Kemono Jihen Review: The Monster Mash

Studio: Ajia-do Animation Works

Director: Masaya Fujimori

Streaming on: Funimation

Deep in rural Japan, a village has been plagued by a string of strange animal deaths, with corpses rotting before daybreak. The concerned townspeople hire a Tokyo detective to determine the cause, but the PI realizes all is not as it seems after meeting Kabane, an orphan boy shunned by his peers for his offputting aura and scent.

I usually don’t lead with cold open synopses, but today’s review, Kemono Jihen, leads with a dark and intriguing premise that immediately grabbed my attention. Its direction, art style, and music have crafted this delightful blend of dark mystery that pairs surprisingly well with its young-skewing shonen action. It also incorporates monsters and concepts from Japanese folklore and urban legends, something that I never tire of.

I’m a little surprised by just how much I’m enjoying Kemono Jihen. Its premise is strong and they execute on that premise well, but overall it feels like a standard shonen by the end of the second episode. I mean, I love me some by the book battle anime, but the market isn’t exactly short on dark supernatural shonen right now. So what does Kemono Jihen do to improve on the old formula among all the new releases? It’s not so deep or complex as some of my other reviews this season, but there’s still a decent amount to dig in to.

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As I said, Kemono Jihen has a distinct sense of atmosphere and it really soaks into the story as a whole. The first episode was key in this; the isolated village that Kabane hails from is straight out of a horror movie, and even once they leave the town, the series doesn’t shake that sense of dread. It follows at a distant even in the heart of metropolitan Tokyo, creeping closer and communicating its claustrophobic ill intent. This show would not work as a whole if they hadn’t struck the right balance between that spooky vibe and the traditional shonen aspect.

Truthfully, Kemono Jihen is not all that visually impressive. The whole production is competently done, it’s definitely far from the worst animation I’ve seen, but it’s serviceable rather than commendable. The character designs are endearing and demonstrate personality as well as their particular theming, but the overall style of the show is just a bit off. The action is pretty neat, although there hasn’t been a lot of it so far, it is just that something isn’t quite right with the visuals.

It could be that the compositing of the characters into the scene was a little sloppy, or the lighting effects don’t line up with what would be natural. Whatever the reason, there’s a strange look about the show that does moderately improve in the first episode, and is almost completely gone in the second. It doesn’t detract heavily from the viewing experience, but it’s worth mentioning.

The monster designs are solid, I particularly liked the rotting animals that attacked the village in episode one. It’s a simple concept that does a lot in order to maintain that ever-important mood. I think the CGI insects used in episode two are indicative of the mediocre compositing I just mentioned, but they were a small part of the overall episode. In fact, some of the monsters sticking out and reaching that state of not-quite-real helps enhance the creepy factor.

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So far we have only met a handful of characters other than the presumably one-off inhabitants of the village that Kabane grew up in, but I’ve got positive opinions on most of them. Kabane himself has a simple yet effective look that complements his ghoulish heritage, and while he’s mostly a blank slate right now, it’s fun to watch him figure himself out. The direction and voice acting go a long way in conveying the idea of an early adolescent who hasn’t had a lot of socialization in his life, but he’s been making some strides since meeting Inugami and some kids his own age who aren’t bullying him.

Inugami, Kabane’s teacher and introduction to the world of Kemono, is a lot of fun in his own right. He has this borderline canine design that makes him one of the most visually interesting characters, and he behaves like a guy who knows a lot more than he’s telling. He also wears sunglasses even though his mane of hair completely obscures half of his face, and it’s as silly as it is cool. I don’t know why shonen teacher characters need to have their face partially obscured, but if it’s worked this long, I won’t question it.

Kabane isn’t alone working at the detective agency, either, as he is joined by two boys his age, Akira and Shiki. Sorry, Shiki needs to make sure you know he’s a year older than Kabane. Akira doesn’t have a lot going on except for being upset at being mistaken as a girl, but combine the general androgyny of young anime characters with effeminate clothes and long wavy hair, and that equation usually adds up to a girl. Shiki, on the other hand, is the same type of half-human as Kabane, and comes across as territorial and aggressive to the new arrival. To be clear, he absolutely is those things, but he lightens up pretty quickly once he realizes that Kabane has never had pizza before.

It’s not the largest or most endearing cast in anime, but it works for what the series has done so far. Many similar shows wait until halfway through their first season to get the proper gang together, so I’ll at least praise Kemono Jihen for getting to the point. That little bit of narrative focus demonstrates a story that’s not going to waste your time, as we’re only short a few kids from the opening lineup so far.

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The story takes a minute as Kabane has to decide for himself whether or not he wants to find his parents, but he doesn’t take long to make up his mind. The most interesting part of the story so far is that Kabane simply has to find out who he is now that he’s been given the freedom and environment to explore that part of himself. They’ve begun peeling back at the emotionless shell he’s had to put up thanks to his loveless upbringing, and watching him come into his own is fun.

Each of the Inugami Detective Agency has their own uniquely monstrous side, and this gives rise to their individual powers. There’s not the same level of variety you see with Quirks and Stands (even though Inugami’s gun summoning power is literally the same as The Emperor), but I can see a lot of fun applications with Shiki’s spiderweb manipulation, or Akira’s as yet unseen ice powers. Heck, Kabane can’t die, feel pain, or even stay injured for very long. Most shonen protagonists have that power but it’s usually not spoken out loud.

Kemono Jihen is not the flashiest show this season, nor the most polished, but its simple characters and story have won me over pretty quickly. It has managed to integrate a consistent atmosphere with decent action, and a few heartfelt moments thrown in for good measure. It might not having the writing or fighting to win anime of the season, but Kemono Jihen offers a satisfying shonen experience with a sufficiently spooky coat of paint to spice up its most generic elements. 7/10

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