A race of cannibal monsters called the Flesh-Eaters exists and it is the job of the Kifuuken, beast-hunting sword school, to stop them. Toshihiko Momota, an expert swordsman and heir to the Kifuuken, unexpectedly falls in love at first sight with a beautiful girl named Yuka. However, the couple's relationship is much more complicated than it seems at first glance, for Yuka is a Flesh-Eater.
Just attempting to write anything coherent about this show seems to be futile. Should I talk about its grotesque animation? It's liquorice black sense of humour? It's perverted, wretched, mixed-up romance? It's morbid self-loathing? None of the above? This is a show that has a lot to say but without a lot of time to say it but it gives it a good shot. I'll try to do the same.
I loved The Tatami Galaxy (Masaaki Yuasa's latest series). It was heartfelt, uniquely delivered, darkly comic but almost life affirming in its conclusion. Kemonozume isn't like that. The self-depreciating humour is the same but while The Tatami Galaxy was simple, though still adventurous, in its message and its desire to entertain - Kemonozume comes across as a maddening well of swirling dreams that are leaking out into reality. It's a waking nightmare that is more an experience than a show.
Plotwise and on the surface, Kemonozume is another take on Romeo & Juliet. Star-crossed lovers at either side of a divide between inhuman Flesh-Eaters and the modern day samurai called Kifuuken that hunt them but it's so much more than that and that is evidenced in the excellence of the leading characters. There has never been such a brutally flawed set of characters ever to run away together in love and never has such bitterly genuine (if only to us romantics) results been so entertainingly delivered. Our leads balance their romance on a rough edge between love and lust and are often weak-willed and stupid in the most realistic kinds of ways. They fight, their personalities clash but through all the personal weakness and (often self-inflicted) bad circumstance that surrounds them they manage to be both sympathetic and easy to cheer on despite that their star-crossed situation is only half of their worries and problems. They are frustrating sometimes but so are real people and fit perfectly into the dark, miserable and seedy existence that characterises this show's setting.
Oh yes, this show is dark. Sorry, let me re-phrase that. This show is DARK. Leaving aside the blood, gore, body horror and sex (all made exponentially less appealing by the art style) this show happily scrapes at the dark side of romance like a gardener scraping slugs off the bottoms of plant pots... in the rain. One particular side story about a member of Kifuuken and his relationship with a prostitute comes to mind, especially when the unseen result is mentioned off-hand later in the show to quite a chilling effect. Throw in chauvinism, cannibalism, sadism and the inability (of seemingly everyone) to control primal urges and you have just some of the darker aspects of human relations that this show touches on.
This show isn't a dirge though. While there are moments that are dark, miserable and sad; the show manages to be genuinely funny throughout - with the monkey, Bon the giant and the protagonists often bumbling attempts to escape their fates, there is plenty to make you laugh and smile that somehow adds to rather than distracts from the shows more serious aspects. Yuasa definitely seems to have a talent for blending the silly with the serious in a way that could have seriously helped a show like Katanagatari where the switches in tone seemed inappropriate and morbid. The key seems to be that the humour is often based around, rather than being set apart from, the darker aspects of the show. The humour (monkey aside, don't ask me to explain him) is used to highlight serious aspects of the characters and in the majority of cases it works. Even Bon, who is an oddity too, lightens the tone quite well and on top of that is one of the most likeable and empathetic characters in the show!
The artwork and animation is also a point too important to ignore. I think only the most seasoned avante-gardists will not balk initially at the stubby monsters and sketchy character designs that populate a surreal landscape that is maddening at even its most tame. If you can get by that initial shock and even learn to embrace it (which I did) then you will find yourself a visual treat. The style also makes sense in context and intent. Yuasa doesn't want to glorify the darker aspects of life that the show depicts both literally and metaphorically (He is a Romanticist but that's a topic for another time) and so he has made all the dirty and grimy aspects of life as literally ugly as possible. It works too. He's turned what is usually fanservice into full-on fan disservice to its great thematic worth and I applaud that. HBO could learn a thing or two.
Problems lie, however, in some aspects of the show. Leaving aside whether the art style is one, it often seems to lack direction in terms of narrative - especially around the early to mid-point - and that wasn't helped by the fact that the show has a lot to say and a lot it wants to cover throughout its runtime. On that note too, because it does cover so much in terms of theme, I couldn't help but feel it touched on things that it never explored comprehensively enough - the gap between the generations that exists between Toshihiko and his father's time and also Toshihiko's brother and circumstances felt sadly undeveloped. All in all, a bit more restraint and direction in most areas (again, not the art style. The lack of restraint there was delightful) would have given the show a weightier thematic punch (like that of The Tatami Galaxy) but it is mild criticism of a show that manages to be fascinating and intriguing at an intellectual level throughout and a little bit tender at the emotional level too.
I give it four stars because of its small but hard to ignore flaws but I seriously recommend this show to anyone looking for something a little bit special. This diamond might not be flawless but it's big, it's bold, it's fascinating and an awful lot better than the cheap knock-off plastic that other animé makers are peddling. Add one star if you need your faith in the creativity of animé restored but remove two stars if you honestly can't get into the visual style. — Aiden Foote
Recommended Audience: Definitely for adults only. Sex, violence, blood, gore, rinse, repeat.
Version(s) Viewed: Pre-release Fansub
Review Status: Full (13/13)
Kemonozume © 2006 Masaaki Yuasa / Kemonozume Production Committee
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