The edge of the world looks like a vast landscape with no end in sight. Mountains in the distance line up on the parameters of my vision but between me and them there lie hundreds of miles of parched ground, with visible cracks starting to appear on the surface. The occasional gust of wind picks up sand and it blows into my face and eyes. My throbbing pain in my throat has subsided into a dull ache that barely registers, and I feel a sense of desolateness as I stare across the endless plains of sand dune undulations. I begin to dry heave as a ragged cough tears its ways through my windpipe, and I kneel down on the hot ground, waiting for it to pass.
That is how I have always imagined the anime desert to look like. And it certainly feels like it now.
I have mentioned time and again on this blog that I more often than not run into roadblocks when it comes to finding anime masterpieces nowadays. It has always seemed that I have binge-watched most the excellent ones in the early days of anime-watching. I still hold these series close to my heart, and they haven’t really been surpassed by any series thereafter.
Out of the many withdrawal symptoms I have experienced, one that draws my particular attention was the completion of Shinsekai Yori. The mere fact of its completion brought tears and pain because it was impossible to find something that encapsulates so much depth, humanity, subtlety, beauty and also contain my favourite kind of romantic pairing.
It still is impossible, but what I am experiencing now harks back to that, with my completion of Kemono no Souja Erin (“The Beast Player Erin”), an anime adaptation of the novel by Uehashi Nahoko (who is also the author of Seirei No Moribito). Another completely underrated, even unheard of series, but which presents beauty in another form.
Kemono no Souja Erin tells the story of Erin, a ten year old girl who lives in a village with her mother Soyon. Soyon’s job is to raise Touda, which are giant lizard-like amphibians to be used for the army. Erin who is naturally curious, learns a lot about Touda alongside her mother. However, the secrets behind the raising of Touda slowly come to light as people become implicated along the way. We follow Erin’s life, from ten years old to eighteen, and how she learns more about Touda, other beasts like Oujuu (a kind of wolf-bird), and how she gradually comes to form bonds with these animals and surpasses human expectations of communication and connection with beasts that were previously thought impossible in that era (which is presumably historical given the state of their technology in general). In doing so, Erin gets thrown into the mechanics of politics as well as the secrets behind the country and the history of the world.
This series is set in a fantasy and historical like world where creatures like the Touda and Oujuu exist, complete with ideas of a bygone era like engendered amounts of sexism, leadership which only exists for symbolic purposes, and prejudice against people of biologically different appearances. Yet all these do not present themselves obviously, as we see the world through the eyes of a growing girl who starts off at 10, bringing the series into a kids-only, village slice-of-life territory. (This is also probably the reason why this is not better known) However, those who manage to find meaning in those slice-of-life episodes where we see Erin learn about animals, bees, and saving fellow villages’ little hiccups (for me I found relaxation, and a refreshing change from modern fanservice-overloaded anime) are immensely rewarded as the drama intensifies. However, the key points of why this is seriously recommended to anime lovers out there are:
Breaking the walls between animals and humans
Kemono no Souja Erin belongs to a dying category of anime of which Princess Mononoke was probably famous for – the exploration of interactions between human beings and animals, and the beauty of that communication and the way different species are able to reach a common understanding. I have never been much of an animal lover I must admit, so I was slow to realise that such a category of anime existed until now, and even when I was starting this series I had consciously no idea that this was the core focus of the show.
Most time is spent on Erin cultivating relationships between herself and the beasts she has devoted her life to caring for, where early episodes lay the foundation of her knowledge due to her insatiable curiosity and focus, and the obstacles she faces while learning to live for and loving her animals. As such, viewers including myself grow to be emotionally attached to the animals as we silently cheer Erin on in her quest to care for all animals.
For someone who has never opened that door in her life, if I said that the most tear-jerking scenes were actually the ones featuring beautifully animated creatures and their reactions towards certain events that transpired, is that convincing enough for you?
A strong female protagonist
Oftentimes I feel that this is what I have exactly been looking for throughout most forages of my anime – the occasional long tale (>25 episodes) featuring a mentally strong female protagonist, and the perfect answer to crimson613’s Free Spirit Award prompt, something that I have been thinking of for some time but have declined from embarking on as I felt there was something missing in my thought out answer. Instead, I found it in Erin, whom I feel personifies the idea of a strong female lead.
Naturally curious and inquisitive, Erin as a child is very hard to handle. This girl never stops asking questions, and usually asks the most hardest-hitting questions. Nevertheless, she has a calm disposition even as a child, and she never hesitates to do what is right (or to break some rules especially when they are illogical or imposed by condescending adults). She is also extremely smart and kind-hearted; and this combined with tenacity and resilience and an overpowering hunger for knowledge and empathy makes her a very likable character. However, she is not perfect as she is known to be too stubborn in following through her beliefs and her impulsiveness, though motivated by altruistic intentions, often result in consequences which are too much for a single person to bear. She grows to realise this as she becomes an adult, and as a result becomes increasingly smarter decisions that make your heart swell in pride and all that growth she has achieved in the fifty episodes of her life.
What makes her a strong character is her ability to stand up for her beliefs and against authority when she sees merit in her views and visualises her ideals as plausible in a world of narrow-mindedness and conformity and clearly preventable tragedies. She is however, not blind in her pursuit, and is often consumed by guilt and empathy when she realises that her actions have hurt some other sentient being. She is also a great listener for the advice that certain authority figures her life impart to her, and incorporates them in her understanding of the world.
All the above is not talk when you plough through fifty episodes focusing on a single girl and the next main character being an animal. Development really shows in the latter half of the series especially when Erin becomes an adult, and the role she plays (or consciously takes responsibility of) in the impending calamity of the country’s politics hark back to those moments of wisdom.
Memorable other characters
Erin is not the only character that makes the show so enjoyable. From the early parts of the series, Soyon, as Erin’s mother, proves invaluable in influencing her actions throughout the series. Soyon brought Erin up in a way that most would call strict but me ideal, especially in an Asian society (I believe in a mixture of discipline where it is important, encouragement, the cultivation of an inquisitive mind, and being a role of model of empathy).
Jone, a honeyman and a father figure to Erin, also enhanced her thirst of nature and knowledge, giving her a boost in discovering much of her academic potential.
Even Kiriku, a man who appears in the second half of the series with hidden motives, appears to be more than your one-dimensional bad character and is one of the most excellently developed side characters I have ever seen given the limited amount of screentime he was allocated.
Her romantic interest, Ial, was someone she had met at integral points of the story and throughout her growth. Though their romantic relationship was just a little sprinkle of fairy dust in time in contrast to the other messages of the series where more time was allocated to, their caring, mutually supportive relationship with obvious attraction towards one another as well as shared goals and ideals, is reminiscent of a real life relationship, and pretty much what I would ask for in a romantic pairing in a series. (Enough to bring them to the ranks of one of my favourite pairings)
Last but not least, the budding friendship between Erin and Lilan, the wolf-dog and the second lead of the story, serves as the highlight amongst a backdrop of a world which used animals – wild beasts – as tools of war, and how Erin’s life revolves among ensuring that these beautiful animals are not condemned to a lifetime of misery of enslavement and as a means to an end. I am not afraid to emphasise that I have never given as much thought to animals and issues like these, but I felt that whole new world opened up as I watched how the two, girl and wolf-bird, interacted with one another, and broke through that barrier. Erin and Lilan personify warmth in people-animal relationships, and that emotional beauty (enhanced by the beautiful and entirely fitting animation) brought me to tears.
More than a children’s story
Kemono no Souja Erin may start off looking largely like an episodic slice-of-life series of a girl in a village taking care of animals. However, the series is not afraid to plunge Erin into adversity and drama which ensues after merely five episodes. Nevertheless, this is a slow burn which turns highly rewarding as the story and political backdrop also grows increasingly complex. Even flaws like the inordinate and repeated use of flashbacks to evoke sympathy in viewers can be overlooked merely because they serve a purpose – to emphasise the importance of certain events that mould Erin’s outlook later on in life. And yet, this is something that only truly shines through towards the end of the series which is where the climax of the drama is. The contrast of everyday slice of life and intensifying political drama presents a mix that preserves intrigue, and the world-building is thought-provoking and subtle in its messages of animal cruelty and sexism. As one of the most unknown and underrated series ever, Kemono no Souja Erin is highly recommended to those who can appreciate a good slice of life series, a mentally and emotionally strong female character, and some complexity in world-building, complete with a fantasy element.
I didn’t find another Shinsekai Yori, but I found a source of rejuvenation along the dry, barren landscape. Now to move on from this breathtaking oasis in search of further, better waters!