Culture

Kyoto Animation: A unique force in Japan's anime industry

by Matt Schley

Contributing Writer

It took Kyoto Animation Co. almost 40 years to establish itself as one of the leading animation production studios in the country.

Within a matter of minutes Thursday, dozens of the company’s employees and much of the materials for its current projects were lost when its Kyoto studio was consumed by flames following an arson attack.

At around 10:35 a.m. on Thursday, a suspect who has been identified by police as Shinji Aoba allegedly stormed into the studio’s main building and set it on fire.

By the end of the day, 33 of the studio’s employees had been confirmed dead. Another victim died Friday, pushing the death toll to 34. More than 30 people were also injured in the attack.

The death toll is the highest for an arson incident since 2001, when a blaze in Tokyo’s Kabukicho district killed 44 people.

The hours following news of the attack saw an outpouring of anger, grief and confusion both at home and abroad.

Sentai Filmworks, an anime licensing firm based in Texas, set up a crowdfunding page to collect donations, raising about $1.6 million (about ¥172.3 million) by Saturday afternoon. In Japan, anime retailer Animate announced plans to accept donations at its stores.

Condolences also poured in from world leaders. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the attack “too appalling for words.”

“In the face of the large number of casualties and the shocking sight, I am at a loss for words,” he wrote in a Twitter post.

Apple CEO Tim Cook said Kyoto Animation artists had helped “spread joy all over the world.”

“Kyoto Animation is home to some of the world’s most talented animators and dreamers — the devastating attack today is a tragedy felt far beyond Japan,” he tweeted.

Founded in 1981 by animator Yoko Hatta and her husband, Hideaki, Kyoto Animation, which is also known by its abbreviation KyoAni, was a different kind of studio from the very beginning.

For one thing, there was its distance from Tokyo, where the large majority of Japan’s anime studios are located. This physical distance came to represent a deeper philosophical divide in terms of the company’s business practices.

Most studios in Japan employ animators on a freelance basis, a practice that has created unlivable wages and overwork for many in the industry, especially young people.

But Kyoto Animation had developed a culture by the early 1990s that emphasized communication, education and full-time employment. The studio’s in-house KyoAni School spent a large amount of time training young recruits, a significant percentage of whom were women.

The seeds planted during this period, when Kyoto Animation mostly provided subcontracting work for other studios, started to bear fruit in the 2000s as it began to produce its own series and films.

In an industry known for wildly fluctuating quality and production delays, Kyoto Animation distinguished itself for being remarkably consistent with both its animation quality and storytelling.

A definitive, original style began to emerge and the studio became known for its “slice of life” tales of high school camaraderie, angst and humor that struck a chord with viewers both at home and abroad.

Kyoto Animation characters were praised for their detailed, expressive eyes and movements, and the studio’s preference to use real-life locations as the basis for background art led fans to embark on pilgrimages to those sites.

Early hits such as “The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya,” “Lucky Star” and “K-On!” — all adaptations of novels and manga — were helmed by in-house directors like Naoko Yamada, who joined Kyoto Animation out of university and made her directorial debut at age 24.

In the early 2010s, the studio set up the KyoAni Awards, to which aspiring writers would submit novels; winning novels would then be adapted into anime. Several of the studio’s recent properties, including “Free!” and “Violet Evergarden,” were the product of this system.

Meanwhile, Yamada’s 2016 film “A Silent Voice” was crowned best animated feature at the 2017 Japan Movie Critics Awards.

Despite its geographical and philosophical distance from Tokyo, Kyoto Animation has been influential to the anime industry as a whole.

A number of studios founded after Kyoto Animation — including P.A. Works — have drawn inspiration from the trailblazing Kansai firm, establishing themselves outside of the capital and providing technical training and full-time salaries for their production staff.

And a number of production staff who trained at Kyoto Animation, including director Hiroko Utsumi and character designer Yukiko Horiguchi, have gone on to become independent, bringing the skills they learned at the studio to the industry at large.

As of last week, the studio was working on follow-ups to “Free!” and “Violet Evergarden,” plus a new series based on the latest KyoAni Award-winning novel.

The materials for these works have all been destroyed in the fire, President Hideaki Hatta said Friday. Hatta praised the victims as “excellent colleagues” and described the incident as “a serious blow to our company and the industry.”

It is unclear how soon — if ever — the studio will recover. And the incident is already having a ripple effect across the industry.

Promoting his new film “Weathering With You” on Friday, “Your Name.” director Makoto Shinkai praised the studio as “a group of people who have polished their skills in order to create great images for audiences to enjoy.”

“Accepting that anyone who expresses themselves takes a risk in doing so,” Shinkai said, “I believe the only thing to do is to continue to make anime — unflinchingly.”

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