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.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Leaderless Landscape


There is nothing that more masterfully mirrors the decline of KyoAni than the image above. The franchise that tremendously torpedoed KyoAni into the stratosphere of anime fandom love has, perhaps fittingly, disappeared into a completely different world, perhaps leaving a sense of melancholy in the ranks of KyoAni animators. Nagato Yuki now makes me think of Saki Miyanaga with glasses and purple hair-dye, while Haruhi makes me think of Kancolle's Kongou in a student uniform.

After a long absence, the world of Haruhi finally finds its way back into the world of anime, but it's no longer in the world of KyoAni. To be fair, KyoAni still retains a place of prominence in the anime world. However, it's no longer like a mighty colossus looming lusciously large, as it bestrides the anime landscape, leaving all others in its shadows.

In fact, the anime landscape is now effectively leaderless. Which is something I find vaguely interesting given how long KyoAni was dominant for, and how SHAFT once seemed on the verge of claiming KyoAni's crown.

In this blog entry, I will explore the current landscape of the anime world, as I ask the question "can anybody rise to the heights once enjoyed by KyoAni?" Don't worry, I intend to get back to my Love Live! series reviews soon. First, though, I take a trip down memory lane, before steadfastly swerving swiftly, like Miyamori Aoi driving a car, to more current affairs.



For a roughly five year period stretching from the rise of Haruhi Suzumiya's Melancholy to the beginning of Nichijou, KyoAni enjoyed a place of unmatched success and acclaim within the anime world (putting aside Ghibli, of course). Over that period, KyoAni's touch was like the touch of Midas. Every anime show it touched appeared to turn into gold, at least commercially, and sometimes critically. The very successful and memorable Key/KyoAni trio of Air, Clannad, and Kanon would be complimented by the sci-fi/SoL blending of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Then came Lucky Star, and K-On! All of these were major hits when it comes to DVD/Blu-Ray sales, and all enjoyed passionate praise and fandom frenzy.

KyoAni could weave small-time 4Komas into threads of pure gold, while simultaneously having fantastic animation quality and admirable source material faithfulness.

An argument could be made that KyoAni so dominated the anime marketplace that its works would commercially crowd out worthy competitors from other studios - Like P.A. Works' True Tears and SHAFT's ef. I sincerely believe that if either of those two were to air today, they would achieve considerably higher sales figures, due to no longer having to compete with KyoAni at one of its strongest points.

But the market for healing anime and romcom and SoL and moe in general, has diversified significantly since the period of KyoAni dominance. Now we see a much more open anime landscape. Probably the most dominant animation companies situated on that landscape today are A-1 Pictures and Aniplex.

After all, A-1 Pictures and Aniplex have both large resumes of work, with a diverse array of hit sellers. But neither enjoys the supremely strong sense of identity that KyoAni did. They don't have a level of brand-name recognition, and quick presumption of high quality, as loads of anime fans once had (and some still have) for KyoAni. Nor do A-1 and Aniplex tend to make anime fans think of specific character types and sorts of anime shows.

There are, however, some prominent anime studios in the world today that have built up a fairly strong sense of identity. These anime studios all have at least a couple hit sellers to their name, and their fans tend to associate them with particular types of content, and in some cases with certain high standards of quality. In this blog entry, I will look at each of these one by one, to evaluate where each of these studios currently stand. Can either of them become the next KyoAni?

Let's start with one bad motherfu

Reader: Shut your mouth!

Triple_R: I'm talkin' 'bout...

SHAFT

THEN WE CAN DIG IT!


Back in 2011, SHAFT appeared poised to eclipse KyoAni as the leading animation company in the business. Bakemonogatari had already trumped Haruhi 2009 a couple years prior, and SHAFT had just added Puella Magi Madoka Magica to give the studio the best one-two punch in the business.

The Monogatari Series and PMMM enjoyed immense degrees of commercial success, stunningly dwarfing KyoAni's Haruhi and K-On. In addition to this, Madoka Magica captured the imagination of anime fans to a degree arguably unseen since Neon Genesis Evangelion. Gen Urobuchi's legend grew by leaps and bounds, as he helped to breath badly needed new life into a popular genre that had gaping niches to be filled, given the Nanoha franchise's increasing tendency towards mecha styles and sensibilities.

And SHAFT certainly knows how to cash-in on hot new properties.  Madoka Magica the TV series was turned into a movie trilogy, including two glorified recap movies and a third movie that was actual new content, becoming one of the most widely watched and commercially successful anime movies of the past few years. At the same time, SHAFT has simply steamrolled through the Monogatari Series, at an adaptation pace that is truly mesmerizing.

As great as this is for fans of Madoka Magica, the Monogatari Series, and/or SHAFT, there is a downside here. SHAFT is quickly milking its two large cash-cows for all their worth, and I can't help but wonder how much longer that is sustainable for. And there is some legitimate concern to be had there, for SHAFT's total dedication to these two franchises has come at a cost. SHAFT used to be known for a quirky array of works, for trying a wide variety of different anime shows, and hence having a good range of works and a sizable resume. I mentioned ef before - To that, you can add the dark comedy classic Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, the action-packed classroom-sized harem comedy Negima!?, trippy comedy Arakawa Under the Bridge, and a SoL with a very distinct flavor in Hidamari Sketch (which some SHAFT fans feel should be seen as the completion of a SHAFT trinity of sorts, along with PMMM and the Monogatari Series). Hidamari Sketch is the most commercially successful of these, if I remember correctly, and even that level of success has yet to be reached by a post-Madoka Magica SHAFT anime.

Over the last few years, SHAFT has been slightly less diverse, as more time and effort has been poured into its Big Two. Eventually, SHAFT will have milked all it can get out of those two, particularly given just how rapidly its progressing through the Mongoatari Series. In addition to that, there may be reason to suspect that SHAFT is uncertain of where to go next with Madoka Magica, as fan speculation over that tends to be very diverse with a wide variety of opinions.

Once the magic of these two series finally runs its course, will SHAFT still have other strong IPs to turn to, hence staving off entropy... or will its Soul Gem of success turn into a Grief Seed of decline?

I will say that Koufuku Graffiti looks promising to me. I recently watched and largely enjoyed an episode of it. It does strike me as an anime show that could nicely diversify SHAFT's offerings, and I could also see it becoming a moderate hit (though I doubt it'll be anywhere near the level of SHAFT's Big Two). If SHAFT could find one more IP that could reach a 20K plus sales level, and achieve a lot of fandom acclaim, then I think that would be enough to make it comparable to KyoAni at its heights. So of all the anime studios of today, I think that SHAFT is probably the one most likely to fill the big boots that KyoAni once wore.

Still, I'm not as confident of this as I was in those heady days back in 2011. The Monogatari Series still consistently pulls down megahit numbers, but there is slight diminishing returns there (which is to be expected, of course), and Madoka Magica's place atop the otaku world has in some ways been matched by a new anime. A new anime that rather appropriately brought loads of cheery sunlight to...


Sunrise

The Principality of Love Live!

SHAFT's mega-powerful tag-team is two specific anime franchises - Madoka Magica and the Monogatari Series. Sunrise now has its own impressive tag-team, but it's a tag-team of two genres making odd bedfellows - Sunrise has become the mecha/idol studio.

The studio that gave us Gundam now gives us something different to μ's over. "Who's behind the mask?" has largely given way to "Who's your favorite idol?!" Still, mecha enjoys a certain cultural cache within anime, and hence there are certain benefits to being the anime studio more associated with the glory days of mecha than any other is. Probably more than any other pre-NGE anime character, Char Aznable's name lives on in great fame.

So in Gundam and Love Live!, Sunrise arguably commands both the past and the present. And it wasn't that long ago that Code Geass enjoyed levels of fan discussion that even Madoka Magica never quite matched.

If Code Geass and Love Live! had aired within one year of each other, Sunrise may well have been seen as even more dominant than KyoAni. However, these two shows aired a few years apart, eliminating any possibility of the two seeming like a combo that could even overcome SHAFT's Big Two.

Still, Code Geass does cast a shadow over the modern mecha marketplace, as I can't think of any recent mecha anime that even comes close to it in fan appreciation and sales success. Glimmers of Code Geass are seen in Sunrise's Valvrave the Liberator, as Lelouch's charisma is given to Shouko, and L-Elf lays claim to his military brilliance as well as Suzaku's hand-to-hand combat ability. While this character partitioning helped make for an interesting show, it also likely hindered its actual male lead, likely limiting Valvrave's popularity. Valvrave already seems to me to be a fading memory outside of the minds of the most hardcore Saki Rukino fans.

Then there is Buddy Complex, a sales bomb that makes Valvrave look like Code Geass by comparison.

Just as Sunrise conquers the idol world with flying colors, its mecha offerings sadly pale in comparison to its glory days. And who here remembers Tiger and Bunny? That was a wonderful and successful anime, which greatly appealed to the kid in me. I think it had loads of potential for further sequels and spin-offs, but Sunrise has largely allowed it to slip away. Sunrise has Honoka Kousaka's moments of inspired magnificence, but it often lacks her ability at effective follow-through.

And turning Gundam into an almost entirely OVA affair has, I think, hurt that particular franchise. In the modern internet era, TV series can give shows a nice momentum effect, as it certainly did for SHAFT's Madoka Magica and Sunrise's own Code Geass.

With that in mind, the road to an anime crown fit for Charles vi Britannia is clear and simple for Sunrise. Make another mecha TV series that fans love as much as they do Code Geass. Do that, and Sunrise will have a mecha/idol combo that even Akuma Homura and Hitagi Senjougahara would freak at the sight of. But unless that day comes, Sunrise is not a match for SHAFT, let alone KyoAni in its prime. 

So is there any animation studio that could provide such a match? It would have to be a truly...



Progressive Animation Works

Maybe Ohana can give Noe some love advice...

P.A. Works does not have a single hit seller quite on the level of Madoka Magica or Love Live!

But what it does have is a very strong sense of identity, like KyoAni at its height.

And what it also has is a good, steady, sparkling stream of consistency.

P.A. Works may have the best mid-tier hitters in the business - Shows like Hanasaku Iroha and Tari Tari. And I have to respect the pure professional pride shown by how PAW keeps going back to True Tears, in spite of True Tears middling sales.

That takes real heart and character, and PAW displays that just as assuredly as most of its female leads do. Now, if only its male characters could more frequently measure up to them... ;)

 In any event, I think PAW has become the dominant studio in the SoL (slice of life) or "school life" genre. They have a very good record of quality and reliability when it comes to that, not unlike the academic performance of a hardworking top student.

What's particularly impressive about PAW is that they keep this up with minimal reliance on past successes. Precious few of PAW's works have sequels. PAW just keeps moving on from one new IP to the next to the next, building up a rock solid resume of works for such a young studio.

PAW also shows polished prolific proficiency at anime originals. This could be critical in an era where LNs collective quality are in increasing dispute, and VNs may get ghettoized outside of the flashier ones that are focused more on action and/or sci-fi than romance.

Simply put, PAW is not reliant on source material to keep itself going - An issue which likely motivated KyoAni itself to make major changes over the past few years.

As long as there is a Mari Okada, and enterprising and talented anime original writers like her, PAW's steady sparkling stream of success ought to continue on.

And to be fair, PAW does have Angel Beats! to its name. Though not a DVD/Blu-Ray megahit quite on the level of SHAFT's or Sunrise's top works, Angel Beats! has been incredibly dominant in moe competitions for years now. And with Angel Beats! and the upcoming Charlotte in its line-up, PAW now enjoys a Key bounce of its own.

PAW is an interesting studio, in how different it is than most other animation studios. Which is one thing that makes Shirobako so remarkable. Shirobako does a thorough and detailed delving into of the modern animation industry. Shirobako is PAW's new hit, and its my very early and tentative pick for best anime of 2015.

As a sports fan, PAW makes me think of a tightly managed and well-stocked pro sports team, that just needs one star player to put it over the top. Pro sports teams often talk about getting that one big star that you build a great supporting cast around. Well, PAW makes me think of a great supporting cast that just needs one big star to rally around, so that star can lead it to a league championship. Can Charlotte be that star? I guess we'll see!

If PAW ever gains the likes of a Monogatari Series or a Code Geass into its resume, then that may be enough for it become the next KyoAni. Now, what about the current...


Kyoto Animation

Chuunibyou will set you Free!


To be fair to Kyoto Animation, some of its most recent works have been hits. Chuunibyou and Free! are two such hits. And say what you will about the above image, but it's internal diversity is impressive.

I also think that KyoAni made a conscientious decision to scale back from its hand-picking of 4Komas and VNs and LNs to become a more in-house studio that could carefully control its own destiny. Somewhat ironically, it decided to become more like PAW. Though ironic, this is also probably understandable, given the suspected difficulties in the frequent KyoAni/Kadokawa partnership.

Shifts like the one KyoAni made will tend to come with growing pains, so perhaps we should excuse KyoAni for having endured them. And it was probably always unrealistic to expect KyoAni's Midas touch to work forever on every property it touched.

KyoAni still seems to bat around .500 when it comes to producing hit anime, and that's a stat that any animation studio would be happy with.

KyoAni's biggest current problem, I think, could ironically be a lost sense of identity.

KyoAni's brand was once associated heavily with two things - Truly applause-worthy degrees of source material faithfulness, and astounding animation quality that was a notch or two above what any other studio could offer at the time.

But these associations have changed or weakened somewhat in recent years. Other studios have improved in the area of art style and animation quality (Love Lab and Love Live!'s 2nd season are two good examples of this), and KyoAni is oddly less faithful to its own in-house LNs than it was to most of the outside works it adapted.

Still, it's certainly not too late for KyoAni to regain what it has lost here. And if it does regain it, the net effect might even be an improved overall standing for KyoAni. For if you take the best of "old" KyoAni and combine it with the best of "new" KyoAni, it would be like adding PAW's skill at anime-originals to what "old" KyoAni already had.

With all of the above in mind, I'm very much looking forward to Sound! Euphonium. Sound! Euphonium gives me the early impression of KyoAni trying to get back to what made it so stupendously successful in the 2006 to 2010 period. "Cute girls doing cute things" with a musical premise. Where have we seen that before, I wonder? ;)

I'll admit I was angry at KyoAni for some time, in part because of what became of the anime side of the Haruhi franchise. There was that, plus I grew tired of the loud hype that tended to surround every new KyoAni work. Now that the studio tends to be treated more or less like any other animation studio, I find it easier to look forward to their works and not feel overwhelmed by any hype surrounding them.

Keeping that in mind, perhaps it's good that the current anime landscape is leaderless. Still, there are few stories more pathos-rich and simply fun to watch than the great comeback story. Can KyoAni write that story for themselves? Maybe they will with Sound! Euphonium. But even if they don't, they will remain one of the more well-known and successful animation studios in the business.

What other studios might soon join them, proving dark horse contenders to become the next KyoAni? Though my knowledge of anime studios is not totally comprehensive, so I might miss one or two, I think I have found a couple that fits this "dark horse" position. But the first is less a dark horse than something out of this world, since it calls itself...



ufotable

Sword-wielders against spear-wielders never gets old, it seems.

ufotable has both megahits and critical acclaim. It has a dedicated and knowledgeable fanbase. It is compared favorably to Deen in a way unseen since Kanon 2006 caused KyoAni to be compared favorably to Toei. It definitely has a lot going for it, and it deserves much of the praises it's received.

However, it's full resume of work is a bit on the slight side. I think that needs to build up a bit, and grow more outside the boundaries of Fate/Series (and ideally Type Moon in general) before I think it's ready to win the Holy Grail of KyoAni.

Still, ufotable definitely deserves to be mentioned in this blog post. I would consider it a bad oversight on my part to leave it out. With just a little bit of diversification, it's probably right there with SHAFT and Sunrise. 

Another studio with the potential to reach that point is...


Studio Gokumi

Yuuki Yuuna *is* a hero...
 Out of the ashes of Gonzo, rises the phoenix of Studio Gokumi. It's truly been remarkable to see just how quickly this Gonzo breakaway has managed to make a name for itself in the anime business.

Bringing over the Saki franchise helps, as any team with Saki Miyanaga on it is a dark horse contender for total victory.

But along with that key carry-over, there have been some new anime works that have helped to put Studio Gokumi on the map.

Yuuki Yuuna is a Hero and Kin-iro Mosaic are two very nice early feathers for Studio Gokumi's hat. Along with A Channel and Saki, I think it also shows that Studio Gokumi is building a brand identity for itself. There's a certain flavor of moe that I think Studio Gokumi has chosen to specialize in, and they are slowly but surely perfecting that flavor.

Studio Gokumi is still a small-time player compared to the giants I've discussed, but it's a rookie that shows a lot of spunk, like Saki Miyanaga and like Yuuki Yuuna. If it keeps it up, might it turn into an accomplished veteran like Akemi Homura and Char Aznable? Time will tell! 


And this concludes my tour of the modern anime industry, given this snapshot in time. This blog entry, it should be noted, was inspired by a recent chat with Pocari Sweat, probably the biggest PAW fan I know. 

One thing I notice about my fellow Anime Suki anime fans is that many of them are passionate about a particular anime studio or two. It's been more diverse than it was when I first dived into the online anime fandom in a concerted way in 2009. I have friends who dig SHAFT more than anything else, I have friends who love watching the Sunrise, and I have friends who want progressive animation works to get its firm PAWs on the future. 

What is your favorite animation studio of today, good reader? And do you think any of the animation studios I discussed today could become the KyoAni of the future? 

I now leave the floor entirely open to the commentators. I've more than said my piece. I'm now interested in what YOU have to say. :)
 








8 comments:

  1. We'd need to wait until ufotable's next non type moon project (God Eater) to see if they've aquired the brand recognission required, the previous attempts: Gyo and Majokko shimai no Yoyo to Nene showed they had a long way to go ( If you go "what" I'll tell you "exactly!")

    While it's no Kyoani Trigger is something I don't think we had last decade: a studio with maybe a more dedicated following in the west than in Japan, I think part of their success is their communication with western fans, no other studio sends me a newsletter with updates.

    Favorite studio?Madhouse, has been so for a decade and with Death Parade and Parasyte it's not about to change, there was a bit of a struggle at some point but I've enjoyed the vast majority of the output the past couple years.I'm happy they survived the Masao Maruyama departure.

    Speaking of Masao Maruyama, watching MAPPA's output has been like watching that top prospect that's supposed to become a HOF just be good instead of crazy good, can't say their shows are bad, especialy in terms of production but there's no home run there.

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  2. In my view "leadership" in the anime industry is about setting industry trends, not just commercial success. Granted the two often come hand in hand due to studios attempting to imitate the success of other studios, but that's not necessarily the case.

    Love Live may have been a commercial success, but to me it's Sunrise following industry trends rather than setting them. I'm probably biased since I'm such a huge Mai-HiME fan, but I see HiME/Otome along with Code Geass as major Sunrise trend setters. They've even more spent than Geass at this point, but I think they had an impact on the industry.

    While I really like PA Works, I don't really see them as a strong contender for a studio everyone is going to be scrambling to imitate. They've got a good niche, but it's not the kind of thing I think is going to start dominating overall industry trends any time soon.

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  3. @totoum - "Gyo and Majokko shimai no Yoyo to Nene showed they had a long way to go ( If you go "what" I'll tell you "exactly!")"

    Ha ha! Very good point. I indeed haven't heard of them before you mentioned them.

    Trigger is an interesting studio in that it's intentionally targeting the western anime audience (or at least keeping that audience in mind). Thankfully, it's had some significant commercial success as well, such as with Kill La Kill. It's a studio I intend to keep my eye on, and it's good you brought it up.

    Madhouse has an amazingly large and varied resume of work. It's good you brought it up.


    @Darthtabby - Very good point on the importance of setting industry trends. Like you wrote, that tends to come hand in hand with commercial success, so I decided to not delve into it much, thinking that readers would likely keep the correlation in mind themselves.

    Still, there are exceptions to that correlation, and it's a very valid point for you to raise. Not all well-selling anime shows set trends, and those that do set trends tend to be seen as industry leaders more than those that don't.

    With Love Live! specifically - It's true that IdolMaster came before it, so it would be quite a stretch to credit LL! with the rise of idol anime in general. But what I find notable about Love Live! is that while it does deal a lot with idols, it almost completely evades the idol *industry*. Most notable, μ's does not have an actual Manager, or any sort of official idol company propping them up. I think this gives LL! a very different flavor than most other idol shows, and its a flavor that I've also seen in the anime Locodol (which came after LL!)

    Basically, I think (and hope) that LL! might help lead the way to more anime that may show love/appreciation of the J-Pop idol concept *directly*, potentially cutting out the industry middle-man (which I think in turn frees the concept of some of the elements that its critics dislike - often *rightly* dislike I would add; folks like Guardian Enzo do have a point there).

    If my point here on idol anime seems a bit hard to grasp, consider this pro sports analogy:

    IdolMaster is to an anime centering around a pro sports league what Love Live! is to an anime centering around the sport *itself*. This is all something I might keep in mind for future Love Live! reviews.


    You could be right about Mai HiME. There are certain character types and combat styles that it probably helped popularize. I can certainly see some Mai HiME inspiration in Rinne no Lagrange.

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    1. When I talked about Love Live following trends, I was thinking of more than just the idol trend. I was also thinking of moe. I seem to remember someone commenting to the effect that Love Live was a continuation of Sunrise's efforts to figure out how to do moe. I think there's a bit of K-on mixed in with the Idolm@ster.

      I'm actually surprised by the link you draw between HiME and Lagrange, as to me the series seem quite different (I'm curious about what you see as similar). I also wasn't thinking so much in terms of aesthetics (which may be part of the reason I can see a possible HiME influence in Madoka).

      In more general terms, I think HiME/Otome and Geass popularized a style with loads of characters and a steady stream of big twists. Then again aside from a couple mecha titles I wonder if I can say that style really caught on outside of Sunrise itself. Other things I think HiME/Otome helped popularize include yuri and predominantly female casts.

      I should note, while I am a big fan of HiME I'm not sure I can consider it's legacy for the industry to be entirely positive (though that's not to say I think it's been entirely negative either).

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    2. oh Triple_R you've heard about one of them , just read the top of this post ;)

      http://forums.animesuki.com/showthread.php?p=5216574#post5216574

      That poor movie seems to be cursed though, as if nobody can remember it exists (when a ufotable topic was created on animesuki the thread creator listed all of ufotable's works and forgot to put this movie)

      And this is more trivia than anything: ufotable was involved with the black rock shooter franchise, they animated the game's OP https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RAPPfJlTxCg , always made me wonder what a BRS anime by them would have been like.

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  5. I think Darthtabby is trying to say that whatever LL! did, it did really well as opposed to setting any new patterns. iDOLM@STER got the ball rolling, though LL! made it bigger (I guess?). KyoAni in its heyday also kind of capitalized on what was already there except Haruhi which is kind of its own genre anyway. I do think Shaft is the closest thing to a giant of Andreic proportions though, and I say that being ambivalent at best with the Monogatari series. Along with PAW, Studio Yuuki Yu--er, Gokumi has had few matches and no title runs to its name. Though PAW I would agree is closer to breaking out of the midcard.

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  6. Sorry for reading the article only now. Ufotable has more than just outstanding FSN adaptations, they also did excellent and gritty Kara no Kyoukai and before that their own original Manabi Straight that many people still fondly remember today.
    And another studio, in my opinion even competing with Ufotable on the most awe inspiring Fuyuki city's bridge destruction, is Silver Link which took off for real after Shinbo's right hand man Oonuma Shin left Shaft and has been directing or overseeing many of the studio's works including Fate/Kaleid, Kokoro Connect and Non Non Biyori all of which have strong fanbase and high production values even if not as grand relative to competition as KyoAni used to deliver.

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