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Miscellaneous Whimsey – In Defence of Endless Eight

I never personally knew any of the staff at Kyoto Animation. That’s probably how it is with most readers of Random Curiosity. Even so, perhaps like me you found the news of the attack on KyoAni difficult to process, especially now that Takemoto Yasuhiro, the director I respect most at KyoAni, is confirmed to have passed away. It speaks to the power of art, perhaps, that it has made anime meaningful to us and made isolated violence on an anime studio meaningful to us. Unfortunately all I have to make sense of an ultimately senseless crime is a blog and a keyboard so that’s what we’re going to have to work with. I don’t want to talk about the headlines and the violence and give evil madness more credence than it deserves, though. So instead let’s talk about KyoAni and what they do instead. I’ll try to make this stuff not sound like a wake — and let’s not say that KyoAni is ‘dead’ — but we’ll necessarily be delving into the past a bit. Hopefully the entire exercise will at least be an interesting distraction.

It was not actually that many years ago that internet pundits were clamouring about the death of the anime industry. This was before foreign capital from the West and from China reinvigorated the chequebooks of the production houses to eventually bring us our current wave of isekai shows and mobile game adaptations. No, this was when Miyazaki was retiring (but before he was un-retiring), even Disney had long tossed hand-drawn animation to the wayside, and the Japanese economy was showing no signs that it was going to grow out of its rebellious recession phase. As studios shuttered left and right there was a fear that, at least, ambitious, high-budget anime were no longer tenable. The risk was just too great; even one major failure could sink a studio for good. But, even as established studios were whipping out as many as five or six shows a season to stay afloat and animators were literally working themselves to death, Kyoto Animation had a different idea.


OH! L.E.D.

 

Regular anime watchers will know that Kyoto Animation did not make a lot of anime. Even at peak capacity they hardly pushed out one show a season, sometimes even as little as two a year (they also made movies and such but let’s put that aside). In return each show had plenty of production value behind it, but from a pure business standpoint wasn’t that a few too many eggs in a few too little baskets? Even if we set aside the issue of risk, is KyoAni’s model really cost effective? You’d think those in the business of selling anime will strive to sell more anime. But long before many other studios, KyoAni had already cracked the code. They weren’t selling anime. They were selling goodwill.


The power of moé compels you!

 

You don’t need me to tell you that hand-drawn animation is expensive. Good animation is exponentially more so. The amount of man hours that must be invested into anime compared to your average television programming is staggering. These days it’s industry wisdom that the profit doesn’t come from what is put on TV — got to sell those BDs — but KyoAni had long decided on a business model that didn’t rely on pumping out volumes of content. Chasing the breakneck pace of the more mainstream entertainment industry was simply untenable for traditional animation without enormous staff or, more likely, an abused one. Cost-effective anime was a lost cause. So, KyoAni doubled down. Visually appealing anime (both technically and aesthetically) became part of their brand. And this dedication to eye-candy brought goodwill, which brought dedicated fans who would buy BDs, music, and merchandise. And in turn that funds more eye candy. It’s the circle of life.


NANTS INGONYAMA BAGITHI BABA

 

This didn’t lead to universal appeal, though. KyoAni’s productions were also sometimes a bit divisive. They got criticism for ushering in an entire generation of cutesy copycats, for pandering to the common-otaku-denominator, and for a narrow output of almost exclusively adaptations (especially of in-house properties). I would wager that this doesn’t bother KyoAni too much; better to attract both love and hate than to face a flat field of ambivalence. The ambivalent weren’t going to buy the merch anyway, so go big or go home. And because KyoAni didn’t really sell anime, but goodwill, as long as they retained a sufficient bank of goodwill they were allowed to get away with things that many other studios could not. Even as animation became increasingly expensive KyoAni continued to keep most of their productions in-house, and fostered in-house talent to further their prime directive of making pretty eye candy. Relatively inexperienced hands were allowed to take a turn as episode directors, or sometimes even to helm an entire series. It would seem that KyoAni’s business model, as cynical as it could have been, actually allowed for a degree of artistry or, at least, a certain tolerance for potential and actual failure. And there were plenty of those; while it’s tempting to generalise KyoAni’s fare, they did also bring us the niche, Pythonesque comedy Nichijou, made an exercise of throwing out the source material while adapting Musaigen no Phantom World, and indulged in passion projects like Munto. Yes, there were disasters (you think Phantom World was bad, but who even talks about Munto?) but even in those disasters KyoAni continued to demonstrate their commitment to pretty animation. Even if they were not always master storytellers, it was undeniable that they valued their artists and were keeping the dying art of animation alive. Which brings us to our main topic.

I’m going to spoil large parts of Suzumiya Haruhi from here on, so if you’ve never watched it… well, you should get to it. You’ve had more than a decade! You’ve missed out on an anime cultural touchstone and should catch up if only for the sake of conversation. Then you’ll know the reason for all those thousand-yard stares whenever one mentions… Endless Eight.


PTSD intensifies

 

So, we have Steins;Gate. We have Madoka Magica. These anime made time loops fun! There was drama! There was tension! There was excitement! Repetition by its very nature makes things stale, so to make a Groundhog Day scenario interesting there must still be a sense of progression. Luckily, the loop itself provides an easy source of conflict. For a suitably curious protagonist the story’s conceit serves as a mystery, and the quest to break out of that loop and/or avoid the BAD END provides all the conflict we need. Without this conflict, there won’t be much of a story; we’d all get rather bored just watching characters blissfully unaware of the loop and who would be perfectly satisfied with inaction even if they were.

Thus began Endless Eight

In this particular arc of the story our hero, alias Kyon, is suddenly stuck in a time loop. Ah ha, a call to adventure! Two hiccups: one, Kyon is not aware that he is in a time loop, since he loses his memories of previous loops each cycle. More importantly, Kyon is in many respects a tragic hero, and his hamartia is apathy. So, even when he is alerted of the fact that he is in a time loop, his main response is a resounding, ‘Meh.’. So, he just keeps living the same week over and over. And we, the lucky audience, gets to watch him do it. Each episode Kyon would go through a carefree summer routine, eventually be informed that time is looping, fail to do anything about it, then finally decide to procrastinate on a meaningful resolution.

This goes on for some time. Needless to say, many viewers at the time were not amused.

There was a pervading theory that at the time KyoAni was simply trolling its audience. And, sure, in light of Lucky Star KyoAni was definitely capable of cheekiness. But if KyoAni simply wanted to bask in the schadenfreude produced by ten thousand outraged nerds they certainly went about the most costly way of doing so. Even when they were just looping the same week for half a season of anime, even when they could have just dubbed over the same episode six times in a row, they made sure to animate each episode from scratch. Take a look at how one scene can be done seven different ways:


 


 


 


Keep scrolling

 


 


 


 

Say what you want about KyoAni, but they at least don’t lack in effort. Each variation is quite deliberately different from each other from storyboard to costume design; it helps that each episode was done by a different team of KyoAni animators. I suspect that this was more than just KyoAni being cute; having everybody take a shot at making a roughly similar episode of anime would have been an educational in-house exercise for them. If I’m correct, then perhaps no anime in the KyoAni repertoire demonstrates their dedication to the art of animation so much as Endless Eight. And even if Endless Eight was not just an expensive homework project for the studio, I feel that something valuable came out of it. Sure, it was a frustrating and tiring ordeal for the audience, but was that not that point? Recall that there was actually one character who had to sit through and remember the time loops, like we did. And, like us, she also couldn’t do anything about it. In hindsight, Endless Eight was a set-up for Nagato Yuki to go insane in time for Suzumiya Haruhi no Shoushitsu and we needed to empathise with the descent into quiet madness. And in a way, I did; like her, when I was slogging through Endless Eight I also found myself playing spot-the-difference between each loop, and in those moments I appreciated KyoAni animating each episode differently even as I resented them when the episode ended in disappointment. Excessive? Perhaps. At least we didn’t have to sit through the full 595 years of it, and were able to eventually turn our frustration at Endless Eight into a cathartic experience in Disappearance.

Ultimately, we should probably consider Endless Eight a failure. Media has a fundamental onus to be engaging, and so anime that is intentionally designed to not be engaging is already abdicating success. But it was an interesting failure, and produced an experience not easily replicated (though one I have no desire to replicate). That KyoAni was willing to cash in the goodwill it had earned from the Suzumiya Haruhi series for a stunt like that said a lot about their studio, I think. Kyoto Animation will go on to make many more series, some loved, some less so, but nothing else would so exemplify their character.

August 1, 2019 at 10:31 am
21 comments »
  • August 1, 2019 at 11:36 amFoundOnWeb

    IIRC, what sparked Endless Eight was a lack of source material after the decision was made to move the contents of Volume 4 of the light novels into the Disappearance movie.

    • August 1, 2019 at 2:07 pmThe suffocated

      Yes, that’s what I remember too. While the Endless Eight arc in the anime did make the emotional (?) breakdown of Nagato very realistic, Passerby is probably mistaking the outcome as the cause. In the light novel, the arc was much shorter.

      I happened to have rewatched the whole Suzumiya Haruhi series last week. To this date I still think that the truly masterful episodes are “The Adventure of Mikuru Asahina Episode 00″, “Live Alive” and “Someday in the Rain” (my favourite episode). The first, second and the last episodes of “Endless Eight” are good, but the who arc is way overdone. Four or five episodes should be more than enough to convey the feeling of burning out or madness.

    • August 1, 2019 at 5:31 pmPasserby

      A lack of material could have been a consideration, but there were many other story arcs that could have been stretched, if stretching was needed (I mean, look at what New Line did to The Hobbit) without having to do something as needlessly bold as Endless Eight. I mean, they also did a full episode of Someday in the Rain, a study in boredom (which, like The suffocated, I also loved).

  • August 1, 2019 at 1:20 pmpuppygod

    I realize that I’m in a minority here, but I loved endless eight. For the first loop I was momentarily confused, but after I got what they are trying to do, I enjoyed every single iteration. It was very interesting experience. That deja vu feeling couldn’t really be achieved in any other way. I don’t think it could work again, or with any other material, and I understand why it didn’t work for most people, but for me it clicked just right.

  • August 1, 2019 at 3:02 pmskyhack

    I loved “Endless Eight”.
    My kids, who were ages 29 and 26 when it aired, not so much.

    Of course, the animation helped.

    Most of my childhood was spent watching Hanna-Barbera, Speed Racer, and Astro Boy. Nothing much in the way of animation, there.

  • August 1, 2019 at 3:31 pmtsirrus

    I dropped Haruhi after the third episode of Endless Eight. It was and still is my limit. Watched the movie and love KyoAni, but I can’t not react to such a crazy decision.

    • August 1, 2019 at 4:33 pmsealouse

      Same. I didn’t know different animation teams produced them though. They should have somehow let people know that this was some kind of experiment. Oh well.

      • August 2, 2019 at 3:42 pmLyfe

        To be fair a studio like Kyoto Animation and others would have a lot of interviews and such in Japan talking about their work. It’s not really up to them to get the word out beyond their domestic audience. If you weren’t aware at the time I would put that down to English anime news websites not being on the ball with it.

  • August 1, 2019 at 4:14 pmDavid

    I adored Endless Eight. It was frustrating, yes, but it was fascinating to watch, mostly to see the small changes in Yuki each new loop.

    I could write a small essay on my feelings about Endless Eight. There were so many details, and meta-details. It was a bit traumatic for many people, but I don’t agree that it was a failure. It succeeded in what it set out to do. Many would say it shouldn’t have set out to do that in the first place, but not liking what was done doesn’t mean it wasn’t done well.

  • August 1, 2019 at 4:26 pmmac65

    @Passerby :: Thank you for this insightful article.

  • August 1, 2019 at 5:21 pmPanino Manino

    For me EE is just brilliant.
    All that could be said about already was said, so I just say this, brilliant and I liked.

  • August 1, 2019 at 7:01 pmJon

    I fucking hated Endless 8. It was painfluly stupid to watch the fucking nonsense, instead of another 1 o 2 volumes of the novels. SHnY used to be my favorite anime back in that season, but almost all my interest died with that aweful adaptation. I regained my love for the franchise with the movie, an anime masterpiece, but I couldn’t forgive KyoAni for years. I ended watching the rest of the season a few years ago, and it was ok, but they ruined my favorite show that time.

  • August 1, 2019 at 7:04 pmTravis

    I thought it was interesting. If memory serves, at the time, Kyoto Animation was itself simulcasting the show on YouTube with English subtitles, Correspondingly, it wasn’t as if I was paying for legally watching it, so even if I didn’t like it, it wasn’t any great loss.

    To note, the “paying” came later when I imported the DVDs, because I did like it. It is moderately horrifying to see from the order history that it really was 10 years ago. Sure doesn’t feel like that long.

  • August 1, 2019 at 8:57 pmPp

    Endless eight was a money grab and I do believe it was a big mistake. I don’t know what you guys seek for in anime but in my case I look for entertainment. It was not entertaining for me. I’ll always remember it as that time I gladly skipped episodes and spent my time productively. The novels were ok, I’m not surprised of the failure they became. Did the story finish?

    • August 2, 2019 at 1:31 pmPanino Manino

      “Endless eight was a money grab”
      How, exactly?

      • August 20, 2019 at 8:14 pmPp

        By definition:
        mon·ey grab
        nounINFORMAL
        an undignified or unprincipled acquisition of a large sum of money with little effort.

    • August 2, 2019 at 3:20 pmLyfe

      I think they just wanted to have a little fun and be literal with the arc title with the episodes. Endless Eight over Eight Episodes!

  • August 2, 2019 at 12:20 amRedjuice Fan

    I totally didnt buy that idea, though your take on that idea was interesting. I didnt really watch those episodes, I just watch them to look for “what swimsuit are you wearing today Haruhi?”.

  • August 2, 2019 at 3:17 pmLyfe

    Endless Eight should have been a movie rather than a television adaptation. The gimmick of doing eight episodes with minor changes may have been lost but you could pace the arc better with a movie lasting over an hour and a half.

    Anyways not gonna lie, I find it odd how no one has bothered to produce a third Haruhi season.

  • August 3, 2019 at 1:15 pmMcLXIX

    Agh,

    Just when I thought I have been able to move on a little bit… reading this made me reopen the wound a little bit. Nothing against the entry, it just reminded me of Yasuhiro Takemoto.

    Hyouka pulled me back into watching anime again back in 2017 after five years of not watching any and Disappearance of Suzumiya Haruhi in my opinion is the most complete and satisfying KyoAni movie to date.

    Add to that all the other creators like Futoshi Nishiya…

    But then again, there is only direction that really matters, and that is forward.

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