Do you like catgirls? Then you will love this series. If, like me, the question of whether you like catgirls or not has never entered your head, you will probably still find this an entertaining slice-of-life anime, as long as you enjoy that genre as a whole.
There are obviously two possible approaches to an anime featuring catgirls: cute or sexy. Nekopara hedges its bets by doing both, but leans far more towards cute. The fanservice is sporadic, and when each episode ends with a sexualised portrait of some of the girls it often seems jarringly at odds with what we have just watched. There is inevitably some sexualisation of the characters. After all, they are simply pretty anime girls with tails and cat ears. Beyond that they are anatomically human females, and (perhaps a little troublingly) their behaviour is that of naïve girls in the bodies of adult females (with the exception of Cacao, but we’ll get to her). This plays strongly to the male fantasy of a submissive co-habiting female, and Chocola and Vanilla in particular basically live to please their owner Kashou. If the word “owner” just gave you a little jolt of awkwardness when describing characters who look like human girls with tails, then you’ve just experienced a little of the uneasiness I felt when watching some of this. You have to either gloss over (or worst still, enjoy) the idea of a man owning some girls.
That sense of wrongness gets worse in later episodes. For example, one episode revolves around the catgirls’ ability to earn the bells they have to wear around their necks, without which they cannot go out in public on their own. To earn them, they have to prove they can suppress their feline instincts and live within human society. Considering that the test includes not reacting to being tickled under the chin, it’s difficult not to be concerned about how these girls are viewed by the society in which they live. The writers don’t want you to think about that, of course. They just want you to enjoy the cuteness and the occasional panty shots. But that also requires you to switch off the part of your brain that is questioning what would actually happen in a society where these girls were “owned” and devoted to their owners. It’s not as if they are entirely portrayed as asexual innocents either. Cinnamon in particular is clearly desperate to get laid by somebody… anybody. There is a really distasteful running joke where things keep arousing her and she blurts out that she is “getting moist”. The perverts will lap this up, of course, except for the fact that the series only ever skirts around the fringes of being an ecchi show, instead focusing much more on the cute, slice-of-life approach. It’s like the animators needed to make their mind up what they wanted to do with the subject matter. The occasional fanservice could have easily been removed to make this a cute, wholesome series, appealing to a similar fanbase to something like Love! Live! or K-on!. On the other hand, they could have gone full-on ecchi for those who want that stuff, instead of holding back on the frequent and always modest bath scenes. Instead, it’s a halfway house between the two, and I suspect will satisfy nobody.
One thing the series gets exactly right is the character of Cacao, who really drives along virtually every storyline, and is an anime original character, rather than hailing from the game that inspired the series. She is a stray kitten (again, the thought of little girls with tails and cat ears wandering the streets as strays is a deeply troubling idea, as is the backstory of Chocola and Vanilla’s abandonment), she is taken in by Kashou (after some reluctance, but he’s an oddball character who never really comes to life), and becomes quickly devoted to Chocola and Vanilla. Seeing her integrating into her new life and gradually gain confidence is at the heart of this series, and the animators mercifully refrain from making her a fanservice character like the others. As for the other girls, they are mostly walking tropes such as Azuki the tsundere girl, although Coconut is a lot of fun, the biggest of the girls but mentally probably the youngest. Chocola and Vanilla are both very watchable characters, particular the calm-natured Vanilla, and the boring Kashou does at least have a sister who is a bit more fun to watch.
I think the ending sequence to each episode really sums up the split-personality of this anime: a cute and wholesome series of flashback images to the catgirls’ childhood, represented by Shigure looking through a family album, and then a lewd portrait of some of the girls at the end. Somebody needed to decide whether they were making slice-of-life or ecchi, because they ended up stumbling haphazardly between the two approaches. When it leans mostly towards innocent cuteness, that’s when Nekopara lands on its feet. RP