Editor’s Note: Susan Napier is a Goldthwaite Professor of Rhetoric and Japanese Studies at Tufts University. She is an expert in Japanese animation. All opinions expressed in this article belong to the author.
The word “animate” comes from “anima,” meaning soul, and by all accounts Kyoto Animation Studio (KyoAni) possessed plenty of soul. Its destruction Thursday, in a suspected arson attack that left 33 people dead in the country’s worst mass killing in almost 20 years, is a terrible loss for both humanity and art.
KyoAni has been a major force in spreading anime both inside and eventually outside Japan. Since its founding by husband-and-wife team Hideaki and Yoko Hatta in the 1980s, it has also become known as a unique workplace inspiring the best in its artists.
In an industry dominated by men and, traditionally, aimed at male audiences, the studio has a reputation for employing more women – including at the director level – than many of its competitors.
It also employs animators on a salaried basis, offering the type of money and security that allows them to create works of high quality. For years, it has operated a school for animators in which cooperation and collaboration are highly emphasized – its mission statement includes a call for sincerity, and places a priority on respect for the artist.
Located in the beautiful, centuries-old city of Kyoto, full of shrines and temples, the studio’s near-neighbor is one of the most mysterious places in the region, Fushimi-inari shrine. There, visitors wind around the shrine’s steep path encountering enigmatic fox-like statues in unexpected places.
The studio has drawn on both the mystical and the mundane in its works. It is best known for its popular series, such as the “Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi,” set in a high school near Kyoto in which a strange and fascinating young woman creates havoc and excitement, forcing her classmates to deal with otherworldly creatures and bizarre situations. Based on a manga series, “Suzumiya Haruhi” also inspired video games, another important part of the studio’s output.
Many of KyoAni’s creations are set in Japan, giving a strong sense of place and time. At the same time, KyoAni is known for creating series in which normal life is invaded by supernatural, science fiction and fantasy elements – from aliens to ghosts. This interpenetration of the real and the fantastic is probably a major reason why many of its series are globally popular among anime fans.
The United States streaming service Netflix recently picked up the studio’s “Violet Evergarden” series, which is set in a post-apocalyptic space with many science fiction elements but revolves around a young woman seeking romance and redemption. In our own stressful and complex world, young audiences are themselves seeking beauty and transcendence amid their own pressures and challenges.
The beauty of KyoAni’s animation cannot be stressed enough. Traditional Japanese Shintoism emphasizes the sacred in all things – from an ancient waterfall to a discarded umbrella – and the studio takes this ancient belief in modern directions.
Its gorgeous animation makes something as simple as a desk in a high school classroom vibrate with life. A nature scene glimpsed through a window takes on a special vividness, suggesting to viewers a sense of the mystery and possibilities surrounding everyday life. The characters too are often beautiful to look at, especially the ubiquitous “shojo”: young girl protagonists who often possess other worldly abilities, even as they come across as recognizable and vulnerable young people.
Over the last 30 years, anime has developed from a product known almost exclusively in Japan to a globally recognized art form. Anime’s roots in traditional Japanese culture give it a distinctive visual appeal. It also offers psychological believability and complexity, that I believe come from the introspective tradition of Japanese literature and poetry.
At the same time, anime also embraces universal values. Studios such as Studio Ghibli or directors such as Makoto Shinkai have created films that, while rooted in Japan’s culture, touch audiences around the world with their explorations of loss, tragedy, joy and redemption.
Although less well known internationally, Kyoto Animation also beautifully expresses this intermixture of the culturally specific and the universal. Yesterday’s attack on the studio is a huge blow, not only to Japan but the world. It is a significant loss both in terms of the terrific tragedy of human life and the lost creative work that may have been stored in the studio over its almost 40-year existence. To set fire to a studio whose animation truly gave souls to inanimate things is hideously ironic and cruel.