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Peerless artists built KyoAni’s reputation for quality

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Posters of major works produced by Kyoto Animation Co. are displayed at the Museum of Kyoto in Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto.

By Kodai Fujimoto and Kanta Ishida / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writers  Two weeks after the fatal arson attack on Kyoto Animation Co.’s No. 1 studio, the outpouring of grief for the victims and support for the company continues to grow in Japan and overseas. This reflects the respect the company known as KyoAni had built up as a driving force of Japan’s anime culture and through its reputation for fostering artists without peer.

Kyoto Animation’s ability to vividly depict character’s expressions was dubbed “KyoAni quality.” One iconic example of this exquisite detail appeared in the popular anime “Free!” that first aired on television in 2013.

In a scene set on a beach at night, members of a high school swimming team share their feelings about their final summer at school, the pressure of competing at a national championship, and scouts from universities in Tokyo. Moonlight reflecting off the undulating sea and skyrockets going off in the distance subtly portray the inner emotions of the young swimmers.

This careful attention to detail in each drawing vividly illustrated characters’ moods and gave a sense of dynamic energy. Kyoto Animation was widely admired for going beyond what was considered common practice for TV anime programs.

The high quality of Kyoto Animation’s work was underpinned by the company being fully responsible for every step of the production process. Kyoto Animation was unusual in this way in the anime industry, where dividing up the work into specialized areas is the conventional approach. For instance, drawing the many frames that fill the space between the important frames of an animation sequence is usually outsourced. Kyoto Animation, however, did this work itself.

“KyoAni decided that if it really wanted to express a sense of energy or something adorable, and if this could not be conveyed without very fluid movements, it had to do everything itself without cutting corners,” said Kiyotaka Moriwaki, chief curator of the Museum of Kyoto.

“For them, it wasn’t important how many frames they needed to draw. Rather, it was whether they had delivered the expression they originally had in mind. They didn’t compromise — they kept working until they were sure the anime had nice movement. Nobody could deny that created trust in the quality of the company’s work.”

Moriwaki had a close relationship with Kyoto Animation through various projects and events, and he also engaged in negotiations on coverage of some of the company’s works. His remarks spell out clearly just why the Kyoto Animation studio was so special.

“When I walked into the studio, I was stunned to suddenly hear the sound of pencils writing loudly on desks. That was the sound of these young artists drawing anime frames,” Moriwaki said.

“Each line was absolutely beautiful, like a line on hand-drawn printed silk. My first impression was that those animators were craftsmen.”

According to the Association of Japanese Animations, about 90 percent of anime production companies were concentrated in and around Tokyo as of 2016. Freelance animators also tended to gravitate to Tokyo. Bucking this trend, Kyoto Animation trained its next generation of workers in-house.

Moriwaki said: “Kyoto Animation had an iron-clad belief in standing on its own two feet. Partly because there weren’t many freelancers around, unlike in Tokyo, it gave top priority to properly training its own employees. The senior employees would diligently back up their younger colleagues.

“It was an organization where even someone like a director would try to avoid hogging the limelight and say, ‘Positive reviews of this work aren’t because of me, they’re because of the efforts made by all our staff.’ The company just kept churning out really talented artists, both male and female.”

Kyoto Animation also attempted to create an environment in which its employees could maintain stable lives. It did this through such steps as setting up a nursery space at the studio. According to Moriwaki, the company believed this was important for making good anime.

Over the almost 40 years since it opened in 1981, the company carefully crafted its own group of skilled artists.

“The 1990s, when KyoAni was still doing subcontracting work, was a time when many anime fans could easily be met with misunderstanding.

KyoAni set about changing that. One trigger for this change was the “Haruhi Dance,” Moriwaki said, referring to a dance performed during the ending theme of a popular anime series.

“This dance opened the possibility of anime not just being part of the niche otaku culture, but becoming culture that could make people around the world happy. This boosted the image of Japanese anime around the globe.

“KyoAni didn’t just draw the daily goings-on of high school students. I think the company constantly considered how it could give hope and courage to people who saw its work.”

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