Kemurikusa is well contemplative, but what does it contemplate?

Wakaba enters the world saying “WAHHH!” I wanted to make GIFs to show the janky 3D, but Amazon Prime Video doesn’t even permit screenshots so I got a little nervous about recording anything

[I thought about making this more about the social-media-driven auteur mythmaking surrounding Kemurikusa’s director Tatsuki but… nehhh, I gave up except for some gripes at the end. With just two major projects (Kemono Friends and now Kemurikusa) plus a handful of shorts in his directorial portfolio, it feels premature to discuss Tatsuki’s supposed auteur status, even in an attempt to refute it. Tatsuki seems like a fine director, but I don’t understand why anyone would bother with silly neologisms like “TATSUKI-esque” for a creator with such a young career. And ohhh my god, I need to stop reading stupid online discussions, but boredom always brings me back…]

Does anybody here remember Kemono Friends (read that in rhythm, I’ve got Pink Floyd stuck in my head!)? Back in 2017 it exploded in popularity despite its uncanny 3D animation and apparent focus on school-age audiences with educational bits about animals. But ever since the publisher Kadokawa fired the mononymed season one director “Tatsuki” and changed studios to produce a popularly reviled second season (I liked it, but whatever), much of the excitement for Kemono Friends shifted to Tatsuki’s next project: the post-apocalypse, plant-based adventure Kemurikusa (literally meaning “smoke-grass,” to repeat the weed joke). And I dunno, it’s just alright, an ambitious passion project hamstrung by clear production constraints with money and probably time.

Kemurikusa departs from the child-accessible style in Kemono Friends to instead go on a desperate journey to find water, defeat a menacing red fog corroding the world, and discover something to enjoy in life. It sounds nice in a synopsis, but then Kemurikusa packs itself full of clumsy contradictions: the gorgeous drawn backgrounds establish an artistic gravitas that the awkward 3D-animated models don’t quite gel into; the otaku-ish cast of a tsundere, a cat-girl, and a loli-maid suck the seriousness out of the heavy thematic narrative; and most frustratingly, the simplistic message about “finding what you love” deprives the well-built, contemplative world of any interesting nuance to actually contemplate. It’s meh, I guess.

Maybe I should start by saying that I don’t mind 3D anime to show that my concerns with Kemurikusa’s animation have more to do with consistency than actual quality. Despite the low budget and often off-putting 3D animation, I adore Tatsuki’s previous work, Kemono Friends. It’s a great little edu-tainment children’s show and as such, the miss-proportioned characters and awkward movements fit well with the cheerful, childish tone. Because most episodes do little more than basic dialogues set between just a few short, unthreatening battles, the series slips around its production limitations without much trouble.

By contrast, Kemurikusa focuses more on flashy, high-action fights and has much greater artistic ambition in its brooding apocalypse. Especially as the series crawls into its final third, the 3D characters that were merely uncanny in Kemono Friends can become distracting as they strain to mesh with the dark, decaying world set in the drawn backgrounds. The 3D models look pretty good up close:

The faces are well expressive (even if it’s usually just Wakaba going “Wahhh!”) and don’t have much of that 3D uncanniness

But look at the choppy edges of that bowl. Zoom out, and the models start to lose definition. Lighting especially can seem off as the 3D objects glow too bright for their surroundings:

The whole train car glows with the same static lighting despite the dark backgrounds while the characters become a difficult-to-distinguish mass. Oh, and the water has jagged edges!

Of course, sometimes the 3D models end up looking great in still shots:

The lighting from the lamp lands on all the model well while the darkness encroaches in behind them. I especially like Rin’s lean here.

But from a distance, they lose a lot of detail and develop odd artifacts:

From a distance, outlines become really heavy (like with the train car and tree) or overwhelm the rest of the model (like with the characters, especially the four Rina twins)

Characters often stand in the world at odd angles:

It’s hard to show with a still because the actual movement makes it look worse, but don’t they seem a little floaty, like they aren’t quite standing on the ground (especially with the robot)? They are on an incline, but stand upright…

And the 3D models sometimes even clip into each other:

Ritsu, does it hurt to be inside a tree?

When Kemurikusa doesn’t move, it looks great, though the sameness of the red fog and undifferentiated post-apocalyptic island cities numbers one to ten can become a drag… and uh, maybe I take that back. It looks great for a few stills that flash by in slideshow-y transitions like this one:

Cool and contemplative, it elaborates on the question Wakaba had wondered (“Wahhh!” -ndered) earlier: what does yellow kemurikusa do?

But just as often, the slideshows depict little of interest:

Where are they?

The slideshows and travel montages slow the series down to fit the contemplative tone, but then it can also whiplash into high action without much transition. For example, episode 8 begins with an in-media-res battle as the heroes leave for their final trek to defeat the red tree even though at the end of episode 7 they had only just opened the door of their safe haven at the big green Midori tree. Even inattentive audiences can fill in the travel gap, but the suddenness of the fight creates an odd pacing problem: the tension falls as the heroes approach the climactic confrontation with the red tree! After an interruption for the opening song, the episode just slips back into another boring slideshow:

Another red-fogged apocalypse travel still. It becomes a little tedious to watch so late in the series, especially since each island lacks much visual distinctness

The slideshows highlight Kemurikusa’s apparent budget limitations, but to me the strained pacing reveals more fundamental direction problems. For example, in the last episode, we see Wakaba stabbed through the heart by one of the red tree’s roots, leaving a gaping hole in his chest. Rin rushes up to him in dismay, but by the next cut, Wakaba has made a full recovery. I guess Rin used a healing-green kemurikusa leaf to save him, but the show never depicts it. A similar scene occurs a few minutes later when Rin loses parts of her arms and legs but recovers them off screen, maybe with another undepicted green kemurikusa. Like with the travel, the audience can fill in the gaps, but it feels rushed, as if the director missed some scenes.

The apparent rush also means that Kemurikusa often establishes ideas without giving them much further exploration, or in reverse, explores ideas that had little previous establishment. I suppose I might call the two categories unused foreshadowing — like when Wakaba plants a white kemurikusa that never grows — and weak foreshadowing — like when once-before-seen Ryoku uses a never-before-seen power in the final climactic battle.

I think the show suffers most in the unused foreshadowing direction. For example, Wakaba spends much of the series discovering new varieties of kemurikusa plants with unique powers. But though he gathers many different colors, he only uses heal-green, shield-blue, and notebook-orange with much frequency. We learn what a handful of the others do, but only in sparse detail: white nourishes, yellow lights, peach duplicates (?), yellow-green electrocutes, fish-blue seeks water… The second-to-last episode shows how to combine kemurikusa to create new colors and unlock new powers, but it has no relevance for the final fight with the red tree. Wakaba just goes back to ol’reliable blue while Rin uses some super-charged greens before the weak-foreshadowing cavalry arrives in the form of the three missing sisters.

If those feel like nitpicks though, consider some more serious missed payoffs in the broader narrative. For example, the characters never return to the big Midori tree that they had hoped to live in after defeating the red fog. Instead they find a new paradise beyond the menacing red tree. I suppose it makes sense in the literal plot — the tree seemed close to dying as the world it lived in crumbled so the sisters should have preferred the fresh paradise. But from a more abstract thematic perspective, it may have made more sense to kill the tree outright, thus adding urgency to the characters’ quest forward by removing their safe haven and re-emphasizing the apocalyptic tone. Or, to edit the story a little further, remove the paradise altogether so that green-thumb Ritsu could nurse the dying tree back to health (or use her own small Midori to grow a new one) while Rina could have enjoyed herself eating, duplicating, and thus rebuilding the world under Wakaba’s direction and Rin’s protection. As Kemurikusa actually ends though, the Midori tree feels like an odd Chekov’s gun that didn’t fire… a location with tremendous narrative and thematic significance that loses all of that significance by episode’s end.

The inclusion of the paradise brings me to my confusion about what Kemurikusa wants to contemplate. In the broadest strokes, the literal plot tells how the girls survive the apocalypse while the thematic narrative tells how Rin discovers what she loves. But the paradise does nothing to address either of those issues. In the plot, the green tree already offered a haven with ample water. Meanwhile in the thematic narrative, all of the characters except Rin had already found their happiness. That left the show with two major conflicts: 1) to secure the sisters’ survival by defeating the red tree / saving the green tree and 2) to find Rin’s happiness via her declaration of love for Wakaba. The final episode resolves both of those conflicts, so then what purpose does the paradise serve? To me, it feels like an unnecessary hero’s reward, bringing to mind that “weak foreshadowing” problem I mentioned before.

In even broader terms though, I don’t know how well the “finding what you love” theme fits with the apocalypse survival setting. Instead using their love as a reason to endure their harsh journey, most characters act like it gives them reason to die without regret. As early as the first episode, one of the Rina sisters dies happy because she defeated a menacing red robot alone after living her joy of eating. Later, Ritsu leaves the decision to quest for water up to Rin because she already felt satisfied with her life tending the small Midori tree. We later learn that the three mystery sisters “died” doing what they loved –feeling for Riku, fighting for Ryo, and learning for Ryoku. Then, they die again — this time for real — to save Rin! Even weak Wakaba (“Wa- Wahhh!”) had sacrificed himself in a past life. For a story about surviving the apocalypse, most of the characters seem oddly keen to die (finding your love looks like a death flag!). In a bizarre way then, Rin, the only sister without a joy, becomes the one character most committed to survival. The “find what you love” theme carries a clear message about dying for love without regret, but because most of the characters could already die happy in the first episode, that message has little room to grow.

Then Kemurikusa hits that problem with the otaku-appeal characterization. It examines the basic “find what you love” maxim through each character, but only in the most superficial way by following tired anime archetypes — Ritsu is a cat girl with all the attendant nyanisms, Rina is a high-pitched loli-maid …made more annoying by quadruplicating her, and Wakaba is the usual protagonist-with-a-heart-of-gold, the sole clueless (“Wahhh!”) male placed at the center of an all-female almost-harem. For their parts, the three missing sisters Riku, Ryo, and Ryoku stand in as anime delinquent, anime onee-san, and anime bookworm respectively. But not even the lead protagonist Rin can escape the bland archetypization: she simply falls into the role of testy tsundere number whatever-and-one. It’s worst for Rin though because of her centrality to the “find what you love” narrative. She doesn’t so much find her love as she does reactivate it… she had loved Wakaba in a forgotten past life and thus loves him again when she rediscovers her memories. It clumsily circumvents the organic growth in Wakaba and Rin’s romance, but then like with the “die without regret” message, the instant establishment of attraction in episode one gave that romance little room to grow anyway.

On the thematic and character content, I think Kemurikusa compares unfavorably to a similar apocalypse-survival + meaning-of-life anime, the excellent Girls’ Last Tour. Like Kemurikusa, Girls’ Last Tour has a simple, contemplative style with its “just go forward” apocalypse travelogue. But if it’s simple, it’s not simplistic: just one chapter touches so many subtle questions about why and how different personalities cope with pervasive suffering despite only enjoying short, time-bounded pleasures. The series manages to hold its “simple pleasures” message through topics as varied as faith, failure, suicide, and even …fish… building into a coherent if counterintuitive philosophy that finds value in hopelessness of all things. Though it looks like just another cute-girls anime, the simplicity of the journey hides a great deal of thematic complexity.

By contrast, Kemurikusa‘s thematic narrative feels almost trivial, both simple in delivery and simplistic in meaning with the bare “find what you love” truism. I suppose you could draw other messages from the series, but they feel even weaker than the “find what you love” stuff. The existence of three-ish types of humanoid species — plant-human, alien-human, and human-human — might raise questions about what it means to be human like in Tatsuki’s other, much better work Kemono Friends. Except Kemurikusa never much addresses that issue beyond some vague, pre-apocalypse world-building regarding Wakaba’s attempts to preserve the cultural artifacts of the missing earthlings. And then unlike Girls’ Last Tour or Kemono Friends, Kemurikusa fails to connect the literal plot of traveling through the post-apocalypse to its thematic content. If you can forgive me nitpicking again, I think the apocalypse populated by nothing but plants and robots maybe missed a chance to offer some sort of ecological message via the “warm” red fog slowly corroding the world and driving all life to extinction, but like I’ve said here before, I can’t fault a series for not exploring themes that I enjoy.

Kemurikusa isn’t bad, but then neither is it the masterpiece product of some embattled, mythologized auteur resisting the encroachment of big-money publishers into artistic spaces like some fans of Tatsuki make him out to be. It shows the real limitations of a production short on cash and time, as evidenced by the choppy animation, the often awkward direction, and especially the weak thematic and character content. It can look great in the stills, with its slow, contemplative tone generated by the glowing kemurikusa plants fading into smoke as the ominous red fog seeps into the decaying world. Just as often though, the 3D models steal that glow with their uncanny motions and jagged poses. Kemurikusa could use some editing, which to me really shows when even fans of the series talk about how much it will improve for a touched-up Blu-ray release. But nah, in the hero-worship mythology of the auteurist, true artists don’t need editors. Nooo, their art is a sui generis product of their genius, regardless of obvious production constraints!

Nehhh whatever, I’ll stop. Maybe I’m ranting now. No one wants a “meh” opinion, just like no one wants a “meh” anime. Kemurikusa’s just alright.

2 thoughts on “Kemurikusa is well contemplative, but what does it contemplate?

  1. Hi, just read this and it got really great and detailed points. Some personnel opinion:

    The logic of died-doing-what-they-love part felt weird. When I watched, I felt like they are sad when they died, having to depart with their sisters and the world, but since they did what they love during their life, they could regret, somewhat, less. To me, it seems like in the first episode, the died Rina was trying to comfort Rin, and it’s a moment showing love and bound between sisters. As for Riku, Ryoku and Ryou, their causes of (first) death are written in side-settings of original web animation but not in the TV version, however the second death is. They being willing to die is used in the post to say that the sisters are keen to die – but at that point the three sisters thought themselves already dead and they’re running out of time. So instead of to hide and live as a ghost for a bit, they decide to use up all their time left and help Rin, in order to repay her for her dedication on protecting sisters and let them do what they love. This, again, showed the bounds between the sisters.

    As for the paradise part, I think they’re trying to make it a surprise accidentally discovered for the characters, hence going outside becomes a viable and better option for them after the story; but for the watchers it is properly foreshadowed too. Since the world they were in is an alien ship, there’s a real earth somewhere, also some clues hidden in things the little robot said, etc. The Midori tree is a place they could go and live there too, since there is water running – but that means they’d need to stay there and there’s still chance the water goes out. Writing-wise, Midori already fully served its character purpose after defeating the red tree. So, to me, Midori tree seems like a milestone of their progress in the adventure, and showed up as a short relieve, but it’s not forever safe and dying. Ritsu raised the little Midori, but that doesn’t mean she got the power to save plants. They must find a true salvation, though still blurry at the point they’re going into the final fight, the answer is shown after the victory, as a proper reward for characters.

    Sorry for writing so long, and I am bad at reviewing/understanding things, so if there’re misunderstandings please let me know. And, really thank you for this blog post! I enjoyed it, it’s a great read.

    Like

    1. Oh wow, thanks for the comment!

      Yeah, I was joking a little when I wrote “keen to die.” I really like the idea of the older sisters hanging on as ghosts to protect Rin and the others for the thematic message about living – and dying — for others. However, that brings me back to my main criticism of Kemurikusa: for a show with such contemplative gravitas, it carries such simple ideas.

      A quick point: I disagree a little on proper foreshadowing for the paradise… the series dumped almost all of its backstory exposition in the second-to-last episode. To me, that felt like a clumsy, rushed interruption of the coming climactic battle. And sure, even if the show had better pacing, I don’t know how well the spaceship reveal really implies the existence of a paradise. For example, maybe the Earth also suffered through its own barren post-apocalypse! After all, why would Wakaba work to catalogue Earth’s culture like an archeologist if it still flourished?

      Back to my main point though… I think most of what you wrote gives good plot justifications for the paradise. But I still don’t think it contributes much to the thematic narrative. Rin has at last discovered her reason to live (which she knew in her heart all along): she loves her sisters and Wakaba and wants to protect them. But then she ends the series by going to paradise — the typical reward for death! Doesn’t that setup seem a little odd?

      I think it would make more sense for the “finding what you love” message to give the characters a fresh reason to keep struggling to survive, to rebuild the world / regrow the Midori tree with a new-found existential purpose. Instead, the characters find a reason to live, something to help them cope with suffering, but then go to a paradise where they won’t need to suffer anymore. The paradise rewards the characters, sure. But I think that physical reward cheapens the more important philosophical one (the “true salvation”): that Rin found her love. It just feels weak to me.

      But eh, it’s all my opinion too — when one person says “surprise,” another person says “rush,” haha! I think that you have a good interpretation too. Thanks again for the comment!

      Like

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