Erica Ostlander remembers the KyoAni arson attack and discusses how art connects and transcends distance
Tragedy often materialises as a remote event unrelated to the stresses and tribulations of daily life, as it is only natural for people to numb themselves to the strange emotion that is grief for strangers. However, art has a way of forcing our hearts to connect to another's, allowing us to see inside the minds of the creators as we allow their creations into ours. Waking up on that Thursday morning in July and hearing the nightmarish news of the KyoAni arson attack, the largest mass-murder in Japan since World War II, I soon recognized the ache I felt in my heart as grief. The attack on Kyoto Animation Studios killed 36 people and extensively injured 33 more, causing overwhelming devastation for the studio and all the families who lost someone that day. Many of their computers and other equipment were destroyed as well, putting all ongoing works at an immediate standstill. Kyoto Animations was a studio that changed the animation industry in Japan from its inception, pioneering reform around fair treatment of employees and opportunities for women. Yoko Hatta, who established the studio alongside her husband Hideaki Hatta after leaving Mushi Productions, had the idea of bringing together housewives in their neighborhood to paint animation cels for many notable studios. Forty years later, this small group became Kyoto Animations and is the largest female-dominated voice in the anime industry, which continues to advocate for progressive policies in the workplace. They set an example by paying their employees on salary and granting benefits such as maternity leave-- almost unheard of in the unrelenting world of contract-based animation. This fair treatment of employees and the positive work environment allowed the studio to create magnificent works with happy employees. I like to think that one can always tell if a piece of art comes from a passionate creator, as the hidden details are added out of a deep-seated love for the craft. Even after watching just one episode of any KyoAni production, it is immediately apparent that details are the pride and joy of the studio, which is why they attract a large and energetic fanbase. When the tragedy was broadcasted to the world, a centralized donation system was promptly set up for the studio, raising over 3.3 billion yen ($30 million) from their fans, to support the recovery of the studio. Since Kyoto Animations is a company that has always put its employees first, the studio announced that none of the money donated, including the financial support from government institutions, will be used for business recovery. Rather all of the funds have gone to support the injured and the families of the victims. As someone who has always looked up to this company and their business practices, I was overjoyed when I heard how the donations will be handled.
Late at night when I catch my mind craving a beautiful work of fiction, I often find myself rewatching some of their productions. For example, I watch A Silent Voice, a feature film addressing issues like disability and bullying, which was celebrated as the best-animated feature at the 2017 Japan Movie Critics Awards. Sometimes I prefer Violet Evergarden, a show bought by Netflix that spoke on the aftermath of war, PTSD, and recovering from tremendous loss. It has been a little over a year since the fire occurred on 18 July 2019 and last month, Kyoto Animation released the theatre debut of Violet Evergarden: The Movie in Japan on September 18th. Fans from all over the world have been quietly awaiting its release, as they anticipated the work that will prove that KyoAni still has more things to say and to create. Violet Evergarden is about a young girl who was made to be a weapon of war, but the focus of the show is instead on her trauma as she learns to move forward, finding a new sense of purpose in helping others communicate what goes unsaid in their heart. I cannot help but notice the parallels between this upcoming movie and the tragedies occurring around the world today, as each one of us is learning to rebuild ourselves from the ground up in face of COVID-19 and political mayhem. This collective trauma has forced each of us to change in some way and art for a vast amount is what is keeping us afloat through it all. Art is binding us together as a whole and helps us understand the feelings of complete strangers across the world. Hideaki Hatto, on the 1st anniversary of the KyoAni arson attack, stated, "The most important thing about rebuilding is not to construct a new building but is the heart." People and their creations are a treasure to behold, and if we want to rebuild society in the right way, we need to remember who we are doing it for.