Since antiquity, flesh eating monsters who can take human form, known as Shokujinki, have preyed on people. A dedicated group of swordsmen, the Kifuuken, have made it their mission to hunt them. In modern times, the Kifuuken have lost much of their power and influence but the heir apparent, Toshihiko Momota, continues the fight. One day he meets a beautiful woman, Yuka, by chance. Toshihiko can’t help but to love her, even after he finds out Yuka is a flesh eater. The two run away, leaving the Kifuuken in disarray with Shokujinki attacks on the rise.
Kemonozume‘s story starts out strong but falls apart at the ending. It’s a shame, too, because the ending mars an otherwise well-written neo-noir love story. From the beginning, Kemonozume focuses on the relationships between humans and flesh eaters. It does so in a way that isn’t self-absorbed in its own universe. The emphasis is on an exploration of the nature of love and trust, and whether people can truly learn to embrace their enemies. All of this is set to a world with a single fantasy element – the Shokujinki monsters – which is otherwise fairly realistic.
The series is at its best when building and releasing dramatic tension. There are several dark, tragic episodes that really embody the best of the series’ writing. I love that Masaaki Yuasa has decided to tell a story like this, where people take actions that have irrevocable consequences. The stories also alternate between light and dark, shifting moods from comedy to drama to horror and tragedy. It also sports a twisted sense of humor that emerges during the pre-opening teasers. The series in general is quite well paced, manipulating the viewer into a sense of contention before pulling the rug and having everything fall to hell.
One slight irritant I found is that Kemonozume isn’t very strong on plot logic in some areas. One critical area is Toshihiko’s devotion to Yuka. The romance between them results in great drama, but it never feels deserved because there’s no build up to them loving one another. Yuka literally falls out of the sky and Toshihiko suddenly loves her. Even after finding out she’s a flesh eater, Toshihiko remains hopelessly devoted to someone he’s only known for days (yes I know Yuka looks like his mother but that doesn’t make it any more believable).
Episode five is worth mentioning in particular. It brilliantly sets itself up as a parallel to the love story between Toshihiko and Yuka, and offers a glimpse at one direction it could go in. The concluding revelation is delivered suddenly and subtly, with the director genuinely getting the drop on the viewer. It’s deliciously bleak, and the second to last shot is probably my favorite scene out of any anime I’ve watched.
Where Kemonozume falters is during its conclusion, when it throws away all the rules it has established for its own fictional universe. It ditches its noir love/horror story in favor of surrealist action/fantasy, but does it in a way that feels artificial. It’s as if the director just wanted to see how much he could mess with us before we finally stopped watching. I don’t have a problem with a shift in tone, as long as there’s some internal consistency with the series I had grown to like. The last few episodes of Kemonozume lack that crucial element, as it twists and distorts characterizations to an absurd level. For example the primary antagonist suddenly becomes a ridiculous charicature, a villain more suited for Looney Tunes, though he started out as a great character with a complex set of motivations.
This series does a lot of great things, and after having seen so many youth-oriented, worry-free action adventures, it’s refreshing to know that someone out there can still write stories where life just shits on the characters you love. It’s a thoughtful, unpredictable exploration of the human condition that is utterly marvelous to behold… until it starts firing off the plot twists at around the tenth episode. Then the story I like is slowly replaced by a nonsensical farce. If I had to make a judgment, though, I’d still say the series is worth watching despite this fault. It’s simply too different to pass up.
The cast is well-rounded in general. A rarity in any storytelling medium, there aren’t really any superfluous characters. Each supporting character has a role that matters in the story, and in general the cast is fleshed out and believable.
The Kifuuken consists of Toshihiko, the heir apparent, and his half-brother Kazuma. The two have a rivalry that turns antagonistic once Toshihiko runs off with the flesh eater Yuka. Kazuma single-mindedly hunts flesh eaters, and his resolve is reinforced when one of them (he suspects Yuka) kills his father. This sibling rivalry becomes less prominent in the later episodes, but Kazuma provides a great counterpoint to Toshihiko’s love story. Through Kazuma, we can see that Toshihiko’s abandonment of the Kifuuken causes real trouble for everyone left behind.
Yuka is a flesh eater struggling to control her violent instincts. Most of the time she’s a normal young woman, but she can transform when excited or stressed. When we see the story from her perspective, her persecution by the Kifuuken seems unfair. But when viewed from Kazuma’s perspective, the manhunt for her is perfectly logical. Yuka presents a wrinkle in the plot, and shows that the conflict is not as clear-cut as human vs. monster. Certainly there are evil flesh eaters, but some of them consider humans to be just as evil. Yuka acts as a focal point for all this, as she tries to find a place for herself in both worlds.
I don’t want to spoil the surprise of who the main antagonist is. He starts as an ancillary character who’s slightly shady, and then just becomes outright evil and insane. I don’t understand why “The Joker, but crazier” is an archetype in so many Japanese films and anime. The antagonist here is eventually just written to be as crazy as possible. It’s a creative cop-out and a waste of a potentially great character.
It’s not often that you see a series with such a well-written cast. Barring the blemishes associated with the conclusion, I generally found each character interesting if not sympathetic. Even the ones who seem shoehorned in at first end up having a dramatic effect on the story.
I think the technical production is the one area of the show that I don’t know how to react to. The visuals are expressionistic, distorting the contours and palette of the scene to suit the mood. In one sense, the shifting nature of the art style reinforces the flow of the story. But still I have to say, the designs themselves kind of suck. Character designs are often oversimplified, and it can be difficult to distinguish one character from another. There’s very little aesthetic sense, which I suppose is the director’s prerogative, but I don’t see it adding to the story in any way. I suppose I understand why the visuals are the way they are, but I still don’t like them.
The sound design is much more conventional, though the choice in soundtrack does stand out. Voice acting for the most part is solid if unremarkable.