Here comes another marvellous adaptation of the works of Nahoko Uehashi, the author of Seirei no Moribito. Just like Moribito, Kemono no Souja Erin uses the interdependence of nature and humans as a canvas on which to paint its story and gives the mother-child relationship central place in that picture. What sets this unassuming series apart from (and maybe even above) the character-focused Moribito is the subtle way it immerses us in the politics and ecology of its fantasy world, Ryoza. This is family viewing extraordinaire, an emotional escapist journey not just for kids, but for Mum, Dad and older siblings as well.
Kemono no Souja Erin depicts the life of a girl who wants to be a beastinarian (Ryoza's equivalent of a vet) mainly in the guise of slice-of-life. In a similar approach to Radix's Haibane Renmei, it uses banal, everyday adventures to reveal a wealth of deliberate detail. As the titular hero Erin and her mother Soyon make grass balls for polishing the dragon-like Touda's scales, we subconsciously note the painstaking effort involved in their trade. I also adore the little lectures Soyon gives Erin about the uses of 'special water' or why beastinarians hunt for Touda eggs, and the quiet moments in which they cook bizarre local cuisine or share baths make heartwarming statements about the value of nurture.
But the show shines brightest when it ties in all its animal lore with the exceptional civil conflict between the Queen of Ryoza and her second-in-command, the Grand Duke. For instance, the bizarre giant winged wolves called Ohju mean more to the Queen than your average corgi; as symbols of power, weapons of war, commodities to be handed out as gifts, and instruments to prove one's godhood, they essentially represent her legitimacy. Moreover, the Ohju's rank in the food chain matters militarily. In the same way the existence of gunpowder makes spears redundant, their higher rank in the food chain cements the Queen's tactical might over the Grand Duke's legions of Touda.
There is certainly a strong environmentalist message here and of course the language is pitched mainly at children, but despite that, Kemon no Souja Erin never becomes a trite pro-animal rights show. By tying in human conflict with animal welfare, the series controversially implies that true social harmony means not just forming bonds of understanding between humans, but between humans and the natural world as well. Perpetual peace amongst people remains a mere theory without the security and happiness of the beasts. While not new, this argument is far rarer than the one that simply says 'harming the environment is bad' or 'harming the environment is bad because it causes natural disasters', which is about as far as Moribito goes.
What the show gains in nuance, however, it sacrifices in visceral power. Erin's growth as a herbalist and beastinarian takes up the bulk of the narrative, with every scene laid out slowly and meticulously. At its worst, one episode made entirely of dream sequences is followed immediately by a slow, reflective one full of dialogue. Some viewers will find these moments of lag frustrating, although anyone with a taste for world building should have enough fun lingering over every one of Kemono no Souja Erin's details.
Stylistically and technologically, the show might as well be the same age as Anne of Green Gables. With character designs seemingly lifted from Studio Ghibli's waste bin and backgrounds like a watercolour picture book, it neither looks nor moves like a 2009 production. Nevertheless, while the show suffers glaring aesthetic shortcomings, its involving story ensures we hardly care.
Significant flaws exist in the soundtrack too. At best, the cheerful first opening theme, which I love, feels like a reflection of Erin's nature and highlights the show's positive outlook. A more haunting but also less appealing cover version opens the second set of episodes to match the sober events therein. Unfortunately, its musical creativity dead-ends there as the same handful of synthesised tunes repeat through all fifty episodes. The worst example is this faux rock theme that accompanies the action scenes and sounds horribly misplaced in a children's fantasy drama.
Most of the cast are marginal spin-offs of stereotypes that the script rarely presents with any subtlety. In one scene we see a man standing in the shadows of a room while at his feet lie dead people who evidently just drank some dubious wine. In a following scene, Erin meets her creepy new school teacher Kirik whose class happens to be about poisons. Similarly, if we care for any characters, it's because they are obviously kind or obviously unfortunate people.
Notable exceptions do exist, and they include Ial the elite royal guard, Shunan the Grand Duke's heir, Soyon, and of course Erin herself. Yes, she is a cheerful young woman of courage and with great moral conviction beyond her years, but where the cliche stops is that she attains this towards the end of her journey. Her inner strengths are borne upon the wings of experience, adding power to her arguments. When she says to a man of the Mist People, 'Shouldn't we, the humans, be the ones to change? Not the beasts?' we hear not just her obvious common sense but remember the thorny path she has taken to attain it. Like the story, Erin is steel sheathed in a soft, shoujo coating and thus a welcome addition to the small number of great female protagonists.
Clearly, this is not a show for viewers who want something short, fast, and easy, but for those who crave charming world building and an exemplary family adventure. While never playing it safe, Kemono no Souja Erin draws for us such a vivid picture of human and animal struggle, that we absorb Ryoza's unique ecology with the rapt attention of children entering a zoo for the first time. Emotions insinuate themselves through steady, tender development and the climaxes arrive with incredible emotional weight.
In the war against neighboring countries, the Grand Duke’s warriors use dragon-like beasts called Touda as weapons. Touda are admired across the nation and villages take great pride in breeding them. Erin lives in one such village with her mother, Soyon, who is the best beastinarian in the country. However, life in the village is not so straightforward: Soyon is also an Ariyo, a woman of the Mist People - a race that is feared by humans for its mystical abilities. So that she and Erin can stay in the village, Soyon must flawlessly fulfill her duty capturing and disciplining the Touda; but while Erin wants nothing more than to become a beastinarian, she also feels sorry for the Touda and recognizes that there’s far more to them than meets the eye. Can Erin ever become an ordinary beastinarian when her deepest instincts tell her there is a better way to interact with the Touda?
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