Kyoto Animation #2, the Key games

Through the years, KyoAni’s high productions have sometimes been bogged down by weak source material, but they can elevate it too. Look at their early days with gamemaker Visual Studio Key. KyoAni adapted three of them: Air, Kanon, and Clannad, with an Afterstory.

I’ve never played the Key games and I’d be bored if I did. Silly stuff about nice boys being kind to troubled girls who usually have some supernatural issues. The studio, I understand, worked with the same structure–humor, serious, heartbreak, in all these games, probably for all of your girl choices.

The first I watched was Kanon (after Haruhi I would watch whatever KyoAni did). Some people wondered why they bothered to do Kanon when another studio had recently done it (poorly, from what I hear), but they shut up when the episodes started coming out. KyoAni’s was far superior.

From Kanon I remember a couple of things, apart from how beautiful the romantic snowy scenes look. mostly the episode where Makoto the fox girl is slowly dying or rather fading in Yuichi’s arms. At one point the music fades with her, down to a repeating series of crystal notes, as if Makoto was dissolving to her essence. And at the end, they tie the end of the episode to the actual OP, one of the few times I’ve ever cried out an “OH!” watching a show. You see, the one complaint I had had up to then was that the ED sequence, especially the music, seemed tacked on, an abrupt jump, but here, after a heartbreak scene, music flowed into the ED.  “OH!” Possibly unintentional by the creators, but “OH!” anyway.

When I first moved to Japan in 2012, I was on a train to my new workplace, my new life, in Toyama, passing through snowy hills and towns where Kanon could have been set. I had Last Regrets playing on my MP3 player. I started to cry.

Once, watching the new episodes of whatever season it was (before this blog) I watched an ep1 of some show, something about idols, with terrible CGI. Disgusted, I then turned to my Netflix DVDs and watched the first episode of Air.  … A girl popped a soap bubble, and I gasped. “That’s right! This is real animation!” Now, it’s unfair to compare a forgotten idol series watched on my computer to Air on a bigger-screen TV, but I don’t care.

Air was beautiful to look at, summer in comparison to Kanon’s winter, but like Kanon, elegant. Sadly, I can’t remember any more of it apart from the moment when the young girl’s twintails ribbons unwound of their own accord. Because it was based on a multi-ending game, no anime could have nailed the landing perfectly.  For me I couldn’t figure out why the hero was suddenly a crow.

How DOES a linear TV story do justice to all the girls’ endings? Amagami SS had the best solution when it simply rebooted to another girl after four episodes, but that often entertaining high school romance series style doesn’t fit the atmosphere of KyoAni’s Key stories.

Which leads us to Clannad, and Clannad After Story, with an amazing finale that made no sense at all.  Plotwise Clannad was more of the same, except elevated by KyoAni, and Afterstory took us down darker paths than we expected. Two episodes before the finale it seems like Tomoya, who had already lost his wife Nagisa (I argue that for gods sakes he should have chosen Tomoya. Kyou or Ryou would be fine too, even Kotomi if you keep her away from a violin … but NAGISA?? The dullest girl of the lot? but I digress…), he loses her daughter too and collapses in grief.

It should have been the end of the story there, but the creators had earlier snuck in that rising lights image, and the girl and the robot. The ensuing messy thing that followed rose out of the grief, went back in time to Nagisa’s giving birth, but with a happy ending. It was absolutely ridiculous, but with the blobs and lights, and the girl and robots enveloped in the snowstorm (the girl says “Papa” to the robot, a moment that almost rescued the entire sequence). The scenes that followed managed to salvage the point. The people you live with and can help are your life. Plotwise the ending could not hope to succeed. Emotionally it overwhelmed me.

Kyoto Animation gave those three silly Key games an elegance and joy more than their worth, one that I believe no other studio could have given them.

KyoAni, well I have to write something, #1

When I first heard of the fire and watched the death toll slowly going up, I felt that I had to say something. So I wrote a long, increasingly drunken blog post, which, on Saturday, I decided not to post. It felt too personal. But every day after I felt that I wouldn’t be happy unless I expressed a few things.

Which is basically the point of this blog: I want to talk about something. So I will cut that long post into smaller ones. I might do two, or three, or more, but no matter how many or how few there are things I need to say about Kyoto Animation, the best anime studio in the world. Sorry, no images. You know where to find them.

For this post I must start with The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. It came early in my anime-watching life. It was one of the first series I fell in love with (the others being Azumanga and Sailor Moon–the secret’s out!).

I hate to pull a “back in the day” on you, but back in the day, April 2006, no one knew that this series existed. Hell, while they had a good reputation in the industry, most hardly knew that Kyoto Animation existed. There was no hype at all. The only reason I heard about it was because some other bloggers had managed to watch the first episode and had freaked out:

It’s funny … It stars a “combat waitress from the future” … But that’s not what’s really going on …

I was sold and watched it.

People who haven’t seen this franchise yet, I beg you, I absolutely BEG you, to watch the same first episode I did, The Adventures of Mikuru Asahina Episode 00, I beg you again. The episodes on DVD are not in the order that we watched it. The show did not air in chronological order, mostly.

The reason I’m begging so much is that the Mikuru Asahina episode is the best first episode I have ever seen, not only in anime, but on any TV show, maybe in fiction. No one had ever introduced their show in such a bewildering and delightful fashion.

Through ep00, which is a depiction of a bad, obviously amateur movie (KyoAni depicting the bad light and editing faithfully), we meet all the main characters except the most important one, until the end. Moreover, we have a narrator guiding us through the mess; he’s trying to help us along but he’s also snarking at things he doesn’t like, and is often saying the exact thing we’re thinking (Who changed Mikuru into a T-shirt?). By the end of the craziness this speaker is our friend, and turns out he’s the main character, Kyon. We had learned in a roundabout way that, whatever more happened in further episodes, we could count on Kyon. There’s also some weird light, the evil cute witch girl jumping on Mikuru for apparently no reason, and that cat who ups the weirdness by, well, I won’t say–none intended for that crap movie they were making, oh, and the green-haired girl laughing. All in that jaw-dropping first episode.

No one had seen anything like it. Haruhi Suzumiya became a viral and by episode 3, a mainstream hit. A sensation.

KyoAni kept up the animation quality though the story dipped a couple times before it regrouped and gave us what I call the “Yuki Rocks Trilogy,” and a magnificent final episode (air-date 14, DVD 7, please watch this one last to get the great finale the series deserves (Mahler!)–obviously I am an “air date” man).

Soon every anime fan had heard of Kyoto Animation, and what they were capable of.