Biwa, with her glowing white hair, singing against a black backdrop

Niche

As the Buddha’s Temple Bells Toll: Looking Back to Kyoto Animation


On July 18, 2019, an arson attack at the studio Kyoto Animation (“KyoAni”) killed 36 people and injured 34 more. Three years later, its influence continues to be felt. Those who perished in the attack are no longer here. Survivors were injured, traumatized, and scarred. Some left the studio to pursue work elsewhere.

The KyoAni arson attack led to similar threats at Visual Arts, the publisher of games by popular game studio and former KyoAni collaborator Key. Animation studios studied fire safety and increased their security. Expectations were readjusted. Kyoto Animation, a studio known for its “employee-oriented approach in an industry that is known for low wages and long hours,” needed time to recuperate and rebuild. Hope lay in its crew of talented young animators, its strong company culture, and the staff’s refusal to accept defeat.

Biwa and Shigemori sitting together on a dark porch. Fireflies light up the foreground

Art rises from disaster as surely as it does from passion or memory. In 1954, Gojira transformed the fear of nuclear violence inflicted upon Japan by the United States into a monster revived from the deep by bomb tests. The United States is no stranger to narrative scab-picking, either.  Countless blockbuster action films since September 11th, 2001 have quoted the fall of the Twin Towers back to audiences. In the first Avengers movie, upon which the legend of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was built, a team of superheroes fought an alien army to a standstill to protect a single New York City block. Collective trauma may manifest in genre fiction in a variety of shapes, sometimes unexpected.

It is hard to approach mass death and suffering directly. The incident becomes a black box that sits in the throat. Sooner or later, a frustrated artist will cough up that box and try to make sense of it. The box can never be opened, but its shape and weight may be understood through metaphors. So it is with the Kyoto Animation arson, which has already attracted its share of diviners struggling to make sense of the inexplicable.

Manga panel of a girl looking down at a piece of paper

The final chapter of Chainsaw Man’s first part was published on December 14, 2020. Fans of the series flooded the internet with fan art, cosplay photos, and even animation. Following this finale, artist Tatsuki Fujimoto had a window to draw anything he wanted. He chose to draw Look Back, a manga one-shot released on the anniversary of the Kyoto Animation arson. Look Back lacked the outrageous gore and sexuality of Chainsaw Man. But Fujimoto’s eye for unexpected comedy and tragedy in everyday life remained just as unflinching here, in a fictional story about real events.

Ayumu Fujino, the heroine of Look Back, draws silly comic strips for her class to read. Her truant classmate Kyomoto draws detailed illustrations of local landscapes, advanced far beyond her years. No matter how hard Fujino tries, she cannot match Kyomoto’s artistic skill. She nearly gives up cartooning for karate in a fit of despair. But when she finally meets Kyomoto by chance, she discovers that Kyomoto is her number one fan.

Fujino’s mistake was to internalize the disdain of her classmates for her cartooning, the assumption that the pictures she draws will never mean anything. Anyone who has spent time with Fujino, or has read her work (or simply has Kyomoto’s eye) recognizes the hard work she puts into her comics. The reader is given panel after panel of Fujino at her desk, toiling away. Seasons change, volumes of published comics pile up on her shelves.

Fujino at her desk, seen from behind and cast in shadow

Drawing manga is often depicted as a fun or pulse-pounding activity, like in the Shonen Jump comic Bakuman. Look Back instead gives us the banality of manga production, the way in which youthful passion viewed from the outside is a lifetime of hard repetitive labor.

In the pursuit of manga production, Fujino lets go of her fear of judgment. She lets go of Kyomoto, who has artistic ambitions of her own. She becomes a successful comics artist, who has “made it”, even if her work goes under the goofy title of “Shark Kick.” But then Kyomoto is murdered in a freak incident while attending art school, leaving Fujino alone. Once again, Fujino must face the possibility that the silly drawings which pay her rent are a waste of time.

Closeup of a manga page with a speech bubble yelling "It's shark time, baby! To be continued in volume 12!"

Lurking beneath the gentle surface of Look Back is the ghost of the Kyoto Animation arson. Kyomoto’s landscapes mirror KyoAni’s famous renderings of Kyoto in their productions, somehow more luminous than the real city. There is no rhyme or reason to Kyomoto’s death. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time, as if an earthquake or a nuclear bomb had gone off.

Fujino changed the world far more visibly by nudging Kyomoto towards an art career (and her death) than by working long hours drawing comics. It would have been better all along if she learned karate, she decides, than if she ever drew a comic page in middle school. If only she could travel back in time and tell her past self to stay away from Kyomoto, for her own good! Unfortunately, Look Back is not that kind of manga.

Wide manga panel of a girl running through a rainy field, arms raised to the sky

But Fujimoto throws the reader a bone. In another time and place, Fujino does put comics on hold for karate. Kyomoto still goes to art school, and is ambushed by the killer. Fujino, who by sheer chance happens to be in the right place at the right time, attacks the killer with karate and saves Kyomoto’s life. One Kyomoto lives, the other dies. Each remains bound to their respective worlds, a moving body in one, a corpse in the other. Our Fujino will only ever know the corpse. Yet there is one force in the world of Look Back able to violate the laws of the universe, to cross from one realm of possibility to the other. It is the other Fujino’s comic strip, blown across the page gutter by winds of fate into our Fujino’s hands.

This act of sharing is the only relief in Fujimoto’s nihilistic worlds. Watching movies together, recording a home video with a friend, a comic strip passed from one person to another. Fujino might struggle with impostor syndrome, but Kyomoto knows better. To draw a funny cartoon demands craftsmanship in the same way that rendering a perfect leaf on the page requires Kyomoto’s genius. Putting a pen to the page and drawing sincerely is an act of love; to show that drawing to a friend is to connect one world to another. Comics cross space. That is Tatsuki Fujimoto’s answer to the void, Fujino’s last small comfort.

Closeup of Tokuko's hand grasping a prayer thread

Naoko Yamada made her name at Kyoto Animation as one of the studio’s signature directors. She boarded some of the most affecting episodes of Clannad: After Story, during the period in which Kyoto Animation’s adaptations of Key visual novels were their bread and butter. She directed the studio’s transformative adaptation of K-ON!!, the peak of the 2000s moe boom. Her last film for Kyoto Animation was Liz and the Blue Bird, a spin-off of the popular Sound! Euphonium series that transmutes the young adult drama of the original into a claustrophobic art film. Yamada was not the only great talent to move on from Kyoto Animation in the wake of the arson, and the studio will survive in her absence. But her departure is an inflection point in the studio’s history, a premature passing of the torch from one generation to the next.

Her recent anime series The Heike Story, produced at the studio Science Saru, adapts one of Japan’s greatest historical epics. It tells the tale of the Taira clan, a prestigious family that exerts political and military influence over the country. The head of the clan, Kiyomori, lives as a monk, yet continues to greedily exercise power from behind the scenes. He clashes with the retired emperor, Go-Shirakawa, who similarly plots behind closed doors to prevent Heike supremacy.

Biwa sprinting through the night, the moon tiny and high above

The Taira obliterate their enemies, seize Go-Shirakawa and consolidate their hold over the country. But in the following years, Kiyomori dies of illness, his various sons and relatives meet terrible fates, and his family’s power is undone by their rivals, the Minamoto (or Genji) clan. The tale, and the series, open with the line “the buddha’s temple bells toll the message that all existence is impermanent” —and just so, even the powerful Taira clan is erased.

Yamada and her team were given just eleven episodes to adapt The Heike Story. Any reader of the source material could understand the difficulty of this assignment. The original epic is dense, taking place over the course of many years. Any one of the narrative’s twelve chapters could be expanded to eleven episodes on its own. Additionally, Yamada’s traditional strength as a director is not grand-scale narrative delivery, but instead perfectly capturing small moments and gestures. Within these constraints, an adaptation of The Heike Story would require choosing what to include and what to leave out.

Biwa looking up into the camera, petals blowing past her face

Yamada and scriptwriter Reiko Yoshida make two clear choices in adapting the narrative. The first is foregrounding two women, Biwa and Tokuko. Biwa is an original character, a young girl adopted by the Taira clan who can see the future but is powerless to change it. Tokuko is an important player in the source text, as the Taira wife of the Emperor’s son who finds herself at the center of a political maelstrom. Biwa foresees Tokuko’s death, and must grapple with her own lack of control over the Heike clan’s inevitable doom. Meanwhile, Tokuko is granted additional leeway by Yamada and company to push back against the men determining her fate. She emerges as the moral compass of the story, a shining light in the shadow cast by the Heike clan’s fall.

By centering Biwa and Tokuko in this telling, The Heike Story centers Biwa’s anger and Tokuko’s grace. Tokuko labors to bear up the weight of history, and survives to forsake her suffering as a nun. Biwa struggles with her inability to save those people close to her, and in the end becomes a storyteller who sings her story to others. The forces of history cannot be averted, and violence cannot be undone. All that Biwa and Tokuko can do is make peace with their lack of power, even as they carry the weight of the dead on their backs.

Shigemori's three sons as teenagers, seen from afar as they stand in the shallow water under a Torii gate

The second choice is to emphasize the passage of time. At just eleven episodes, The Heike Story cannot afford to take its time luxuriating in small, profound moments. Neither can it flesh out the historical battles of the source material, which feel perfunctory here. The rate at which the characters grow and change leaves the strongest impression. The children of Biwa’s adopted father, the doomed Shigemori, rapidly mature from boys to men within an episode or two. The decline of the Heike clan is accelerated by the show’s fast pace. Only Biwa stays the same, a young girl from beginning to end. Her adult self, an ageless woman who punctuates the narrative with song, remains adrift from the past and future.

The Heike Story is concerned with the inevitability of fate and the tragedy of attachment, not just historically but diegetically. As fans have pointed out, many animators and contract studios who have either worked with Kyoto Animation in the past, or were heavily influenced by their output, contributed to the series. Science Saru did not have the infrastructure or the resources to replicate the standard of quality Yamada could rely upon at Kyoto Animation. Yamada herself must have known going in that the production would be a challenge. But she did it anyway, even if all things are impermanent.

While The Heike Story is a compromised work, it ends with a miracle. As Tokuko reaches for her prayer beads, the beads become strings, and thrum. Time rewinds, the fallen flowers return to their branches. This is the gift freely given by Yamada and her crew: the story of the Heike cannot be changed, but it can be retold. Biwa’s friends and family are remembered through song, through verse, and through anime like this one. So do the happy memories of Shigemori’s family persist even as their destruction dominates the narrative.

Biwa, with her glowing white hair, singing against a black backdrop

Popular art mutates over time as historical scars scab over. The collapse of the Twin Towers repeated itself over and over again in American film until the destruction of entire cities on screen became routine. The somber brutality of the first Gojira film transformed over the course of a franchise into camp, as the titular character evolved from a symbol of fear to a grumpy antihero. In both these cases, generational trauma was recycled by the market to sell toys.

Art can’t save lives. It rarely changes minds. It can provide catharsis, but then the argument has been made that catharsis itself quells the drive for a better world. In 2022, when every year feels like five years, making art sometimes feels like a waste of time. What use is a comic strip to make sense of mass death? How could a television series made in a tight time frame do justice to an artist’s personal reckoning with grief? At a time like this, I can’t help but think of a comic strip drawn by hard-working cartoonist Faith Erin Hicks. “Everything is so bad right now,” she says. “And I make comics!!”

Comics will not save us, just as stories cannot save us. But they’re a great way to make people laugh, and I know from past experience that they can make people cry, too. Kyoto Animation returned to anime production last year with a sequel to Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, a comedy series about a young office worker and her dragon roommate. Dragon Maid is broadly goofy, and is concerned with quirky humor and coziness above all else (when it isn’t being skeevy). But the second season came with an additional gift, a director’s credit for the late and great Yasuhiro Takemoto. Takemoto was instrumental to the success of the first season of Dragon Maid, to the point that many wondered if a second season should be made at all. Regardless of their contractual obligations, the second season’s dedication stands as a tribute to a great popular artist. It is both balm and epitaph.

What to do, then, with that black box? Some artists use their work to lick past wounds and weigh unthinkable disasters. Others provide solace and comfort to those who require it. Both are needed. Regardless, Kyoto Animation’s future remains unwritten. It is our responsibility to remember those who are gone, and celebrate those who are here.

About the author

Adam Wescott

Adam Wescott is a bookseller and features writer at Crunchyroll News. He sometimes blogs at Isn't it Electrifying, and you can find him on twitter at @wendeego. He also maintains the online newsletter AniWire at aniwire.ghost.io.

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