls (image source: Amazon)

If you go back read old discussions about the movie on My Little Pony fansites, you will see many angry adult fans throw around terms like “betrayal,” “insulting,” or “slap in the face,” as if the refocus on girls’ preferences had somehow harmed them, thus justifying the hyperbolic rhetoric or, for an extreme minority, actual harassment against the show’s creators. But that’s insane. I call it a failure of empathy because those outraged fans couldn’t accept that the Equestria Girls wasn’t made for them and that the young girls in the franchise’s core audience might enjoy different themes, settings, and stories.

I think that Kemono Friends 2 has encountered a similar problem. Though producer Shinnosuke Numata has said in interviews that he wanted to “make something that everyone can be happy with,” Kemono Friends 2 seems more focused on appealing to younger children than otaku. For example, Numata also said that the second season introduced “rounder, softer, warmer” character designs while director Ryuichi Kimura said that he “did not want to over-emphasize the science fiction element” to keep the story light. At this point, I think it’s important to remember that — much like My Little Pony — the explosive popularity of Kemono Friends came as a surprise. Though the franchise responded to otaku fans with adult-oriented products like collectible figures, I think it’s clear that Kemono Friends has always emphasized child-accessibility with its simplistic language, easy moral lessons, and educational supplements from interviews with zookeepers.

“Rounder, softer, warmer” … I think it’s hard to deny that Kemono Friends 2 looks much smoother than the janky but lovable first season

And that brings me back to the idea of a failure of empathy. Much of the harshest criticism of Kemono Friends 2 has baffled me with complaints about one dimensional characters, weak world-building, unthreatening antagonists, unoriginal plots derivative of the first season, and even contradictions in the so-called “canon” …issues that no child would ever consider. Those are all adult standards and some even beyond — they are the standards of a geeky, obsessive fandom with uncommon demands for narrative consistency. I’m one of those nerds, but I just can’t apply the same critical scrutiny to Kemono Friends as I would fiction with a more mature intended audience. Instead, it’s much more fair and reasonable to assess the show through the eyes of a child.*

* [I’m always a sucker for hippie nonsense; the sentiment reminds me of a Moody Blues song: With the eyes of a child / You must come out and see / That your world’s spinning ’round / And through life you will be / A small part of a hope / Of a love that exists / In the eyes of a child / You will see. It’s an appeal to empathy with a circular rhythm: if you see the world with love as a children do, you will help create the loving world that children see]

During the Equestria Girls backlash, I held a series of rhetorical questions in reserve that I hoped would prompt solipsistic critics to consider other audiences. For example, before discounting the high school setting in Equestria Girls as generic and uninspired think… would elementary and middle school-aged girls, themselves feeling anxious about growing up and moving to a new school, find value and meaning in that setting? I think the obvious answer is “yes,” even if adult men would find it boring. But those men weren’t the primary audience anyway!

I have many similar questions against some of the criticisms of Kemono Friends 2:

Before denouncing the “one-dimensional” characters, think… would a child need deep, nuanced characters or would they enjoy the plain, unadulterated friendliness of the animal Friends experienced through a cheerful surrogate in Kyururu? One-dimensional does not mean bad!

Before asking for more rigorous resolutions to the science fiction conflicts, think… would a child even care about the undefeated giant Cerulean and unreformed Beast as long as the heroes win the day? (and here, it seems obvious to me that the writers left those plot threads open to continue in the already-announced Kemono Friends 3…)

Before ripping apart the show for retcons in the “lore” against previous entries in the franchise, think… would a child even notice, let alone dig through old details from the manga, first season, and now-defunct original game to find contradictions? Oh, and this time, a tangential rant…

I said that I wouldn’t try to refute an opinion, but the criticisms of so-called “retcons” in Kaban and Serval’s characters just frustrate me too much: to anyone saying that Serval losing her memories makes no sense, did you even watch the first season? It established that Friends lose their memories when Ceruleans eat them and even implied that it had already happened to Serval once before when she forgot her old human partner Mirai. At some point between season one and two, a Cerulean ate Serval, forcing Kaban to confront her grief during the sunset goodbye in the final episode.

But the scene has greater subtle meaning related to my point about child accessibility: it kept the conclusion focused on the emotional needs of the child protagonist Kyururu rather than the former protagonist Kaban, now an adult. Instead of nostalgically clinging to her lost relationship, Kaban lets Serval go off with Kyururu so that the young girl can experience the same sort of joyful adventures that Kaban herself had as a child. In that context, Kaban then adopts a new motherly role: she can provide human mentorship for Kyururu, offer a safe space to rest at the laboratory, and stand ready to rescue the girls during a crisis (like she just had at the hotel!). For Kaban, her tearful goodbye to Serval represents a quiet coming-of-age moment, tinged with the melancholy of adulthood losing the comforts of childhood while still maintaining the series’ friendly, loving tone for children. Instead of the conclusion being the worst moment in the series like some commenters have said, it was far and away the best.

One tear: such gorgeous, joyful melancholy

I think Kaban’s attitude here can also offer a good analogy for my point about empathy. Unlike those extreme adult male brony fans who refused to accept that My Little Pony sought to appeal to young girls, that Equestria Girls wasn’t for them; Kaban lets go of a good thing — Serval — and allows a new generation to enjoy it just as she had when she was young. But of course, she can still enjoy Serval too, just from a mature distance after putting Kyururu’s needs first. Kaban cries at the end of the series, but she also seems happy. It’s an empathetic joy from seeing the situation through the eyes of the child, from sharing in Kyururu’s happiness.

In more general terms, although I will never fault an adult for enjoying children’s media, I do think that it’s silly to expect a child-accessible story to cater to the desires of older fans. Children have different emotional needs and a lower capacity for understanding complexity than adults, meaning that any story that wants to include children in its audience will also need to make them its primary audience or otherwise risk confusing them, scaring them, or even just boring them. Instead of blasting Kemono Friends 2 as a hateful abomination, maybe consider that it wasn’t for you, the grown-up fan. And before calling it childish — as some commenters have — consider that it is, in fact, for children. And maybe, with those empathically adjusted expectations, enjoy it for its child-friendly fun anyway!

With that said though, the second season does have a few sour points which I think raise fair criticisms when considering both the younger audience and the obsessive otaku one. Maybe then for the rest of this post, I’ll make a vain effort to model a more empathetic tone for expressing disappointment with Kemono Friends 2 by, well… criticizing some of Kemono Friends 2’s own tone.

To start chronologically, I didn’t enjoy the Alligators’ and Leopards’ attempts to make Kyururu teach them how to control other animals as servants. It had nothing to do with Kyururu’s quest to find her home, but in a broader, thematic sense, it also spoke to Kemono Friends 2’s odd essentialism in defining humans as distinctly different from animals rather than depicting them as just another type of animal like the first season had (I discuss this issue in much more depth here). Even though Kyururu disagrees with the idea and the show maintains a strong message about appreciating biodiversity, the separation between humans and animals combined with the concept of servitude seemed clumsy given how strongly Kemono Friends anthropomorphizes its animals.

The separation-servitude theme even becomes a little sad during Domestic Dog’s episode, when we meet a friend that does consider herself a servant to humanity. Dog has fun playing frisbee with Kyururu and even protects her from the Beast, but when Kyururu sets off to continue her adventure, she leaves Dog alone to guard the homes of masters of that will never return. There’s some great melancholy in the trope of a lonely, loyal canine in waiting, but for an upbeat children’s show, the episode’s bittersweet conclusion felt off-tone. I would have much preferred for Dog to have joined Kyururu’s travel trio or reappeared for the final battle, but at least a post-credits tease after the last episode implies that her story will continue in Kemono Friends 3.

Speaking of the battle, later episodes could become way too action-focused, maybe in preparation for the upcoming mobile game from Sega. I didn’t so much mind the one-swipe fights with inorganic Ceruleans, but Kemono Friends 2 adds “The Beast,” a tragic tiger Friend corrupted by some sort of Sandstar experiment and still clasped in broken manacles like a proper monster from The Island of Doctor Moreau. The mad Beast attacks anything she sees, Cerulean or Friend alike, making her far-and-away the scariest threat across both seasons. In Dog’s episode, the Beast even does some real dirty damage:

Maybe a bit too heavy on the dirt, scrapes, and bruising there, with that odd servitude theme again…

Ceruleans only transform Friends back into their animal forms. But from that fight scene, it looks like the Beast might actually kill them! Again, for a soft, warm children’s show, it seemed a little dark.

Crack the whip, she’s straight off Moreau’s operating table

One final issue on tone: the last few episodes introduce a pair of mysterious black birds who shadow Kyururu and ask her skeptical questions about the goodness of her humanity. I imagine that the writers intended for the discussions to build into some ecological message about humans damaging the environment and harming wildlife. However, I wonder if the birds didn’t express their ideas with a little too much cryptic subtly. They confused me — someone who wrote an almost 3000 word essay on the relationship between humans and animals in Kemono Friends — so I don’t know how well a child will understand the point the birds want to make. I suspect that more direct “Be nice to animals!” and “Protect the environment!” -type messages would have fit better with the series’ simplistic style.

With all that said though, I don’t want to criticize Kemono Friends 2 too much. These are all minor quibbles over degree rather than a sweeping indictment of the entire show. Like I said before, Kemono Friends 2 is cute, kind, and fun. The apparent refocus on younger children as the primary audience might diminish enjoyment for picky otaku but the show as a whole is so inoffensive that it in no way deserves the sort of vehement condemnation it has received in some corners of the internet. The shift towards mobile gaming for Kemono Friends 3 means that I will probably stop following the franchise, but I’m glad to have experienced the authentic delights of the anime series. Maybe the second season handles its tone a little more clumsily than the masterful first, but it makes an earnest effort and succeeds well enough regardless. For a children’s show, I don’t know what more to ask for.

For me, it’s plenty of fun.

What a lovely picture! I’m glad to have stuck around this far

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