#1 Masaaki Yuasa, as always
Nowadays, Masaaki Yuasa is renowned as the king of arthouse anime. The former key animator turned genius director has led many off-beat anime to surprising success—see Ping Pong the Animation and Tatami Galaxy for examples. However, this reputation wasn’t yet cemented back in 2006, when Kemonozume was to be the first time that Yuasa got to unleash his artistic vision unto a full-length TV anime.
The result is a show that looks like it’s deliberately made to be unappealing to the typical anime fan. The sketchy artstyle, boring-looking characters, and often incoherent animations will turn off many right away, if they even make it past the ugly-looking cover and unbearably bad OP. However, those who stick it out will find that Kemonozume is a feast of visual creativity.
The art isn’t bad, it’s just very different. Once you grow to appreciate it and pay attention to the actual animation, there is a lot of impressive cinematography to be found here. At times, Kemonozume even looks genuinely beautiful.
#2 Parasyte meets Romeo & Juliet
Toshihiko Momota is a member of a distinguished family who run a special dojo. Members of their clan have long specialized in hunting the viscious “Flesh Eaters”; ordinary-looking humans who can transform into enormous, man-eating horrors. However, his devotion to his family creed begins to waver after Toshihiko falls in love with a mysterious woman called Yuka. A woman who soon reveals herself to be a Flesh Eater.
It’s a classic story of forbidden romance with an action-horror twist to it. Toshihiko and Yuka first attempt to meet in secret, but are eventually forced to elope as their respective families refuse to accept their love. It’s liberating and exciting, but soon the reality of their situation settles in and shreds of doubt arise. It’s easy to fall in love within the comforts of modern society. Can their love hold strong now that they have condemned themselves to a life on the run; devoid of luxuries or a clear future. Seeing how these two deal with this stress is interesting, specifically because the possibility of a break-up feels so tangible.
Then there is the question of whether Yuka and Toshihiko can truly abandon their former selves. Can Yuka indefinitely suppress her hunger for flesh? Can Toshihiko leave behind his duty as a hunter, even as the Flesh Eaters become an ever-greater risk to society? What sides will they pick when their families fight one another?
#3 Tradition versus modernization
Toshihiko was meant to be the heir to his family dojo. With him vacating this position and the actual head of the family having just died, this leaves their organization with a succession crisis. The only other candidate who could pick up the mantle is Toshihiko’s brother Kazuma. Who, for various reasons. lacks the support to rally the clan behind him.
Kazuma is a genius who wants to reform the ancient warrior school into something more suited for the modern age. Instead of chasing after monsters with swords for all eternity, he wants the warriors to use his fantastic robot suits and other technologies that will help them fight better. The elders of the family are of course against it, but so too are the prideful warriors that fear being replaced by these technological marvels.
Modernity versus tradition is already an interesting theme for a story like this, but Kazuma’s personality really sells it. I felt so bad for the guy. He’s clearly sincere about his ambitions. He genuinely believes that this is the course that will save his family—that it will save so many lives—yet nobody believes in him. The question becomes how far Kazuma is willing to go to realize his ambitions and whether he can resist the temptations offered by dubious “allies”.
This conflict eventually comes to dominate the second half of the series and I was completely fascinated by it from start to finish.
#4 The worst sex scenes
Circling back to the artstyle for a moment; it has to be said that, in spite of my praise for Yuasa’s sense of style, it still looks very unflattering. Something that Yuasa seemed to be aware of, as he very eargerly made sure to cram in as many unsettling sex scenes as he could get away with.
The characters in Kemonozume are some of the least sexy you’ll ever find in anime, yet you’ll have plenty of opportunities to “enjoy” watching them smash their nasties together. It’s not exactly stimulating to look at and is, in fact, made worse by just how often Yuasa insists on making these extra weird. Like the many times when Yuka transforms mid-sex or the frequent reminders that Toshihiko suffers from incontinence.
It feels weird saying this, but I admire Yuasa’s dedication to deliberately doing such a terrible job. I am not sure if anti-fanservice a thing, but boy does Kemonozume have it in spades.
#5 Unhinged villain
There are interesting debates that can be had about Ooba as a character. His intelligence, the tragedy of his backstory, his love for his son. Yet any attempt to talk about the guy is invariably going to be derailed because he’s just so completely fucking insane.
While initially not making much of an impression, Ooba slowly reveals himself to be a fascinating, unpredictable villain. He is unstable; prone to sudden and complete shifts in personality and demeanor. Sometimes he’s a scheming mastermind with abundant charisma, at other times he parades around as a literal clown. The only constant is that he is unimaginably powerful and entirely without morals.
The entire showdown with him takes up several episodes and is one of the craziest villain battles I have seen in anime. The stunts he pulls are absurd, ranging from masturbating with other people’s dismembered arms to casually breaking the fourth wall. It’s comedy and disgust co-existing in equilibrium; you want to laugh but it’s just so persistently fucked up.
More anime & manga like this
Katanagatari: Philosophical action story that pits traditional sword arts against modern technology.
Tatami Galaxy: Another arthouse classic by Masaaki Yuasa.
Parasyte: Horror anime with romantic elements about people who can transform into flesh-eating monsters.