About Me

Newfoundland, Canada
I've been a big anime fan for about 10 years or so now. My five all-time favorite animes at this point are, in no particular order... Puella Magi Madoka Magica, El Hazard: The Magnificent World, Love Live!: School Idol Project, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, and Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha. However, there are hundreds of anime shows that I like. The main purpose of this blog is to provide meta-commentary on anime, and the anime industry - to try to cast a critical, though appreciating, eye upon this entertainment genre that I believe has tremendous potential, but can also be easily wasted. I have always been a fan of animation in general - in the 80s, I grew up on western cartoons like He-Man, She-Ra, Transformers, and G.I. Joe. Through out the 90s, I was a hardcore comic book fan, for the most part. I'm also a big fan of Star Trek. Right now in my life, though, anime is my principal entertainment passion.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Kyoto Animation: My Take On It

Recently on the Haruhi board of Anime Suki, a lot of debate has sprouted up over the animation studio of Kyoto Animation. This relates to how soon it will be before future Haruhi content is adapted into an anime format, and it also deals with just how highly regarded Kyoto Animation should be by its fans, and by anime fans in general.

Basically, what should we make of this revolutionary animation studio that many would say has taken the anime world by storm?

Some, like Kaioshin Sama, has argued that Kyoto Animation enjoys a bit too much hype and praise for, in their view, merely accomplishing what many other animation studios also manage to accomplish.

Others, like Bri, view the animation studio in a very positive but perhaps mildly guarded light.

Finally, there are those who think that Kyoto Animation is the best thing since okonomiyaki.

Here in this blog post, I will try to add something of worth to this discussion by giving my own broader take on Kyoto Animation. Kyoto Animation has enjoyed a rapid enough rise up the ranks of prominent animation studios, and enough success overall, that I definitely think that it bears careful looking at for numerous reasons. In future blog posts, I may return to other topics that I have already hinted at writing blog entries for, so don't worry there tigermoon. ;)

Just to be clear, this blog post will be a bit deep and lengthy, and will delve into the business side of anime. It won't be for every reader, certainly, but I hope that some, at least, will appreciate it.

First, I will speak on what I think are fairly unique strengths for Kyoto Animation; strengths that have helped mould and shape an imposing brand image and reputation for the company. These strengths, I believe, come in the form of a few key combinations...

1. Moe Meets Realistic Anatomy

One of Kyoto Animation's greatest strengths is, simply, the quality of their actual animation. And at least most of their artstyles.

Sometimes when an anime tries to have one or more of its characters look cute, or moe, it goes too far, and the character no longer looks realistic because of it. Poor anatomy frequently results, and this can kind of drag the viewer out of the story. Poorly drawn characters, or characters that don't have realistic body types, can quickly sever the viewers suspension of disbelief, or at least the viewer's ability and willingness to become immersed within the story.

Kyoto Animation largely avoids this pitfall. Yes, Lucky Star's art style is not very realistic, but it's not meant to be; no more than Crayon Shin-Chan or South Park's art style is meant to be.

And, yes, K-On! can sometimes degrade into an amorhous moeblob character design style. But even K-On! has its moments of good anatomy...

The hands in the picture above are a bit scrunched up, but other than that, this picture looks pretty good, in my view. The key strength is the ratio of leg length to side length. In some animes, the legs of female anime characters look far too long relative to the rest of their bodies. Kyoto Animation largely avoids this, and makes their characters look both very attractive to gaze upon, as well as realistic to that gaze.

2. Moe Without Ecchi

I personally believe that there are some anime fans that loves a moe art style, but prefer to see their favorite female characters displayed with a sort of innocence to them; an innocence that ecchi and certain sorts of fanservice can undermine.

Kyoto Animation probably captures this particular sort of art style and art direction, to a greater degree than any other animation studio out there today.

Moe is typically accompanied by ecchi, as shows like Bakemonogatari and the Nanoha animes, display. This may certainly draw in a certain audience that may otherwise not bother with watching the anime... but it can also serve to downplay the moe aspect of the characters. A certain preservation of innocence; a playful lack of jaded or traumatized psychology, is key to moe, I believe.

By almost always presenting moe without ecchi, and by placing that moe within the confines of anatomically correct character designs, Kyoto Animation reaches a certain idealized form of moe. A moe that feels real and sincere. A moe with integrity, in that it doesn't come across as quite so fanservicey because its not accompanied by ecchi.

In Kyoto Animation titles, the presence of moe feels more like a honest and respectable artstyle and/or character design choice, and not like simple lowbrow pandering to the fans. That is my take, anyway.

3. Faithful to Source Material but With Wise Wondrous Flourishes

One of the most common complaints you'll find for many animes that are adapted from a manga, light novel, visual novel, video game, or 4Koma source material, is that the anime in question is "not faithful to the source material". In some cases, this is certainly true. There's no question, for example, that the Shana animes have deviated quite a bit from the Shana light novels. In other cases, this frankly can seem a bit nitpicking to me, as a complete pure translation from one entertainment medium to another is both unrealistic, and perhaps even undesirable.

Why is it undesirable, in my opinion? Because a narrative that may work fine in a novel or a game may be a bit too slow (novel) or a bit too fast (game) in an anime format. Basically, what works in one entertainment medium may not work in another.

Kyoto Animation, I think, are acutely aware of this. That is why Day of Sagitarrius, Live Alive, and Mysterique Sign all contained grand creative flourishes that added content to them that was not present in the source material. This added content suited the anime well, and made for a much more enjoyable viewing without detracting significantly from Kyoto Animation's faithfulness to the source material. The idea is to take a line of novel content, and expand upon it in a logical way.

Viewing the video game battle between the SOS Brigade and the Computer Club from within the game itself (as oppossed from the perspective of someone walking around the SOS Brigade's club room) does not alter the the plot in any meanginful way, but it does make the anime episode more explosive, flashy, and theatrical. These elements are frequently not important in a novel, but they are often very important in a visual medium like anime.

So, Kyoto Animation typically does a superb job of balancing the desire of many anime fans for faithful adaptations with the realization that some novel scenes need to be spiced up to work in an anime format, and some pieces of game content need to be greatly expanded upon to work in an anime (here is where Kyoto Animation's work with Clannad shines).

These spiced up scenes, I think, are often what leaves the biggest impact on viewers. One of the redeeming qualities of Haruhi 2009 was what I call "money shots". These are specific scenes of great plot importance that are portrayed with breathtaking artstyle and animation fervor, as colors and lines and symbolic imagery and striking shades explode upon the screen with a dramatic intensity that even Shakespeare himself would applaud.

However, I'll concede to Haruhi and KyoAni critics that these "money shots" can mask weaknesses. E8 is not a good arc just because of the last few minutes of Part 8 of it. As glamorous and stunningly impressive as those few minutes are, it would be wrong to think that they alone can make up for a bad arc (if that's what you held E8 to be up to that point; if you were liking it all along, then the last few mintues of Part 8 simply make it even better of course).

And yet, I will say this... years after I watch an anime, what I remember most are specific scenes that really captured the imagination and left me feeling like I was watching something larger than life. So, on the whole, I very much like Kyoto Animation's approach to putting an added special dash of soaring sparkling stupendousness into the key scenes of the material that they adapt.

So, Kyoto Animation has many strengths, it has to be said. And, finacially, they have carved out for themselves a very nice corner of the anime industry.

They have created a certain specialization for themselves (school-based comedies/dramas with moe character designs), and they have mastered that specialization. They have helped make the sort of animes that they like to do a very profitable part of the overall anime industry.

Where I think other studios could perhaps learn a thing or two from Kyoto Animation is through them trying to specialize with certain sorts of anime as well, hence perfecting their work with one certain type of anime, instead of simply being a kind of 'jack of all trades'.

In some ways, Kyoto Animation is to anime with CLAMP is to manga artistry. CLAMP similarly specialized in certain sorts of fictional works. In CLAMP's case, they focused on somewhat surrealist works (like xxxHolic) and pretty magical girls (Cardcaptor Sakura and Magic Knight Rayearth). CLAMP hence developed a reputation as producing works that had a distinctively feminine and slightly off-kilter look to them. They specialized in certain sorts of works, and developed a reputation from doing so. So for lovers of that particular kind of work, CLAMP became a "trusted name"; if an anime had CLAMP's handiwork behind it, lovers of the CLAMP sort of works could feel secure that they would love that anime.

This, I think, is what animation studios probably need to aim for from now on; building a kind of brand recognization as "the audacious artists of action anime!" or "the exemplars of ecchi!" or "the hallowed heroes of horror!", just as Kyoto Animation has become "the masters of moe!".

But... it is here that I think it's important to recognize Kyoto Animation's limitations. For just as being "the masters of moe!" has earned them an enviable spot of having a core base of fans that will almost always give them the benefit of the doubt and enthustiastic support, it also means that Kyoto Animation appeals very little to people who aren't into school-based comedic dramas, or into moe character designs.

Sunrise is still, in my estimation, the most important animation studio for anime. A vast number of the most successful anime titles of all-time have been produced by Sunrise.

Sunrise is probably known best for its mecha anime works (Gundams in particular), of course, but it's also been involved in such diverse animes as Cowboy Bebop, Dirty Pair, InuYasha, Mai HiME, and Witch Hunter Robin.

Its range is impressive, and its successes (most recently Code Geass) are many.

A strong case can be made that Sunrise has helped anime's fortunes and image in foreign markets more than any other animation company has.

So, as great as Kyoto Animation has typically been, it's impact on the anime world and industry can be blown out of proportion. It is also a very new studio, and so I'd like to see it consistently prove itself for at least a few more years before always giving it the benefit of the doubt. It's admirably true that Kyoto Animation has very, very few finanfical flops or artistic failures to its name... but then it hasn't had the time to really accumulate many, unlike the old animation studio standbys that have long records that hence will naturally include some disappointments.

And yet, it is the old standbys like Sunrise, JC Staff, Madhoue, and AIC that are the companies who set the stage that Kyoto Animation currently sings upon.

You could say that Sunrise is the Jimi Hendrix that helped pave the way for Haruhi Suzumiya. ;)

And Hendrix didn't need any bunny girls or witches to win fans, either. :-p

But, all told, Kyoto Animation has done some nice work for fans of the sorts of animes that it produces, and I'm one of those fans to be sure. But no company is infallible, and hence treating Kyoto Animation like it is is probably going too far.

Kyoto Animation has certainly earned a place of adulation, prominence and respect, at the table with the old animation studio standbys, but it shouldn't be placed on a pedestal above them.

And that's my final word on Kyoto Animation.


  1. I'm hurt, you lied to me! I can't believe I ever trusted you. ;)

    Joking aside, this was a rather good post. I'm sure some people will probably dispute some of the points you've made, but I think you did a pretty good job of making your case.

    Looking forward to more assessments of "the anime" in the future. :p

  2. ... I am deeply sorry for the previous comment's lack of, well, commentary. I'm not entirely sure what I was thinking with it, and I'll try and make it up to you with this one. ^^;;

    Now, being a relative "newbie" when it comes to anime fandom, I can't really comment on moe as a genre, so I'm sorry I can't touch upon that. However, as for the realism present in -most- of their work, as well as their surprisingly limited usage of fanservice, that's something I really have to applaud them for.

    Also, I'm actually rather glad you had brought up Sunrise in this, as they can make for a particularly good comparison to Kyoto Animation. As you've touched upon yourself, while KyoAni has their focus on doing one thing extremely well, Sunrise has a rather wide range of things they're capable of. In addition to this, KyoAni's main strength lies in their almost obsessively faithful adaptations, while most of Sunrise's portfolio are original works.

    The comparisons don't end there, obviously, but those are probably the two major points to be starting with if one is to seriously consider it. And no, I don't expect you to make a post actually doing so. ^^;;

    Oh and one last thing before I forget: While Hendrix didn't -need- bunny girls to bring him luck in his career, I'm sure he wouldn't have minded having one or two around. ;)


  4. Really good post!! A very deep insight into Kyoto Animation - something you don't find quite often.