The “Endless Eight” arc of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is one of the most memorable controversies in anime history. Its sheer audacity angered a lot of fans and made Kyoto Animation look flat out arrogant. We will probably never know what really motivated them to make such a bold decision, but the way events panned out makes you wonder if it was really was just a moment of creative hubris. It’s possible the move was a necessary, if ill advised, adjustment. By extending “Endless Eight”, KyoAni could finish the second season of Haruhi without touching the much anticipated “Disappearance” storyline. Only five months later that arc was released as their first feature length film.
Brilliantly animated and showered with critical acclaim, The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya was a new quality benchmark for KyoAni and in a way a turning point for the studio. Aside from entering them in the business of feature films, that new level of quality has carried on through their subsequent releases. It helped them elevate their reputation to where they are now regarded as one of the top anime studios in Japan. Previously, they’ve gotten that attention with the loyalty and dollars of the moe-fueled otaku market. But if you look at how they’ve moved and evolved over the past three years, it’s clear they want more than that; to go beyond that 20 something male demographic, to be loved and acknowledged not just for late night anime, but as one of the best animation companies in the world… kind of like a certain iconic studio with a famous septuagenarian director and a large cat monster mascot.
For starters, take a look at the recent choice of source material KyoAni has made. A good portion of their early success was built on adaptations of adult visual novels by the company Key. While the anime series themselves edited any actual adult content, there was still the association with the less than family friendly industry. By contrast their two most recent adaptations, Nichijou and Hyouka, are probably their most innocent work to date. Perhaps a telling sign is the recent announcement of the Little Busters anime. As another popular Key visual novel, many people thought KyoAni would be a frontrunner to take on the task. Reportedly the president of Visual Arts, Key’s parent company, reached out to KyoAni about the project but was turned down because they were “too busy”. Coincidence? Considering that easy otaku money is now going to J.C. Staff, I think their agenda may have changed.
Another head turning move has been KyoAni’s foray into more mainstream television. Last April they struck a deal with Disney Channel Japan to rerun episodes of K-ON! at hours more suited for normal human beings. Looking back it seems convenient how much they either omitted or toned down the innuendo from the manga, especially in the second season. I couldn’t imagine Disney going near it otherwise. More recently, NIchijou was trimmed down and re-aired on NHK Educational TV, a family friendly station generally aimed at a younger demographic. Part of that may have been an attempt to recoup some losses from the series poor sales, but it was still another way to reach a broader audience.
Reaching more people and gaining more mainstream acceptance may seem like a pretty broad goal, so why even bring Ghibli into this? Well the final piece of the puzzle is the original corporate commercials the studio has been producing since 2010. Each of the ads depicts its own vivid, standalone world teeming with imagination and youthful innocence. You can’t help but think of Ghibli when you see them, and if you need further convincing, just take a look at their latest ad at the beginning of the article. Granted these are only 30 second concepts, but they are also the only original work KyoAni has done in the time frame we’re talking about. They just may indicate what direction they would go if they made something from scratch, and that direction looks a whole lot like Ghibli.
The mere fact that KyoAni can release a commercial and it makes the anime news rounds gives you an idea on how huge they’ve become. But it takes more than technical prowess, popularity, and a relationship with Disney to be embraced the way Ghibli has. You have to back up that style with substance, to create something that touches people so much they never forget it. While Disappearance was a fine film, no one would speak it in the same sentence as the Ghibli classics. Handcuffed by its source material and anime high school setting, it lacks the unbridled creativity and passion to make it a true all time great. Of course for Ghibli, those elements ultimately come from their leadership and there will never be another Hayao Miyazaki. But that doesn’t mean KyoAni can’t seek out more creatively substantial adaptations or find the talent to create original work.
To their credit, KyoAni has done a good job of choosing material with a common theme. Nearly all their work emphasizes an appreciation for the ordinary, everyday things you might take for granted, particularly friends and family. That can be a powerful message, and they do manage to create some poignant moments from time to time. But until they break free from catering specifically to the otaku market, that message is going to keep getting diluted by school anime tropes. I don’t want to prejudge anything, but their next project, translated to something like I Have Adolescent Delusions, But I Want to Love!, doesn’t seem like it will break the mold. Even so, it’s hard to ignore the choices KyoAni has made since that infamous string of Haruhi episodes back in 2009. Even if it’s impossible for them to achieve the critical and commercial success of a respected studio like Ghibli, they’ve put themselves in a position where they can get closer than most.