Free! and the future of KyoAni productions

On April 26, 2013 Kyoto Animation announced their 17th self-produced animation production entitled FREE!, a series about a group of friends re-uniting in their passion for swimming after going their separate ways following a victory in the elementary school nationals. What really got people in an uproar was the fact that all the main characters in this series were male and a previous advertisement involving these characters was very focused around their appeal towards female viewers. Of course this caused certain fans to be upset, things have been said, etc. I’m not going to focus on that (it’s been covered already). Nor am I going to focus on what mistakes have been made in covering this series (again, already covered). What I want to focus on is the impact FREE! has in future productions by Kyoto Animation that’s been heavily ignored by most fans, production and revenue (and no, not focusing towards a different audience).


Anime is produced in a variety of ways. A few are made by certain TV stations who pay for all the costs out of their own budget (like mainstream TV shows), but what most anime fans end up watching are “late night” shows which are made by a conjunction of companies who form what’s called a “production committee.” Essentially, producers from different companies get together and haggle out a project they want to make. They get basic information hammered out like who’s directing, how long it should be, who’ll animate it, and then they pitch it to their companies. Those companies then come together and form the committee via contracts. Each participant puts in some money towards the project (though not all the same amount) and that gets used for production. Animation studios generally get contracted to produce the animation here, but some can be on the production committee themselves in circumstances. Anime gets made, promoted, and then publications/merchandise/disc/music sales come in and proceeds are split between the members according to the contracts.


In 2002, Fuji TV wanted to animate a spinoff of the popular Full Metal Panic! series and asked Kadokawa to make a committee. They did, but instead of using Gonzo like the main series had done, they decided to chance the series on a studio who wanted to produce their own series for the first time, Kyoto Animation. KyoAni accepted the funds and made the show. Since they weren’t on the production committee, they did not receive any additional financial support from this project. Producers from TBS/Pony Canyon/Movic/Key saw their work and decided to partner with them to produce AIR, their second self-produced series. It was a success and KyoAni got some of the returns from the sales. The cycle goes on between Kadokawa and TBS/Pony Canyon for nearly ten years with KyoAni moving up in the production committees. Eventually, we start to see a trend being formed with two main committees KyoAni worked with:
Kadokawa clique: Haruhi, Lucky Star, Nichijou, Hyouka:
Kadokawa Shoten (publisher/international rights)
Kadokawa Pictures (video distributor/domestic distribution (TV and internet), later combined into Shoten)
Kyoto Animation (animation production)
(Lantis) – Only in a couple of shows (music distribution/production in all shows)
Klockworx (rental distribution)

TBS clique: AIR, Kanon, Clannad, K-On!:
TBS – (main financier/domestic distribution (TV and internet)/international rights)
Pony Canyon – (video distributor/music distributor/producer (K-On! only)
MOVIC – merchandise/live event producer
Kyoto Animation – (animation production)


In 2009, KyoAni decided to undertake something radical and announced a contest for novels, manga, and scenarios to be published. They received some entries and announced no Grand Prize winners, though a few Encouragement Award winners. This wasn’t viewed as anything important at the time, but it marked a huge course change for the company. Instead of being contracted to animate someone else’s work, KyoAni wanted to be the producer of their own material. This led to our third clique:
KyoAni clique: Chuunibyou, Tamako Market:
Kyoto Animation – (publisher/animation production)
Pony Canyon – (video distributor/music distributor/producer (Tamako only)
(Lantis) – (music producer/distributor – Chuunibyou only)
TBS – (digital distribution/international rights)

Notice the huge shift in committee lineup? Instead of being third/fourth on the list and earning a smaller portion of the profit, KyoAni not only became the biggest financier of the project, but owned the copyrights/publication rights to get a much bigger share of the earnings. They have to invest more (higher risk), but they get to earn a lot more than before (higher reward). For a show like Chuunibyou, they not only got a much bigger share of revenue from BD/DVD sales compared to something like Kanon (15k sold to 18k sold), but they also got their novels published in many new stores and increased demand for that label. People look at Chuunibyou‘s earning as only BD/DVD sales, but it was much much much more profitable than that for them. They took a big risk, and got rewarded heavily.

The opposite could somewhat be said for the second part of that clique, Tamako Market. This show wasn’t given very much promotion and was likely part of the same finance commitments with Chuunibyou, but disc/music sales were much much lower than the latter. Again, higher rewards come with higher risks. I’m not going to say it bombed or didn’t break even, but it’s easily apparent it wasn’t as successful as Chuunibyou.


So what about the new show FREE!? Where does it fit in? The answer to that is very intriguing: none of the above. Yes, FREE! is using a new committee partner in Asahi Broadcasting (ABC) for broadcast distribution. Here’s the portion of the committee we know:
Kyoto Animation (animation production/rights holder/original creator)
Asahi Broadcasting (television rights/domestic distribution (TV/internet))
Lantis (music production/distribution)

What FREE! tells us is that KyoAni is no longer limited to the Kadokawa/TBS&Pony committees and can find other partners with their original works. This means they’re more open for projects Pony/TBS didn’t want to work with and that Kadokawa wouldn’t fund (in favor of their own titles). That in itself is cause for celebration for any fan of the company and yet cause for sadness. With their focus on quality over quantity, they’re unlikely to continue working on adaptations, so fans of the Full Metal Panic!, Haruhi Suzumiya, and Lucky Star franchises looking for more adapted are going to be disappointed in this change.


I’ve somewhat jokingly used this on Twitter before, but I think it’s really amazing to see how far the studio has come in 20 years.
April 1993: Subcontractor
April 2003: Animation Producer
April 2013: Content Producer

Who knows what else may come from FREE!? This is also Animation DO’s first co-production (previously they were listed as production collaboration with KyoAni shows), so they may be able to break off from the main studio and work on their own shows at some point. We may see Kyoto Animation become similar to Sunrise with multiple studios working on multiple projects simultaneously. It’s definitely going to be interesting to see what comes in the future for this studio.

24 thoughts on “Free! and the future of KyoAni productions

  1. That in itself is cause for celebration for any fan of the company and yet cause for sadness. With their focus on quality over quantity, they’re unlikely to continue working on adaptations, so fans of the Full Metal Panic!, Haruhi Suzumiya, and Lucky Star franchises looking for more adapted are going to be disappointed in this change.

    That really reflect my own thought on this. I’m genuienly excited about the direction there’re going and what they’ll bring us in the future, but a little sad that I probably won’t see those sequels by KyoAni. Overall, however, I’m happy about this direction they’re taking. There are talents people in there, and I think these people being in a more flexible situation can only bring good things. For them and for us.

    By reading this post I’ve realized that I have been assumed all this time that the clique is pretty exclusive i.e. a studio usually isn’t in a lot of them but stick to one. It seems that that’s wrong, or KyoAni is somewhat a special case again?

    And once again, great and informative post. Thanks!

    • In regards to studios and committees, “clique” is probably the best word I could’ve chosen. It’s all about connections between producers. They’ll have in mind who they want to animate the series and get a producer from the studio on board before the committee is usually formed. There’s quite a few cases where the studio is part of the committee, but they tend to be on the lower rung baring certain circumstances like Hanasaku Iroha or some of the original content from Gainax and Sunrise.

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  3. With their focus on quality over quantity, they’re unlikely to continue working on adaptations, so fans of the Full Metal Panic!, Haruhi Suzumiya, and Lucky Star franchises looking for more adapted are going to be disappointed in this change.

    Well, I don’t know. As you mention later on

    We may see Kyoto Animation become similar to Sunrise with multiple studios working on multiple projects simultaneously.

    So, in a sense, rather than this being a cause for sadness, I see it as the best possible situation for everyone. If Free does manage to be successful and get Animation DO going, and KyoAni becomes able to work on a multitude of new projects, then the likely outcome is that they would be able to work on whatever show they want to work on and potentially revisit some of their successful adaptations at the same time. Obviously, this is going into speculation and it is going to take a long while for such a thing to happen, but I do think that if they manage to get bigger and be able to handle multiple high quality shows, then there is no obstacle for them wanting to work on an original production of their own and finish one of the Kadokawa clique shows.

    Or maybe I’m being too optimistic.

    • You’re right. I was thinking in the short term when I meant adaptations, but they could be done in the future just like you said. It’s not too optimistic to hope they pursue that path, but I’m more curious if someone else would get them in the short term. Kadokawa has partnered with P.A. Works for a couple of adaptations recently, so perhaps they may be a replacement along with Ordet (who’s animating the Lucky Star spinoff). Only time will tell.

  4. So you’re saying that this is a sign of Kyoani being more ambitious? In a sense, you maybe right. The anime titled FREE! may also imply Kyoani’s desire to break “free” from the clutches of big producers like Kodokawa. Moreover, they also want to “free” themsleves from accusation that they can only animte cute moe girls so the main characters are guys instead lol.

      • Yes, I am aware of that, I just wanted to make fun of them by pointing out some other implications behind the title. But still, while I do understand Kyoani heads’ intention of wanting to establish their original brand of novel/anime and all that etc., they seems to be taking more risk than just that. Titles like Hyouka (mystery), FREE! (targeting females), and Kyoukai no Kanata (dark fantasy) tells us Kyoani is moving away from their usual comfort zone. I think they are trying to prove that they are capable of animating something else that isn’t necessary center around romance/slice of life/moe. I’m not sure if this is a smart move for them though as this can cause them to loose their old fanbase without guarantee that the new fanbase they are trying to persue are going to support their original work.

        • I’m not saying that Kyoani shouldn’t try expanding their fanbase, but I think they should start by focusing on one genre/fanbase at a time not jumping all directions like they did here, and personally, I felt that FREE! is a bit too far away from their comfort zone.

  5. Kyoto Animation and Animation DO ARE the SAME animation studio!! Just one part is in Kyoto ant the other in Osaka! Of course Osaka branch would not be name “Kyoto Animation in Osaka” this would have been stupid!

    And again, just complain from a fanboy who wanted more moe girls and not all boys (from what we know) main characters!
    We will see if it sell well or not! Don’t underestimate girls power! and this is not only aimed for girls, probably more aimed for guys but with pretty boys so girls would like/buy it also!

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  7. I’m disappointed by this change. For me at least, the KyoAni clique of anime have been quite average when compared to some of their older shows like Haruhi and Clannad.

  8. I am worried about how much Free! is going to sell, since this anime pretty much alienates the traditional Kyoani fanbase. Ultimatemegax, how do you see the situation in Japan? Has the fanbase there reacted like the Western one? Did the CM created the same interest there as it did here?

    • There’s already two fan-organized/created doujin events in July and August, so the potential to sell is pretty good. As long as the show ends up creating that “desire to own” then I can see it selling pretty well. 2ch tends to be more otaku-oriented, so who knows what’ll happen in reality.

  9. Hi, I read your blog post just now, and I have some questions for you (which may/may not be related to your post above, I’m sorry). Let me start out by saying that I haven’t really watched Chuunibyou. I had planned to read the light novel first (thank you for translating volumes 1 and 2 by the way) and then to watch the anime. However, with the anime having anime only characters, I’m a little hesitant to continue. Even though the addition of these characters deviates it a bit from the novel, is it worth watching? Also, in relation to this post, I was really surprised that Chuunibyou did well for KyoAni like how you mentioned above. That said, I was also surprised that Tamako Market didn’t do as well. I thought that Tamako Market was a series that would be very successful, but I never thought about it in terms of DVD sales and such. It’s a shame, but I really..really liked Tamako Market and KyoAni has done with it.

    • While I’m partial to the LNs for Chuunibyou (seriously, how could I not be?), I would also recommend the anime. It goes in a different direction than the novel did and some liked it/some didn’t. I felt the comedy in the anime worked a lot better than it did in the novel. As for Tamako, it’s similar in style to long-running series which don’t get a lot of discs sold, but are produced in different ways (though the TV station instead of a production committee). The profit for Chuunibyou more than outweighs any potential losses from Tamako, so I wouldn’t worry about it.

      • It’s not really about the profit per se. I was just surprised that Tamako Market didn’t seem as popular. I mean, I saw the promotional stuff for it, and watching the first few episodes, it seemed that it would be strong, even if it did only last for 12 episodes. I mean, it’s cute and slice of life-ish. Isn’t that one of KyoAni’s strong points?

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  11. I have a friend who’s wondering about the future of KyoAni after Free! If Free sells extremely well, KyoAni will become a big player. So far, both the target audience and people not drawn to it seem to enjoy the show very much.

    The number of “moe” shows might be starting to drop. I’m interested in seeing how both Free and Attack on Titan may change things in a new way.

    • When I first heard of Free!, I thought it would be attractive to fujoshi and the like, and I’d have no interest in it. I watched it anyways cause it was KyoAni. It really amazed me how the characters were, and they were not just muscle bound hunks looking beautiful and the like. The show really does appeal to all types, at least in my opinion.

    • At this point, KyoAni is a well known name amongst the late night anime fandom. They’re not mainstream, so I wouldn’t call them a big player even if Free! sells extremely well. Staff from both genders enjoyed working on the show and put their heart into each episode, so it’s not surprising that it appeals to a wide variety of people (just like their male-focused shows appealed to female viewers).

      I wouldn’t treat this as anything other than one series in their portfolio that did very well. Utsumi was specifically chosen for this series due to her background in swimming, so I’m not reading too much into trends. It’s merely one data point out of many. Not enough to make a solid theory yet.

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