The quirk of reviewing longer series is that their appeal so often depends on the slowly developed attachment they allow you to form with their characters and setting – something which is often hard to communicate in words, and is a direct result of the gentle pace that these series can afford. Kemono no Souja Erin takes full advantage of its length of fifty episodes – it takes us though many years in the life of its protagonist, Erin, allowing us to watch her develop slowly in a variety of situations until finally the world around her is turned upside down, and we see the result of all this development. It is not a series for those looking for constant action, plot twists, or gritty realism, as although there are occasional moments of almost brutal honesty and grim violence (both implied and shown), at its core, Erin is a warm and wonderfully told coming-of-age story. The series intentionally keeps itself friendly to younger viewers through the use of overt narrations and flashbacks, making it a true “family” series, yet also retains a certain subtlety in its ambiguity towards its ideological dilemma and in certain relationships. The story may take on the quality of a fable at times, but it should not be treated as a simple fairy tale.
Kemono no Souja Erin begins with a brief prologue in Erin’s childhood – a batch of episodes with a light tone and a predominantly younger cast which I suspect is the primary reason why many viewers abandon the show before it shows its true potential. These early episodes center mainly around Erin’s daily life with her mother, who is a breeder of Touda (one of the two central beasts in her world which have been tamed by humans for political and warlike purposes). There is an almost ecological tone in the way we delve into the care of these beasts, and though the setting and Erin herself are charming from the beginning, viewers may be hesitant to invest a full fifty episodes worth of time at this point. I myself had this feeling when first sampling the show, and it was at the recommendation of others that I continued with it. As I feel I should pass on this favour, I will inform you that the first major dramatic event occurs around the seventh episode, and I recommend giving the show a trial until at least this period. It is there that the story really begins, the main plot threads gradually begin to emerge, and we recognize that the first arc of the story is only an introduction for greater things to come.
As with Seirei no Moribito, the other fantasy story written by Nahoko Uehashi and subsequently adapted into an anime, Kemono no Souja Erin has two threads which drive the story forward – the first, a character-centric story involving Erin and the bond she tentatively forms with these beasts (which have had only master-slave relationships with humans until that point) while the second is a larger political story revolving around the fragile alliance of two factions, loosely analogous to the royalty and the army, which control the country. However, as the beasts referred to in the title are captured and raised by these factions for political purposes, the second thread is very deeply connected to the first, and the two threads merge into one by the end of the story very cleanly. In this way, I feel Kemono is superior to Moribito, as I found myself invested in both the character subplots as well as the overarching politics – whereas in Moribito, only the character moments interested me (though very deeply at that).
Also like Moribito, the show is clearly focused on its characters (both human and beast) first and its politics second. Erin is a wonderful, distinctive character – beginning the story with a great deal of optimism (as many child characters would be), but growing into a multi-faceted, intelligent, and admirable person who retains her fundamental optimism while being able to recognize contradictions in her morality and confront them. Apart from the political conflicts in the series, the fundamental question the series is built around is whether humans and beasts can coexist without one taking advantage of the other, and in many ways Erin’s journey is her quest to try and resolve this question. The series does not present a cliched or predictable conclusion to this ideological conflict, either – as I have said, there is a sense of ambiguity and pragmatism that the show should be commended for.
The other characters in the story are more of a mixed bag, with some, such as Ial – a bodyguard for the Queen who forms a subdued bond with Erin from afar – adding a great deal of poignancy to the proceedings, while others, such as the two comic relief characters, contribute only a sense of humour for younger viewers (they did not appear in the original novels). The most significant character apart from Erin herself is undoubtedly the beasts with whom she forms an attachment, as the growth of their relationship is the core of the series and that relationship retains its complexity and realism (in other words, the beasts are never humanized in order to facilitate a bond with Erin – they retain their individuality to the end). The Ohju – majestic winged creatures with the heads of wolves – are also brilliantly drawn with a fantastic sense of presence on-screen, owing, perhaps, to the fact that their size and nature usually allow only one to be drawn on screen at once (unlike the massive army of Toudas, which are often drawn using computer techniques in order to depict large groups of them).
As I said in the opening paragraph of this review, this is not an anime centered around dramatic plot developments (until, perhaps, the final arc), and a taste for slow-moving but rewarding and warm-hearted stories is required to truly enjoy it, as it will often go for many episodes at a time without any significant movement with the plot. I have mentioned in my earlier posts about Kemono that the show embodies my oft-repeated quote that “a children’s story made with sincerity will appeal to everyone”. I don’t know if I would still claim that Kemono is entirely a children’s story now, as the aforementioned ambiguity with which it targets the man-and-beast conflict avoids the idealism one would otherwise expect, but it does have a sincere charm that fans of Studio Ghibli films may recognize. Despite this, the show is one of the most pertinent examples of underrated anime I have seen, with very little activity in the English language community, even while shows which are essentially seasonal rehashes of common anime formulas seem to generate double the interest. Yes, Kemono is not without flaws, yet I feel a sense of responsibility to focus on its positives in order to counter the relative obscurity it has found itself in. My only request, however, is that if you are going to give the series a chance, allow it time to show what it truly has to offer – I took that advice, and was deeply rewarded for it.
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