Back in April 2006, as an American living in Osaka, I had only been working here at Kotaku for a few months when a new anime took the internet by storm. At that time, cosplayers at otaku events across Japan were dressing up as the lead character in Kyoto Animation’s latest show, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, and copying the dance routine found in its closing credits.
As reported earlier this week, a devastating fire ravaged Kyoto Animation’s studio in the Fushimi district. As of writing, 33 people are confirmed dead and the suspected arsonist is in police custody. This is truly tragic.
Kyoto Animation is one of Japan’s most popular studios and helped make Kyoto more synonymous with anime, even setting its 2015 show Sound Euphonium in the city. But for many fans, it was Haruhi that put the studio on the map.
Originally a light novel illustrated by Noizi Ito, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya was the breakout anime of 2006. At the same time YouTube was just blowing up, and was inundated with videos of fans performing Haruhi dances.
Cosplay was also in the process of going global in a big way, and again, Haruhi was at the heart of a cultural explosion, with people from all over Japan (and the West) starting to dress up as the schoolgirl star. It was quickly becoming the iconic anime of the time. Kyoto Animation had created a cultural force.
Kyoto Animation not only made Haruhi massively popular but also put its own stamp on the show. The studio showed its panache for producing appealing, enjoyable shows with widespread appeal. By the year’s end, New Type magazine was declaring The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya the country’s most popular anime.
In 2007, Kyoto Animation followed up with Lucky Star, another series set in a school, another series with a super-catchy credit sequence. Moving adaptations of visual novels from Osaka-based Key showed the studio’s range.
Kyoto Animation’s style really started to come into its own during the mid-to-late 2000s, with its big-eyed stars leading the way. Just as Disney and Studio Ghibli have their own signature look, so does Kyoto Animation.
But it also became notable for things it did away from the screen, such as promoting women to director roles (a rarity in anime, even today), for trying to pay its staff above-average wages and for making shows a wide range of people can enjoy.
Kyoto Animation became closely identified with the moe style, which is different from kawaii or “cute”. Moe (萌え) literally means “budding” or “sprouting”, but its slang use has a much more nuanced meaning.
Back in 2009, when working on my book Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential, I interviewed Haruhi’s original illustrator Noizi Ito about the word’s meaning. I remember her telling me how it's a warm fuzzy feeling people get towards characters. Ito designed that character, but it was Kyoto Animation who made her world-famous.
It’s also notable for what it didn’t do. So many companies founded in the area leave the Kansai region once they become more successful, fleeing Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto for the lure of Tokyo. But Kyoto Animation, despite its success, stayed in Kansai, where it continued to create anime loved by people all over the world.
Kyoto was more than just geishas and scenic views, but where some of Japan’s most beloved anime was made.
I’ve spent a fair bit of time in Kyoto’s historic Fushimi district. I have seen how buildings are crammed in between narrow roads and sake breweries. This is a region that’s home to famous temples and shrines, many of them centuries-old or older, but for anime fans, Kyoto Animation has become just as important.
Sentai Works has set up a fundraiser for Kyoto Animation. You can donate here.