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What Makes Kyoto Animation So Special?

by Nick Creamer,

So I've been watching K-On! lately.

This hasn't been difficult. It's a very easy show to watch! You can just sort of lie back on your couch and lean your head in its general direction and you'll probably get a sense of what the show is going for. Ostensibly about five girls working together in a rock band, the show is actually mostly about them doing anything but practicing, lolling about in their club room and drinking tea and feeding their pet turtle. K-ON! is an extremely pleasant show that makes no secret of its intentions - it's here to be funny and warm and a generally accessible slice of life adventure, full of silly little moments between friends and elevated by precise execution.

In fact, if you weren't watching closely, it'd be easy to categorize K-ON! as an “effortless” show. Like its priorities were characteristic of some underlying lack of ambition, and its success based in the fact that it just hits its genre targets very directly. “Obviously K-ON! feels light and breezy,” you might say. “Everything about the show is as light and breezy as can be!”

Of course, not everything that looks easy actually turns out that way. In fact, sometimes the appearance of effortlessness can be the hardest trick of all. It's a truism that's fallen into cliche, but it remains a valid point - “making something look easy” often reflects not the ease of the doing, but the mastery of the doer. And Kyoto Animation, the studio responsible for K-ON!, Sound! Euphonium, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, and many other shows, are very, very good at making certain things look easy. Their shows draw so much resonance and execution out of such little narrative moments that it's no surprise they've become a bit of a polarizing studio. Either their creative choices reflect a failure of ambition and an over-reliance on genre staples, or they're master crafters honing a very specific art.

The fact that I'm writing this piece at all probably gives away where I come down on this question; but hopefully, with a little more exploration of what makes the “KyoAni style” work, I'll at least make clear what I find so engaging about their work. Kyoto Animation doesn't try to sell their stories on thunderous plot turns or dramatic action setpieces. Kyoto Animation excels at the little things, at making small moments seem real - and the results of that can feel as emotionally climactic as any device a louder show might offer.

But first, I should explain why what I'm about to do is normally a Very Bad Idea.

In general, it's inaccurate to attribute the merits or failings of a show to something as nebulous as a “studio.” Anime are ensemble productions, and the craft of many, many creators is involved in whether a series succeeds or fails. Single well-animated scenes can be the result of one or two truly dedicated animators, and so many animators work freelance that it'd be beyond misleading to attribute polished execution or kinetic action to “studio budget” or a studio's “A-team.” Directors generally have a variety of preferences and stylistic tells (even down to how their style of management influences their production schedules), but when you talk about where an anime succeeds or fails, it's usually more useful to either talk in terms of overall finished-product merits or individual creators than to assign credit or blame at the scale of a “studio.”

But in KyoAni's very specific case, this is a bit less of a meaningless gesture, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, KyoAni does virtually all of their work in-house - from direction to animation, they rely on a consistent stable of creators, generally only outsourcing their series composition/scripts (and even those tend to go to specific, consistent writers). KyoAni pays their workers on salary, instead of by the drawing, and they take their time working on projects, producing fewer complete shows than rival studios. They even train their own animators, and have recently moved towards owning most of the works they contribute to (as opposed to being one small player in a committee with very different priorities). Kyoto Animation has moved further and further away from being a freelanced organization full of freelanced work, choices with essentially no comparable rivals in anime. From a business perspective, KyoAni is a beautiful outlier within anime production, doing right by their workers in a way that feeds directly back into the singular quality of their work.

This studio culture, where work is done by a reliable, consistent group of animators and directors, likely informs the cohesive style and quality of their work (though it doesn't exactly excuse what I'm doing here, and so I'll highlight individual directors/animators where I can). These strengths come through in execution more than genre - though the studio is sometimes reduced to “moe slice of life,” KyoAni actually works in a variety of genres. They've handled drama, comedy, romance, fantasy, action, and slice of life, all fairly distinct in storytelling style, all with varying degrees of success. But what these shows generally share is a focus on nuance - on emphasizing very tiny moments to create tangible emotions and lived-in spaces.

For K-ON!, the way these little moments create a sense of warmth and atmosphere is basically the entire show. Characters aren't characterized through big speeches or dramatic “lessons learned” - they're made real by small details of consistent body language (check out this sequence from key animator Eisaku Kawanami, where drummer Ritsu's personality is evoked first through wild, interpretive spin-smears and then through very precise, natural expression work), in the way three other characters react in distinct ways when one character does something. The importance of the light music club room to the characters isn't just declared in narrative terms; it's illustrated through many tiny incidental shots that focus on the way light strikes the details of their room at every time of day, or the way musical performances consistently cut back to the club room and frame their instruments as inseparable from that place.

The most dramatic the show ever gets is in a moment like this (key animator Nao Naitō and episode director Taichi Ishidate), when guitarist Yui is rocking along with the setting off of summer fireworks. But even in a sequence like that, it's a focus on intimate details that makes the emotions come through. The shots switch from a focus on her grin to her pick hand's wild abandon, and then her intense strum prompts bassist Mio to see exactly what we see. That's the show at its most extreme, but a more archetypal example of what K-ON! is doing would be the first scene of the second season (key animator Tatsuya Satou and K-ON!'s genius director Naoko Yamada), where Yui's early-morning practice accompanies her friends gathering on their way to school. Stark differences in body language add a strong sense of character to proper Mugi (the first character seen), boisterous Ritsu, and timid Azusa, while Yui's barely-contained energy is clear in the small shots focusing on her hands and feet. The camera often doesn't capture characters as a whole, but is aimed precisely where their emotional energy can best be portrayed, be that a stomping foot, nervous eye, or tentatively grasping hand.

The ultimate effects of these visual close-reading moments are fundamental to the overall strength of their productions. Focusing both single shots and lengthier sequences on capturing the key physical/emotional variables of characters at the pace those characters are experiencing them creates a sense of unrivaled intimacy in their productions, meaning the audience can be situated in the characters' headspaces without any need for broad, verbally spelled-out character motivation. The audience doesn't have to feel tied to a scene specifically because of some character's narrative or arc-based motivation in that scene - they can experience it as an almost tactile sensation, and empathize with the characters on the level of sensory immersion. This obviously isn't an easy thing to do - it requires a very precise combination of pacing, shot framing, animation, and even sound design to work. But when it does work, KyoAni's style can represent “animation as a storytelling medium” (where the animation itself tells the story) more directly than almost anything else.

One sequence that very nicely demonstrates these strengths in concert comes from Sound! Euphonium, in an episode directed by Ichiro Miyoshi. Euphonium again focuses on a band, but this time it's the general school band, an ensemble that the protagonist Kumiko is basically dragged into by her far more enthusiastic friends. Kumiko has just said goodbye to those friends after a long day of band practice, and the stage for the next scene is set through a sequence of lonely establishing shots. Kumiko is tired - but we don't just hear that, we see it expressed through her relatably sprawled posture, and the way she yawn-stretches so completely her shoes fall off her feet. By focusing on these small incidental details of posture, her emotional state becomes a lived experience - just as a writing teacher might tell you to prioritize a couple small specific details to describe a larger emotional state (don't say “I'm scared,” say “I couldn't stop my hands from shaking”), KyoAni focuses on the tangible touchstones of their characters' emotions.

Then, from a moment of pure absent-minded repose, Kumiko sees she's sitting right next to Reina, the girl she's been obsessing over for weeks. She starts, and her posture changes. She's on guard, so we're on guard too. Kumiko struggles to make small talk, and a series of quick incidental shots demonstrate her discomfort and feeling of being less than Reina before she even articulates it to herself. Body language demonstrates the clear distance between the girls - Reina is all stern distance, while Kumiko's awkwardly open palms demonstrate her false attempt at familiarity. When Reina finally asks her a question, Kumiko fumbles over the answer, leading to this standout sequence of animation. We don't need Kumiko to articulate how infatuated she is with Reina - from the first moment to the last, we can see how her usual disheveled personality runs into insecurity at Reina's side, how she tries to bridge that gap in spite of all obstacles, and finally exactly how Reina looks to her, all without a word. Eventually, the show will reveal just what kind of person Reina is, and why she comes off as so simultaneously aggressive and distant - but for this scene, every element of the production is working to ensure we feel this small but deeply charged moment in just the way Kumiko does.

That sequence gives away a few of the style tricks involved in evoking these specific atmospheres. Beyond the pacing, animation, and shot framing, there's an overall philosophy of what a scene values and needs to portray that make their shows feel just slightly more lived-in. Scenes often start a bit earlier than they might in other shows, or extend further, because the goal isn't simply to articulate some plot turn, but to create an emotional context for the characters involved. We don't just see Kumiko's confrontation with Reina - we see all the moments leading up to that one, moving from fully at-rest post-practice mode to Reina's overwhelming smile. That first scene of K-ON!'s second season (Yui playing guitar over the girls coming to school) works similarly - we don't just get the guitar sequence, we get a half-dozen small moments of Yui setting up, all necessary to evoke the echoey, mid-winter chill of the club room in the morning.

“Atmosphere” doesn't just have to imply melancholy or nostalgia, though - KyoAni's precision of animation and timing inform all the moods of their shows, from the greatest dramatic flourishes to the silliest of comedy. Take this piece of physical comedy from Love, Chuunibyo, & Other Delusions (episode director Yoshiji Kigami), where half of the joke comes from the way both girls seem to act like normal human bodies before and after the impact, but Nibutani (the one getting tripped) floats sideways like a majestic cartoon character at the moment of impact. That joke doesn't just come from “she got hit, that's funny” - it relies on a betrayal of expectations in both timing and how bodies move, something that only works because the rest of the scene is animated so carefully. KyoAni uses this trick of pacing and animation betraying viewer expectations for humor all the time. To highlight one more example from the same show (from an episode by the show's overall director Tatsuya Ishihara), when the delusional heroine Rikka gets on a train, she does it with gusto - but then immediately undercuts herself, smirking at protagonist Yuuta before performing a ridiculous stutter-walk into the train. Physical comedy is a whole lot stronger when you're alternating between versions of animated reality as dramatically as this.

To highlight one last example from one of KyoAni's most famous shows, there's always been one scene that stood out to me in The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Haruhi is a show about many things, but one of its core threads is the strange relationship between its protagonists Haruhi and Kyon. Haruhi's generally not one to directly express her emotions, and so even in the show's most romantically charged sequences, it's director Tomoe Aratani's visual storytelling that does all the talking. In the course of investigating a murder mystery, Kyon and Haruhi find themselves on a stormy cliffside, when suddenly they lose their footing and plummet to the rocks below. When it seems like Kyon may be seriously injured, but eventually responds, we don't get any words from Haruhi - just a rare earnest smile. And when the two then take shelter in a cave, their conversation remains resolutely limited to solving the mystery they're embroiled in - but the camera demonstrates the true emotional tenor of the situation. By emphasizing their awkwardly exposed bodies while keeping the conversation focused on the mystery, the show is able to simultaneously demonstrate the strange sexual tension both characters are feeling while making clear neither of them are capable of acting on it. Anime offers plentiful opportunities to communicate without words, and KyoAni take advantage of all of them to set up their tiny emotional dioramas.

Of course, if you're not looking for it, “communicating without words” can look an awful lot like “not saying anything at all.” So it's no surprise that K-ON!, the show that most completely relies on this sense of atmosphere and nonverbal communication, is often considered to be a show about nothing. And it is a show about “nothing” - it's a show about the space between larger dramas, the intimate but indescribable emotional spaces that make up our daily lives. Love, Chuunibyo, & Other Delusions seems almost like a direct reflection on these priorities; it sees magic in the everyday, and tragedy in giving up on that beauty. Nearly all of Kyoto Animation's productions prioritize these small moments of camaraderie, insecurity, nostalgia, or grace, but they are not lesser for it. KyoAni finds something universal in the smallest details, championing the inherent beauty of life as it is lived.

For all of these reasons and more, Kyoto Animation are probably my favorite current studio. But how about all of you? Does Kyoto Animation's style work for you, or is there another style of anime storytelling that really gets you going? Feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments, or share what grabs you about the creators you love.

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