I’ll admit this right off the bat: these aren’t the circumstances in which I wanted to write my first KyoAni piece on AniTAY. I’ve cried a lot this week, and I don’t think I’m done yet. I don’t want to write this piece, but I have to write this piece.
Kyoto Animation crafts stories that are recognizable, empathetic, and deeply human. They push the industry forward in terms of production processes, auteur-caliber direction, and the literal quality of the frames on screen. To say they make art is an overused term, but it fits better than any other contemporary anime studio. Kyoto Animation makes art, makes life, and makes anime. Putting all these qualities and feelings into words is hard; putting them into one word is even harder:
Kyoto Animation is gentle.
I watched Liz and the Blue Bird the other night and, like with all of director Naoko Yamada’s works, was completely and earnestly blown away by the sheer wholeness of the film to completely encapsulate the vision of one individual and the studio behind her. Time permitting, I may write an article on Yamada herself, but today let’s focus on the latter, that studio behind her.
Kyoto Animation’s works are gentle. In an era of cutting costs, skipping frames, and crunching hours, to call an anime studio “gentle” strikes me - and I’m the one using the term - as decidedly strange. But, yet, here we are, and here I go.
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya’s first episode is a student film made by a group of high schoolers. It is low budget, poorly directed, and even more poorly acted. And yet, it is completely endearing because it so perfectly captures what a film made by a group of amateur high schoolers would be like. Kyon’s exasperated narration, Mikuru’s stiff and embarrassed acting, and Haruhi’s big reveal at the end all work to draw the viewer into the characters before we even know who they are. KyoAni gently eases viewers into the madness of later episodes by presenting the finished product first - it isn’t until the 2009 “second season” that we actually see how the film was made. Because, really, it doesn’t matter. We’ve seen the product and we form our relationship to the show and its characters around it.
K-On! does much the same thing. Foregrounded are the Light Music Club’s day-to-day activities, easing the viewer into seeing Yui, Ritsu, Mio, Mugi, and Azusa not as drawings on a screen, but living, breathing, tangible entities with lives outside of the frame. Mundanity breeds familiarity, which in turn breeds dramatic payoffs that don’t arise because the show tells you they’re dramatic; they arise because our relationships with these characters have developed to the point that we, as their friends, recognize that what we are participating in is the culmination of living and breathing with these characters for part of our lives.
Nichijou embodies this quality better than just about any KyoAni work. Ostensibly, the show is about nothing - three girls, a robot, a talking cat, and a girl genius live their everyday lives. And yet, through taking those everyday lives and making them feel fantastic, KyoAni manages to make mundanity not just familiar, but captivating. Detention turns into watching your principal suplex a deer, dropping a sausage turns into an epic attempt at catching it before it hits the ground, and trying to make your friends laugh turns into scaling an ever-growing mountain. Nichijou asserts that even our everyday moments have the potential to be extraordinary, and KyoAni, through their gentle touch, brings that assertion to life.
I could quickly turn this article into a show-by-show breakdown of gentleness in KyoAni’s works, but I think you get the point by now. Kyoto Animation excels at turning rendered images into fully living, entirely recognizable characters, worlds, and interactions. They breathe life into a medium that too often feels lifeless.
Liz and the Blue Bird is KyoAni at its most restricted. Taking place almost entirely within Kitauji High School and starring a cast of mainly four girls (with some crucial supporting characters), it is the story of how we let go of what we love and how we love what we let go. It is Mizore and Nozomi coming to realize that their friendship isn’t perfect, and probably never will be, but accepting that is okay. Kitauji becomes a playground, a battleground, and a stage for these realization and revelations, a place where both girls can explore themselves and themselves in relation to each other. Like the club rooms in Haruhi or K-On!, Kitauji is as much a setting as a character, spurring the changes both girls want and need. It is quiet, cast in tones of soft whites and tender blues. It is gentle.
Kyoto Animation shines in its character animation. The studio perfectly captures the subtle movements and nuances of non-verbal communication through their willingness to let images breathe and let character lines move naturally. Haruhi and K-On! embody this through a combination of subtleness and dynamism, and Nichijou through dynamism taken to its most absurd extreme, but Liz and the Blue Bird opts for the complete opposite. Save for the fairy tale sections with Liz and the Blue Bird, the film finds its home in watching Mizore and Nozomi be as they are.
The film’s extended opening sequence showcases the difference between the two girls, as Nozomi’s bright exterior and vibrant step contrast with Mizore’s subdued demeanour and careful gait. Both human and both gentle. The film concludes with a nearly identical scene, recalling the opening. Only this time, Mizore’s vibrancy indicates not only her development as a person, but her juxtaposition against Nozomi highlights their changed and changing relationship. They are not identical, and in neither scene do they walk side-by-side, but the entirely visual indication of their individual and collective developments inspires and invites more empathy than narration or otherwise blatant exposition would elicit. Mizore gains her wings and flies, Nozomi watching below.
The Kyoto Animation fire is an absolute tragedy. I’m not the first one to say that, and I won’t be the last. Healing is a long, painful process, and burns especially so. I watched Liz and the Blue Bird after reading about the tragedy, after reflection, and after lots of crying. The film reminded me of and showed me KyoAni’s gentleness, their unprecedented and jubilant ability to turn life into something picturesque and beautiful. Because, at the end of the day and after the ashes settle, it still is.
Gentle is a soft sound, the hum of a VCR player as the SOS Brigade showcases their magnum opus. Gentle is a warm touch, the feeling of tea and sweets and music and the quiet mundane. Gentle is a cool breeze, the intensity of the everyday. Gentle is Kyoto Animation, a breath. It is how they breathe into their works and let their works breathe out. It is how that breath washes over us in a wave of empathy, revelry, and serenity. It is that breath that gives the blue bird flight.
Mizore and Nozomi turn opposite directions near the end of the film, their paths diverging. It is equal parts bittersweet and triumphant. It is the pure indication of two girls who realize their love for each other means letting each other go. I don’t know if Kyoto Animation will come back, but I know that doesn’t change who they were, who they are, and who they will be for me. They are my blue bird, and I watched them fly away.