The release of 2018's Piano no Mori marked a milestone for Fukushima Gainax. A complete anime adaptation of the award-winning manga – a tale of two boys from different walks of life finding common ground through piano – was highly-anticipated after its conclusion in November 2015. That Fukushima Gainax would handle the show with newcomer Gaku Nakatani directing was certainly surprising.
The initial shock, due to renowned animation studio Gainax's dormancy in recent years, progressed toward the realization that this was a different Gainax altogether. Piano no Mori is the first Fukushima Gainax production to adapt another's work and their first full-length anime series. Initially an extension of Gainax, Fukushima Gainax operate independent of their namesake with a unique mission and have yet to experience commercial success in the West.
Gainax did not intend to open a subsidiary studio in Japan. Already a household name over a decade after Neon Genesis Evangelion first aired, there was little need for national expansion.
As early as 2009, they planned to collaborate with foreign production companies to satiate an appetite for anime abroad. Working with other countries might help Gainax nuance their production toward international markets, but the cultural, artistic, and technological differences they sought to comprehend were more difficult to overcome. Cooperation was more trouble than it was worth, and Gainax concluded opening a subsidiary overseas would be more effective in the long run.
On March 11, 2011, a megathrust earthquake struck undersea off the northeast coast of Japan. At magnitude 9.0, the Great East Japan Earthquake was the most powerful earthquake recorded in the country's history. The earthquake and subsequent tsunami and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster left nearly 16,000 dead, with thousands more injured and displaced. The bulk of the casualties occurred in the Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima Prefectures.
Yoshinori Asao, Chief Producer at Gainax and a native of Fukushima Prefecture, was emotionally devastated in the aftermath of the earthquake. For three years, he and Gainax put a hold on the expansion and redirected their attention to the disaster at hand. The studio later opted to aid restoration efforts in Fukushima Prefecture, the site of the nuclear meltdowns, through means beyond charity and manpower. On March 28, 2015, Asao opened Fukushima Gainax alongside an in-house animation museum in Miharu, Fukushima Prefecture.
Stimulating the local economy with job opportunities – while certainly in the picture – was secondary to more ambitious plans of involving nearby communities, as well as using anime to attract fresh faces and evacuees back to affected prefectures. The areas associated with nuclear radiation, whether truly impacted or not, were not places people wanted to be. Miharu was deemed safe and never received evacuation orders but was one sizeable city removed from the nearest partially evacuated area.
Despite believing it near impossible to dispel prejudice toward returning to the prefecture, Asao and Fukushima Gainax were determined to play a role in revitalizing the region. The idea of reconstruction "contains not only the idea of restoring something, but also the idea of creating something new," Asao explained in a feature by the public broadcaster NHK. "We instigate change by forging a new identity."
Miharu is a town of fewer than 18,000 residents in the heart of Fukushima Prefecture. It is predominantly rural outside of its suburban center, with clusters of single-story structures interspersed amongst abundant tracks of farmland.
Come April, the hills surrounding Lake Sakura at Miharu Dam in the southern end of the town light up pink with cherry blossoms. This is a common sight throughout Japan in spring; less so is the massive Miharu Takizakura, a weeping higan cherry tree over 1,000 years old that draws roughly 300,000 visitors a year. Due to fear of radiation in Fukushima Prefecture, the Takizakura saw half as many visitors in the year following the Tohoku earthquake. It was a financial blow to a town lacking any other noteworthy tourism.
Roughly one kilometer off the shore of Lake Sakura's northern inlet sits the former Sakura Middle School building, now the present Fukushima Gainax studio and museum. Abandoned when the town's schools were incorporated into a larger middle school, the neglected concrete structure, its facade weathered over the years, was a desirable location for Asao and Gainax. Few other locations would prove as indicative of Fukushima Gainax's mission to educate and rejuvenate the community.
The former middle school plays host to large anime-themed festivals every year, the first of which took on the feel of a cultural festival to reflect the venue. Fifteen thousand people attended to nearly match the population of the host town. Guests were treated to performances by idol and voice actress Marina Inoue and the cast behind the Wake Up, Girls! anime, as well as screenings of Gainax's popular Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. While such festivals and the Fukushima Gainax museum provide an influx of tourism Fukushima desperately needs, the studio also hopes to spread word of the community in a positive light through local animation.
At its core Japan's local animation describes anime taking place in real life settings. These anime aim to attract fans to the towns and cities they are based in, as opposed to creators simply choosing locations because of a personal affinity to them. This is the product of the growing popularity of pilgrimages to "Holy Sites": sites that are featured in popular anime. Such pilgrimages were documented through the 1990s before taking off in the late 2000s.
Kyoto Animation's Lucky☆Star, set in Kasukabe in Saitama Prefecture, is considered a pioneer in the anime tourism boom. Rather than Kasukabe, however, it was the city of Kuki a few miles north that became a prized destination for fans. Kuki's Shinto shrine, Washinomiya Shrine, is featured in the anime's opening sequence and throughout the show. After an initial influx of visitors, creator Kagami Yoshimizu and four voice actors from the anime hosted a fan event in Kiku in December 2007, starting with brunch and ending with a tour and prayer at the shrine led by the cast. In the wake of the visit, Washinomiya Shrine saw its visitors triple in number during the New Year season of 2008.
To take advantage of an increased interest in holy sites, city governments began contributing to and advertising anime based in their region. Oarai, a small port town on the coast of Ibaraki Prefecture, was decorated with Girls & Panzer art after the series faithfully recreated many of the town's locations. Since 2016, Fukushima Gainax have collaborated with Date City in Fukushima Prefecture to produce Masamune Datenicle. The web anime is a fictitious tale of the legendary seventeenth century warlord Date Masamune in his youth. Though it takes place centuries ago, Fukushima Gainax consulted photographs of present-day Date to make landmarks identifiable to viewers instead of depicting them as they were in the past. As Oarai did with Girls & Panzer, characters from Masamune Datenicle adorned public vehicles and the Abukuma Express Line in and around Date to promote the anime.
In preparation for the fifth anniversary of the earthquake, NHK commissioned an anime production local in setting and subject matter. Fukushima Gainax's Omoi no Kakera tells the story of a middle school girl in Miyagi Prefecture looking to achieve her figure skating dreams. Miyagi Prefecture is the proclaimed home of ice skating in Japan, having produced Olympic gold medalists Shizuka Arakawa and Yuzuru Hanyu. As such, skating is popular amongst children in the area, the primary audience for which Omoi no Kakera was produced.
Omoi no Kakera focuses on protagonist Hina Satou coping with the loss of her mother in the tsunami and the town's upheaval since. Onagawa (pictured two days after the 2011 tsunami), a fishing town of around 10,000 inhabitants and the real-life setting for Omoi no Kakera, experienced devastation greater than any other town or city in Miyagi Prefecture. Over 800 people died – nearly 10 percent of the population – and the tsunami brought a sea of physical and mental hardships for survivors. An estimated 70 percent of its buildings were damaged beyond repair.
In regard to children around Hina's age, Asao expressed concern for memories of the events permeating their daily lives. Children around ten years old and younger upon the release of Omoi no Kakera may have struggled to remain hopeful in the aftermath of the disaster, if they could even comprehend its impact on the community.
Hina and her best friend, Michiru, are called to prematurely examine time capsules that they buried in kindergarten and were recovered after the tsunami. In Hina's time capsule were a water-damaged letter and a green ribbon. These were meaningless to Hina, the letter rendered so by the tsunami. As for the ribbon, she was clueless as to its significance. To take Hina's mind off the capsule, Michiru suggests they visit the old kindergarten. Along the way, the two note the lack of recognizable landmarks in the town, and when they reach the school a bitter truth sinks in. The schoolhouse was no longer there, washed away by the tsunami. With grounds cleared, construction workers were out in full force raising the land as a preventative measure for the future.
Progress is slow but steady, in line with the real world Onagawa. The town still lacks numerous facilities but residents are enthusiastic and a vision for the future is in place. New developments include the Seapal-Pier Onagawa shopping center, complete with a coffee shop and a craft-beer bar, and a train station with an onsen. When the town's fishing port resumed activity, it managed revenue marginally higher than pre-2011 figures, though this was made possible through increased prices as fishermen await volume increases. Despite all efforts, once-occupied plots of land outside of the city center remain barren, holding only promises locals hope come to fruition.
Hina too grapples with uncertainty and it affects her on and off the ice. While losing focus during a skating practice she stumbles before a jump and injures her knee, preventing her from competing in an upcoming event. Michiru's father can't continue his work as a fisherman due to the lack of customers and her family moves away. In an instant, her best friend and one of her last ties to a happier time is gone.
After returning home from a day at school, the doorbell rings and Hina signs for a package addressed to the family. Unbeknownst to her, Hina's father had some photographs restored, and as she shuffled through the vibrant collection, memories of her mother and their time together flooded back. It took a visual cue to jog her memory of the ribbon into place. Her mother gave it to her as a good luck charm, her "magical ribbon."
The commemorative aspect of the anime wouldn't be complete without an ode to those involved in recovery efforts. After the tsunami, volunteers in Miyagi and beyond restored photographs to help keep memories alive. Asao highlighted this in an interview with MyAnimeList at Visual Arts Expo in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 2016. "We thought it was a very amazing project and decided to include a snippet of that in Omoi no Kakera."
Fukushima Gainax incorporate the community in nearly all of their work while simultaneously taking a hands-on approach to educating youth in the prefecture. They funded a seminar abroad in Vietnam as part of an initiative to expose students to other cultures, and frequently collaborate with local schools to teach the fundamentals of story composition and character and background design. Younger children even had an opportunity to create their own feature by painting backgrounds and voicing puppets. These workshops, like most events held on Fukushima Gainax premises, are free of charge.
The previously highlighted Masamune Datenicle streams online rather than airing on television, allowing viewers to easily connect with creators and provide feedback regarding the episodes and what they'd like to see next. Fans don't have complete control, but Fukushima Gainax review and consider all input. Though it did not include local participation, the studio continued their educational initiative this spring with You Can Enjoy!. This collection of five-minute shorts seeks to promote the region's produce, urging viewers that it's tasty, nutritious, and safe to consume amid lingering radiation concerns.
Fukushima Gainax have played a pivotal role in the community over the past three years, but there is still work to be done. Asao recognized early on that restoring infrastructure could only go so far in bringing impacted areas back to their pre-earthquake state. In spite of a detour with the Piano no Mori production, the studio has no plans to abandon their mission.
In the final act of Omoi no Kakera, Hina comes to terms with her past. She now brims with positivity as she prepares for an upcoming skating competition. On the big day, Hina attempts the jump that gave her trouble in the past and falls yet again. This time, donning her magic ribbon, she picks herself up and finishes an otherwise mistake-free routine. Hina isn't at the podium during the award ceremony after failing to place but smiles in the company of her coach and teammates, confident her dreams will one day come true.
Original reporting by ImperfectBlue for MyAnimeList.