Image source: けものフレンズ@公式アカウント on Twitter

Much like every year, 2017 offered a plethora of anime media for fans of all types to consume. However, not every year introduces a series that steals the spotlight out of nowhere and dominates the social media landscape. When it does happen, though, it is quite the thing to behold. In Japan, for 2017, that series was the unexpected smash hit, Kemono Friends.

Kemono Friends started out as a multimedia project. Beginning with the concept of anthropomorphic wild animals—called Friends—in an imaginary wildlife theme park called Japari Park, it was initially released as a smartphone game in 2015 followed by a manga in 2016 and an anime in 2017.

The project, while earning itself a modest fan base had what could only be described as a rocky start. The smartphone game eventually had the plug pulled on it and ended its service on December 14, 2016. Why is this date important? Because it was the day of the premiere screening event of the new anime. I remember because I was there at the event itself. That’s right, the game went offline on the very day that people would be seeing the anime for the first time and half a month before the anime itself aired on TV. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot before you even get out the door. 

The manga didn’t fare much better. The series ended its run with the March 2017 issue of Monthly Shonen Ace during the initial spike in Kemono Friends popularity. Considering the timing of both the game and the manga’s cancellations, one can easily assume that the powers that be had already given up on the project before it really took off.

Image source: けものフレンズ@公式アカウント on Twitter

Despite all of this, it was the anime series that exploded onto the scene and gradually took the Japanese otaku population by storm. I’ve already written my theories as to why this was. Regardless, by the ends of the series Friends fever reached an almost frantic level. The Kemono Friends store that was opened for a limited time from April 14 to April 27 was so overrun by fans that they completely ran out of stock of everything by the end of the second day, leading to various memes and videos of empty stock shelves and desolate isles, like the deserted post-apocalyptic fair grounds from the anime’s ending theme.

Why Kemono Friends Is Exploding in Japan

As a series, Kemono Friends was not only extremely popular, but also versatile. The series was granted a second airing on TV imediatly after the first. This in and of itself is rare, but not unprecedented. However, the rerun of Kemono Friends wasn’t aired during the late night shift like when most anime is aired, but during the day. From August 14, the series was aired at 7:30 AM on weekdays for a little over two weeks at a time when the people likely to be watching TV are families getting ready to go to school or work. The light-hearted and cheerful nature of the series as well as the interview cuts with animal experts and zoo keepers about various animals made the show like kids programming, something unheard of for most if not all of recent anime.

Even after the series ended its 12 episode run, the franchise has continued to expand in various ways, announcing a sequel, releasing a secret extra episode, premiering a live action stage adaptation, utilizing various characters to collaborate with and help increase tourism to zoos, and more. The franchise has also returned to the smartphone platform, announcing two new smartphone apps—one that has since been released and the other scheduled for release in January. Sadly, the original game has not since returned. Similarly, while the manga series has also not returned, numerous anthology manga collections have since been published.

Pretty much every time something Kemono Friends related occurs or is announced, there is a noticeable buzz on social media in Japan. Sadly, that also included when Director Tatsuki announced that he would not be involved with the upcoming and highly anticipated second season as well as the animation studio, Yaoyorozu, that worked on the first season also pulling out from development of the second. Fans voiced their ire towards publisher Kadokawa on social media and petitioned to have Tatsuki reinstated, with much of the Kemono Friends fan base believing him to be the primary reason for the series’ success.

Image source: けものフレンズ@公式アカウント on Twitter

On a personal note, for myself, the series falls into my “guilty pleasures” category of series this year. As a narrative, the series isn’t all that unique or does anything overly shocking. There’s nothing in terms of writing that could be categorized as all that outstanding. In fact, if anything, the series was praised online for lowering the IQ of viewers. It doesn’t have anything that would really earn it any sort of awards in any categories—save, perhaps, for its creative and catchy theme song. And yet, its charming and overall positive atmosphere made it almost a relief to watch every week, especially during a year that has been full of negativity and depressing news around the world. I wouldn’t call Kemono Friends necessarily “good,” but it was just what I needed this year.

I’ve had the pleasure of being on the ground floor of various media explosions when they occurred, like Puella Magi Madoka Magika, Kan Colle, and Fate/Grand Order. The way in which these things seem to take off in popularity is different in nature each time, but one common theme among them is that their popularity explosions always seem to come out of nowhere. Before you realize it, everyone seems to be talking about it and then you start seeing it and hearing about it outside of the standard subculture outlets. It’s never expected and it’s always a joy when it happens. When I first saw Kemono Friends back in December, I would never have pinned it as the trend-setter it turned out to be. And yet, it resonated with people in a way that turned it into the biggest anime phenomenon of the year.

Kemono Friends can be viewed with English subtitles on Crunchyroll.

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