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A Journey Through Kyoto Animation

by Nick Creamer,

I can still remember the excitement I felt when Beyond the Boundary was announced as an upcoming full-length anime. Having already seen the animated advertisement for the original light novel, this felt like the first moment when Kyoto Animation would be making a show that was actually for me. Ominous powers and distinctive monsters! Propulsive action and serious stakes! Finally, Kyoto Animation were creating a show with dramatic weight, something that was actually exciting, something with a narrative ambition matching their aesthetic grace!

Of course, I'd go on to realize that you don't need violence to create dramatic weight, you don't need life-or-death stakes to make something exciting, and you don't need copious worldbuilding or narrative complexity to create something that's incredibly ambitious. Having hopped over to anime from western fantasy fandom, I was laboring under a series of assumptions about storytelling that kept me from appreciating the existing strengths of Kyoto Animation's catalog. Kyoto Animation's shows are suffused with resonant character drama and often predicated on very difficult-to-realize conceits, and though the studio are often known for their quiet dramas or comedies, their work spans a wide variety of subgenres and appeals. My own journey into broader anime appreciation feels tethered to my relationship with Kyoto Animation - from a jaded skeptic of their whole catalog, I've become one more doe-eyed evangel of the KyoAni doctrine. But I truly think there is a Kyoto Animation show for everyone, so let's take that journey once more, walking through their many specialties and pausing to admire the sights along the way.

Beyond the Boundary was indeed a bit of a new challenge for Kyoto Animation. Though they'd animated Full Metal Panic!'s second season early in their show-helming career, the studio rarely dabbled in full-on fantasy or action. Perhaps it was for the best for me personally that Beyond the Boundary turned out to be, well, not very good - full of interesting visual ideas and reasonably charming, but a total narrative mess, often held down by fights too floaty to conjure much sense of impact. If Kyoto Animation are going to truly break through into more traditional fantasy space, it will likely be through Boundary director Taichi Ishidate's upcoming production, Violet Evergarden. But for me, the first KyoAni show I actually loved was Love, Chuunibyou, and Other Delusions.

I don't know why Chuunibyou's weird story of romance and adolescent embarrassment spoke to me so vividly, but it was certainly the show that doomed me to eventual KyoAni servitude. Perhaps the biggest thing that stood out to me about the show, something that has carried through many other KyoAni productions, was its phenomenal sense of comedic timing. Chuunibyou pulled off its jokes with a snappiness that made even the simplest gag funny, and even if its characters weren't the most complex people, their fondness for each other was so clear in their jokes and body language that they felt far more real than their narrative substance would indicate. Chuunibyou taught me that something doesn't need to focus on the end of the world or the scouring of the self to be basically perfect - smaller things can also be basically perfect, and though I wouldn't consider Chuunibyou a perfect show now, it was at that point the perfect show for me. Staring out the window on long train rides home from a job I couldn't stand, I would think about the next episode of Chuunibyou, and whatever its scrappy heroes might bungle up next.

From there, I moved backwards in the catalog, following the line of romantic drama all the way back to Clannad. Clannad didn't work for me then, and I doubt it would work for me now. The show epitomizes a specific era of melodramatic visual novel adaptations that rely on a style of conflict and characterization utterly alien to me. I can't believe in a character's romance if they're going to spend the next twelve episodes “fixing” unrelated girls, and I can't believe in the love between characters if one of those characters could be seamlessly replaced with a wide-eyed fencepost. Kyoto Animation's KEY dramas are emphatically not for me.

And yet, even though I can't say I enjoyed Clannad, the show still taught me important things about appreciating anime. Often adapted from insular, creator-driven works by diverse teams of animators, filled with scenes and episodes animated or directed by single creators within a much larger framework, anime's fundamentally fragmentary nature is ultimately a key part of its appeal. Though I couldn't believe in Clannad's overall story, its articulation of the reunion between a long-estranged father and daughter was one of the single most powerful episodes I've seen in anime. Whatever the larger context of a protagonist's story, watching the carefully animated articulation of his hurt, fear, and shame in the face of his innocent daughter struck me as something resonant and emotionally true. The power of that sequence, stranded within a much murkier frame, exemplifies one of the reasons I legitimately love contributing to ANN's preview guide. In a medium as creatively fragmented and personal as anime, gorgeous or heartfelt moments can appear even in the most unlikely stories.

My appreciation for Clannad's highlights helped me seize on one of the things that most consistently elevates KyoAni productions - their clear reverence for tiny, emotionally charged moments, the moments that define our personal relationships or even perception of self. Along with the comedy, it was that respect for and profound articulation of such moments that ultimately made me love Chuunibyou. But we've spent enough time discussing broken shows, so let's talk about the other strength Chuunibyou and Clannad share: that vivid comedic timing, a quality apparent in all KyoAni shows, but brought to the forefront in their dedicated comedies.

Kyoto Animation's comedies span a reasonable variety of palettes, but the fundamentals always tend to be: great visual gags, characters whose farcical qualities are tempered by their clear love for each other, and whip-fast comedic timing. The joyous silliness and sturdy comedic craft of Chuunibyou is echoed in more dedicated farces like Amagi Brilliant Park and Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Dragon Maid, a show that balances jokes about eating dragon tails with scenes dedicated to illustrating the clear love of a found family. Though Chuunibyou was their first show I loved, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya was the first KyoAni show I watched to completion, and the one that taught me the thin line between fantasy, farce, and romance. And you could make a strong argument that Nichijou is actually Kyoto Animation's best show. Combining endearing characters with copious visual experimentation, diverse gags, and the sense of a truly living town, Nichijou embodies the happy intersection of farce and slice of life. It resides in a world where robots might possess wrist-mounted rocket launchers and forehead cake dispensers, but also feel genuine anxieties about their sheltered life, and be comforted by their creators in their darkest hours.

That sense of unreality giving way to some greater emotional truth runs ceaselessly through Kyoto Animation's slice of life shows, perhaps the genre they're most famous for. My initial impressions of Kyoto Animation's slice of life were the direct shadow of my excitement for Beyond the Boundary - what can be interesting about a show where nothing happens? But after I'd learned to appreciate Kyoto Animation's reverence for tiny but emotionally consequential moments, I came to realize their slice of life shows are often a consistent expression of exactly that. Moments of the girls from K-ON! idly enjoying life in their club room speaks to a heightened and nostalgic but still deeply personal experience. Director Naoko Yamada's respect for these girls and their lazy days feels familial, like she herself is the teacher sighing over their antics. There is a truth I can appreciate in the careful depiction of a beam of sunlight hitting a clubroom floor, or an afternoon spent gossiping about nothing with your closest friends.

My own favorite Kyoto Animation productions tend to split the difference between the isolated-moment profundity of Chuunibyou and the lived-in daily appeal of K-ON! or Tamako Market. It was likely with Sound! Euphonium, a perfect example of this low-key drama space (that was incidentally co-directed by both Chuunibyou and K-ON!'s directors), that my full love for the studio was truly solidified. Quiet moments of wondering what to do about your future can be a beautiful and universal thing. So can barreling down the sidewalk while screaming out your anger, or finding yourself being swept away by the passion and vitality of another. Pulled together, directors like Naoko Yamada or Yasahiro Takemoto can make small moments seem momentous, and intimate emotional declarations as thunderous as the end of the world. When you turn down the volume, your ears adjust; there in the quiet, you can find subtleties of timbre and tone that bring the whole symphony to life.

I should apologize to my editor. This was supposed to be a show ranking feature - running down my favorite Kyoto Animation features, articulating their various strengths along the way. But the story of Kyoto Animation as told by me feels like the actual story of anime and me. So let's conclude where I was supposed to begin then, charting out the shows that have most impressed or spoken to me, offering one more celebration of this very special studio.

#10: High Speed! -Free! Starting Days-

A very solid "mismatched teammates work towards sports glory" narrative elevated by Takemoto's standout direction, which grants a real sense of gravity to its small-scale emotional drama. Held down by awkward references to its weaker TV series predecessors, an unfortunate theme among KyoAni's film productions. Still a fine sports drama on the whole, and a great demonstration of Takemoto's distinctive, wide-open storyboards.

#9: Love, Chuunibyou, and other Delusions

Stronger as a comedy than a romance, but still full of standout moments that really sell you on the relationships between its characters. Applies an almost unfair degree of visual splendor to fantasy interludes which are all just big fakeouts. Falls apart in its second season, but still a relatively charming time.

#8: Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid

A farcical comedy full of great sight gags and absurd escalation, featuring a tiny electric dragon who recharges by plugging her tail into an electrical socket. Secretly one of the best shows about familial love in recent years.

#7: The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya

A dramatic step up from the series proper, Disappearance let the talented director Takemoto cut loose with a story about isolation and discovering the things we truly care about. Awash in melancholy blues and full of iconic moments, its greatest failing is that you have to watch Melancholy to really understand what's happening.

#6: Tamako Love Story

A third film also significantly better than its source series, Tamako Love Story is Naoko Yamada's romance-slash-arthouse film debut, detailing the far edge of adolescence with the warmth and precision of character acting that has become her signature. Features a confession scene where a girl's feelings come to life as splashes of watercolor as she runs, runs, runs without care or direction, consumed by the passion of the moment.

#5: K-ON!

Yamada's directorial debut, a show that rises from repetitive character gags to ultimately portray a fond and heartrending portrait of idle youth. High school doesn't have to be filled with grand adventures to be a time worth celebrating, and K-ON!'s loose collection of days present the beauty of simple times with friends as well as anything I've watched.

#4: A Silent Voice

Having broken free from her television anime constraints, Yamada is now reigning over high-profile film adaptations of beloved manga. A Silent Voice marries Yamada's careful eye for character acting to a story specifically about all the ways we speak without speaking, and the emotional scars we harbor even in our happiest moments. A perfect union and a phenomenal film.

#3: Sound! Euphonium

The story of a listless young euphonium player named Kumiko Oumae, Euphonium balances comedy, character drama, and a dash of slice of life with ease. Kumiko embodies the mess of anxieties and regrets and snark and hormones that is high school, carrying us through a story not just about pursuing our passions, but about working to feel passionate in the first place.

#2: Nichijou

My favorite anime comedy. Nichijou is populated by a cast of goofy characters you already know - in fact, you've known them your whole life. A lengthy sequence about screwing up while trying to help a friend draw her manga will be placed neatly alongside a segment about fighting on a zeppelin for control of the wooden cube earrings which will decide the fate of the universe. It is madcap farce and it is also your friend telling you that it's okay to be you.

#1: Hyou-ka

Chief among Kyoto Animation's character dramas, a story about the difficulty of becoming yourself, particularly when other people are better at it than you. Richly characterized kids solve mysteries, the emotional subtext of their relationships rising and falling like waves at sunset. Very possibly contains the best festival arc of all time.

All that's been said, and yet I still don't know if I've said enough. But with Violet Evergarden on the horizon and the studio's transition into feature films continuing, I'm guessing the Kyoto Animation conversation will only be building from here. KyoAni are a very special studio, and I hope you find something to love in their genre-hopping past or fast-approaching future.

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