KyoAni’s most renowned director Naoko Yamada left the studio she had dedicated her entire career to and is now directing Heike Monogatari at Science Saru—a studio in the midst of labor and creative turmoil. So, what does that mean for all the involved parties?
Naoko Yamada had stated on multiple occasions that she had no intention to ever leave Kyoto Animation. And frankly, why would she? It was the only anime studio she knew, the place where she was carefully mentored, and a unique place when it comes to both working conditions and their ability to consistently pump out the nuanced character acting her entire style is built around. Ever since she last expressed her long-term commitment to the studio, though, the situation has tragically changed a lot.
The consequences of a horrifying event like the arson attack on KyoAni always go beyond the loss of life and physical injuries. The survivors, even the ones who weren’t physically present at Studio 1, had to deal with the loss and scarring of colleagues that, given the studio’s employment model, were in most cases the only people they had ever worked with. Much of KyoAni’s strength comes down to how closely knit of a team they are, which only makes the impact of a tragedy like this all the more devastating. While the studio has continued to offer psychological assistance to all the victims and their families, there’s no changing the fact that this was a massive blow to each and every one of them. The kind that makes you want to start anew.
Early on, somewhat positive news for the studio were officially reported: absolutely everyone who was healthy rallied to get the studio’s current main project—the final Violet Evergarden movie—finished as best as they could, so that not a single bit of effort by their lost comrades was wasted. But ever since its production wrapped up in Q1 2020, months before its eventual premiere and coinciding with the end of the fiscal year, some staff members have been resigning and restarting their careers elsewhere.
Saeko Fujita, who graduated from the KyoAni School and worked at the studio ever since then, has already made a major appearance handling the most true to life animation in Jujutsu Kaisen’s second ending sequence. Yuki Tsunoda, who’d acted as one of their animation directors over the last few years, also made an appearance in Kemono Jihen. The likes of key animator Ryosuke Shirakawa simply announced they’d be taking a break from anime but have already been making timid attempts at a return elsewhere, and even one of their character designers appears to be missing. For a studio with a couple hundred full-time employees, a handful to a dozen people stepping away—with very understandable reasons at that—should be no big deal, but it’s precisely those reasons that make it a delicate time for them.
It’s worth pointing out that while anime creators changing their workplace is an everyday occurrence, it’s not so common at KyoAni; the latest official report about the matter indicated that their average employee spends around 10 years working exclusively for the studio, a number that would have likely increased further as they’d grown a lot over the previous decade. Individuals did leave of course, be it for personal circumstances or because the allure of the freelance life was too strong, but rarely in sizable groups. But if you add the aftershocks of a tragedy to the magnetic effect of one of their creative leaders departing the studio, then this trend is easy to understand. And that’s precisely what happened: Naoko Yamada, arguably the most influential creator at the studio in modern times, left KyoAni as well.
We’ve talked at length about Yamada’s massive influence on her younger coworkers, outright mentoring a whole lot of them even though expressing herself verbally has never been her forte. And for those who still weren’t aware of her impact on the industry as a whole, Wonder Egg Priority is a good illustration of how profoundly she’s shaped the directorial sensibilities of people all over anime. This is to say two things: that this is yet another big blow to KyoAni as a studio, but also that she has already gifted them the seeds of their future. Her pupils like Taichi Ogawa, and especially Haruka Fujita if she chooses to remain, are bound to end up at the forefront when it comes to the creative process, while the studio’s still remaining veteran core—Tatsuya Ishihara, Noriyuki Kitanohara, Taichi Ishidate, and so on—will stick around to lead them as much as necessary.
Again, it’s important to note that this is the end of an era for Kyoto Animation. After the single biggest loss of talent in anime history, now they’re having to deal with the most brilliant director of her generation leaving too, likely causing more of her peers to follow her. The studio has actually had to deal with rebuilds in the past, but never one this heavy; a lot of talented artists left during the late 00s to find a place where they could get their spotlight, and even the face of the studio Yukiko Horiguchi resigned in 2014 to step away from anime. While they always came out stronger than before after those rebuilds, this time they have to face the challenge without some of their most important long-time mentors. The studio’s overall commitment to the model that has taken them here, as well as the knowledge people like Yamada have left behind, confirms that they do have a future. Their staff blog is currently bursting with new faces, and so is the studio itself. This is not the end, but it sure looks like an end, and hopefully a beginning.
Now, there’s another side to this tale. Despite having more than earned it, Yamada didn’t leave the studio to take a break, but rather to immediately start directing something new. And that something is Heike Monogatari.
If the idea of Yamada working at Science Saru is too shocking, I frankly can’t blame you, but keep in mind that it makes a lot of sense if you’ve been following her career. Look no further than Kensuke Ushio, who has spent the last few years alternating scores between Yamada’s films and Science Saru titles, obviously including her upcoming TV series over there. He became good friends with Yamada in the process, and went as far as publicly wishing to work with her again; given that she has relied on him to have a more integral role in anime production than you’d ever expect for a composer, that’s no surprise either. Similar things can be said about Reiko Yoshida: an old pal of Yamada’s at this point, having written essentially all her works, who’s been handling the scripts of Science Saru movies in recent years too—and yes, that does include Heike Monogatari as well. Although not relevant to this project, she also happens to have tenuous links with TOHO, the distributor of Science Saru’s theatrical projects. Regardless of which was the exact link that led to this project, the fact that there are so many obvious candidates is already telling.
Leaving aside the existing connections, Science Saru simply happens to be a natural creative fit for someone like Yamada. She’s about as experimental of a director as you can find in the commercial anime industry, a film dork who never lost her essence even as she began putting out massive hits; which is to say, exactly the kind of director that a rather alternative studio like Science Saru would gladly welcome. There’s also the labor factor: being used to KyoAni’s more favorable conditions, it’d be harder for Yamada to adapt to your standard anime workplace, whereas Science Saru’s efficiency and attempt to keep a healthy work-life balance is something she should feel more comfortable with… is the sentence I’d like to type. But that’s not the reality of working at Science Saru anymore, at least not for the people in the trenches. Anytime we’ve praised their model on a conceptual level, Saru animators have approached privately to point out that, at least when things get busy, all of that goes out the window immediately.
And, as it turns out, things have been getting very busy all the time as of late. Science Saru’s success has allowed the studio to put out one project after the other, with overlapping productions essentially all the time, and that’s precisely when things get very ugly for their employees. Things had been brewing for many months before someone decided to go public with their grievances; complaints I never hesitated to believe, because they were first pointed out to me by other Science Saru employees as means of corroboration. It goes without saying that the studio reacting to a frankly watered down version of what goes behind the scenes by pointing out they could sue those who speak out is disgusting, about the worst sign of good faith towards their employees in the future, but I’d like to talk about exactly where these labor issues come from.
While they can be summed up with “Science Saru makes too much anime relative to the studio’s size”, that oversimplification doesn’t tell the full story. For starters, there’s the fact that the enabler for that overproduction is the same efficient pipeline that was meant to protect the work life balance of their employees, which is perhaps the worst way for a finger in the saru‘s paw to curl. It’s also worth noting that the studio has a huge case of mismatched expectations when it comes to their international talent. Science Saru has taken pride in attracting artists from all over the world to keep their works diverse on every front, and that means that the profiles they attract are quite different from your average overseas animator in anime. More often than not, the latter tend to be teenagers with no professional experience and a whole lot of passion for anime that is leveraged for exploitation. On the other hand, Saru has naturally attracted artists who are at least acclimated to professional western productions—far from ideal job conditions, but at least way better than your average anime production.
And that’s the tricky part to grasp. Science Saru haven’t suddenly become one of the worst studios, but rather mismanaged their success in a way that made them slide into anime’s awful normality. The causes may be, but their issues aren’t unique in any way, and they don’t manifest all that much worse than in other places. The impact on workers who weren’t at all prepared for them has been massive, and even local staff suffer a great deal—but again, this is your average anime experience. Does that mean we should simply shrug it off? Of course not. It’s simply unforgivable for a studio founded with healthier working conditions in mind to have become source of pain for workers, especially given that unlike many others, they do have the tools to do things differently. Although their kneejerk reaction was quite possibly the worst, one can only hope that the studio leaders wake up and use their current transitional period to correct their course. Otherwise, Science Saru will continue to stray away from what they were supposed to stand for.
That introspection is something that Science Saru needs on a creative level as well. This is not to say that they’re in a slump, as it hasn’t even been a couple years since the fantastic adaptation of Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken, but the studio is in the midst of a leadership change that demands they figure out their identity all over again. For its first 7 years of existence, their name was synonymous with Masaaki Yuasa: co-founder, president, and director of all the studio’s works. Handling so much work on multiple fronts turned out to be an exhausting experience even for a notorious workaholic like Yuasa, who finally stepped down as the company’s president last year, citing a desire to take a break as the main reason.
As it was made clear by the announcement itself and the follow-up comments by co-founder Eunyoung Choi, Yuasa would continue to work with the studio. Despite that aforementioned desire to take a break, Yuasa already has an original film in production at Science Saru in Inu-Oh. He’s even somewhat involved in a yet to be announced original title that has been getting animated at Science Saru for a while, under the direction of one of his disciples; as you can see, it’s no exaggeration to say that their pipeline and attitude have enabled a simply obscene level of overproduction. Even leaving that point aside, though, this highlights the somewhat awkward situation that the studio found themselves in: moving away from the Yuasa-centric model they had before, but still sticking with him for most of their projects.
Simply replacing Yuasa with Choi, a director just as talented as him, would run the risk of also exhausting her. Instead, Choi noted that they were looking forward to working with new directors—and this is where the likes of Naoko Yamada are supposed to step in. While it’s not as if Yamada has to become the new core of Science Saru, she’s about the most exciting example they could have found for this new model they want to head towards; one where freelance directors with as unique of a vision as Yuasa’s can alternate projects, making Science Saru’s output more diverse than ever. When it comes to this, we could also be looking at the start of a new era. With perspectives diametrically opposed, somehow linked by Yamada herself, that’s where Kyoto Animation and Science Saru find themselves right now.
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