One of the best and most underrated anime of the year, perhaps of the decade, has recently come to an end…
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Kemono no Souja Erin is a masterpiece. Amongst all the cliche-ridden, fetish-pleasing, and/or wish-fulling series that have come out in recent years, KnSE is shining proof that unique anime shows that emphasizes quality storytelling over fan-pandering are still being made. So far I haven’t seen anyone who has watched a good amount of this series disliking it. I personally was so impressed with it that I might even consider it one of my all time favorites now.
The 50 episodes of Kemono no Souja Erin are roughly divided into five arcs.
The first arc begins the story when Erin is a child living with her mother in a village that takes care of Touda, dragon-like creatures that the Taikou (Grand Duke) uses in his armies. This is the lightest arc of the series, but by episode five or so, subtle hints already start to rise up about the show’s eventual conflict, i.e., even at such a young age, Erin is already sensitive to the mistreatment that the Touda receive at the hands of humans. Even though the series emphasizes intelligent, artistic storytelling over cliche fan pleasing right away, because Erin is a child in the beginning of the series, and because these early episodes are light and kid-friendly, I’m sure many people who started watching it assume the rest of the 50 episodes will be like this, and thus this “kids show” isn’t worth their time. But for those who decided to give the series a chance, it was definitely worth it.
Kemono no Souja Erin hits its first major, unexpected turning point as early as episode 7. Throughout the rest of the series, Erin keeps flashing back to this horrific event, showing how realistically traumatizing it was for her.
The second arc then begins and follows Erin as she’s living with John the beekeeper. In the episodes with John, she continues to learn more about the natural world around her. She also has her first chance encounter with an Ouju (Beast Lord), the creatures that will eventually dictate the path of her life.
Episodes within the second arc also start to reveal more central plot points in the story – Erin’s harp, meeting Ial, another person who will eventually be important in her life, and most notably, the series takes some time to step away from Erin and show us more depth about the conflict within the country she lives in – an assassination attempt on the Shinou (Queen) and hints about the growing division between the Taikou and Shinou’s people.
The third arc is probably the most significant one. Erin, now a teenager, becomes a student at the beastarian school, Kazalm. Right away she starts questioning the authority of the books and the established rules, providing more hinting to the eventual conflict towards the end of the series.
And soon enough, she meets Lilan, a baby Ouju that she takes upon herself to raise with the love she has rather than the fear society tells her to give.
The episodes that feature the gradually growing bond between Erin and Lilan are some of the most exquisitely done. The methods she uses, her emotions at the time, Lilan’s responses, the reactions of the people around her – everything was amazingly realistic. From happy times such as playing ball together, to tragic times when Lilan gets scared and unintentionally injures Erin, their relationship is a very well developed one.
In the fourth arc, Erin and Lilan are now grown-up, and the underlying plot really starts to surface. The conflict between the Shinou and Taikou is rising, just as Erin learns the truth about her country’s secret and dark history with the first Shinou and the Ouju. However, she continues to do things her own way.
In another ground-breaking episode, Erin breaks the law and teaches Lilan how to fly. Later on, she even allows Lilan to perform a natural mating ritual with another Ouju and produce an offspring. But eventually, Erin is truly brought into the storm of the country’s conflict when the Shinou is attacked by a rouge army of Touda during her visit to Kazalm.
In another tragic, turning point episode, Erin is finally forced to use the Silent Whistle on Lilan. We’ve seen the bond between these two grow so beautifully over the past episodes, watching this one horrible event shatter their trust, forcing their relationship to never be the same again, was truly heart-wrenching. But just when it seems like Erin finally gives in and decides to keep using the Silent Whistle on Lilan when necessary, their bond in the end remains strong.
In the concluding arc of the series, Erin, together with Lilan’s family, are brought to the palace in order to protect Seimiya, the next Shinou. More background is given to Seimiya, her relationship with Shunan, the next in line as the Taikou, as well as the growing relationship between Erin and Ial.
Damiya, Seimiya’s uncle, finally shows his true colors as the main antagonist of the series.
In Kemono no Souja Erin’s epic conclusion, the future of the relationship between the Shinou and Taikou is simultaneously put to the test together with Erin and Lilan’s bond. Just as the Taikou’s army of Touda descend upon Seimiya, she must make her important decision, as must Erin make her decision about how to handle herself and Lilan in this final challenge. It is truly an intense and fitting ending for the series.
As I’ve discussed in recapping the series above, Kemono no Souja Erin offers a narrative that is nearly perfectly construed. With the exception of a few episodes, almost all the episodes contribute to the plot in some way, or offer necessary character development for Erin or others. The series also stays true to its intelligent, serious nature. Although there are humorous and cute moments, they’re never hyperbolic or out of place within the story. There aren’t too many anime, especially 50 episodes or more, where the storytelling quality remains consistently good for all the episodes. KnSE, however, could be one such anime.
Like the story, the characters are also realistic and meant to be taken seriously. KnSE has no cliche fetish-pleasing characters with exaggerated traits, i.e., characters who are overly cutesy, bad ass, stoic, etc,. All the characters (perhaps with the exception of Nuk and Mok, who offer mild comic relief) play a part in the show’s plot.
The humble art and design of the series could be another thing that may have initially driven anime fans away. The music is also gentle and does not have the typical modern j-rock sound to it. To some, simple characters designs means boring kids anime. But as I’ve illustrated above, although KnSE is pretty family-friendly, it definitely does not insult the intelligence of its audience with its often disturbing themes and intricate plot. Although it’s not geared towards the same crowd that digs Lucky Star and Code Geass, anyone with an appreciation for a quality animated story should find it worth their while.
There is only insufficient thing I can point out in KnSE – the second half of the last episode was a bit rushed. Even though there was still a lot of Touda and Taiko supporters left, we don’t see what happens to Nugan and the rest. The war just kind of ended after Lilan and Erin flew off. Perhaps they gave up because they knew they didn’t stand a chance against an Ouju? But it was great that we got to see what became of Erin, Ial, and the other characters. However, a major question I had was whether Lilan was still with Erin, and did anything change with the Ouju Scriptures even after all that’s happened with Erin and Lilan? Did Erin save any Ouju besides Lilan’s family or are Ouju still being captured and oppressed? Touda as well? And what of Nason, who was secretly observing Erin? I believe there are more novels to animate, so perhaps a second season will come. But besides being slightly abrupt and leaving a few unanswered questions, the ending of KnSE was satisfying.
In conclusion, like with their previous work, Seirei no Moribito (by the same author as KnSE), Production I.G. set out to tell a unique, impacting story with Kemono no Souja Erin – an amazing tale that follows Erin from childhood to adulthood, how she goes from sensitive, naive child to caring, strong-willed woman, the things she learns and the people she meets, and how her unusual sympathy for beasts puts her in the center of a suspenseful conflict between the two ruling forces of her country. It’s series like Kemono no Souja Erin that keep my faith in anime.
Credit for some screencaps goes to Hey, Say, Anime!
Header image credited to pixiv artist Teyo