Tokyo Report | Society | East Asia

For Kyoto Animation, Arson Victims and Their Families Always Come First

One year after the arson attack, the anime studio is determined to find its feet again, while coming to terms with the loss of beloved team members.

Thisanka Siripala
For Kyoto Animation, Arson Victims and Their Families Always Come First

A woman prays to honor the victims of Thursday’s fire at the Kyoto Animation Studio building, July 19, 2019, in Kyoto, Japan.

Credit: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Before Kyoto Animation fell victim to a vicious arson attack that hurled the relatively small studio into international news headlines, it was known simply for its “KyoAni” quality, which captured a global cult following.

On the cusp of the studio’s 40th anniversary, the family-run business, founded in 1981, should be celebrating its well-deserved industry success. But the 69-year-old founder and CEO, Hideaki Hatta, could not have foreseen the deadly attack, or the rocky year that has followed, even with his decades of experience. In the aftermath of the arson attack, the studio has struggled with unwanted attention from Japan’s mass media, which has traditionally paid little interest to the geeky world of anime production.

For the media, the incident is notable as Japan’s worst post-war mass murders. For the studio, it meant the loss of 36 irreplaceable producers, directors, color designers, and animators – friends and coworkers.

When a deranged man poured gasoline at the entrance of the Studio 1 building on July 18, 2019, 70 staff were inside. Thirty-three people managed to escape, albeit with burns, broken bones and trauma. The majority of the injured returned to work for the company. The building’s charred structure remained until it was demolished in late April, serving as a painful reminder to staff who work nearby at KyoAni’s other offices.

Little is known about the victims, as the bereaved families have fought to keep their names out of the public. KyoAni has backed their wishes. The studio has had a fraught relationship with the media and police after the names of 25 victims were published without permission, sparking outrage from bereaved families who called out the local media for their lack of sensitivity. In response, a petition alleging human rights violations was brought to the Kyoto Bar Association in December.

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The question of rebuilding Studio 1 remains in limbo. KyoAni is currently caught in the crossfire between grieving family members who propose erecting a monument at the demolition site and neighbors fed up by fans flocking to the residential area, especially amid the coronavirus pandemic. Although crowdfunding collected a staggering $30 million in donations after the tragedy, KyoAni did not hesitate to allocate all funds to survivors and victims’ families rather than setting it aside to rebuild.

For fans outside of the Japanese anime community, finding the artists behind their favorite anime series can be a maze. That is especially true with Kyoto Animation, which leaves an impression of insularity and secrecy. Nobuyuki Tsugata, an animation researcher, historian, and author, explained that “the mass media has a history of not having anything favorable to say about the anime industry which has fueled distrust.” After the incident, Kyoto Animation came to distrust the media even more, he said — in particular media outlets who don’t follow the studio’s way of thinking.

Even before the tragedy, Tsugata said, the studio and staff tended to be secretive about their projects. “Kyoto Animation has this strong belief that the ‘finished product is everything’ and doesn’t feel the need to talk about details,” he said. He explained that immediately after the attack, many anime commentators declined to make public comment — in part out of respect for the bereaved families, but also because the studio’s penchant for secrecy made it difficult to comment with limited background information.

Anime critic and author Ryota Fujitsu doesn’t believe the whole animation industry is secretive: “There simply isn’t a culture of secrecy since avid fans follow their favorite artists under their social media handle.” Fujitsu dismissed the idea that anime artists seek to keep a low profile. “While some animators may naturally want to avoid nasty fans, many artists post their illustrations on social media and on platforms like pixiv. It depends on the individual.”

However, Tsugata argued that once artists join a studio they no longer have the ability to put their name out there. “As a general rule, studio-bound animators don’t have rights to works, which reduces the art they can work on outside and opportunities to attract personal attention.

On top of the pressure to carry on the work of colleagues who perished, KyoAni’s reputation has become inescapably tied to the notoriety and absurdity of the revenge attack. In the lead up to the tragedy, the assailant sent death threats over unsubstantiated claims that the studio plagiarized his book submission. The animation industry thus woke up to the newfound dangers of hosting open calls for story collaborations. Fujitsu, while noting that he normally doesn’t cover KyoAni or the arson attack, said that in general, studios have incorporated tighter entrance security to prevent any trouble and are moving away from accepting story ideas brought in by the public as rule of thumb.

Before the attack, Kyoto Animation garnered a reputation for its realism and distinctive eye for coloring, character design, and artistic originality. The studio pioneered a new genre of anime called “daily life” — meticulously detailing the everyday life of young people. The display of talent in the series “The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya” is said to have earned its commercial success in 2009.  With many domestic animation studios concentrated in Tokyo, KyoAni is an outlier in the way it completes nearly all of the production steps start to end in-house. In a cut-throat industry known for grueling hours and low pay, KyoAni raised the bar by offering salaries instead of frame-by-frame pay, setting up an in-house training program for promising young artists, and allowing flexible working.

Hatta told local reporters after the accident that there are no shortcuts for developing talent, and he was determined to get started on new releases. Restoring the studio’s talent pool was a heart wrenching but unavoidable first step. In September, two months after the tragedy, the studio completed its first film, “Violet Evergarden Gaiden Side Story,” which listed the names of the victims and injured in the credits. The studio was gearing up to reopen its young talent recruitment program for April 2020. It was supposed to be a sign of new beginnings, but the application process has since been postponed due to the impact of coronavirus.

The studio temporarily closed operations during April under Japan’s state of emergency but announced a further month-long hiatus until May 31. The highly anticipated release of the feature film “Violet Evergarden,” originally scheduled for January 2020, has also been postponed twice due to the virus.

Fujitsu said that even under the impact of the coronavirus, the anime industry is in a far better place now in contrast to operating under a state of emergency. “Anime production has not stopped, but has simply slowed down. Post-production was stymied by social distancing restrictions under the state of emergency, which forced TV stations to suspend broadcasting series mid-way.”

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On Saturday, a memorial will be live streamed with a one minute silence held at the time of the arson attack. Well wishers have been advised not to pay their respects at the demolition site due to public health safety concerns.