The Kindhearted Anime Only Kyoto Animation Could Make: Baja’s Studio

The Kindhearted Anime Only Kyoto Animation Could Make: Baja’s Studio

5 weeks after the tragedy that shook not just Kyoto Animation but the entire anime industry, we are, like many other fans out there, still trying to recover. The healing will be slow, but we can’t allow ourselves to stay down forever. And that’s why we turned our gaze towards Baja’s Studio: a delightful little work that draws from decades of the studio’s unique culture. Even more so than their other works, this is the anime that only KyoAni’s kind workplace could make.

It’s hard for me to grasp that it’s already been over a month since the worst tragedy in anime’s history. Not just because the scale of the incident and its lasting repercussions on this industry are still impossible to measure, but because it’s honestly screwed with my perception of time. A wound that’s still so fresh and yet feels like it’s been hurting for an impossibly long time already.

I can only speak as a bystander: someone who followed Kyoto Animation closely as a fan and later as a professional of sorts, and whose personal acquaintances at the studio luckily made it out alive. Both those individuals and the works they produced grew to become more important to me than I’d even realized before tragedy struck, as seems to have happened to many viewers all over the world. Whether you knew all their staff by name or simply had happened to watch any of their works at the right time in your life, your grief is equally valid – and yet that’s still only a fraction of the pain the victims and their families are going through.

Ongoing fundraising campaigns that the studio has managed to ascertain are legit – more information on how to help KyoAni at the end of the post, especially if you don’t live in Japan.

As tragic as this whole situation is though, I don’t want this piece to be a downer. Or rather, I can’t let it be. While the studio is focusing first and foremost on the physical and emotional wellbeing of the staff – all employees have met psychologists and been granted indefinite access to professional help – they’re also facing work with more firmness than ever. President Hatta’s statements aren’t his individual stance so much as the embodiment of the general attitude at the studio: they’re not giving up. Not allowing this to waste their companions’ efforts, nor taint their reputation by lowering the exceptional quality standards the studio is known for. It goes without saying that no one involved should be blamed if they can’t gather the energy to carry on with their animation career after an event this horrifying, but the sheer resolve the crew as a whole is showing is worthy of admiration.

And if they’ve been able to start moving forward, I believe that fans shouldn’t be the ones lagging behind. It honestly hasn’t been easy to find the emotional energy for anime as of late, let alone for KyoAni’s works, but it only feels right to return to our usual goal of celebrating the power of animation. And, when talking about this very particular studio, there’s one title that encapsulates the joy only they can bring to this world: Baja’s Studio.

In the wake of this tragedy, plenty of people have been sharing stories detailing exactly what has made KyoAni into such a special studio since way before it became an animation powerhouse. All the focus on their positive working conditions and the family-like atmosphere is warranted – especially considering it’s taken something this horrifying for a lot of people to start valuing the studio’s practices – but it’s not as if those are their only defining traits. Be it their fully in-house approach to the production process or the nurturing of young talent as an objective in and of itself, everything the studio makes is inevitably influenced by a series of beliefs that the company has stuck to for a long time.

Among the ideas that make up their consistent ethos, KyoAni’s goal to make anime they could call truly of their own happens to be integral to Baja’s Studio. That desire to be financially and emotionally atop of all their projects whether they’re an original story or not has often been framed as a consequence of their tremendous success in the 00s as the star animation producers for Kadokawa (The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Lucky Star, Hyouka) and TBS (KEY titles like Clannad and Kanon 2006, K-ON!), but that’s not quite the case. While that success as hired hands undoubtedly accelerated the process, not only by providing them with funding but further motivating them, the truth is that the studio wanted to have control over their output so that the artists could feel invested in their creations pretty much since their inception.

The eventual consequences of this mindset are well-known, since KyoAni did fulfill that goal. Once they felt their brand was strong enough, the studio pivoted away from adaptations of popular titles to animating their own IPs; the Kyoto Animation Awards would accept fan submissions in a variety of formats, and the most noteworthy entries would be published through the studio’s imprint KA Esuma, perhaps even be used as the basis for a new anime project. In recent years, they’ve also been able to leverage that position of strength to lead the production committees of select external properties like A Silent Voice and the Sound! Euphonium franchise, which puts them in a more rewarding – if riskier – financial position, and gives them more of a say on fundamental creative decisions.

The Kyoto Animation Commercials were another important step in reinforcing the studio’s identity and allowing their employees to make animation truly of their own.

If you’re a dedicated fan of the studio, however, you’ll know that the awards and their publishing imprint weren’t the first steps towards that goal. The web-magazine KyoAniBON, which ran for 25 issues between March 2007 and August 2009, was a clear attempt not just to reach out to fans directly but to showcase many ideas they had for original projects; though the magazine was never archived properly due to its nature as a time-limited, multimedia Flash release, we still know of the many pitches their staff showcased in the form of illustrations and plot summaries, serialized manga and novelizations, and even behind the scenes features about their pre-production. It’s an obscure piece of the studio’s history, yet an indispensable one to understand where they’ve ended up.

But if we want to find the first crystallizations of KyoAni’s desire to become a self-sufficient content producer, we actually have to look further back and unearth some truly forgotten projects. As early as the mid-90s, the studio’s website already showcased their pitch for an anime based on the folk tale Kasa Jizo – and I do mean an actual pitch, since even though the project was never greenlit in the end, they went as far as drawing storyboards to showcase their ideas. Similarly, KyoAni also put up a website in the early 00s dedicated to a kids-oriented title by the name of Kanaka’s Magic Dream, which would involve a couple of siblings going in a fantastical adventure, as well as a certain badger mouse.

Sample artboards from Kanaka’s Magic Dream circa 2004.

While KyoAni never got the opportunity to turn Kanaka’s Magic Dream into reality, its presence never faded away from the studio. The instructive books on animation and painting&compositing published by Kyoto Animation featured its characters all over the lessons meant to teach anime-making fundamentals, even after its edited reprint quite a few years later. Both the mouse Baja and toy duck Gaa-chan slowly became the studio’s de facto mascots, present as illustrations in their physical location and official store, as well as a symbol of the studio online. Though Shouko Ikeda was credited as the character designer for Kanaka’s Magic Dream, reports that Baja was spotted even earlier than that and the fact that the badger had become synonymous with someone else’s name make me believe that it had always been the passion project of the person who’d eventually direct Baja’s Studio: the late Yoshiji Kigami, one of the victims of the arson attack on the studio.

We’ll say it as many times as it’s needed: every life extinguished, every heart scarred in this brutal act of terrorism was as valuable as the others. With that in mind, though, you shouldn’t fault people for echoing names like Kigami’s a bit stronger than the rest of the publically disclosed victims; over the years he’d crafted many of the special moments that resonated strongly with audiences worldwide, so many fans understandably feel as if they’ve lost someone important to them. It’s no secret that Kigami played a fundamental role in establishing KyoAni’s identity as a studio focused on character expression via thorough acting and body language, and that he remained the greatest mentor for both his coworkers and the aspiring animators who signed up for the Kyoto Animation Pro Training Course. A kind man who wouldn’t flinch when telling a young artist that all their cuts needed to be redone, but then would bear the brunt of the work himself in a way that still allowed the newcomer to learn from the experience. His death was a tremendous blow not just for the studio, but for animation as a whole.

To celebrate their first 50k followers on Twitter, Kyoto Animation shared this adorable clip of Baja both on social media and their website.

As we said earlier, though, we can’t keep lamenting the losses forever. Choosing to highlight everyone’s triumphs instead feels like a healthier way to pay respect to them, and there’s no better title than Baja’s Studio to honor their legacy. That’s no figure of speech: this OVA was originally released during the KyoAni & DO FAN DAYS 2017: This Is What We Are Now! bi-yearly event, as it tied into its overall goal of celebrating just how much the studio had grown while never abandoning its kind atmosphere.

Baja’s Studio presents a couple of simple conflicts, seen through the eyes of its titular badger mouse. On the one hand, there’s the story of Kohata Studio, a cozy animation production company with a bit of a pickle; Kanako, the director of the show they’re currently producing, doesn’t see eye to eye with its character designer… but doesn’t want to bluntly oppose them either as they’re coworkers in an agreeable studio, so her stress begins piling up with the looming threat of falling behind on their schedule. Alongside this authentic showcase of studio friction, we’ve got the fantastical tale of Baja and those very same fictional characters coming to life, to help (and impede) the badger mouse’s mission to befriend a toy duck.

In the end, both of those tales converge. Baja’s Studio rescues plot points from the scrapped Kanaka’s Magic Dream and combines them with the Kenji Miyazawa works that likely inspired them in the first place. It’s celestial imagery and the lyrics of Hoshi Meguri no Uta that trigger the climactic sequence, which essentially reformulates the point the OVA was making all along: that animation, as a vector of boundless imagination, is real magic. And, after nothing but impossibly charming animal acting that only someone of Kigami’s skill and age could have brought back, it’s pretty easy to buy that thesis.

It’s hard to miss that Baja’s Studio isn’t only celebrating the power of animation in general, though, but also KyoAni in specific. Kohata is in Uji Kyoto after all, and the studio itself is a recreation of Kyoto Animation Studio 1 with some elements from their headquarters thrown into the mix as well. While the narrative itself is fictional, the warm interactions within the studio – regardless of the inescapable disagreements when you’re creating art as a group – are very reflective of the atmosphere in the real thing.

If you’re wondering exactly how authentic it is, one important detail that the OVA leaves unsaid is that Baja the mouse occupies the same role as a pet dear to many creators who have worked at KyoAni, even those who parted ways with the studio. During the 00s and likely even earlier, the staff kept a black cat by the name of Kuroi within the studio. Like the proud feline he was, Kuroi would walk freely among all the animation desks and get pampered by all the employees, who grew so fond of him he became a mascot of sorts for the studio – much like Baja did. Long-time followers of the studio might remember fun initiatives like the official Haruhi production blog that ran for years, framed as if it were Kuroi taking the pictures, conducting interviews, and so on. While he passed away quite a few years ago, his spirit lives on in various forms; not only did Baja honor the memories about the cat that the staff still treasure, his name is still used to this day in the studio’s server that tests all their new websites.

It’s also worth noting that, as a special project celebrating the positive environment KyoAni offers to creators, Baja’s Studio was produced in a way that allowed them more freedom than ever. KyoAni is already exceptional for a studio of their size in that the entirety of the company’s board of directors is comprised of veteran artists, which stopped the appearance of a gap between the studio’s interests and those of the crew who actually make anime. This project took it even further by having the creators themselves handle even the management work; the OVA’s producer is none other than veteran animator and director Noriyuki Kitanohara, while the production assistant who coordinated all the tasks was renowned designer Shouko Ikeda. You’ll often see projects referred to as animator playgrounds, but in this case it was quite literally true – Baja’s Studio was entirely on their hands, hence why the gratitude it expresses towards the studio feels so genuine.

And while veteran staffers got to manage the project from those unusual positions, up-and-coming creators got to treat Baja’s Studio as a playground in a different sense. The most notable case is that of Shouko Ochiai, co-art director of the OVA. She was a bit of an unusual case for KyoAni as she had extensive enough experience elsewhere before the studio – most of KyoAni’s employees have only ever worked there – but she adapted so quickly that only a couple of years after entering the company, her peers already felt she could do a great job commanding the background art efforts of an entire project. Since that’s quite the responsibility, however, she got a taste of the job on a smaller scale by sharing responsibilities on Baja’s Studio. After proving her worth by contributing to its beautiful fairy-tale sceneries, Ochiai was able to safely move on to her fully-fledged debut as art director on 2018’s Tsurune.

As if to prove how deliberate of a decision that was, history is now repeating itself. While the old concept art is still being used, Baja’s Studio sequel is putting Momoka Hase on the art director seat for the very first time. Hase had been climbing the ranks on the art department for a while so her promotion to art director felt like only a matter of time, especially after she was second in command in the impossibly gorgeous Liz and the Blue Bird, and once again we’ve got the adorable badger mouse to thank for giving young creators the possibility to experiment before they have to tackle bigger projects. Since Baja’s Studio is such a perfect microcosm of Kyoto Animation, it’s not much of a surprise that the continuous training of new talent is also such a big part of it.

Though of course, the elephant in the room is that we don’t know for a fact whether the upcoming sequel will be able to be completed. The second Baja’s Studio OVA was due to be released during the studio’s bi-yearly event once again, and although much work was done already, it’s unclear whether they’ll manage to wrap it up after a crippling blow that’s hit so close to this project, the very heart of KyoAni. And that’s why I want to once again remind that if you care about this unique studio and can afford to, supporting the victims directly can do a lot to assuage their pain. If you live in Japan there are plenty of ways to do so – not just the ones listed at the beginning of this post but local campaigns in right about any city that’s served as the setting for a KyoAni work – but since things aren’t so easy for foreign fans, I wanted to end the post with some guidance.

As you likely know, KyoAni opened a temporary bank account to receive donations directly in late July; if you’re used to international transfers, it should be easy to send them money using the information from this post on their website. If you don’t, or in case your bank doesn’t offer reasonable flat rates for this procedure, I recommend using a service like TransferWise to make the transaction as painless and efficient as possible, especially for medium to large sums of money. The most efficient way depends on your personal circumstances – banking situation and how much you’re donating – so if you want to make sure that as much money as possible reaches them, you might have to look up things on your end.

That said, the optimal way to help the studio right now regardless of how much you’re planning to donate is likely Right Stuf’s Kyoto Animation donation system, which is essentially pooling money to send it directly to the studio in a single write transfer, which they’ll cover the costs of. Their service uses $1 increments so you can donate exactly as much as you want, but keep in mind that they’re only going to be collecting donations until August 31, so if you want to take advantage of this handy campaign, you don’t have much time left. And if you can’t make it to that deadline, don’t despair: any bit of help is welcome, even if it’s simply a nice message that manages to reach them. Most of those and even other means of donating should be available for quite a while as the studio’s going to need a long time to recover, so if you really want to send money their way when you’ve got disposable income, you’ll eventually get a chance to.

Baja’s Studio is never going to be one of KyoAni’s most popular titles. It was never meant to be. And yet it embodies many of the beliefs that make it such a special animation studio, the practices that elevated the quality of their work to unmatched heights, and the fundamental kindness the permeated from the workplace into all their anime. Baja’s Studio is a simple, adorable little cartoon that could have never been made anywhere else. If we want to see more works like it, we’ve got to support KyoAni as much as we can.

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Chrissy C
Chrissy C
3 years ago

Thanks for the writeup. I learned and saw new things today because of this post. It’s time for me to donate a few dollars through the Rightstuf link.

3 years ago

i wanna take this opportunity to thank you and everyone else on the sakugablog and your whole circle of twitter friends, both for doing what you can to provide updates on kyoani even though the sad news must be hitting you all even harder than it has hit us, and for putting so much love and effort into this blog over the years. i’ve been a big fan of kyoani’s works since the first season of k-on aired a decade ago, but until i started reading your articles a couple years back i knew very little about all the individual… Read more »

2 years ago
Reply to  kViN

I just watched “Baja’s Studio”, English subbed, on NHK-WORLD broadcast in Los Angeles during the 1AM hour 12/28/2019. This was my first time seeing it. It was SO heartwarming, that until I saw the 2017 copyright at the end, I thought it was a tribute OVA created to honor the staff lost to murder.

I’m glad I didn’t open my mouth to my coworkers before I had the facts! (blush!)

3 years ago

I’m so happy that you wrote about Baja and Kuroi.
Thank you, kVin.

3 years ago

Thanks. I watched it (and tried to prompt a groupwatch of it in a discord server I’m in) and it was a pretty sweet work. Thanks for giving the necesary details to make sense of Baja, since both the talking animals and magical girls made me think much more to Toei and Junichi Sato (whose work in Aria I have trouble unseeing as a big influence on Yamada’s K-on s2 and the Market portion of Tamako. I was very confused to see the fictional version of KyoAni tackle something pretty unexpected Although nothing compares to the curse of having Baja… Read more »

3 years ago

The fire accident in KYOTO ANIMATION is frustrating, I hope to be able to stand up again, thank you

2 years ago

That tragic event is really something that we’ve never forget as anime fans. We just hope, that just like the Japanese culture, they’ll be able to bounce back higher this time! Arigatou Gozaimashita