The Rise and Rise of Kyoto Animation
Kyoto Animation is a name you have most likely heard more than once if you keep up to date with the ins and outs of the anime fandom, they are an animation studio based in Kyoto that were founded all the way back in 1981. They began by doing in-between animation work for shows such as Cowboy Bebop, Turn A Gundam and the Doraemon movies, they even did some work on some Studio Ghibli movies at one point. ‘KyoAni’ (as they have become to be known) did not create their own full fledged TV series or Movie until the year 2003, their debut was a little known OVA called Munto. Munto was an original series with a mix of Fantasy and Slice of Life elements, the series was not bad it just wasnt great, it did well enough to get a sequel green lit down the line. The Slice of Life elements portrayed in this show would later go on to become a staple in the rest of the TV shows Kyoto Animation would animate.
The first big break the studio had was the chance to animate one whole season of the Mecha Anime Full Metal Panic, previously done by GONZO. The series they created was not a typical sequel per say it was more of a comedy/gag/ parody of the original, fans of the original Full Metal Panic loved it and some of them still proclaim it to be better. Full Metal Panic? Fumoffu was the first hit Kyoto Animation had and the producers of the show acknowledged this enough to have them animate the second season, the true second season if you will Full Metal Panic: The Second Raid in 2005.
In the same year KyoAni animated the TV adaptation of the popular Key/Visual Arts Visual Novel Air. The series was a slow-paced romantic drama that had your typical ‘moe’ looking girls, the one thing to note about this show is that despite not having any ‘action scenes’ in particular it was very nicely animated and the background art was very nicely detailed, something rare for anime of that genre. Tatsuya Ishihara was given the role of Director, the combination of Ishihara, Key and Kyoto Animation would eventually prove to be a recipe for success for all the parties involved. Air did well enough that a second Key Visual Novel was animated the following year,there was also a notable increase in visual Novel anime adaptations in the industry as a whole. This would only be the first of many major impacts KyoAni would have on the Anime Industry.
The Big League
2006 was a massive year for anime in general and it seemed like Kyoto Animation had the timing right to release their creativity upon the world. Alongside the very succesful release of the Key Visual Novel Kanon, which was the second time the show was given the anime treatment, the first being a bad Toei rendition. KyoAni unleashed the Light Novel anime adaptation The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. The light novel already had a rabid following in Japan so failure was not an option. They hit ball right out of the park with it, the animation was fantastic, the writing was solid and surprisingly enough it had such a huge mainstream appeal that a lot of modern anime fans (such as myself) found the show as a great gateway into the fandom as a whole.
The Dream Team
The opening and ending sequences were very cleverly thought out and animated, the dance sequence at the end ‘Hare hare Yukai’ which quite honestly had nothing to do with the canon of the show was a massive massive hit, not surprisingly it was the brain child of outspoken Director Yutaka Yamamoto. The shows lead Director was Tatsuya Ishihara who at this point had 2 major titles already under his belt. Another key figure in this team would be rising star Naoko Yamada who was a key animator for most if not all the work KyoAni had done, she would later on play director for a game changing series down the line. The Voice actors they hired for the show consisted of then up and coming idol Aya Hirano, the inclusion of insert songs and her singing the opening and ending songs was planned to give her musical career a jump start and boy did it work. the male Seiyuu in the show were top class as well with Tomokazu Sugita, Daisuke Ono and Minoru Shiraishi, Shiraishi would become somewhat of an easter egg character for KyoAni shows with minor appearances in atleast every show they would produce from then on.
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya went on to smash BD sales records with an average of over 40,000 BD sold with each volume. The show was both a hit in Japan and overseas, it is what many critics and analysts believe to be the main catalyst for the already growing ‘moe’ genre in the industry. After seeing haruhis; success everybody else wanted to cash in on this new fad.
In 2007 KyoAni adapted another Key/Visual Arts Visual Novel Clannad to both critical and monetary success, it was nothing new really just really well animated, really well written romantic comedy. It was the release of the self promotional comedy/parody anime Lucky Star that really propelled KyoAnis’ status in the Otaku fandom. Lucky Star was adapted from a 4-Koma (four panel) manga by Kagami Yoshimizu. That style of comedy in anime was popularised by Azumanga Daioh and Lucky Star seemed to follow suit. The show had no real plot it was simply four high school girls hanging out and having fun. There were a ton of anime/manga/video game references in the show, KyoAni took the opportunity to advertise their own shows in the anime as well.
The cast was very similar to that of Haruhi Suzumiya and young upstart Yutaka Yamamoto directed the first four episodes and the opening of the show which again was a dance routine. Yamamoto had a fallout with the studio and has not yet done any other work for them, he did however leave a legacy with him, both the Hare Hare Yukai(which has over 3 Million views on youtube) and Sailor Mottekke Fukku( which has Over 7 million views on youtube!!!) Dances had become so popular that fans expected something similar from both him and the studio from then on. He went on to direct Kannagi, Black Rock Shooter OVA and Fractale which were not as big as Lucky Star or Haruhi but not too bad either, his styles were certainly present and fans continue to hope for a return to form for the talented director. Yasuhiro Takemoto was given the huge task of directing the subsequent episodes and the choice was wise because this was the same director that helmed the successful comedy/parody TV show Full Metal Panic? Fumoffu.
It’s important to note that KyoAni had continued to do what worked for them, moe character designs, romance and comedy anime, insert songs, quality animation, well known voice actors and otaku culture references. With every new show and with every year KyoAni seemed to find a new market to tap into and unlike other studios they continued to service that new market by incorparating whatever it is they seemed to like in their subsequent shows. Lucky Star and Clannad sold big, really big and the innumerable references to Haruhi Suzumiya in Lucky star had fans hoping for the continuation of the show the following year, they didn’t get what they wanted instead they got;
Clannad After Story, another Key/Visual Arts visual novel adaptation. The sequel to the very popular first series of the same name. After Story built upon what the first season had already given us and added a little more realism with less comedy and more drama. The execution was incredible and is definitely a must watch for any Harem fan or any other anime fan still skeptical about the genre. It of course had Tatsuya Ishihara as the director and this time had original creator Jun Maeda write the score for the show. The show was a huge success and is very very highly rated.
The only other show produced in 2008 was the Lucky Star OVA which unfortunately is not available legally in the west, which is a shame because it’s an hour long episode of the same Lucky Star goodness that even has an extended live action version of the very popular segment Lucky Channel.
In 2009 KyoAni decided to bring back the much anticipated much beloved sequel to The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. The would be broadcast on TV again but this time in chronological order and with a whole seasons worth of new episodes. Fan reaction was fever pitch and the expectations were incredibly high. The show brought back all of the original cast and crew so the production value was incredibly high and consistent. The first half of the series was magnificent but then about half way through the season KyoAni did something both revolutionary and risky.
This little segment might get a little spoilerific so Spoiler Alert I guess. The light novel had a segment called Endless Eight in which Haruhi made the summer holiday loop more than a hundred thousand times because she never felt satisfied with what she and the SOS Brigade had achieved in that time. KyoAni decided to animate eight of all of all these episodes differently and dub over them as well! This was revolutionary in the sense that each of those episodes was magnificently animated, it would have been incredibly expensive and annoying for the animators to do the same scenes a little bit differently each time, not to mention they had to pay the voice actors for each and every one of those episodes in which they pretty much said the same lines.
It was risky in the sense that they hoped the fans would stick with the show each and every week and then go on to buy the ridiculously priced Blu ray volumes as well. Well it turned out just fine in the end, fans watched the show and raged at each episode for being ‘exactly the same’ but they also went on to buy the Blu rays of each volume as well. KyoAni had done something no other would have dared, they cashed their chips in and went all out and it payed off. The fans knew they would quality material down the line anyway and boy were they right.
In the Spring of 2009 KyoAni unleashed the Smash Hit K-on! upon the anime world. The show was slice of life comedy about a young high school girl that decided to join a high school band on a whim. It had all the ingredients that made KyoAni adaptations work; cute character designs, comedy, otaku culture references, insert songs and amazing animation. surprisingly the show was not directed by Talsiman Ishihara but by debut Director Naoko Yamada. she ofcourse had worked on storyboards and was a Key Animator in nearly everything KyoAni had done upto this point so why not give her a chance. Little did they know that she would direct their biggest selling and most successful franchise to date. It’s very rare to see a female director in anime, let alone a female director for such a huge series, KyoAni again was leading the way and setting trends for the industry.
There has been a fair number shows trying to mimic the formula that K-on! had but have quite honestly fallen short. perhaps it’s because of the female touch the show had, that’s just my personal opinion but in retrospect, the show was successful because it appealed to a very wide range of audiences. The primary target being male Otaku ofcourse but there was a fair number of young females that enjoyed the show as well. It steered clear of any fanservice and stayed as light and fluffy as ever.
K-on! sold Big and smashed BD records with each release, it sold an average of 30k with each volume (numbers for K-on courtesy of Jakes Anime Blog) and the insert songs were so popular that it even spawned J-pop group Sphere consisting of Aki Toyosaki (Yui hirasawa) and Minako Kotobuki (Tsumugi Kotobuki) their success on their own was testament to how much quality was put into the show. K-on! has somewhat become the poster for moe shows, with many fans showering both praise and hate upon it. The love outweighed the hate though and fans were excatic when a second season was announced just after the first one ended. However fans would have to wait a whole year before they could see this come to fruition.
On Top Of The World!
K-on!! finally aired in 2010 and this time had double the episodes and double the fun, it truly was a spectacle so much so that it ended up winning the Tokyo International Anime Fair Award for best TV series for that year. The show hit an incredible milestone as well by selling over 500,000 copies of Blu rays that year surpassing the likes of Bakemonogatari, Evangelion 1.0 and Gundam UC. KyoAni had really come into their own and at this point all the fans and critics alike only expected the best from them.
The sequel to the much beloved and controversial second season of Haruhi Suzumiya was unleashed upon theatres early that year as well. The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya was so highly anticipated that one of the promotional bookmarks was auctioned off for over $3,000. I was one of the many fans excited for this movie so much so that I sat through that horrible horrible camrip. The Movie starts off right were season 2 left off and is INCREDIBLE, all 2 and 1/2 hours of it. The emotional impact the film has is even doubled if you sat through all of endless eight because the main plotline of the story is about Yuki Nagato and how her experiences have led to develop emotions…supposedly.
Clearly I wasnt the only one that enjoyed the film as it is highly rated by nearly everyone else (see ANN TOP 20 list) The film grossed over 100 million Yen in its opening weekend alone, that’s about US$1 million. The English versions of the Blu ray and DVD are set to be released in a couple of days for Region 1 and in november for region 4, they are without a doubt going to sell big.
This year KyoAni have given us the adaptation of the comedy/gag manga Nichijou. A lot fans have said it is one of the weaker titles they have produced in recent years but I would like to remind them of the countless times they tried to resurrect Munto. Nichijou is certainly for a particular crowd and doesn’t have as much mainstream appeal as their previous titles, it is noteworthy to mention that the animation they have in most of these episodes is phenomenal. The studio is certainly having a lot of fun with this series and why not? they sure have earned it.
The Future Has Moe…I Mean Money
December 3rd is a date firmly burnt into the minds of all Otaku because it is when the K-on! Movie will finally be screened, only in Japan ofcourse. the movie will open in over 130 screens. This is more screens that what Evangelion 2.0 and Mobile Suit Gundam OO had and about 6 times the amount that The Disappearance got as well. Pre orders for special tickets have already sold out so this movie is guaranteed to be a huge success. The entire cast is back and Naoko Yamada will be Directing this one as well.
Kyoto Animation have certainly come a long way since doing in between animation for Studio Ghibli and Sunrise, they have taken risks and along the way set trends for all the other companies to follow. They continue to deliver quality shows each and every year and while they may have had a hiccup here or there, they learn from that and work upon those very mistakes in their upcoming titles. I really like Kyoto Animation and I hope they stay successful, the industry really needs as much success as it can get right now and even if KyoAni don’t necessarily produce shows that may cater to your taste at least appreciate that there is a humble studio out there making great animation for this little niche hobby that you love so much.