Kyoto Animation: No Expense Spared For Empty Stories

DISCLAIMER: The following is an editorial. The views expressed are my own and are not fact. If you disagree, then fine.

Even as an amateur critic, I try to provide for you, my audience, my opinions on anime, and occasionally films, as honestly and as succinctly as possible. I attempt to bring you my thoughts, as well as let you know my biases up front, all in order to be honest about my thoughts on a subject. I like trying to explain my thoughts on anime, on how I react and on how they can be interpreted. I enjoy the act of seeing how a staff of people can come together to create a work of art (either commercial or otherwise) and sharing how I view their triumphs or loses. Even so, my opinions are not always simple enough to cleanly get meaning from. Sometimes, like many people, there is a work, or a body of work, or a creator, that I have a complicated relationship with. Their work is frustrating, yet intriguing, you cannot look away or claim complete disgust or hatred despite an overarching sense that you ultimately are punishing yourself by partaking in this body of work. You cannot say they’re bad, you might even say you like many works by them (as I will in this editorial), but so much of what they do is just not good and you seem to can actually anger you. This relationship is with the anime animation studio Kyoto Animation.

For those unaware, Kyoto Animation (known from here after as KyoAni) is known as the best animation studio in television anime. They are one of, if not the only, anime studios that does not outsource work to other studios (they established another branch, Animation Do, just for production assistance and they are essentially the same studio), despite beginning by providing production assistance to other anime studios. They have a school that trains animators while grooming them to work for KyoAni. They produce some of the best looking series in existence, which is not so much an opinion as a fact (even people who cannot stand KyoAni shows admit that they have the best animation in the business). In fact, before getting into my thoughts on the studio, I will show some gifs of animation from them, just to prove how great their productions look and move.

Alright, now that I visually showcased their visual prowess, I can get into my personal thoughts on the studio. As the title of this piece probably infers, I don’t like the studio. This is not true, as KyoAni are actually responsible for some of my favorite series (Haruhi Suzumiya, Love Chunnibyo and Other Delusions, Full Metal Panic, Amagi Brilliant Park). However, they are also responsible for many series that I point to as what anime should not be (their Key visual novel adaptations, Tamoko Market, Free, Sound Euphonium) and, as I eventually had to discuss, a series that irrationally angers me in it’s existence (K-On!……I’ll explain that one). KyoAni has never been a simple studio to me, but they have always been frustrating, showing great promise and even occasionally living up to that, but otherwise refusing to follow through on that potential and creating a body of work that can easily be described as slight and empty.

Looking at their body of work, there is a clear line between the work the studio did early on and the work they’re better known for today. Their early work is marked by a skewing towards a certain demographic (male otaku). This is evident with their early choices for projects: picking up the production of an adaptation of a popular light novel series, a trilogy (or tetralogy, if you count Clannad and Clannad: After Story as two different series), a light novel adaptation that reveled in anime tropes, and a 4-koma adaptation that was mostly anime references. They began as a pandering studio who knew who would buy most of their works. That they were usually really good (Lucky Star aside (although that was also well recieved upon release), all of their works were big successes, with Haruhi standing out as one of the biggest hits at the time) tended to be a plus, but they were more interested in encouraging people at Comiket then creating great art.

That changed, however, on April 3, 2009, when two events occurred: Haruhi Suzumiya’s disastrous (although I’d argue still great) rebroadcast and second season premiered, and the series K-On! premiered. As the rebroadcast aired, for those unfamiliar, the rebroadcast was in chronological order (which fans will argue the series should not be watched in) with the new season spliced in there chronologically, including Endless Eight (the eight episodes where the characters are trapped in a time loop, portrayed by having the same episode animated eight times and aired over the course of two months, causing ratings to plummet and the title character’s voice actress to publicly apologize for the episodes). As they were losing the trust of the Haruhi-fateful, their other series, K-On!, was….to call it a massive hit undersells how it did. It was the Love Live of 2009 (not a bad comparison, as both became broad-appealing, massive hits that broke sales records and actually aired edited on children’s television). This signaled their change in approach from a otaku-centric studio to one that would give entertainment to everyone.

For the record, no, I still haven’t gotten to if that means anything to me yet. That is just important for establishing how the company changed. When the company changed identity, it wasn’t a complete change (as shows like Myriad Colors Phantom World proves, they still occasionally try for that market), this line represents their intent to create more wide-reaching and broadly successful shows.

Unfortunately, their model was K-On!.

When talking about how KyoAni has evolved and matured, K-On! is the elephant in the room. To say the show influenced them going forward is an understatement (look no further than it’s female-targeted gender-flipped successor, Free, that came out a few years later for proof). The new Haruhi episodes airing in the rebroadcast had different character designs to more closely resemble K-On!’s character designs. Despite being varied in a good portion of their output, most of KyoAni’s bigger successes (Free, Sound Euphonium, Tamoko Market, Hyoka) have been attempts to recreate either the style or tone of K-On!. One of the biggest anime franchises created in the past five years, Love Live, owes much to K-On!’s style of humor and character dynamics. It established the magazine Manga Time Kiara as a fertile ground for new stories. I still haven’t gotten to just how successful and influential this series was. But, for the sake of this article and for the sake of my opinions, the most important element of it is this: even counting Code Geass, SAO, or Fate/Stay Night, there is probably no anime in existence that angers me more than K-On!

I first saw K-On! in my senior year of high school. I watched it because it was “about a group of girls in a band playing music together” (notice the quotes). Looking into it beforehand, I knew that it was among the best-animated series out there (remember: KyoAni have great production and animation, if nothing else) and that people REALLY SEEMED TO LIKE IT! So, I gave it a shot. What it’s actually about is 4, later 5, girls hanging out in a club room eating sweets, drinking tea, telling bad and unfunny jokes, being flat characters, and very rarely remembering that they play music in a band. For the record, in it’s first season (the only one I could stomach before giving up), in the THREE TIMES they perform, it’s some of the best sound work and animation ever produced. Stills, that is THREE TIMES IN THIRTEEN EPISODES! 97% of the series is just watching the girls do nothing! It is as empty a series as one could hope for.

The reason this angers me, quite simply, is that, besides KyoAni, anime is  medium of compromise. It’s limited animation due to a lack of resources. When watching a series in which nothing happens, your mind tends to wander. And, while watching K-On!, my mind wandered to Welcome To The NHK, one of the best written yet ugliest anime ever produced. That series, despite probably being animated on a budget of $23.47, is such a compelling and watchable character piece, with great moments all throughout. Even now, when K-On! enters my mind, it wanders to Watamote, who would’ve benefited from a production that could’ve made the show look less generic, or to Tokyo Ghoul, whose spectacles occur despite lacking resources, to Attack On Titan, whose action could’ve had more impact had it not had to spend so long on talking heads as a rest, to Berserk, who could use some help in developing that CG to look better, and to Konosuba, a poorly-animated comedy that is ACTUALLY FUNNY that could be much better by actually looking good. I think of all of these series, and others as well, that could make amazing use of the resources that KyoAni provides, but instead uses on a production that doesn’t touch it for 97% of it’s runtime of 2 seasons totaling at 39 episodes and a theatrical film. When I think about that, I get angry, inordinately so. Full disclosure, just writing this section out is angering me, because I cannot see it as anything but a waste, a waste of resources and a waste of everyone’s time.

Unfortunately, K-On! colors much of the rest of KyoAni’s oeuvre to me, which is at least understandable, since they’ve been trying to recreate it since. While I was, and still am, a fan of Haruhi, K-On! made my view them as something of a one-trick pony. That is, until I found another series by them I fell in love with.

This is Love, Chinnibyo, And Other Delusions. It’s a romantic comedy series about a boy named Yuta who ends up falling in love with his neighbor, Rikka, who is a chunnibyo (has an over-active imagination and essentially doesn’t live in the real world). If you’ve seen parts of it online despite not watching the series proper, it’s because people liked giffing it.

Apparently, when your cast is full of characters who claim to reject reality and live in their own worlds, you get many over-the-top and fun gifs. Anyway, despite going in with trepidation, I wound up pleasantly surprised and ended up enjoying it. This is actually due to something that KyoAni, as a studio, seem to miss: you enjoy a series more when you connect with the characters. You see, this show is actually a slight departure for KyoAni: this show is an over-the-top dramatic comedy, while their usual fare is low-key drama with comedic elements (a style that never really worked with me, I tend to prefer theatrics and melodrama in my dramatic series), so the series has more energy than it usually would. I legitimately love the characters, the weird jokes (like Rikka’s sister playing “realistic house” with Yuta’s youngest sister), and get swept up in the romance that develops. While a hit, it is still something of an odd duck for KyoAni, mostly because of the series’ tone. So, KyoAni’s next project ended up being made to be a hit (and luckily, while still doing well, it underperformed).

Tamoko Market was the next series following Love, Chinnibyo, And Other Delusions. Whereas that series actually developed character dynamics to follow and had a dramatic story that could carry in the background of a goofy comedy, Tamoko Market wanted to do away with those ideas of “fun characters”, or “compelling drama”, or “any emotional investment from the audience whatsoever”. What makes this series seem like an attempt at recreating the success of K-On! (which they haven’t, I should point out, nothing past K-On! nearly matched it as a success) is that it was a reunion of the major players behind that series: director Naoko Yamada (whose track record makes her a director I’d prefer to avoid) and writer Reiko Yoshida (whose track record is all bad except for writing the first 3 Digimon movies (the ones put together here as Digimon: The Movie) and Girls Und Panzer). They reunite to create a new slice-of-life, low-key story about girls growing up and doing nothing. This is despite having TWO different premises (if you recall, that’s 9 more premises than K-On! had, and no, I won’t stop insulting K-On!). Ostensibly, Tamoko Market is about a bird coming to a shopping district looking for a bird for the prince of his homeland and becomes a freeloader at the home of our eponymous heroine. The show actually just follows her and her friends as they begin high school and supposedly experience  the bloomings of first love (at least with the film sequel, this is followed up on). The show, however, lacks any characters or compelling reason to follow through on it. The bird exists to be comedic relief, but he’s not funny. The drama would be compelling if the characters were, but they aren’t because this show is ultimately just supposed to be cute (KyoAni is why cute is a four letter word to me when referring to anime) and calming, two elements that also defined K-On! and are also why these shows don’t work for me. This frustrating element is not aliviated, however, on me, since the reach of K-On!’s influence stretches beyond just Yamada and Yoshida’s works.

This is Free! It was created as KyoAni’s first attempt to specifically attract women (specifically fujoshi) fans, as their earlier works did with male fans. I remember the intense hatred that sprung up surrounding it (simply put, it was hated by many early fans of KyoAni for not being the male-oriented moe fests that their earlier works were and it became a huge sexism and double-standard debacle that I’m glad I don’t see anymore). I also remember watching it and realizing “this is K-On! with dudes, and actually following up on it’s premise, and having a plot, and actually isn’t like K-On! aside from general tone and being not good” (yes, that’s my exact thoughts on that show). At this point, KyoAni’s shows are becoming homogenous both in art (their designs all look like their from the same show) and content. Free! was directed by a new director, but it still contains many of the hallmarks of the studio since 2009, the focus on unfunny antics, the dull and flat characters, the meandering, the focus on making the tone light and uninvolving. Even with a good sequel season for Love, Chinnibyo, And Other Delusions, the studio was finally starting to run my patience to the ground.

Luckily, they provided once again. By returning to an author they’ve worked with multiple times, they created Amagi Brilliant Park, and this is probably the funniest comedy that KyoAni have ever come up with. It helps that they are returning to Shoji Gotoh, whose Full Metal Panic helped establish KyoAni as a studio and had him work on the script for Hyoka (which many call underrated and great, and I give it many of the same complaints I’ve given to other shows in this article, just truly a waste of Gotoh’s talent), who created a simple concept and then the staff proceeded to milk it. What sells most of the series is really the comedic timing, which I struggle to find other series that match it. Once again, I found another series by KyoAni to renew some goodwill and faith in them that I was losing.

That goodwill is once again being tried, as I decided to skip Myriad Colors Phantom World, as I was told the best parts are the stupid gif-able moments (advice I’m regretting, since it looks more like a throwback to the KyoAni show that started all of this suffering and is why I’m writing this) and went to their new, probably most acclaimed work, Sound Euphonium. I HATE THIS SHOW. Despite not being a comedy, those homogenized KyoAni elements from K-On! that I absolutely cannot stand are back in full force (I hear that the premiere of it’s second season tries to give it more weight, but fails, so there’s that). The story is a slow-paced, low-key, character drama that lacks characters, much like K-On!, much like Tamoko Market, much like Free!, much like Hyoka. That it reminds me of being in my high school’s marching band (which I was forced into and only enjoyed as I joined the Jazz band in senior year, which was still separate from the marching band proper that I still didn’t enjoy) only emphasizes how this seems like a personal attack on me for attempting to like the works by this excessively talented studio.

At this point, any sane person would be asking me, “Alistair, even with those two shows you mentioned liking from them, it seems like you watching this studio is painful and insane. If you hate so much about the studio, why do you keep following them?” Well, to that, I say that you have a good point, but there is a reason. If you follow this site, the articles I’m currently working on, then you might know my answer. Hell, if you’ve ever been privy to me actually describing what it is I love so much about this medium, you know my answer.

The reason I follow this studio that frustrates me so is simple: Haruhi Suzumiya.

As my writing about this series, especially in my write-up of episode 00, shows, this is not just my favorite KyoAni work, but one of my favorite anime. I fell into this years after the phenomenon around this series had faded, but instantly connected with it. I found it when my family was suffering through a loss and I was keeping myself in my room trying to keep my mind off of it. When I found this funny, surprisingly smart comedy full of characters I instantly fell for (and for the record, that is also in the way you were thinking, this series is what introduced me to the concept of having waifus), it helped strengthen the attraction. And seeing a risky, ballsy, and mind-boggling experiment like Endless Eight only made me more interested, not just in what this impressive studio could do, but what the entire medium of anime, and animation in general, could do.

Now, by now, you could be thinking, “well, that’s all well and good, but why would you support a studio based on one work, especially when you have, at this point of your long, rambling editorial, stated you hate their house style?” That is a fair point, if I don’t like a studio’s house style, I shouldn’t try to follow them as they inevitably keep making works in their house style. Well, it’s because when they take a break from that style, when they decide to make something that actually has jokes, or has some emotional depth beyond “those were the days”, when they decide not to focus on high school girls’ hips while acting like it’s an innocent show (that one K-On! and Sound Euphonium are more guilty of than the others), they reveal themselves to actually be one of, if not the best, studios creating animation.

At this point, I’ll end it with a non-anime comparison so non-anime fans understand what I mean: this is very similar to my relationship with the Marvel movies. I cannot stand Marvel’s house style (which is why I am increasingly negative on each subsequent film of theirs that comes out), but when we get films that break away from that style (the off-color humor of Guardians Of The Galaxy, the pure almost old-school action film fun of the first Captain America film, that the first Iron Man film had almost no stakes), I get excited and remember why I keep seeing these films that I’m increasingly bored by. That is me with KyoAni: when you stop doing the low-key, nostalgic high school, no plot, no character shows, I will be all for it. Until then, I will just continue to see what comes from this studio that almost continuously causes me nothing but grief and frustration.

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Author: criticoffilm

Amateur film and anime critic, animation enthusiast, hopeful writer

2 thoughts on “Kyoto Animation: No Expense Spared For Empty Stories”

  1. Funny enough, when I saw K-On! season one, I felt like it had a few moments that reminded me of my favorite ones from NHK. I love the set design on that show, and the soundtrack has some great peaks.

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