Ever since the tragedy that befell Kyoto Animation, I wanted to write something that showcased why they’ve been my favorite animation studio since I got back into anime. We’ve covered numerous works of theirs on the Seasonal Anime Checkup OVA and are also going through all of K-ON! for Jared and AL Watch. Suffice to say, there’s been a lot of talk about how much myself and Anne Ladyem enjoy KyoAni. We could talk for days about how great their animation technique is, deservedly so. There was one brief moment that stuck out to me in their latest series, Tsurune, that stuck with me. Surprisingly, it wasn’t a moment of incredible animation, but instead, a clever and smart way of soundtrack manipulation.
There’s a possibility that Kyoto Animation is actually underrated for their usage of non-diegetic—sound that has no visible source or is implied to be known within the context of a movie/tv show/play/etc.—music in their productions. Liz and the Blue Bird is a prime example of this where a majority of the time, the non-diegetic music is very subtle and can sometimes catch you off guard when it picks up in more fervent moments. There’s a good example to be found in all of their works as when you make great productions, every piece will tend to be great. Tsurune’s example is only two minutes and forty-four seconds of episode 8. It’s subtle, but is brilliantly woven into the episode itself to make for an ending that seems triumphant on one hand and devastating on the other.
The story of Tsurune is about Minato, a high schooler with Target Panic who has chosen to quit the sport of Kyudo because of his inability to shoot. He’s brought back by his friend Seiya who wants to continue playing with him and bring him into the school’s team. Their former middle school teammate Shu goes to a different school, but also wants to see Minato regain his lost form. The end of episode 8 sees these three characters have very different outcomes with one another.
For convenience, I’ve time coded these sections for you to go back and see for yourself. At 19:41, the track “Bumping Youth” begins to play as the Kazemai Kyudo Club that houses Minato and Seiya celebrate their results from the group match and Minato hitting a target. This track is a mix of woodwind instruments with a piano accompanying of dulcet tones. It helps show how excited the team is, but also it’s a huge relief after everything they’ve been through and also Minato’s been through.
At 20:18, the scene shifts from the team to Shu confronting Minato. He tells him that he wants him to return to his prior form of shooting because not only will it make Minato better, but it will help push Shu and Minato to that upper echelon. They will effectively make the other better force themselves to keep climbing further and further upward. Minato tells him he’ll shoot the best shots he can during their next tournament. During this, the track changes to feature more string instruments to go along with the piano. The volume of the track is also turned down more for dialogue and also to allow it to accompany the characters as they have this moment.
Following a cut at 21:13, Shu is confronted by Seiya. Seiya is worried that Shu will cause Minato to regress further into his target panic by working him up, while Shu insists that Seiya didn’t need to bring Minato back to Kyudo, as he would’ve returned regardless. Shu further strikes a dagger into Seiya’s heart by telling him to stop chasing Minato and that he’s holding him back. Seiya immediately questions Shu as to why he’d say that. The music remains unchanged from the Shu and Minato scene, but changes at 22:01. The music stops and there are two fleeting seconds of silence as Shu tells Seiya, “Because you don’t love archery.” It’s the last thing Shu says before leaving, and Seiya is stricken by those words.
What makes this scene work so well is that brief hesitation in the music. From 22:01-22:03, the silence makes that Shu says more impactful than if his words were carried along with the music. It also works because Seiya knows that it’s true that he’s lost his love of the sport. That glimmer of silence is how the sharp pangs of rejection feel to someone deep in their gut. To further emphasize this, the music takes a darker turn. A new set of lower string instruments with bassier tones begin to play as the camera zooms out from a heartbroken Seiya and the episode ends. Having a shift in tone near the end helps showcase the narrative the pause creates. This is no longer a moment between disagreeing friends, but a bittersweet realization of a truth that was trying to hide deep within Seiya.
That sudden change in the track from a feeling of joy and relief to by the end feeling sorrow and misery is a masterful work done by composer Harumi Fūki. The actual track doesn’t utilize the pause, so in order to make that change within the song more prominent, that was a decision made by either Fūki or episode director Minoru Ota. There’s a subtlety to it because of how short the pause is. You might not even notice it on an initial viewing of the episode unless you’re listening for it. Sometimes, a few seconds is all you need to convey a multitude of emotions and feelings all at once.
The end of episode 8 of Tsurune is just one small example of how good Kyoto Animation is at utilizing music within their productions. They’re a studio that’s full of master craftsmen and women. In the wake of everything that’s transpired for that team, my heart breaks for the employees and their friends and families. People were robbed of getting to share their passion for art with us, but most importantly, had the gift of life stolen from them. They’ve produced so much joy into my life and for that I thank them. Their work makes me strive to be better at my job. Thank you, Kyoto Animation.