Kyoto Animation is an independent anime studio often cited as a standard for quality work by which other contemporary studios are measured. During its early days as a contractor, supplying various sub-components of work that would become part of some other studio’s production, “Kyoani quality” was a frequently murmured descriptor among industry and studious fans who pored over production credits. Exactly how quality is defined depends on the observer, but the prevailing consensus on Kyoani was that it could and would offer an unusually high level of polish and character in its output. Even as a contractor, and especially as the master planner of works for which it was the main studio, Kyoani developed a culture and reputation for animated series and films that were first and foremost art, rather than just commercial products. This draws on a deep Kyoto tradition of artisanship that emphasizes beauty and elegance as competencies that should be integrated with function and form, not thought of as separate, superficial matters.
My own thoughts about Kyoani quality have more to do with the kinds of stories the studio chooses to tell. Generally eschewing spectacle and salaciousness, which of course have their place and are common elsewhere, the studio focuses on restrained but thoughtful explorations of the meaning and value of everyday experiences. Many works convey, visually and through dialog, the wonder that can be found in ordinary places. The idea of community, how we shape and are shaped by the places we live and the people we spend time with, is found in abundance. Characters in Kyoani works are far from perfect, some are deeply flawed, but each ultimately comes to an understanding of the importance of mutual respect. Every person, even a villain, has the capacity for and is deserving of empathy.
The themes of valuing people and relationships found throughout Kyoto Animation works also flow through its workplace. The studio is considered an aberration within its industry for, of all things, hiring staff as full-time salaried employees with benefits, investing heavily in their training, and enforcing reasonable working hours, with the goal to have as many as possible realize fully their professional and creative goals through long-term employment at the company. The contemporary animation industry in Japan is notorious for its heavy reliance on low-paid freelancers and cavalier disregard for work-life balance. That treating workers like human beings makes Kyoto Animation an iconoclast is as much an indictment of the state of the world in 2020 and the Japanese animation industry in particular as it is a testament to the uniqueness of the studio among peers, but does not diminish the assessment that it is a very special place.
On 2019 July 18, an arsonist attacked Kyoto Animation’s Studio 1 building in Fushimi Ward, Kyoto, just over the city line between Kyoto and Uji, where the headquarters and other studios are located. The explosion and fire triggered were so intense that within moments many staff were killed or severely injured, and the building all but destroyed. Ultimately, 36 people perished and 34, including the arsonist, were injured and required hospitalization. The one bit of good news to come out in the midst of this, work-in-process that had been saved digitally on servers inside a concrete-walled room survived the fire. The survivors must now fight a second battle, one that will last far longer, perhaps the duration of their lives, as they cope with physical injuries and post-traumatic stress.
Not one person lost in the attack was expendable. New hires who had just arrived had been selected not only for their demonstrated talent, but for the potential they showed for growth. Senior staff, such as animator Kigami Yoshiji and director Takemoto Yasuhiro, were not only masters of the essential elements that make Kyoani what it is, but were teachers to junior employees honing their skills and working their way toward higher levels of contribution and responsibility. One basket of paths for future creation has been irretrievably lost.
In any place, at any time, this would have been a horrific crime. That it happened to a group of people of such enormous talent and humanity made it seem all the more egregious, unfathomable—unfair. Natural order had come undone.
People I looked to for guidance
In the first few days following the attack, I had no mental compartment in which to put the constant stream of information that came pouring out. It consumed all of my waking hours. I became unmoored as I struggled to process and make sense of what had happened. Eventually, I identified people who, while individually may not have been able to offer comprehensive guidance—really, who could?—collectively helped me develop a sense of context.
Okeda Daisuke is an attorney and acquaintance of Kyoto Animation co-founders Hatta Hideaki and his spouse Hatta Yoko. Okeda volunteered to become the company’s official spokesperson for an indeterminate time, managing media requests and, to the extent possible, shielding the Hattas, employees and their families from being hounded. By design, his stance was combative, so while he was not in a position to offer a calm, reassuring voice, he was a crucial source of factual details and correcting misconceptions among media and the general public.
My friend and Kyoto native who goes by the handle Haikei Bōzu, after several days had passed and news continued unabated, made this comment: “I follow all of the news and understand the facts of everything I read. But they fail to hit the strike zone of anger or sadness.” It was as if he had put words to what was going on in my own mind. It was simply too absurd, too beyond any reasonable or unreasonable expectation, for the information to register a complete emotional response. Like Haikei, I became a news reading machine. And numb.
Ebisu, another Kyoto friend and fellow butaitanbou-sha—someone who hunts for real world locations used in the settings of anime—became a vocal public figure explaining both the significance of Kyoto Animation and the seichijunrei—sacred site pilgrimage, or travel to the real locations used in anime—phenomena that many of its works precipitate. Further, as an accountant by day, he was able to explain with authority the tax implications of donating money to Kyoto Animation, which are not easily accessible to a layperson even under normal circumstances, and became even more complicated as policies changed in real time in response to this incident.
In the course of these media appearances, he ultimately lifted the veil of anonymity that is the prevailing norm among otaku, who are generally fearful of the disadvantage and prejudice their interest could invite in the workplace and certain social settings. Depending on the publication and communication purpose, sometimes readers and viewers heard from Ebisu-san, other times Chiba-san. This is not a step to be taken lightly in Japan, but Ebisu was motivated by the gravity of the situation and pride in his published writings, which look deeply at Kyoto Animation works and Uji local culture, to put the weight of his real identity behind his public statements. Most of all, through Ebisu I began to understand that, because this was too large and too complex for any one person to grapple all parts, a smart approach was to think about how one can use his or her subject matter expertise to carve out and address specific pieces.
Moriwaki Kiyotaka is senior curator of the film archive at The Museum of Kyoto and has a long relationship with Kyoto Animation. At one point before Kyoani became a primary producer, Moriwaki had the studio move an entire unit of a production line, desks and all, to the museum for a living exhibit on how anime is made, an undertaking that he describes as luxurious by today’s standards. When Kyoani is location hunting within Kyoto Prefecture, researchers from the museum work together with studio staff, supervised by Moriwaki. It was natural that press would identify him as a subject matter expert.
During interviews, Moriwaki would take his professor stance—in addition to the film archive, he is also a lecturer at Ritsumeikan University—explaining, teaching, illustrating and generally projecting confidence and mastery. At some point during each interview, becoming a ritual, reporters would ask him to talk about what he thought would happen to Kyoani, describe succintly the magnitute of what was lost, or just sum up what people should take away from the incident. They were fishing for pithy sound bites. In both video clips and described textually, Moriwaki-sensei would slump back in his chair, avert his eyes, and shrug his shoulders. His verbal response, something along the lines of how is anyone to make sense of something so absurd, was redundant. While reading or watching subsequent interviews, when the conversation would come around to this point, I reflexively shrugged my shoulders with him.
I felt terrible for Moriwaki, but at the same time a little relief. Relief that, even for someone with intimate knowledge of who and what had just been lost, it was not unusual to have no idea what to think. Or perhaps it was that the more one understood the magnitude of what had just happened, the more difficult it was to process. Either way, it was a situation for which the idiom “I am at a loss for words” was not figurative.
Before the attack, the Hattas deliberately stayed out of the public eye, and shielded most Kyoto Animation staff from it as well. What little I knew about them was put together from snippets and short stories, most of which I heard from Moriwaki. I had hoped to one day know more, though certainly not through something like this. In the absence of information, the mind fills in gaps. I had pictured Hatta Hideaki as a stereotypical stoic Japanese company head, who mostly stayed out of day-to-day affairs of employees. Through his unavoidable public appearances following the attack, I learned this was completely off.
Hatta wears his heart on his sleeve, vacillating between brief moments of calm and nervous but well-meaning energy, bouncing in his seat as he forces himself to stay on message despite the doubtless sea of thoughts in his head. In terms of demeanor, Hatta is me, if I were older and Japanese. During press conferences, it was clear Hatta was throwing himself at this unwanted duty which had been thrust upon him—a kind soul forced to confront hate and terror, and doing the best he could. Though he was no doubt torn up inside, his concern at all times remained focused squarely on taking care of his staff and their families. Hatta Hideaki is the kind of leader all workers deserve, but which few actually have.
Media coverage problems
The involvement of Japanese mass media during this incident and its aftermath has been both essential and problematic. The scrum—aggressively flooding accident sites with reporters and camera crews, hounding victims, their families and concerned observers—is not new, but took on a destructive intensity following the arson attack. A backlash ensued, including loud calls from many places to put limits on media behavior and reporting.
The anger was understandable. Many people were traumatized by this event, and insensitive media behavior added insult to injury. But for many concerned parties, especially in the early days before formal channels for donation had been established, staying informed was the only thing truly within our power. There was a genuine public need to know.
In a moment of passion, it easy is say that because the poor behavior was causing demonstrable harm, particularly to families of victims, press freedoms should take a back seat to privacy considerations. But likely few of these requests also considered the broader implications of such restrictions. I live in a country where lack of a free and independent press is used both to paper over malfeasance and actively direct harm at citizens by the state. I think sometimes people who live in societies with free or mostly free media tend to take it for granted. Open media means having an independent channel to corroborate information put forth by government officials, preempting conjecture, and ensuring minority voices are heard, among other things. You would miss it if it was gone. Putting restrictions on press freedom is not something to be decided in a fit of pique.
The damage to public trust caused by mass media’s poor execution should not be understated, but behavior was not the only problem with media coverage. There were also three specific issues with regard to the content of this case.
Japanese mass media demonstrated a disappointing, if not surprising lack of awareness of the unique aspects of Kyoto Animation and its works. Interviewees noted some reporters would literally ask them to explain who Kyoani was and why so many people were upset about what had happened. If had to hazard a guess, I think outside of anime watching circles and industry, there is still little awareness of individual anime studios other than Ghibli among the general public. Over time, Japanese mass media eventually caught on to better reporting happening elsewhere, in niche publications in Japan as well as international media.
The best comprehensive writing about Kyoani and the incident I came across was not in Japanese, or English, but Chinese. An article published on Weixin conveyed not only the salient points of the studio’s history and its unique qualities, but channeled the visceral anguish of concerned supporters without peddling emotional suffering for clicks, ending with a coded cry of despair that alludes to the series Hyōka. Mass media in Japan can only hope to one day be able to read the air even remotely as well.
At one point, Moriwaki issued an open rebuke of this general neglect, obliquely referring to policy makers in Japan who had heretofore dragged their heels on promoting anime as serious art and creating facilities like national archives to protect its source materials, warning that, if nothing else, now was the time to come to the aid of this particular studio.
The second issue was the promotion of the idea that Kyoto Animation “created” the seichijunrei boom. To make it clear, Kyoto Animation responds to requests for copyright permissions, but does not actively promote seichijunrei. The artwork itself is always the focus of the studio’s relationship to the seichi. Which, in my assessment, is one of the reasons why butaitanbou-sha and seichijunrei-sha love the studio so much. No one likes to be manipulated into taking action, and when you have high quality and desirable product, it isn’t needed. Butaitanbou and seichijunrei is a response to Kyoto Animation works by fans, not something the studio engineered into existence.
Finally, at one point media put forth the conjecture that the arsonist engaged in seichijunrei before the attack. Since Hibike! Euphonium is set in Uji as well as the very neighborhood in Fushimi Ward where Studio 1 is located, you can’t go many places in the developed areas around the Keihan Uji Line corridor and not be close to a pilgrimage location. Likely someone sat down with two maps, one of Eupho locations, another of the arsonist’s movements, and played connect-the-dots.
Fortunately, contents tourism researcher Okamoto Takeshi, himself one of the concerned interviewees, took the media to task on all of these points in a sharply-worded essay for Nippon.com (original Japanese, official English translation). He notes that, though seichijunrei includes a broad range of behaviors, one constant is that people who do it have enormous affinity for the works and their creators. To say that someone was engaged in seichijunrei before committing mass murder of a work’s creators fails to understand what seichijunrei is. Furthermore, he expresses alarm at the practice of mass media to breathlessly report details like the presence of anime posters, video games or other pop culture media contents in the home of a suspect when a high-profile crime occurs. You never hear that someone was an avid golfer or liked to go fishing. There is a deliberate bias against otaku and otaku subculture that manifests in these scenarios, where the pop culture contents are presented as the trappings of social maladroitness, dysfunction and criminality. Okamoto fears the misconception created by the mass media will lead to seichijunrei-sha being tarred as potentially violent elements that should be excluded from communities.
Responses of Kyoani seichi
With all that was going on in the weeks and months after the attack, there was no shortage of information to ponder. Even during a media lull, my mind was restless as I had the impulse to consolidate all of my written and mental notes into a coherent picture, but was not calm enough to do so. But the thing that has kept me from becoming lost in rumination throughout all of this has been following how, from the very earliest moments, various seichijunrei locations from Kyoto Animation series jumped into action, first as satellite stations for visitors expressing grief, and later as the face of public support for the studio and victims, through messages displayed on premises and in media, and donation collection.
Kasumi, Kami, Hyōgo Prefecture—Kasumi Tourism Association solicited donations and gave statements to the press about the history of seichijunrei to the town and encounters with visitors who came after the attack.
Gobō and Mihama, Wakayama Prefecture—Local businesses set up donation boxes and gave statements to the press about seichijunrei.
Clannad After Story
Mutsu, Aoyama Prefecture—Local NPO that promotes the city gave statements to the press about how many people came to know the area and its flowering rapeseed fields through Kyoani’s work.
Suzumiya Haruhi series
Nishinomiya, Hyōgo Prefecture—Cafe Dream owner Hosomi Akiko “Mama-san” gave her first television interview in the evening on the day of the attack. She set up one of multiple donation boxes around the city, organized by the city tourism association, which eventually collected a combined 1.7 million yen. Cafe Dream continued to collect donations after the group effort ended on August 31. In periodic television and newspaper interviews, she often talked about how Kyoto Animation had brought together two communities, her regulars with fresh faced anime pilgrims, sitting elbow-to-elbow, many of the latter themselves becoming regulars over time.
Washinomiya, Kuki, Saitama Prefecture—Not everyone could or wanted to travel to Fushimi to place flowers near Studio 1, and eventually Kyoani closed the flower stand in consideration of local residents. Seichi in other cities, including Kuki, became satellite stations for fans to express grief. At one point, Washinomiya Jinja asked fans to dedicate ema (votive tablets) and pray at the shrine, rather than bring flowers. When the Lucky Star mikoshi was brought out at Yasakasai, the first large public fan gathering following the attack, bearers first held a moment of silence before launching into the procession, where they interspersed the usual chants of character names with cries of “Kyoani!”.
Toyosato, Shiga Prefecture—Fans flocked to the former Toyosato Elementary School. Town government manager Shimizu Jun’ichirō, who is the single point of contact that has enabled engagement of Kyoani pilgrims to thrive, set up a donation box, used the large indoor space to create a dedicated flower stand, and took archival photos before erasing the blackboard in the music room each time it became full, so that visitors would always have room to leave a message. At one point, the large auditorium where Hōkago Tea Time would have given its cultural festival performances was used to hold a memorial service.
Jeugia music store, Kyoto—Fans made visits to the store where Yui buys her guitar to show solidarity with Kyoani.
Takayama, Gifu Prefecture—Locations in the city set up donation boxes and the mayor made a public statement of condolence.
Kakegawa, Shizuoka Prefecture—Kamo Garden, the model for the Chitanda estate, setup a flower stand and set up a donation box, collecting 192,990 yen as of September 30. About 300 fans visited in the month after the attack.
Chūnibyō demo Koi ga Shitai!
Ōtsu, Shiga Prefecture—A local resident who grew up in the city gave statements to the press about how proud he was to see his hometown faithfully reproduced in the series, and how encountering fans coming to Ōtsu inspired him to become a seichijunrei-sha and travel to other cities himself.
Kaigake, Hino, Shiga Prefecture—The former Kaigake Elementary School set up a flower stand, donation box, and posted a formal statement of condolence.
Mihama, Fukui Prefecture—Fukui Shimbun reported on prayers being left in the pilgrimage exchange notebook at the unmanned Higashi-Mihama Station.
Demachi Masugata Shōtengai, Kyoto—Fans filled the pilgrimage exchange notebook, many in tears, watched over and at times consoled by shop owner and former shōtengai president Inoue Atsushi. A lengthy note of condolence and solidarity, hand-brushed in ink, was hung from the arcade roof. Fujii Eizō, the owner of Fujiya Katsuobushi-ten, came up with the idea to create badges for all the shop staff to wear, indicating support for Kyoani.
Iwami, Tottori Prefecture—Staff from the town tourism association gave statements to the press about working with the Kyoani location hunting staff, their gratitude for introducing the town through the series art, and experiences engaging with visitors. Donations were setup at tourism offices around the town.
Kindai University—Kindai is not only the model for Samezuka Academy, it is the school where Dr Okamoto Takeshi is affiliated. Okamoto organized a series of events, including a public lecture, to collect messages of support and donations.
Kyōkai no Kanata
Kashihara, Nara Prefecture—Kissa Sando set up a donation box and fans visited the cafe to leave messages in the pilgrimage exchange notebook. City hall set up a donation box, surrounded by a display of character panels and official statement of condolence.
Nara City, Nara Prefecture—Nara Hotel made a statement of condolence, which it placed with with pilgrimage exchange notebook and other items at the preexisting Kyoani corner on the first floor.
Uji, Kyoto Prefecture—The Uji Tourist Information Center along the river, where the pilgrimage exchange notebook lives and many character panels are kept on display, was the focal point of fan activity, as many rushed there to leave messages of grief, later turning to thanks and hope. But there were events and acts of support from all over the city. Several existing public festivals were expanded to include fundraising for Kyoani. Uji Jinja held prayer ceremonies and offered ema with dedications to the studio. Local schools that had collaborated with Kyoani during the location hunting and scenario development for Hibike! Euphonium, either as location models or music instrument and playing technique demonstration, gave statements to the press about their experiences working with studio staff, and their pride at having been part of the studio’s work. Uji City Central Library set up a Kyoani support corner, with posters and places for fans to leave messages, and hosted a public lecture by Hibike! Euphonium author Takeda Ayano. Uji City set up donation box at 15 public facilities. On 2020 January 18, precisely six months after the attack, students from Kyoto Bunkyō University organized an unofficial Eupho stamp rally for fans, with the intention to rekindle the sense of fun associated with Kyoani seichijunrei and help fans begin to look forward again.
Koe no Katachi
Ōgaki, Gifu Prefecture—The city set up donation boxes, special notebooks for collecting messages from fans, and organized the folding of paper cranes, all of which the mayor eventually delivered directly to Kyoto Animation.
Nagano City, Nagano Prefecture—City government staff gave statements to the press about collaborating with Kyoto Animation staff for location hunting.
Exhibitions at The Museum of Kyoto
Immediately after the attack, Moriwaki Kiyotaka gathered up all the Kyoto Animation key visual artwork that was on premises, using it to create an impromptu display just inside the museum annex door, which visitors often mistake as the main entrance because of its striking red brick facade and that it fronts on the main road, Sanjō-dōri. He wanted to make sure that no one could miss them, and for everyone who passed through the museum to know what had just happened. He expanded the Kyoto Historica International Film Festival to include a showing of Kyoani films, also in the annex. Rumor has it that, though not an exact match, the annex was the inspiration for the CH Postal building in Violet Evergarden.
I have traveled to many of these places myself. I was well aware of the power of Kyoto Animation to bring people together through shared love of these works and the locations that inspired them, long before this tragic event. When I write about butaitanbou and seichijunrei in weekly columns and other pieces, I’m studio agnostic. Wonderful art and settings can come from anywhere. But when it comes to my own travel budget, I know what I like. All things considered, I’d rather be in Demachi Masugata Shōtengai, high off the sugar rush from the mame mochi I’ve just bought from Demachi Futaba, before I sign the Tamako Market exchange notebook for the n-th time. A friend who frequently enjoys giving me a ribbing has called me a “Kyoani shill”. Put it on my business card.
On my first time returning to Kyoto after the attack, I felt like a driver getting back behind the wheel after a bad car accident. I was hyper-sensitive to everything and everyone around me, and was trying really hard not to do anything risky or offend anyone, because I was on the Keihan Uji Line on my way to Rokujizō Station, to see Studio 1 for myself, before the building was demolished.
Before the attack, though I had never walked right up to see it directly, I always knew where Studio 1 was. If you looked out toward the horizon from the left side of the southbound train, the squat yellow box looked like a large child’s toy nestled among the houses around it.
Once, on a trip to Kyoto with my daughter, we met Moriwaki, his spouse Motoko, and their dog Kokoro, for an afternoon walk and dinner. We were deciding between meeting in Demachi, then going to Ichijōji for ramen, or the yakiniku restaurant near Rokujizō that had just appeared in Musaigen no Phantom World. Kyoto Animation is well known for Easter eggs like this. Almost every series has one random location from near the studio mixed in with the rest of the setting. Moriwaki said we could go visit Studio 1 while we were there—from the outside, don’t get too excited.
Mei had watched all of Tamako Market and most of K-On! with me, so I figured a walk through Masugata, mochi at Futaba, jumping across the Kamo River turtle stones, and a ride on Eiden would have a lot more meaning for her. Also, a shōtengai would be a more interesting walk for Koko-tan than a restaurant parking lot. It was the right decision in that context, though I regret that it became one of many missed opportunities to see the building before all went awry.
I walked quietly through the neighborhood, making eye contact with the private guard that had been hired to keep an eye on things, to make sure it was OK that I was coming in. After making my way to the street in front of the building, I just stood there staring up at it over the protective barrier that had been put around it. It was smaller than I thought it would be. The charred building materials—looked of suffering and death. It’s hard to put my thoughts at that moment into words. Even if I could, I’m not sure I’d want to share them out in the open. Suffice it to say I did not relish them.
I took a long walk around to a public parking lot that abutted the back side the building to take a few photos. It didn’t look so bad from here, but I already knew better.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, I had a lot of thoughts, many doubts about whether this had the potential to be the end of Kyoto Animation. One animator who escaped the fire went back to work after only a short recovery time, saying that getting back to drawing was the only thing that took his mind off the catastrophe. In public, Hatta gave fiery, defiant messages that the studio would fight for its survival and rise from the ashes. These were of course wonderful to hear, but they were gestures fueled at least in part by the emotion of the moment. Whether they were sustainable was another matter. The Hattas are not young. Whether or not a succession plan exists is unlikely to be revealed to the public before it is put into action. Even if there is one, if these events forced a sudden handover rather than phased transition it could be disruptive.
As if to reassure myself that Kyoto Animation hadn’t yet completely disappeared, I took the train down to Kohata and walked around the other buildings, making sure they were still there.
Seeing the security shutters down on a non-working day wasn’t unusual. The signs indicating closed until further notice, was.
I stopped by Kōei-dō to see tobidashi Kaori, whom the manager cheerfully informed me was still showing her summer uniform because uniforms don’t change until October 1 (it was mid-September). I got some chestnut manjū as a mood-booster for later. Then I finally met Nana, a worker at the confectioner and long-time Kyoani fan who I relied on everyday for the printed news clippings about the studio that she uploads to Twitter. Nana was joining us that evening as a guest at the annual Butaitanbou Summit, which had been planned to be held in Uji long before the attack. Nana was so excited she scoured the shop for all the Eupho event flyers they had on hand (the shop helps advertise local events), handing me a stack of them as I said goodbye.
Up until this point, the morning had been one of the most depressing experiences in my recent memory and it wasn’t getting better. They couldn’t have known, in that moment, how much they helped me avert a downward spiral of gloom. It wasn’t my first visit to Kōei-dō, but it was by far the most memorable.
After the summit main meeting in the afternoon, we moved to Kameishirō, a location used in Clannad After Story, in the center of Uji to check into our rooms and prepare for the evening meal. For those of us who had never been here before, it was an opportunity to find the scenes set inside the ryokan, which would normally not be accessible except to staying guests. Before I realized it, I was actually enjoying myself.
I was reminded of the first broadcast of Saturday Night Live following the 2001 September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, when creator and producer Lorne Michaels asked New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, only half jokingly, if it was OK to be funny again. I found I was asking myself if it was OK not just to travel to seichi from Kyoani works, but to enjoy that time. Was it OK that I was having fun engaged in an experience rooted in content created by people who had just been subjected to a profoundly destructive and horrific assault? Even if I had wanted to ask someone for permission, who could answer such a question?
The next few days
The next day was a blur. I toured Kyoto with a group of friends, led by Ebisu. It was a nice time, rain notwithstanding, but my mind was not always present. I kept thinking about the burned yellow building.
It wasn’t until our group dissolved and I wandered into Masugata Shōtengai, alone, that I anchored my mind to things that were in front of me.
The day after, I spent most of the time hiding at MOVIX Kyoto, a combined movie marathon and K-On! mini pilgrimage. I saved Violet Evergarden Gaiden: Eien to Jidō Shuki Ningyō for last. This was the work that was completed and shipped off to the distributor the day before the attack. Violet is not one of my favorite Kyoani works, from a narrative standpoint. But there is no question that the level of technical achievement and aesthetics of the art and character animation in this work are new high points for the studio. That it was safely delivered just before the disaster and no work was lost is a small miracle.
I visited CH Postal. Violet was out on assignment.
I was back in Kyoto two months later, for the memorial service at Miyako Messe. This was supposed to be the date and venue of the Kyoto Animation and Animation Do fan event—a happy time. The biennial event is where we get to see rooms full of work products from Kyoani series, witness a new project announcement or two, and meet up with friends. Though it was of comparatively small significance next to the loss of lives that were being memorialized, this too was taken away from everyone.
Instead we filed solemnly through roped-off paths, up to the large display of white, yellow and orange flowers—Kyoani colors. Without all of the exhibitions lining the halls, it just looked like an aircraft hangar. Most people just looked down or with an unfocused gaze to nowhere in particular. Some stifled tears. Others couldn’t hold back. It was hard not to be a little angry. I wondered if feeling angry was better that feeling nothing.
Mike Hattsu brought Kyu and I some Demachi Futaba mochi to eat as a tribute after we emerged. I was thankful that I could still taste it.
That afternoon and evening
I didn’t have a concrete plan for the rest of the day but, as hard as it is to believe, I ended up back at Masugata Shōtengai. I tried the new sushi restaurant that opened up at the west end for the first time.
Apparently, Suzaki Aya–Tamako’s voice actor—had already come to visit. Though it has been seven years since the broadcast, Tamako never really left the market.
It was the fixed off day at Sagaki, but even when the shop is closed, someone always makes sure the exchange notebook is available.
The banner with phrase Always By Your Side (いつもあなたのそばにある) comes from the film Tamako Love Story, which based this on the existing hand-painted banners Masugata still creates. The new message was reimported by the shōtengai as a subtle nod to the work that blends in with the everyday scenes around it. This message is what was inscribed on the yellow badges worn by shop staff, and which are not for sale.
I am eating Demachi Futaba—again. Mochi got me through this day.
Though I had planned to spend the rest of the day dissolving myself in the rotenburo at Kurama Onsen, I received a text from Ebisu as I was riding Eiden up the mountain. He was being interviewed by Yomiuri TV for a documentary about Kyoto Animation, explained to them that I was a Tamako and Masugata crazy person—I prefer the term subject matter expert—and they wanted me to join him for an interview and filming in the arcade. Sure, why not?
Everyone was really nice and professional. Ebisu and I strolled the arcade with the crew following us, introducing each of the shops, explaining their roles in the setting of Tamako Market, and trying our best to remember all of the interesting things that happened back in 2013 during the broadcast and visitor boom. We arrived at Kishimoto-ya, the oldest shop in the arcade, and the producer says he wants us to interview Kishimoto-san on the spot. I looked at Ebisu and told him I was sure he’d do a great job. The producer looks at me and says no, I’m going to interview with him, in Japanese. あれれ？ I did try my best. Had it been someone I knew already, like Inoue, and I wasn’t so nervous, I might not have clammed up so bad. I’ll have to go back sometime for a quiet chat when I don’t have a shoulder mounted camera and boom microphone in my face. It was a learning experience, at least.
As we were wrapping up the interview, a Tamako fan who goes by the handle Shin-Keihan stopped by to see what we were doing. I had known him only through Twitter, at that point nearly seven years, and then just like that he was standing in front of me. This was the same way I had first met the Moriwakis years ago. We just happened to be taking a walk through Masugata at the same time. This is how Kyoto Animation brings people together.
The rest of my time in Kansai on this trip was a mix of seichijunrei, errands and down time. Though most of this itinerary, at least a general outline of it, had been planned long in advance, it took on a manic quality in its execution. I had a new uncertainty on my mind. Now that I had sort of given myself permission to no longer be preoccupied with mourning during Kyoani seichijunrei, I wanted to know if, with knowledge of all of the horrible things that had happened, would I still get the same sensation of joy and wonder from these visits as before.
I knew Seki through his butaitanbou blog posts on Haruhi, K-On! and Chūnibyō, before I even made contact with him on Twitter. He was one of the five people waiting for me at the Tamako Market opening scene in Fujinomori, Kyoto when I met face-to-face with members of the Butaitanbou-sha Community (BTC) for the first time. I had a nearly complete collection of his Kyoani butaitanbou dōjinshi, but was missing the latest issue. I almost ran out of consignment shops in Kansai looking for stock, but I finally found a copy. I think it was the only non-ecchi dōjinshi in the shop.
Tesra was one of the first butaitanbou-sha I communicated with online, back when my Japanese was almost non-existent. He has become one of my closest friends and we periodically meet outside of organized BTC events for a quiet meal (this meeting was just gyoza and chat), or a wild ride around Amagasaki and Nishinomiya for an all day Haruhi seichijunrei barnstorming tour, whatever we’re in the mood for. He gave me some of the printed materials from the summer, just before the attack, when Nishinomiya was finally recognized by rights holders as the basis of the setting for the Suzumiya Haruhi series. Tesra and I share many interests, including photography, non-butaitanbou adventures, and the anachronistic practice of not taking oneself too seriously. But so many of our crossed paths ultimately run through Kyoto Animation works.
Nishi-kita Park in Nishinomiya was a little lonely without tobidashi Haruhi, a hand-cut and painted wooden likeness of the titular character, which for years greeted visitors as they exited the train station, but it also reminded me of the importance of keeping things in perspective. I was literally in the middle of a private chat with Tesra, this particular tobidashi’s creator, about the behind-the-scenes drama that had complicated the return of Haruhi to her spot under the clock tower when news of the fire broke in the morning on July 18. There was some ambiguity around who precisely controlled the space in the park, which ultimately led to Haruhi not being able to stay at this particular spot. I remember being very annoyed, even irritated by that. In an instant, it was insignificant by comparison. I felt foolish for having gotten worked up by such a thing.
But all was well when I arrived at Cafe Dream, my first time coming for breakfast and by myself. As I stood at a distance to take a photo of the facade before opening time, Mama-san spotted me as she came out to place the sandwich board, shouting good morning at me from across the street. She already knew why I was there. This is why we love Mama-san.
Like the notebook at Masugata, Dream’s is full of notes expressing grief, support, hope, and shades in between. I buy some fresh-roasted beans to take away and talk a little with Mama-san on my way out. I love the combination of her smile, raspy voice, and solid stance that says be polite in my shop or I will take you out back.
I meet Mike Hattsu and Kyu again, this time for a drive out to Actpal Uji, which is only accessible by car and is the only remaining Hibike! Euphonium location I haven’t visited. We signed ourselves in at the front door, changed to slippers, and began exploring the main building. After a while, one of the staff came out of the office and approached us to ask questions. After a little back-and-forth, I realized he was saying that parts of the path through the facility had doors that were locked, so he would go get the keys and take us on a walk-through, to make sure we could get to all of the places we wanted to see for our pilgrimage. We smiled and nodded profusely in thanks.
In the exchange notebook, kept in the atrium of the main building, more messages of mourning and hope.
Before returning the rental car, we had dinner at the Saizeriya in Uji, sitting just across from that table. We would have sat at that table if there hadn’t been other guests using it when we arrived, because otaku.
The next few days I spent back in the center of Uji, collecting a few missed Eupho shots, eating lots of sweets and drinking matcha. I started at the Kōei-dō head shop. I hadn’t yet met tobidashi Mizore, and I needed more chestnut mochi.
The Keihan Railway Eupho tie-up that had been postponed in the aftermath of the attack was rescheduled for the fall and was still in full swing while I was here.
After repeated visits to Ujigami Jinja, Reina’s favorite shrine, only to find access to the inner part closed, I finally got to see the honden.
From the observation platform at the top of Daikichiyama, I watched another Uji sunset. I’ve seen so many now that I’ve lost count. Along with Eupho fans, there were foreign tourists, Japanese tourists, and a local grandfather who had hiked up the mountain with his granddaughter. Every time a new shade of orange or purple bloomed, he let out a loud sigh of obvious satisfaction, telling everyone to make sure they were looking carefully. We were. This is Kyoto Animation bringing people together.
Where do we go from here?
At the end of this very long cathartic note, I come back to the question that Moriwaki, that everyone struggled with over the past year. What’s next?
I think we could all make some educated guesses now, time having helped at least a little with getting over the initial shock. But probably the best indicator of what is to come is Kyoto Animation itself. About a half year after the attack, the studio resumed its animator training school. Just recently it began hiring again. Had it not been for Covid-19, the first work completed after the attack, Gekijōban Violet Evergarden, would have been released on April 24. We can now look forward to its premiere September 18. It should be clear now that, in spite of many hardships, the will to move forward again is alive and well at Kyoani.
I had a brief conversation with Ebisu as the wave of reporting intensified in Japan and internationally in the wake of the attack. He lamented that, although many Kyoani fans had wanted more of Japan and the world to know what a great group of creators they were, a tragedy like this was the last thing anyone wanted to accomplish that. He was worried this might lead to the arson attack overshadowing all other things about the studio in the mind of the general public. I though that, while this wouldn’t be a storm cloud looming directly overhead forever, it was inevitable that from that point forward, even discussions purely focused on Kyoto Animation works or other unrelated matters would be unavoidably tied to this event. It would be more like a dark cloud way off in the distance that would never go away. In the midst of celebrating new growth and successes, periodically remembering painful things will just be part of our new normal.
Kyoani will continue to create wonderful, meaningful works that happen to have beautiful background art—not for inducing seichijunrei, but simply because that’s how it should be done. We butaitanbou-sha and seichijunrei-sha will continue to create our own adventures and community of shared experiences around decoding those settings. Along with the greater circle of Kyoani admirers, we will do what we can, in thought and deed, to convey our appreciation for all that the studio does. In the midst of that, we will learn how best to honor the memories of the victims, support the survivors, and cheer on forward movement, each in our way.