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The Breathtakingly Subtle Moments in Kyoto Animation’s Films

No terrorist attack could diminish the deeply personal work of Kyoto Animation, a firm that has always championed the sophisticated storytelling of its women animators.

Promotional art for Liz and the Blue Bird (2018) (image via Kyoto Animation’s liz-bluebird.com)

On July 18, an unspeakable tragedy happened at Kyoto Animation’s first studio in Fushimi-ku, Kyoto, Japan. An arsonist committed a terrorist attack that left 35 artists dead and numerous others hospitalized. It was the deadliest post-Pacific War terrorist attack on Japanese soil since the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin gas attack that killed 12. In times of deep tragedy, it is normal to ask yourself how something so vicious and evil could have possibly happened, but these answers are ultimately unimportant. Finding the root cause of tragedy doesn’t undo what happened or bring those who were lost back. The world is made strange and imperceptible by grief and loss. As observers, the best we can do is lift up their art and donate to causes attempting to help — such as the donation efforts approved on Kyoto Animation’s website, the GoFundMe set up by Sentai Filmworks, or RightStufAnime’s donation page.

 

Because Kyoto Animation is an industry trailblazer in the world of anime and its artistic contributions so great, this tragedy extends to all those who loved their work. Art has a way of making you feel like you know the artist. It pulls humans together through shared experience. It feels like this tragedy has not only taken so many, but critically damaged something that brought many anime fans together like family.

Kyoto Animation is one of — if not the very best — animation studios in the entire world. The studio’s commitment to quantity over quality and salaried employment rather than freelancing fostered a sense of family between artists. Animation is not easy work. It demands long hours, is painstakingly precise, and dependent upon an amazing attention to detail. The people who get into this business truly love it, and for much of the art form’s history, anime has been dominated by men. That isn’t the case with Kyoto Animation.

Promotional art for Violet Evergarden: The Movie (forthcoming in 2020) (image via Kyoto Animation’s violet-evergarden.jp)

When the company was formed in 1981, one of its founders was a woman named Yoko Hatta. After moving to Kyoto, she became an independent worker free from her prior contract with Mushi Production, and with her husband Hideaki Hatta they formed Kyoto Animation. The company had humble beginnings as any starter animation company would, but they quickly built a resume of work that was respected in the industry. Kyoto Animation would work in collaboration with other anime studios throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s on popular television shows such as Inuyasha and Tenchi Universe. Kyoto Animation became a corporation in 1999, and by the mid 2000s were producing their own independent productions, first finding massive success with The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Suzumiya proved to be a hit that would insulate the studio financially and allow it to take massive, ambitious risks that took a direct stand against the anime industry’s gender imbalance problem, like training its own students in the field of animation and encouraging women — like Naoko Yamada, the current face of the animation studio — to direct its productions.

Kyoto Animation’s unique, risk-taking mindset and its warm-natured approach to employment nurtured an environment that made it easy for artists to chase their inspirations. The combination of these factors has spawned some truly immaculate work, made with a real attention to image making and movement in particular. Kyoto Animation found the heart of its storytelling in the desires of everyday teenage girls in the likes of K-On! and Nichijou. Yamada became a star name in the industry as delicate filmmaker who emphasizes relationships through longing and touch. Her films feel unique even among Kyoto Animation, due to their inspiration in live-action cinema. If you compare her work to that of the elasticity of the animation in Nichijou, her work feels downright grounded. She’s a character-first filmmaker whose work has an intricate formal response to emotion. When her characters feel something, it’s not announced through elaborate storyboarding, but through simpler gestures, like the fluttering of the eyes, or the way a character may nervously click their feet together. In her films the images always key in on little details that tell you exactly how a character might feel in any given situation, and the results are often overwhelming.

The melding of Yamada’s distinctly tactile sensibilities and the house style of Kyoto Animation creates a poetry in bodies. The opening sequence of Yamada’s most recent film Liz and the Blue Bird (2018), is breathtaking in this regard. Protagonist Mizore is a quiet, introverted young girl on the cusp of graduating high school and moving onto the next chapter of her life. She’s an oboist in the school band and her only friend, Nozomi, who occupies most of her thoughts, is the flutist. Mizore has a crush on Nozomi, and it’s complicated because Nozomi is a girl. Mizore is nervous today at school. She is most days. She’s introduced quietly, with her shoes clacking gently against the hill. She twirls, and a close-up is used of the edge of her skirt moving with her as she sits. The next shot is of Mizore clasping her hands, and she taps her feet together. Mizore has no time to settle herself, because Nozomi can be seen gently striding up the hill accompanied by music. Both characters can be seen in the wide framing. Mizore’s heart races as her friend draws near, and there’s this uniquely KyoAni cut to a close-up shot of Mizore gripping the hem of her skirt tightly. It hangs just a little longer than you’d expect. You can practically feel the skirt too, before the image then turns to a close-up of her eyes fluttering gently. Mizore is introverted, but she struggles to be that way around Nozomi. She’s expressive, but because she tries to hide it, and KyoAni illustrates her emotional state formally, there’s this duel between repression and liberation in the images — like a bird learning how to fly and struggling to take off the ground.

It’s one of many incredible scenes in the history of Kyoto Animation, a scene that is emblematic of the potential heights anime can reach when it was willing to change and give women a voice. Even with this recent tragedy KyoAni’s body of work will live on. Nothing can take that way.

Fans from around the world have raised more than $5 million to help Kyoto Animation heal from July 18’s arson attack. You can donate through Kyoto Animation, Sentai Filmworks, and RightStufAnime.

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