Film | 2019 in Review

2019 brought both tragedy and triumph to Japan's anime industry

by Matt Schley

Contributing Writer

On July 18, a 41-year-old man named Shinji Aoba walked into the main studio of Kyoto Animation with 40 liters of gasoline and set it on fire. The fire gutted the building, destroyed the materials within and killed 36 of the studio’s workers. Among the victims were a well-respected industry veteran, directors of some of the studio’s most venerated series and young animators who had just been brought on.

Kyoto Animation is exceptional among Japanese studios for its in-house approach. Instead of using freelance animators, it trains its own, who are salaried rather than paid per frame or shot, which is common practice in the industry. This approach has resulted in more than 10 years of consistently well-regarded TV series and films like “A Silent Voice,” one of the biggest successes of 2016.

The studio, often referred to as KyoAni, is also known for its small novel imprint, for which it welcomes annual submissions; successful novels are often used as the basis for new anime series. Aoba, who has a reported history of mental illness, had evidently become wrongly convinced the studio had plagiarized an idea he submitted to the contest.

Aoba was badly burned in the fire and is currently undergoing experimental skin grafts that require no human donors. It’s expected he will be brought up on charges of murder once his condition improves. In October, the Japanese government announced stricter requirements for the purchase of gasoline, a move directly influenced by the attack.

In the hours, days and months after the tragedy, KyoAni’s special place among fans at home and abroad was made evident with a flood of condolences and financial support, with donations totalling millions of dollars. The studio began distributing those donations to victims of the attack in November.

As of December, the future of the studio seems clearer than in the immediate aftermath of the attack. Its training program went back into operation in September, and although some staffers were reported to have taken time off for emotional recovery, work is moving forward on several projects, such as the theatrical sequel to the “Violet Evergarden” series, planned for release in April 2020.

In what felt like a perverse coincidence, many of the year’s best titles were about firefighters, including films “Ride Your Wave” and “Promare,” plus TV series “Fire Force,” which delayed and reconfigured a number of episodes in the wake of the Kyoto Animation attack.

“Ride Your Wave,” the latest from “Devilman Crybaby” director Masaaki Yuasa, and “Promare,” the first original film from studio Trigger (“Kill la Kill”), were just two of several films that made 2019 a standout year for big-screen anime — the most exciting since 2016, a year that featured hits like “A Silent Voice” and Makoto Shinkai’s “Your Name.”

This year’s flood of theatrical anime was, in part, a response to the titanic success of “Your Name.” It was, after all, a film by a relatively young director, not based on an existing franchise, that made it big at the box office.

Shinkai’s follow up, “Weathering With You,” dropped in 2019. The film, a story about growing up and falling in love in the midst of apocalyptic rainfall, proved Shinkai was no one-hit wonder. Although it didn’t quite bring in as much cash as the record-setting “Your Name.,” it was no slouch: It is currently the 12th highest-grossing film of all time in Japan. Not bad at all.

Meanwhile, “Promare,” the aforementioned firefighting flick from Trigger, was the official sleeper hit of the year. The film, which had no anime or manga antecedents (and no weighty expectations like “Weathering With You”), cruised past ¥1 billion at the box office and kept going, buoyed by screenings at which repeat viewers are allowed, and encouraged, to wave glow sticks, cheer and yell at the screen. The film has been screening in theaters constantly since its release in May, and now has a 4DX version and a live event scheduled in January, with the best seats in the house going for ¥12,500.

Speaking to fans in November, “Promare” writer Kazuki Nakashima stated that such interactive audience events are the way to “beat Netflix” — an acknowledgement that, despite the healthy state of theatrical anime at the moment, home streaming services are becoming increasingly influential players. Netflix produced multiple anime or anime-esque series this year, including “Cannon Busters,” a 12-episode series conceived by an American, LeSean Thomas, but animated in Japan. It was the latest in an increasing number of international co-productions making it harder to define what “Japanese animation” even means, and pointed toward exciting new possibilities for the medium.

Even anime purists must admit that international financing is here to stay. An industry report released by the Association of Japanese Animations in December showed that 46 percent of 2018’s industry revenue came from outside Japan. Another report released this year, from the Japan Animation Creators Association, showed animators in their early 20s making an average of just ¥128,000 a month. Money woes abound: In December, the head of Tear Studio (“Why the Hell are You Here, Teacher!?”), who has outstanding debts to the animators of recent film “Fragtime,” disappeared, deleting the studio’s official Twitter account and contact page and going underground. High-budget titles financed by Netflix and the like are now seen as one way for animators to get paid a decent wage — or, indeed, paid at all.

Moving forward, 2020 promises plenty of news in the anime world. KyoAni’s “Violet Evergarden” film, for one; it seems, after all, like a minor miracle the film is coming out at all. Next year will also see the release of the fourth long-delayed film in a reboot of “Neon Genesis Evangelion” that started way back in 2007. And it’ll bring us more “Your Name.”-inspired prestige projects, like “Shika no O,” the directorial debut of that film’s animation director, Masashi Ando. If we’re lucky, we may get at least a peek at “How Do You Live?”, the latest and likely last film from anime master Hayao Miyazaki. Meanwhile, international collaborations will continue to expand the definition of anime itself, while hopefully infusing ground-level animators with some much-needed cash.

Four essential 2019 anime films you need to check out

“Children of the Sea” — A faithful anime adaptation of the manga by Daisuke Igarashi, known for his intricate, idiosyncratic style, seemed like it couldn’t be done. But this film, from director Ayumu Watanabe and Studio 4°C, somehow pulled it off, bringing Igarashi’s world to life. Tracking an aimless young girl named Ruka and her encounter with a pair of mysterious brothers who are connected to the sea, the film feels at times downright arthouse, with a mind-bending climax that recalls “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but underwater. Don’t worry about what it all means, just let the powerful animation run over you like a wave.

“Ride Your Wave” — Another ocean-themed film, this time from Masaaki Yuasa, the trippy auteur behind “Mind Game” and “The Night is Short, Walk on Girl.” His latest, about a surfer and a firefighter whose young romance is beset by tragedy, sees Yuasa toning down his typical psychedelic imagery for something a bit more down-to-earth, but no less captivating. And “down-to-earth” is relative, as the film does feature a ghost carried around town in a water bottle, after all. Come for Yuasa’s enchanting, loose animation style, stay for a legitimately touching story of love and loss.

“Beastars” — Following 2017’s “Land of the Lustrous,” animation studio Orange has continued to prove that computer-generated anime can look great. “Beastars” adapts a popular manga by Paru Itagaki about the anthropomorphic animal students of Cherryton Academy, where the intrigue on campus includes a forbidden love between wolf Legosi and rabbit Haru and intense competition among members of the school’s drama club to become the next “Beastar,” the star of the animal world. The series involves some compelling psychological drama, and the whole thing is brought to life with seriously slick visuals. If the future of anime is CG, let more studios learn from Orange.

“Promare” — It is impossible to stop grinning during the entire runtime of “Promare,” the first theatrical offering from director Hiroyuki Imaishi and screenwriter Kazuki Nakashima (“Kill la Kill”). The film blends the pair’s love for giant robots lurching across the screen at furious speed and passionate bellowing of characters’ heartfelt beliefs with a serious message about the

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