Two Years On — A Tribute to Kyoto Animation9 min readReading Time: 7 minutes
It has been just a little over two years since the Kyoto Animation arson attack — one of the deadliest massacres in Japan since World War II. The tragic disaster shook Japan’s animation industry and left many reflecting on the studio’s contributions to the world of animation. In these two years, what has happened to Kyoto Animation? Where are they today? And what sort of legacy is the beloved animation studio leaving behind?
What is Kyoto Animation?
As their name suggests, Kyoto Animation is an animation studio from Kyoto, Japan. Also affectionately known as KyoAni, the studio was founded in 1981 by Yoko and Hideaki Hatta. Yoko went on to be the head of production and Hideaki became the president of KyoAni.
Yoko used to work for Mushi Productions in Tokyo and had experience working on titles such as Princess Knight. When she co-founded KyoAni, she roped in a few housewives who “had time to kill” and taught them how to draw. KyoAni’s humble beginnings are still very present in the studio today — from the studio that first began hiring housewives, they still hire predominantly women in an industry that is male-dominated.
KyoAni is known for hiring women in an effort to create a “gender-balanced workplace” and has “encouraged women to join the animation industry”, as recognised by the organisation Women in Animation (WIA) who awarded KyoAni with the 2020 WIA Diversity Award for Corporate Achievement.
They also believe in offering training to their animators, just as they taught the unskilled housewives who first joined. KyoAni has become a well-loved studio in the anime industry not only because of their high-quality production, but also because of their ethics.
KyoAni is one of the few or only studios to pay their animators full-time wages. This might sound normal, except that in the anime industry it is common practice to pay animators by frames drawn rather than by the hour or day. KyoAni’s practice of paying their animators a full-time salary encourages them to put time and effort into each frame which is also another reason why KyoAni has become known for their high quality animations.
KyoAni has developed a style that is bright and cheerful and in recent years, they have been recognised as the studio behind many anime classics such as The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, Lucky Star, Clannad, K-On!, Nichijou, Tamako Market, Free!, Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, and Violet Evergarden.
The Kyoto Animation Arson Attack
(TW: This section contains graphic descriptions of arson.)
On the morning of 18 July 2019, 41 year-old Shinji Aoba walked into Kyoto Animation’s Studio 1 in Fushimi and doused the building and its staff with gasoline. He lit the gasoline and fled, reportedly yelling “die!” as he ran from the scene.
The fire trapped 70 employees in the building, injuring 34 people and taking the lives of the remaining 36. Reports later showed that those who perished in the fire were found on the stairs, trying to escape but ultimately unsuccessful. Some bodies were burnt beyond recognition and only identifiable through DNA testing. Among the victims were Yasuhiro Takemoto — the director of The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, Lucky Star, and Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid — as well as Futoshi Nishiya — character designer and chief animation director on the Free! franchise and A Silent Voice, and animation director on The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya.
Hideaki Hatta was driving to the studio the morning of the fire when he saw the smoke billowing from the building. He ditched his car and ran half a mile to the studio, pushing past the crowd and firefighters only to see his employees sprawled on the streets, clutching wet towels and faces black with soot. What had initially began as a normal work day for Hideaki quickly turned into an unimaginable nightmare. He remained at the site until 6pm that evening, before driving mindlessly through the night. “I sat alone in the car, sweating, stunned,” Hideaki said. Even after his son later joined him later on, there was no rest for either of them. The two stayed up all night trying to grasp the reality of the situation.
By 6.20am the next day, the fire had been extinguished. Police had also arrested the perpetrator, Shinji Aoba, who admitted to carrying out the heinous act as revenge on the studio for plagiarising his work. He had submitted a novel to the studio as a submission for the Kyoto Animation Awards, but was eliminated in the first round. However, the arsonist believes the studio plagiarised his work in an episode of Tsurune where the characters buy discounted meat to save money. The scene in question lasts all of two minutes and 25 seconds, but it was all it took for Shinji Aoba to transpire his sinister plan. On 16 December 2020, he was indicted on multiple charges of murder and attempted murder.
Almost all of KyoAni’s materials and computers were destroyed in the fire, but a few keyframes which were on exhibition in Tokushima were saved. KyoAni also announced that they managed to retrieve data from a server that survived the fire.
Three weeks after the attack, staff began returning to work at KyoAni albeit at their other locations this time. One of the survivors said: “Continuing to create anime, in the same way we always have, is the greatest counterattack to what the arsonist did.”
The rest of 2019 was relatively quiet for KyoAni. The 11th Kyoto Animation Awards was cancelled and several ongoing shows were postponed including a collaboration between the Sound! Euphonium anime and Keihan train line as well as the trailer and preview event for the upcoming movie in the Free! series, Free!–the Final Stroke–.
A spin-off film for one of KyoAni’s biggest shows Violet Evergarden, titled Violet Evergarden: Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll, was released on 6 September 2019 and paid its respects to the arson victims by naming them in the end credits.
Rising From the Ashes
Since the arson attack, KyoAni has proven that it is still a force to be reckoned with in the animation industry. The studio has been rebuilding and slowly but steadily and has continued to churn out the same high-quality work it has always been known for.
After the attacks, KyoAni wasted no time in resuming its training programme for 2020 where aspiring artists and animators can undertake an apprenticeship with the studio and even potentially join their ranks. In true KyoAni spirit, their commitment to preserving their culture of training their own artists just as they did when they first began still stands true even after all that the studio has been through. Applications began in September 2019 and the programme itself began in April 2020. After the enrolment ceremony, one of the programme’s lecturers said in a blog post: “I’m overwhelmed with emotion while reflecting on the fact that I can now study animation with new people.”
KyoAni’s Studio 1, where the attack took place, has since been demolished but a private memorial was held there on the first anniversary of the attack and was attended by KyoAni staff and families of the victims. A memorial video was also posted on the studio’s official YouTube channel that day at 10.30 am, the same time that the attack took place, featuring condolence messages for the victims.
After the release of the spin-off film, KyoAni embarked on a feature film as part of the popular Violet Evergarden series and the film was released on 18 September 2020. In a stunning display of resilience and as the ultimate comeback, the film was met with overwhelming success and even outperformed the first spin-off film. The film was #2 at the box office in Japan, just behind Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, and remained in the top 10 for 10 weeks straight.
Many of the shows that were disrupted by the aftermath of the attack have also resumed or are set to resume soon. The aforementioned Free! movie Free!–the Final Stroke–, which was originally to be released in time for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, just released its trailer last week and features character designs by the late Futoshi Nishiya.
Perhaps the most monumental thing that KyoAni has up their sleeves now is their first-ever music festival. The KyoAni Music Festival announced the first part of its line-up and released brand new visuals just last week. The festival is set to take place from 20 to 21 November this year and is themed “Inspiration for the Future”.
Kyoto Animation is a studio close to the hearts of many anime fans. Their shows are part of our childhoods and many of us grew up laughing and crying along to KyoAni’s shows. The KyoAni arson attack is more heartbreaking than words can express and to say it is unfair for something like this to happen to one of the most beloved studios in Japan still sounds like an understatement.
But KyoAni’s dedication to rise above something so tragic and devastating is the ultimate display of strength and resilience. Their story and journey is an inspiration to fans, the Japanese people, and to the wider community. As Hideaki himself said: “As long as we have one person, we will keep going. We started from nothing. We will be together in this.”