It was one of the most monumental underdog success stories in the hundred years which make up the history of anime. A mixed-media project, its accompanying game had already shut down due to lack of players. The simplistic CGI turned-off myriad would-be watchers, something which would leave any ordinary show as mere roadkill. Yet it continued to claw its way out from the jaws of defeat, quickly becoming the most popular anime of Winter 2017, only challenged by long-running mainstays for dominance over the entire year. A promising future could be seen on the horizon as millions of fans worldwide waited for more content with baited breath. And then, just as suddenly as with its meteoric growth, everything fell apart. Its director was fired, the public was enraged, and the sun which had been rising on the horizon quickly went out. This is the story of Kemono Friends, its inspiring struggle for success, and the disastrous decision that ruined it all.
To say that the oft-spoken of “media-mix” has become an omnipresent part of anime would be the understatement of the millennium. While the creation of massive franchises is no new thing — Pokemon’s been old enough to vote for a few years at this point — the practice of developing all these many moving parts simultaneously, with the goal of engaging consumers on multiple levels, has seen a dramatic uptick in popularity, only aided by that trusty new friend of those who wish to make money: gacha-based mobile games. “Love Live and Tales and Bang Dream! Oh My!” is something you might declare when looking at all these franchises and that’s but a small sliver of the selection the industry now has on offer for those interested in losing their money and time to capitalist hell.
Kemono Friends was envisioned as just one such media-mix. First and foremost it was to be centered on the idea of “animals”, with the initial concepts being drafted by famed character designer and mangaka Yoshizaki Mine. Most popular for his long-running Sgt. Frog series, his rounded, bubbly style very much resembles the early moe art of the late 90s and early 2000s. Already quite appealing, this was made even more fitting by the general thrust of the project. Moe has long been tied up in the idea of anthropomorphizing anything and everything that lies under the sun(and much of what lies beyond), from toasters and operating systems to tigers and opossums. Yoshizaki provided the perfect touch, creating anime girls who retained enough of their original bestial identities so as to be recognizable from amongst the crowd while remaining cute and suggestive enough to draw in the otaku audience which was likely to partake in the various money-making schemes that those involved had in store.
Yoshizaki crafted the world and basic story details but he was not, of course, the only person on the project. As a media-mix, various avenues for monetization and proliferation were planned. First among these was a mobile game, developed by Nexon, makers of such acclaimed titles as MapleStory and Counter-Strike Nexon: Zombies. Released in 2016 it followed a storyline wherein the main setting of Japari Park is being overrun by monsters known as Ceruleans, with players meant to win the various Friends through a traditional gacha system, using them to reclaim the park.
At the same time came a manga by Furai, a rising tartist who had gained prominence as so many do nowadays: by selling works at doujin events and parading pictures to the public on Pixiv. And in the creation of this manga, the project’s unique strategy was fully laid bare: various parts of the series would take place at different times, working like pieces of a puzzle that could ultimately be put together, revealing an overarching narrative of a sort. Furai’s manga was set before the Ceruleans became an issue, simply showing various Friends at the park before humans began to abandon it.
At the same time, of course, the anime was being produced, as we’ll get to in just a bit. The various IP holders and project participants would have liked for things to already be looking positive. Parts of the series were released and if they could see some success before the anime’s launch, the whole shebang would be in a great place. After all, Kadokawa has admitted themselves that they wanted this to be “an IP that would last 100 years.”
…they didn’t see success. It would be hard to overemphasize how disastrous the project was in its early stages. Simply put, the main two products at play were not all that popular. It’s hard to definitively state how beloved the manga was, given our lacking statistics on the medium in general but it’s certainly a fact that it wasn’t enough to balance out the failure of the game. Because wew boy did that baby flop. A year after its launch it went “totally free-to-play”, and hardly 9 months later it shut down. Yes, this was a game which failed so spectacularly that it closed before its sister-anime even got past the starting line. Those at the top were not pleased by the performance and general onlookers had no reason to believe that such a project would end in anything but disaster, the same disaster that befalls so many failed franchise attempts. It seemed as if Kemono Friends was bound to fall apart, fated to end as an obscure endeavor to conjure something great. Fortunately, Kadokawa had made an excellent decision in choosing the anime’s creators.
Generally speaking, anime production follows a tried-and-true process, one which has been established for decades now, leading to one of the most efficient industries in all of media creation /s. A production committee will form in order to create a work, and from there staff will be chosen and production will commence.
Kemono Friends… didn’t walk that well-worn path. As the project was initially being planned by Yoshizaki and those at Kadokawa, they made the decision to bring on Yaoyorozu, a studio focused on 3DCG animation, best known before this for the comedy series, Tesagure! Bukatsumono. That series’ animation director, Tatsuki, was selected to head the anime rendition of Kemono Friends and things began right away from there. Eventually, a production committee formed in order to provide funding for the project but Kadokawa counted their chickens before they hatched when it came to financing this show and fortunately, in this instance, all the chicks managed to make it out of their eggs.
Tatsuki was hardly new to animation when plans for him to serve as the director first came down. Part of a minuscule doujin anime circle named irodori, he’d been producing interesting works for quite some time. Projects like Megane, Kemurikusa, and Last Onmyou were clear proof that this was a talented man, demonstrating an ability to animate in 3D, work on backgrounds, write scripts, draw storyboards, the list just doesn’t end. In essence, he was a proven jack of all trades and a master of more than one. His talents were superbly lent to Tesagure and while sites like ANN only list him as doing animation direction, the credits reveal that he handled significantly more, particularly during the second season. He and his companions at irodori work as part of Yaoyorozu while doing professional productions, leaving him as one of the top members at the small studio. As producer Fukuhara said, Tatsuki is the kind of person who does CG work for 5 days of the week, whether busy or not, and then does it over the weekend, just because he enjoys it so much. He was truly ideal for the job.
Tatsuki and the rest at Yaoyoruzu were not exactly handed success on a silver platter. Anime production is never easy — in fact, it’s almost as close as the entertainment industry can get to a living hell — but things were made even harder on the staff here than is usually the case. Even with its early start — Tatsuki met with Yoshizaki 3 years before the project was actually completed and didn’t take long from there to pick up his mouse and get to work — the extremely low number of staff caused significant problems. As later recounted in one charming yet harrowing anecdote, Yaoyorozu did not have the time nor the money to make the wheels on the bus go round and round in the opening until episode 7. No, they had a scant 10 regular staff members at the studio, though obviously much of the series was completed due to an assortment of elements being outsourced, as is the norm in this industry.
Still, Tatsuki came in because he wanted to work on the project and that passion allowed him and the rest of the team to put in the work even where it was hard. The series was intended to tie into the rest of the franchise, yes, but it was also designed to be a show that anyone could enjoy, from the cradle to the grave and from the East to the West. Tatsuki allowed himself to take on a Godzilla-sized workload for this project, directing and storyboarding all 12 episodes, scriptwriting a significant number of them and doing all of this in an incredibly unique manner. Refusing to follow the typical order of things, he made visual storyboards first, then wrote the scripts, and followed this up with traditional, hand-drawn storyboards where necessary. And this was all done with a zeal that few in the industry could manage to match. His interest in the subject and love for the concept were obvious to anyone and everyone around him, a perfect fit for the interest Yoshizaki brought when designing the world. While any director could have made a Kemono Friends anime in some form or another, few would’ve been able to imbue the project with the childlike glee that Tatsuki was capable of showcasing and even fewer would’ve been able to do so with the ludicrously limited resources he was afforded. Most would’ve sufficed with a good 10-20 characters given what was available. He put in around 40 anyway. To salvage an already floundering project like this, an ambitious genius was needed and Kadokawa was lucky that they managed to find one in Tatsuki. But failure still loomed over the project and it would take a gift from God for the anime to bear fruit, even with the excellent staff behind it.
God’s light did not exactly shine on the series from the start. While Tatsuki and his team worked their asses off in order to deliver the first episode, its most obvious deficiencies served as a clear turn-off to many, on both sides of the globe. CG animation is already looked upon skeptically by large swaths of anime fandom, so the low frame rate and blatantly lacking animation for parts of the premiere did not do the series any favors when it came to first impressions. Japanese critic Hiroki Azuma expressed frustrations with the episode, while Western reviewers were hardly more favorable. The series debuted to a 4.5 score on MAL, something which is nearly impossible to achieve if you’re at all competently produced. On NicoNico, the episode only earned 41.2% “this was great” ratings. At this point, the show almost seemed to be the runt of the Winter 2017 litter, destined to follow its brethren in utterly flopping.
But, quickly, the Almighty God of public attention decided to look upon the show with fresh eyes, bestowing it with a second chance at success. The 2nd episode introduced the anime’s ED, simplistic in style but remarkably captivating with its gray torn-down settings, leading the show to trend on Twitter for a bit. And this proved to be the spark necessary to light the bonfire that Tatsuki had built. Because from here, the show only continued to grow. The NicoNico numbers began to trend upwards, going from the earlier 41.2% to 77.7, 89.4, and eventually 95.7 by the time of episode 4. By that episode, the series had begun to trend fairly consistently, only leading more and more curious onlookers to the series. The “Kemono Friends boom” was fully underway, as many media sites rushed to report on this bizarre event like a group of vultures going after a horde of zombies, confused but intrigued. Quickly, the show became the most-searched anime of the Winter season on Japanese Google.
And while this was initially confined to its source country, it did not take long for the popularity to spread. The Kemono Friends fandom had become large enough that memes and fanart were making it to all four corners of the Earth, bringing in those who had totally ignored the series before its second wind. On Reddit, the show went from not even having discussion threads for episodes 3 and 4 to garnering a small fandom by episode 5, capable of giving the new post a whole 63 upvotes with 20 comments being left as well. The MAL score began rebounding, as those coming to the series with the actual intent of giving it a chance found that, shockingly, it was a fun and passionate show.
So, why did the series make such a powerful comeback, becoming the most popular work of its season? Well, the passion displayed was clearly a part of it. Tatsuki’s interest in portraying the Friends as meaningfully inspired by their animal originators was neat and the whole work had the feeling of being a zoo of sorts, an impression that was only amplified by the presence of the informational slides during episodes. The animation, while perhaps not the best in a purely technical sense, delivered a powerfully charming aesthetic, one that seemed to be trying its best even if it couldn’t always manage to reach its goal, which honestly wasn’t that far from the truth. Its applicability to those of all ages was another factor. The series was a late-night anime — after all, otaku were assumed to be the primary audience — but in the modern environment where streaming is readily available, that wouldn’t stop younger people from enjoying it and Tatsuki was determined to make a show that children could watch and love.
However, I do think there’s a decent bit more to the work itself that caused it to draw so many various audiences, elements which need to be examined if we’re to truly understand the Kemono Friends phenomenon and why everything ultimately worked out the way it did. While its all-girl otaku-appealing world is something which can garner the favor of multiple demographics, there’s more to the boom than that.
First, it’s important to thoroughly examine the core thematic message that the series attempts to deliver. Essentially, the show aims to communicate that everybody has their own talents and that an inability to do one thing doesn’t preclude you from finding a place where you can shine. By having Kaban be a relatively normal girl, lacking any notable visual traits due to her humanity, the series is able to demonstrate that your skills might at first be hidden. Of course, as the show progresses, it’s made clear that Kaban’s abilities lie in what makes us human in the first place; our superior problem-solving abilities and adeptness at working together. All the other Friends have talents of their own as well, working with Kaban and for Kaban where necessary. In a world where the rates of depression and loneliness are rising to epidemic levels, a world where we increasingly feel like atomized individuals lacking a true social environment, a world where the ability to do a job you love feels eternally out of reach, this is a message which can hit hard. There are, of course, other series which communicate this idea with extreme skill but few do so as directly as Kemono Friends. For as much as subtlety can make a work soar, sometimes you just need to be told that it’ll all be OK. Ironically, the same lacking animation quality which put viewers off in episode 1 only serves to further the show’s moral, demonstrating how even the anime itself has talents that can shine through despite not being capable of doing everything on its own. Not to imply the wheels not spinning or the tails clipping through the skirts was intentional but hey, the guidebook has an explanation for that! Why wouldn’t we accept it as part and parcel of the message?
Second, the character dynamics it establishes are easy to latch onto. Kaban’s curiosity mirrors that of the viewers and provides a good springboard for Serval and the other Friends’ more eccentric personalities. The chemistry between these two leads is immediate and the general trend of pairing two girls together in the show leads to fun interactions every episode, while also providing plenty of fuel to a certain goggle-wearing portion of anime fandom which is quite prone to drawing fanart of sapphic subjects. And because the characters are so enjoyable to watch and, at times, relatable — seriously, I challenge you not to feel any kinship with Beaver and Prairie Dog — a certain amount of pathos is established, keeping viewers invested in the show on an emotional level. The fact that all the characters have unique quirks, catchphrases, and appearances also makes them easy to meme, which at this stage of the internet’s life is pretty vital to keeping interest in a work alive.
Next, the designs are just brilliant. Of course, the Friends as a whole are well-portrayed, truly coming across as being a mix between animals and girls but most key to the broader appeal is Kaban herself. Her somewhat frumpy look, with messy hair and clothes covering her body, gives off an appearance which is feminine enough to clearly identify her to the audience as a girl while androgynous enough that those of all genders can easily connect, only making her trials, tribulations, and triumphs all the stronger for the audience.
Lastly, Tatsuki’s brilliant and slightly cryptic worldbuilding kept people eager to see what would happen next. Taking some of the base concepts that Yoshizaki already drew up, he crafted a unique world that seemed at once post-apocalyptic and utterly peaceful, simultaneously coming across as both a mystery and an iyashikei. The disappearance of humans from the Park raised many questions, ones which the series was in no rush to answer. The little lore given was lacking in completeness, almost as if Tatsuki was saying “figure out exactly what happened on your own.” Speculation makes up much of media discussion after all, so the clear need for it in this case only served to further drum up interest in the series. Who wouldn’t be interested in a seeming kids’ show focused on everyone’s ability to find their own talent that just so happens to be in a post-apocalyptic zoo world where humans may have literally gone extinct?
These factors worked in tandem with many smaller ones, keeping the show #1 on any Japanese seasonal chart you could find while doing pretty damn well for itself in the West. Absolutely no momentum was lost as the curtains began to close on the series. It still managed to trend week after week and the utterly heartbreaking cliffhanger in the penultimate episode stood out as an early candidate for best moment of anime in the year. As the wonderful, touching finale rolled around, the series managed to trend worldwide. An outpouring of fan support for Yaoyorozu’s success in making it to the finale was immense and immediate. By this point, the show had become one of the most popular in the history of NicoNico while the head of TV Tokyo gave an official press release in which he praised the series. Fan content was everywhere and no one engaged in the anime community could conceivably miss it, assuming they’d taken even one step out of the battle shounen bubble. On Reddit, the finale garnered 765 upvotes and 495 comments, with the MAL score jumping a whole 3 points in becoming a 7.8, likely the biggest shift in that site’s history. And as some eagle-eyed viewers were able to notice, the final shot of the show hinted at the possibility of future content, with an announcement quickly coming down that there would be a “new screen project” in the future. Kemono Friends was on top of the world. Where would it go from here?
The week after Kemono Friends’ finale hit the small screen, a new trending tweet associated with the show appeared. Fans were so passionate that a request for an Episode 13 gained traction during the time when an entry would’ve usually aired during the last 12 weeks. In a normal case, this would be nothing beyond a mere longing for more from dedicated viewers. It’s almost certain that no one who participated was under the pretense that another episode would suddenly arrive as if it were a child delivered by the stork. Tatsuki, however, not keen to disappoint, dropped a short 2-and-a-half minute video, considered Episode 12.1, tying up some loose ends with the conclusion. This event is, broadly, what would define Kemono Friends in the coming months. The amount of investment exhibited by the fans during this period was unceasing, perhaps even growing from where it had been during the TV run. What makes this case particularly noteworthy is that the creators were equally invested in the series. The franchise was more than resurrected at this stage; it had become one of the biggest in otaku media — perhaps even in all of Japan — in the matter of a mere two months, achieving what can only be described as a messianic feat.
It’s hard to know where to start once we hit this point. The Kemono Friends phenomenon spread out, becoming less a clearly defined set of events following a mostly chronological timeline and more a convoluted web of interrelated but ultimately separate on-goings, befitting of its media-mix nature. Perhaps I should begin with the other media that quickly spawned from the series? Well, almost as soon as the show ended, prodigal son Nexon returned to raise the possibility of restarting the now defunct game. Unfortunately for them, this father was not so forgiving, as Bushiroad later announced more specific plans, showcasing a number of new apps from separate developers, but the intent to merge back into the mobile marketplace was made quite clear.
In lieu of a proper manga follow-up while plans for the future of the anime were worked out, a number of anthology volumes released, showcasing the deep well of fans from which Kadokawa was able to draw. These did incredibly well, generally shooting up to the top of Amazon’s Japanese book category. A stage play was also announced and quickly put on show, though that wouldn’t be a shock to anyone who knows how infamously frequent those are in the industry for anything that sees even a modicum of success.
The high sales of the manga were not unique. The series’ Blu-Ray releases — which were far cheaper than average for anime — came as part of official “guidebooks”, detailing lore, information on various Friends, and other details which could act as raw meat to the fanbase’s inner lore hounds. These guidebooks sold remarkably well and while precise figures are hard to pin down due to not being officially listed as Blu-Rays and serious stock issues — a tweet from the official Twitter claims that the first two sold a combined 120,000 copies — it’s obvious that these releases easily landed among the most successful in anime during 2017, an impressive feat in any year where Love Live airs.
And as this occurred, the popularity continued to soar. It took less than three months from the show’s finale for the NicoNico view count to more than double on the first episode, quickly becoming the most-viewed premiere in the history of the site. The series saw wide-success at Summer Comiket — attended by Tatsuki and the others at Irodori, as doujin circles are wont to do — and showed no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Generally, shows have a hard time maintaining the hype when they aren’t running. But Kemono Friends had become so big and was so fan-driven from the very start that interest didn’t even remotely begin to wane, despite the relative content drought, almost taking on a Touhou-esque quality.
Perhaps the most interesting fact about the whole phenomenon — and certainly one of its most reported aspects — was the effect it had on local zoos. The clearest example was that of Tobu Zoo, one of many which hosted Kemono Friends collaborations, including cutouts of the various characters in the same areas as the animals they were based upon. From 2016 to 2017, the zoo saw a 23.6% increase in attendants during Golden Week, with a whole 20,000 extra people showing up. Of course, as we always say, correlation does not imply causation but it would be nigh-impossible to totally deny the role that the zoo-like series had on actual zoos.
One of the more humorous stories to emerge from this collaboration was that of Grape-kun, a male Humboldt penguin who formed a deep attachment to the cutout of Hululu, a Friend based on his species. Funny on its own, this was a relatable point to the many otaku who loved the series, as being attracted to 2D characters was, if anything, a sign of camaraderie to those willing to take up the moniker of “Friends” because they loved a somewhat shoddy-looking anime so much.
Throughout all of this, plans on the anime continued to move forward. The fifth guidebook for the series released in late July, confirming at long last that the “new screen project” was to be a TV anime, specifically a second season to the story of Kaban and Serval that so many fans had come to adore. Tatsuki continued to release short projects where he had time, making collaborations with the Japan Racing Association, Animelo Summer Live concerts, and instant noodle company Nissin, whose name should be familiar even to the most culinarily inept anime watchers due to their numerous short commercials. The last of these was released on September 19, which wouldn’t have been notable at that point. The God known as Tatsuki was in his heaven and all was right with the world. None within the now massive fandom had any reason to suspect what was about to come.
Suddenly, on September 25th, everything came crashing down, as Tatsuki informed the world through Twitter that Kadokawa had released him from the project.
Much like the great Titan Cronus, Kadokawa had eaten its children, fearful of what it had created but unaware that the decision it had just made would cost it the world. The seeming god of Kemono Friends had been cut down by his own father, an error that would soon be seen by all observers as one of the gravest in anime history.
There are two approaches to take when describing the fallout of the bomb which was dropped on September 25th. The first is to take a primarily emotional look, examining how fans and creators alike felt in the aftermath of Kadokawa’s seeming betrayal. What this viewpoint loses in strict accuracy and fairness, it gains in pathos and intrigue. The other is to look at a purely factual timeline of events, analyzing every one of the monumental decisions made in the short week after Tatsuki’s deposal. This method conveys more information and is less clearly biased but fails to fully elaborate on the emotional narrative so core to the events surrounding what occurred on and after September 25th. I will attempt to merge these standpoints, sacrificing a small amount of chronological coherency and objectivity in order to more effectively communicate the emotions roused in fans by these events in the immediate wake of their publicization, while still trying to explain everything as it happened. Remember, this was an experience which I myself was all too invested in as it went down, beginning with the moment I saw Tatsuki’s message.
In Japan, the tweet came out at 8pm, a time where nearly everyone would still be awake. In other parts of the world, members of the community awoke and checked their favorite sites, only to be confronted with the news. I can vividly remember how I felt, waking up a few hours after the story first broke, turning on my phone and seeing all of my many anitwitter friends tweeting about it. I can easily recall the way I felt my heart drop, the many thoughts that ran through my head; this can’t be happening, why the fuck would Kadokawa do this?, surely the outcry can bring him back!, this is the worst news I’ve heard in a long time. I can remember the many tears I shed in those early moments of the 25th, tears that writing and recording this threaten to bring back. Tatsuki had created a series that became very important to me and many of my friends over the course of the year and seeing that brutally ripped from my hands was more than just painful, it was downright traumatic, a moment I still return to with surprising frequency. This is an experience that millions of people went through as the shockwaves from Kadokawa’s decision spread. It was no ordinary case of a company making bad decisions, compelled by capital to chase profit to the point that they were blinded to the cause of their success. This was a betrayal, an act of war, and it was to be met in kind.
Tatsuki’s tweet itself was remarkably soft-spoken. No blame was laid and he made no attempt to defend himself. He simply explained that Kadokawa had let him go and apologized, expressing that he was upset about the decision without going any further. Even given trends within the industry not to speak poorly of companies, this was an astoundingly polite statement. Perhaps intentionally or perhaps not, the humility of it led onlookers to see him in an even more positive light, as a saint who could smile in the face of unbelievable tragedy. However, these fans were not nearly as forgiving as the man himself seemed to be.
Almost immediately the tweet became one of the most shared in the history of Japanese twitter, as everyone scrambled to get the word out as quickly as possible. From the outside looking in, Kadokawa seemed to want this departure to be a soft one that would quickly be forgotten but few had any interest in allowing their wish to come true. Many other Kadokawa, Tatsuki, and Kemono Friends related hashtags began trending worldwide, alerting the entire planet to the grave injustice that had just occurred. A petition quickly went up to reinstate him, gaining more than 25,000 signatures near immediately, signalling that the public had his back.
Almost as soon as this occurred, it became clear that this was not a united decision by Kadokawa, a company with many separate branches who share little besides name. The head of Kadokawa’s parent company, Kadokawa Dwango, remarked that he was “worried” by the decision, acknowledging that it was Tatsuki’s effort that allowed the anime to reach the heights that it had. While this provided a small source of comfort and hope in the immediate aftermath of the firing, it was bound not to last.
The next day, September 26th, Kadokawa hit back with a press statement. It. Was. Garbage. From my incredibly biased perspective it was little more than an absolutely disgusting attempt to act as if they were the victims in all of this, an abuser explaining why, really, they had to do what they did. Roughly, it stated a few things. First, the claim was put forward that Yaoyorozu willingly stepped down from the project after refusing to “normalize relations”. This doesn’t square with Tatsuki’s tweet, which claims he was let go by Kadokawa, the active decision-maker in this situation. Given that Tatsuki and Yaoyorozu had been making smaller works for the series right until being let go, the facts here seem suspicious.
That said, it’s the second claim that took it from a suspicious statement to a clear attempt at deceit. The press release claimed that side material like episode 12.1 and the stuff released by Irodori at Comiket goes against Kadokawa policy. However, it was made clear by Tatsuki that special permission was received in order to do these things, even ignoring Kadokawa’s general acceptance of doujin works; almost all otaku-media companies allow doujin production, seeing as a refusal to do so would not just enrage fans but make it harder for new creators to arise. Both the JRA and Nissin made it clear that they worked with Kadokawa for the rights before Yaoyorozu produced their shorts.
What really seals this as a lie is the fact that on April 5th, Yoshizaki Mine himself tweeted that in the final anime meeting at the end of the show’s run, Tatsuki was given the explicit go-ahead to keep producing content freely. Had Tatsuki’s statement been the only one that contradicted Kadokawa’s here, it could be chalked up to a simple he said she said situation — though I would still trust the passionate creator who saved a franchise over the gigantic corporation that nearly killed it — but none of the evidence matches up whatsoever. Hell, that post-anime statement by the head of TV Tokyo indicated that the production committee did, in fact, know about 12.1. Regardless, all of Yaoyorozu was gone at this point and hope for their return was becoming less and less reasonable. Kadokawa’s statement smelled like nothing more than an attempt to paper over the fact that they had wanted to further commercialize the project while Yaoyorozu was resistant, trying to preserve the passion-focused production that had defined the series up until that point.
But the rage had not yet reached its peak. If anything, it was still at the base of the mountain. That all changed on the 27th, as various voice actresses from the show apologized for Kadokawa on the series’ monthly NicoNico stream. Immediately dubbed the Seiyuu Shield incident, this is the moment that definitively ruined any serious shot at reconciliation between fans and Kadokawa over their treatment of the project. Using the voice actresses to do their dirty work was seen as one of the lowest moves possible, something that almost everyone could agree was a disgusting tactic. Any benefit of the doubt that Kadokawa had been given was now gone. Even if they had been in the right here — which I don’t believe for a second — it was at this point that they lost any hope of that being believed. Kemono Friends appeared to be dead in the water at this stage of the game and fans began to accept that bitter truth.
This cleanly carried into many of the following events. A number of digital-age tabloids such as yaraon began reporting on various causes, one claiming that Yoshizaki angrily demanded Tatsuki be let go, a claim directly rebuked by many of Yoshizaki’s associates soon after. Ordinarily, this would just be seen as 2ch rumors that spread a bit too far, as they had no credence whatsoever. With Kadokawa’s poor standing though, these attempts to discredit the poor director came across as hit pieces commissioned by the rogue company. No evidence was ever presented to back up the idea that it had been an attempt to defame Tatsuki by those who had let him go but by this point, fans truly did not care. While I can look back at it now and admit that Kadokawa probably had no involvement in the articles, much as their actions continue to fuel my hatred of them, at the time, the seething rage I felt made it hard to acknowledge such a thing.
On October 3rd, the CEO of Kadokawa Shoten, the company’s publishing branch, made a statement. Clearly stating that they had not spoken earlier due to being only one of many companies on the production committee — a fact which would bear more weight had Tatsuki not explicitly labeled them as the ones who fired him — he claimed to regret what had occurred. While admitting that there were disagreements between Yaoyorozu and the committee, he also established the fact that talks had been on-going in the aftermath of the firing — something that only makes sense if the earlier statement was untrue — asking for time and understanding. Assuming he was honest in all that he said, it became apparent at this point that some sort of miscommunication had taken place, with only certain people in the company privy to the decision until the outcry became too deafening to ignore. A bit of hope arose that things could be put back together again, though with many having already moved on, there wasn’t much in the way of optimism. Not long after, Grape-kun died, something seen by those still paying attention as an awful omen.
After a long period of waiting, producer Fukuhara of Yaoyorozu announced on December 27th that talks had broken down, while also stating in clear terms that permission had been granted for the uses of the IP that Kadokawa purported to be against the rules. The Kemono Friends led by Tatsuki was, definitively, nothing more than a memory.
Kemono Friends remains alive. But it is no more than a zombie, a half-aborted attempt to suck those final few ounces of productivity from it, a last-ditch effort to exploit a project whose time has already come.
The series continues to hobble along, certainly. Zoo collaborations continue in 2018, often coming with new Friends designs, as Yoshizaki remains interested in creating fresh girls for fans to fawn over. The PPP idol group is still popular, with their debut album ranking 9th on the weekly Oricon tracker, though that’s a far cry from what they likely would’ve reached had fans not abandoned the series in droves. Pavilion is a still-running game, albeit one that’s far less successful than it otherwise would’ve been and a new game, Festival, debuted just recently. Masses of fans continue to love the series, even if they are upset at how the Tatsuki situation was handled.
And hell, there’s even a new anime now. Not season 2 — though that hasn’t been cancelled outright, it seems doubtful that anyone would want to take it given the immediate riots that would erupt — but a prequel, something which retells the story of the Nexon game.
Really though, that just highlights how half-dead this franchise now is. No plot movement can occur because those at the top are absolutely terrified of upsetting everyone even more by going forward with anything other than Tatsuki’s explicit vision. Kemono Friends is now in an eternal stasis, unable to take another step forward lest a brutal mob devour it but unable to look back lest it go the way of Orpheus, losing all it has worked for. Hell, the new anime is a fucking flash short with a director who spent copious time on Twitter explaining that he wouldn’t and couldn’t replace Tatsuki, clearly quite aware that no one can duplicate the fallen genius’ passion for and understanding of the series.
As a coda to the Kadokawa situation, it’s instructive to look at their June shareholder meeting. When pressed on why they dismissed Tatsuki, they claimed once again that it was a decision of all the production committee members and that really, they tried to convince the other companies to reinstate him. Of course, such a statement is hard to believe but at this point, the rage isn’t present. People have moved on. Kemono Friends is simply dead in an official capacity to most of the millions who had loved it at its height, sad as it is to say. Much as I myself may be disgusted by Kadokawa’s actions, driven to tears when I think about what occured, my life must keep going.
If I had to end the story there, it would be quite a tragedy. And I suppose, to some extent, it is. But it is not Tatsuki that played the tragic role, it’s Kadokawa. In their hubris, they failed to realize how massive a mistake they had made until it was too late to correct. That there’s no chance in the near future for them to resuscitate the series in full is just desserts for the company that ruined the most wondrous success story of anime in the last decade.
But for Tatsuki, things are not nearly as bad. He and his team’s brilliance was praised to the end, with the CGWORLD AWARDS giving Yaoyorozu the Grand Prize while Tatsuki took the best director title from the Tokyo Anime Award Festival. Hardly enough to make up for being fired, but it was certainly nice to see them continue to be acknowledged even after being let go.
Furthermore, Tatsuki has not stopped working. After getting axed, he kept plugging away at various CG anime, now with an adoring fanbase who would support his every move. The Keifuku-san shorts, remakes of an earlier Irodori clip, quickly became popular, eventually releasing on DVD after topping Amazon’s best selling section and seeing numerous stock shortages. Later, in 2018, he began releasing the Hentatsu shorts, another set of doujin anime made by irodori and primarily released on Twitter and YouTube, with this one appearing to vaguely tie into Keifuku-san. Again, it saw massive success right from the get-go. After all, it’s hard not to support someone who’s been so blatantly wronged before your very eyes. Tatsuki even managed to land a job working on the character design and CG production for a mostly live-action NHK kids’ show.
And, most excitingly, Tatsuki and Yaoyorozu were able to announce on February 11th that Irodori’s old short anime, Kemurikusa, would be adapted for TV. While little was revealed beyond that, even those words were like music to the ears of those who had felt their desired Kemono Friends sequel slip between their fingers. It’s hard to believe that this would’ve been greenlit by anyone had Tatsuki not been fired. But I suppose that’s natural. Firing someone lights a flame and this one proved too big to ignore. I’m just happy it burned the right people, serving as a beacon to the rest of us.
Many individuals made our beloved Kemono Friends and Tatsuki was merely the most prominent and important to the anime. But I have to give him praise because Kemono Friends improved my life, improved the lives of millions if only for a brief time, providing real comfort and connection in a world which often discourages such a thing, uniting those around the world in a way that isn’t easy to achieve. Its great fall was heartbreaking but that it ever rose in the first place is enough to make me cry. I’m just glad that the one who made it all possible has come out as improved as those whose hearts he touched.