Japan's Kyoto Animation suffered a horrifying tragedy today: An arsonist burned one of its studios, killing a reported 33 people and injuring others. As we wait for more details to emerge on the largest mass killing in Japan since World War II, it seems appropriate to take a moment to appreciate just how much KyoAni has done for the anime industry and fandom worldwide.
Founded in 1981 by a married couple, Hideaki and Yoko Hatta, KyoAni at first primarily provided animation assistance on other studios' shows, such as Tenchi Universe and Inu-Yasha. It began producing its own works in 2003, with the OVA Munto and the TV series Full Metal Panic? Fumoffu, a comedic spinoff of the hit mecha series.
Once it began producing anime, KyoAni quickly became one of the top studios to which otaku paid attention. The visual novel adaptation Air and the more serious Full Metal Panic sequel The Second Raid were successes in 2005. Then the studio's fourth series, 2006's The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, took the anime world by storm.
If you were an anime fan in the late 2000s, Haruhi was inescapable. People listed their religion on Facebook as "Haruhiism," and you couldn't walk through an anime convention without seeing someone dance the "Hare Hare Yukai." While the series today shows its age in some ways, it makes perfect sense why it blew up. Its self-aware take on sci-fi anime cliches and the growing moe trend was fresh, and proved instantly influential. The decision to air the first season out of chronological order was a stroke of genius. Even when its second season turned into something of a troll, repeating the same episode eight times with different animation, you still had to respect the effort.
Both Full Metal Panic and Haruhi were based on light novels (pulp literature with anime-style illustrations), and in 2009, Kyoto Animation started its own light novel publishing imprint, KA Esuma Bunko. It runs an annual contest for light novel and manga authors. Several honorable mentions (Love, Chunibyo and Other Delusions, Free!, Beyond the Boundary and Myriad Colors Phantom World) and one grand-prize winner (Violet Evergarden) have been adapted into anime by the studio.
The types of anime made by KyoAni spread across genres, from outrageous comedies (Nichijou, Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid) to infamous tear-jerkers (Kanon, the movie A Silent Voice). The studio built a dedicated fanbase for "cute girls doing cute things" shows like Lucky Star and K-On! and then expanded the audience with the "cute boys doing cute things" franchise Free! Not every series will be to everyone's taste, of course, but the effort that goes into the animation has been consistently outstanding.
The biggest reason KyoAni's productions are so visually stunning is that they might very well be the studio that cares the most for its animators' well-being. Whereas the vast majority of anime is animated by freelancers paid by the drawing, KyoAni's animators are actually salaried employees able to take time with their work while still earning solid wages. When even Studio Ghibli had to lay off its salaried employees, KyoAni is a rarity in the world of anime.
Co-founded by a woman, KyoAni is also one of the studios that's best permitted female animation talent to shine. Naoko Yamada, whose works include K-On!, Sound Euphonium and A Silent Voice, is one of the studio's most treasured directors. Hiroko Utsumi oversaw the first two seasons of Free! Twenty of the 33 confirmed dead in the arson attack were women.
If you want to watch just one anime to experience KyoAni's commitment to sheer beauty, check out the movie Liz and the Blue Bird. It's a spinoff of the Sound Euphonium series, but requires no knowledge of previous anime to appreciate. It's a quiet, meditative film about the love between two girls in a high school brass band. Little actually happens in the film, and aside from a few fantasy sequences, it could just as well have been produced as live-action. But then it would have been boring, and under Naoko Yamada's animation direction, every scene is breathtaking, wrapping up the viewer in the characters' emotions.
For those who wish to support the studio in its time of need, Sentai Filmworks is running a GoFundMe on behalf of KyoAni.