When it comes to anime, no genre is more synonymous with the medium than Shonen. Having spent nearly three decades growing up beside it, one of the things we take for granted is just how much choice we have. The last decade saw the rise of several promising titles — many of which I covered on this very site when I first started writing about anime seriously.
As the traditional approach to Shonen began to modernize, the genre has gradually shifted from its humble battle roots into something much more grounded in reality. In recent times, titles like Spy x Family examined the familial relationships of the nuclear family, The Promised Neverland told a story of thrills and survival, and Radiant searched for a future beyond the fighting. Even classic titles have noticed the changing tides, responding by sticking to their strengths, poking fun at their own meta by subverting the rules, or taking a hard look at some of its characters and saying “yeah, that guy has always kind of sucked at their job.”
(See why I love doing these retrospectives?)
With MAPPA’s Chainsaw Man adaption revving up for its debut, the next decade will likely see a continuation of non-traditional (if not weirder) stories as more titles get picked up for publication or their own animated projects. Likely taking cues from more mature titles and other contemporaries, the biggest shift appears to be a focus on heavier themes that narrowly edge towards darker elements.
Having started my early writing days highlighting some of that inner darkness in other works, perhaps it’s why I found myself naturally drawn to Kemono Jihen. Produced by Ajia-do Animation Works (Ascendance of a Bookworm, Kakushigoto) and adapted from Shō Aimoto’s original manga (“Monster Incidents”), this supernatural Shonen recently concluded in spring of this year, with a simuldub having recently entered production as of this writing. Though it likely fell under the radar due to an unusually busy schedule over the past couple of months, those that did watch quickly realized there was more hidden beneath its young protagonists and modest production.
So, without further delay, I present the results of my own investigation. Does Kemono Jihen find a light in Shonen’s dark ascension?
The Kemonoist And His Strangeness Consulting Agency
Before I go further, it might help if I explain my personal theory on modern Shonen. For those familiar with some of my previous work, you might remember how I described the difference between horizontal and vertical growth. To expand on that, let’s call it battle-focused vs character-based stories. Though all Shonen have aspects of both, I use a 60/40 rule to differentiate between the two. In other words, how long a series spends on one aspect 60 percent of the time. Naturally, this is a dynamic measure for an ongoing story, with room to change the longer it continues.
From an outsider’s perspective, Kemono Jihen is relatively straightforward. Our tale begins as private detective Kohachi Inugami is tasked with investigating a trail of mutilated livestock out in the countryside. Finding a quiet boy named Kabane Kusaka, Inugami takes an interest in him, discovering an unnatural potential hidden within. Following their return to Inugami’s office, Kabane is introduced to two other children with similar blood. Referred to as “kemono,” these beast-human hybrids with origins from folklore coexist between the human and spectral realms. Under the guidance of Inugami — revealed to be a tanuki — their detective agency investigates and responds to incidents when the balance of the two comes under direct threat from both sides.
Even more straightforward is its central protagonist, Kabane. Gifted (or cursed) with an unnatural power, blessed with a strong will and moral compass, and raised beneath a tragedy that shaped his initial worldview, his backstory bears the hallmarks of what’s come before. But it’s the last one that’s makes him an interesting case study in Shonen’s recent modernization boon.
*Minor Spoilers and discussion of child abuse follows*
Having been raised by his neglectful aunt, the village where Kabane grew up wanted nothing to do with him. Reduced to manual labor, ignored by the village and family that raised him, and even having his name effectively erased (referred to as “Dorotabo” due to his scent), this unusually grim backstory is just the prologue when his aunt decides to take matters into her own hands. Knowing the truth about his origins, she hires an assassin to be rid of her sister’s unnatural offspring once and for all.
Facing the barrel of the gun, the hitman asks Kabane if he wishes to meet his parents. In an unusual sign of expression, he smiles, politely declines the offer, and then dies.
Okay, not really — a plus of being half-ghoul and virtually immortal! But in killing “Dorotabo,” he is now free to live as Kabane. The only problem is he has absolutely no idea what that entails. Lacking the social skills and ability to process emotions normally (possibly suffering some form of alexithymia), and unable to feel pain due to his regenerative abilities, Kabane’s struggles are internalized as he begins making connections and grasping the basics of emotion, decision-making, and love — more on that later.
Kabane’s new companions share similar backgrounds. Hot headed and rebellious spider kemono Shiki deals with abandonment issues due his parent’s sudden disappearance in his youth, unable to recall distant memories. Social media aficionado and stylish yuki-onna (“Snow woman” or spirit in folklore) Akira wishes to overcome his lack of confidence and unlock his strength as he searches for his missing brother after leaving their hometown for unexplained reasons. Lastly, kitsune hybrid and all-around “good girl” Kon longs for affection from her maternal figure — series antagonist Yoko Inari, who manipulates and disposes of her subordinates once they’ve outlived their purpose.
The loss of innocence becomes a running theme as Kemono Jihen explores the trauma inflicted from the exploitation of their bodies and powers. Despite managing to solve a number of cases, the greater mystery surrounding each of their pasts becomes the story’s central focus as the truth becomes clearer. But with that knowledge comes a difficult choice — one that will push them to confront their nightmares head on or be overwhelmed by it. It’s a series that does not shy away from depicting the gruesome horrors of abuse, yet it does not rely on shock value to take the place of meaningful characterization. Much like Kabane’s blunt but direct vocabulary, the answer to balancing this is surprisingly simple.
For as much time as Kemomo Jihen spends putting our main lead into the meat grinder like a mute Ethan Winters, the heart of the series lies in its abundant positivity in spite of what they may uncover.
It all begins with Kabane’s initial meeting with Inugami. Taking the young half-ghoul into his care, Inugami serves a much more supportive role as a surrogate father/cool boss compared to his other contemporaries. Rather than training him directly, Inugami imparts guidance and motivation for Kabane to learn more about the world and himself as he searches for clues about his missing parents. Their relationship reinforces this when Kabane discovers the concept of love during one of his case files.
Hoping to learn more about his parents through “the power of love,” it’s a small, but significant first step in Kabane’s development that becomes something of a guiding light as the show’s other characters enter the narrative. Given the circumstances, it’s also one of the few shows that takes into account their respective ages in acting and behaving as most children would.
Take Shiki for example. Initially playing the seniority “I’m-older-than-you-by-one-year” card when Kabane arrived, his open hostility towards having another kemono living among them gradually softens when he realizes how closed off and isolated Kabane’s world was until recently — often to humorous results and Shiki’s own bewilderment. Yet for Kabane’s ignorance, his simple rationalizing and shared background becomes Shiki’s primary motivation in reopening the case file regarding his missing family. On the other end of the spectrum is Akira who eagerly welcomes a new kemono, despite their awkward meeting. It’s difficult to get into his story as it unfolds in an unexpected direction with the introduction of a late-game element, but after observing Kabane’s work ethic and calm demeanor, he begins to develop a bit of imposter syndrome, even though his ice powers should put him in a league of his own.
Last, but not least are the two fox children employed by Inari, the misplaced Kon and her replacement Nobimaru. After failing to retrieve Kabane’s head, along with his special necklace, Kabane finds her living in the park. Though given the least amount of development (a season 2 story, perhaps?), Kon represents a direct contrast to Kabane. Ignoring the questionable usage of child labor on both sides, Kon’s naiveté and misunderstanding of familial love almost mirrors Kabane’s initial upbringing.
Whereas Kabane was able to exit his toxic environment, Kon adamantly clings to hers, unable to see through Inari’s lies. The parallels continue in their odd pairing as they clumsily try to understand themselves, teaching one another without realizing it. Nobimaru, on the other hand, is intelligent and cunning, hiding his intentions and contempt for Inari under his smile. As of now, his role is left open to interpretation as the wild card, involving himself as needed or under direct orders.
From Kabane’s bizarre reinterpretations and Shiki’s budding bromance to Akira’s overflowing optimism and Kon’s growing change of heart, these smaller moments become just as integral to the main plot as Inari’s schemes and the often violent, terrifying world of the demons they investigate. To revisit my original terminology of character-based Shonen, by placing the focus on the characters 60 percent of the time, we see each of them grow and learn to overcome their inner darkness by finding their own external lights.
Monster Incidents (Final Thoughts)
Until yesterday, I grew up thinking I was abandoned too. I didn’t have anything to hope for. It was all dark. There weren’t any lights in my life before yesterday. But Mr. Inugami gave me a light so I won’t let it all go out.
Lighthearted and fun with a touch of mystery and terror from both the living and the dead, Kemono Jihen proves that even a novice detective can become a pro through practice, experience, and a keen eye to see the larger picture. What it lacks in what most would refer to as the “money shot” (though the last episode might disagree!), it more than makes up for with strong character dynamics and a willingness to tackle difficult issues that would leave more mature shows in envy.
In the mist of supernatural Shonen to recently get the anime adaption treatment, Kemono Jihen continues the genre’s legacy while managing to break apart from its action based counterparts to form something much more human. At a time when new conversations over fan service and toxicity are becoming regular, its handling of physical, mental, and emotionally charged horrors of real world abuse becomes a challenging and evocative story about the unfortunate victims who live with the remaining scars. More importantly, it deals with the aftermath in a thoughtful and entertaining manner without dehumanizing them further in the process.
Simply put, perhaps that is a light as well — a useful gift that may help someone lost in the darkness.
Kemono Jihen is currently streaming on Funimation.
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