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This Week in Anime – Key, The Landmark Visual Novel Studio

The visual novel studio Key created some of the most heartwrenching stories adapted to anime. Christopher and Steve look back on , Kanon, , and more to see if the emotional beats are still devastating.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network.
Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.

@Lossthief @BeeDubsProwl @NickyEnchilada @vestenet

Steve
Sorry, Chris, one sec. Daylight savings time has janked up my entire Circadian rhythm, so I have to ingest some caffeine before I can talk about anything. Bottoms up.

That hit the spot. Somehow, though, that tastes wistful. Nostalgic. Bittersweet. As if four to five bug-eyed girls are staring at me behind a translucent textbox.
Chris
Steve, those aren’t the effects of the coffee. Those girls are all too real! Don’t worry; their visual acuity is based on movement—so long as we can stay still and not attract their attention, we should be able to escape unscathed.

These are fearsome creatures that pose the same sort of threat as a freshly chopped onion.
Alas, there is no escape when we’re talking about the oeuvre of Key, the landmark visual novel studio whose works’ influence continues to ripple across the surface of our humble otaku community, for better and for worse.
We’re talking about a collection of influential creators that you can write whole anime episodes about those influences. As is the case with this season’s , which sees its bishoujo game-loving heroine Konoha proselytizing about (among other historical works) Key‘s storied output.
What a delightful and surprising series that’s turning out to be. Anime about anime culture is nothing new, but 16bit’s focus on the budding-to-blossoming eroge/bishoujo/VN scene of ’90s Japan feels fresh and informative. Plus, seeing a modern character design with two-tone hair next to these dinosaurs is very funny.
Konoha is a wondrous recreation of a modern nerd with healthy love and respect for the material of yesteryear. Even if she’s not entirely familiar with how these old games were developed or still insists on reacting to them with the sort of slang designed to befuddle these old-school programmers from the early ’90s.
That part where she’s pogging at dithering is exactly how I feel when I look at old eroge art from the PC-98 or FM Towns eras. Those artists worked wizardry with their pixels, all in the service of drawing the hottest anime babes they could imagine. That’s true art history right there.
The show’s been equally entertaining and edutaining, using its place to sell that enthusiasm for the craft of these games that so much of modern anime fan culture is built on. As Konoha notes, these bishoujo stylings would eventually escape their 16-bit containment fields and take over Akihabara and, eventually, the world! So her worshipping at the altar of something like Kanon could lead to some unaware viewers going, “What’s the big deal with this?” Konoha, any insight?

I don’t think I could have said it any better myself. TWIA is closed; see you next week, everyone.
The scene has changed a lot since then, but it’s pretty wild to think about how integral visual novels were to the culture when I started interacting with the larger anime community in the early to mid-2000s. Key, in particular, was at the height of its powers then, and the seismic force of its games could be felt even in Western spheres. Key was serving up gargantuan piles of text without any official English localizations at the time, yet I knew about all of them.
That’s what happens when memes and other ancillary material can make their way over through the wondrous series of tubes that was the internet then. Being an observer of the doujin fighting game scene at the time, my first exposure to their material was Tasogare Frontier’s Eternal Fighter Zero. It was adorable and a blast to play, but dang, if I had any context for these doe-eyed dumplings throwing down.

Naturally, I was only a little surprised when my sister and I got our hands on a CD-R with fansubs of the first few episodes of the 2002 Kanon anime adaptation and realized that this sort of thing was not quite what these girls typically got up to.
See, I remember playing a bit of Kanon way back when, and my first impression of Ayu was definitely, “This is a girl who can throw hands.”
Look, when you commit grand theft taiyaki as often as she does, you gotta be ready to defend yourself.
For the most part, though, my exposure was meme-forward too. I cut my teeth on 4chan’s /a/ board, which taught me nearly everything I know about Key‘s early works. Would I recommend that curriculum now? Hell no. But that’s still an indelible part of my online journey.
We can only be grateful today that we escaped from The Bad Place. Still, there’s a certain irony to such an infamously toxic discussion forum being a source of early exposure to creations renowned for their earnest sincerity and perceived purity. Though okay, not all that pure, since Key‘s first couple of games Kanon and were still adults-only bishoujo VNs on the PC, with all the climactic content that entailed.
Honestly, that’s a big part of why I find the eroge scene so fascinating. You had these people making porn but then doing so in increasingly baroque and challenging ways, with dating sims that leaned into the granularity of their mechanics more or visual novels that spun complicated and intertwined tales that eventually dwarfed the volume of explicit content in them. While that’s a part I’m sure many people would rather scrub out, I think it makes this history all the more singular and worthy of chronicling.
We’ve all heard the jokes about ‘s style becoming more visibly horned up as it shifted from being a pornographic visual novel to a broader general-audience franchise, but the point remains. The works of Key and others would wind up getting adaptations that took out the sex scenes as those games became the trending source for TV anime for a time. Key themselves would even try pivoting, with games like and released as all-ages titles. Only then they’d put out spin-offs and updates that added the porn right back in.
You can see a related pattern nowadays when classic visual novels get official English localizations, where the Steam release, for example, is all-ages. Still, the publisher’s website may have a patch containing the sex scenes. Of course, you can also look at Steam‘s best sellers and see a ton of prominent porn games there, whereas a comparatively chaste VN may get banned from the platform for Byzantine reasons. This is another topic entirely, so I digress, but there’s a lot to discuss regarding the history of people using the computer to jack off. Life, as they say, finds a way.
There’s also the argument that integral as it was to the scene, the adults-only material wasn’t ever really the primary draw for Key‘s output. This is a studio originally fronted by the likes of Jun Maeda, so in this case, the ‘H’ in ‘H-game’ was seemingly intended to stand for Heartwrenching.
There are lots of body parts you can tug, and the heartstrings are indeed one of those. Key didn’t invent using the VN format for long-form melodramas; they arguably perfected it with their audiovisual precision and Maeda’s mastery of Mono no Aware.

The tropes shared between the likes of Kanon, , , and so on are super obvious and, to some, overly mawkish. But that was also why you get a Key visual novel. They had a formula, and at the time, it was a highly successful one.
It’s that effective earnestness I mentioned earlier. The cavalcade of cute girls that Key‘s content throws at you certainly could be described by the more cynical as “cloying.” Yet they tend to be genuinely cute and have enough facets to be interesting for our just-distinguished-enough-from-each-other male leads to interact with via incidental conversations. As is the way of visual novels.

Sure, some facets are “They make a cute noise,” but they’re polished to an endearing shine.
I think what also helped Key‘s reputation in the public consciousness was the concatenation of successful anime adaptations during Kyoani’s pioneering days. In and around works like Haruhi and , you had the talented Tatsuya Ishihara helming , Kanon, and .
Key was already a pillar of the VN scene, which helped cement their material as perfect for anime. Kanon is particularly notable, being an earlier example of an anime adaptation remake, with KyoAni’s 2006 version succeeding Toei‘s ’02 effort. Kanon 2006 is the version still available for streaming today (ADV‘s English dub of its first episode even got a streaming preview release on some old website nobody cares about), while the ’02 version seems to be all but buried.
They can try all they like, but you can’t bury some things, including the amount of negative space in 2002-flavor Yuichi’s chin.
We can debate those new designs all we like. For my money, this is the definitive visual novel design glow-up.

Going back to it in the far-flung space year of 2023, I’m surprised by how platonic the idea of adapting the format Kanon 2006 is. Much of the establishing episodes consist of Yuichi going to different areas at different times of day to talk to different girls, just as in the game’s mechanics. But the anime still sells the appeal of those conversations in things like Ayu’s inherent uguu-ness or the Wile E. Coyote vs Roadrunner shenanigans our boy gets up to against Makoto.

Makoto, in particular, was an early favorite for me here. I sure hope everything turns out well for her.
VN adaptations are trickier than one might expect. If there are multiple routes, you have to figure out how to handle that as democratically as possible, and that’s on top of how you decide to approach the glut of first-person narration, which rarely translates smoothly onto the screen. That’s why it’s neat to see KyoAni hone their skills between these series. Even the short jump between Kanon and is pronounced. ‘s premiere feels much looser and more expressive while providing a better cross-section of the eventual heroines.

Solid as Kanon is, feels richer from the jump. There’s some rather raw angst already on display in what we get of leading lad Tomoya’s situation just in the first few episodes. The opening monologues aren’t quite as homogenized as in Kanon. And the humor seems to be hitting with more edge, which I’m sure will only temper the inevitable tragedy once it kicks in.


You know this show will have me crying over this dang dango song before it’s all over.
Like an Elden Ring boss, the windup is so obvious you can see the emotional blow coming from miles away. It’s just a matter of when it’ll hit. You don’t need much novelty to make a good tearjerker, though. You don’t even have to be particularly labyrinthine about constructing it. One of Key‘s more solid experiences, in my opinion, is , a “kinetic novel” (what they call a VN with no branching paths) that’s laser-focused on making you cry about a robot. It’s the one Key game I’ve played to completion (because it’s a reasonable length), and it’s a great slice of everything the studio does well.
Folks, let me tell you, he’s right. As a little behind-the-scenes, once we decided on the subject for this column, david production‘s 2016 net anime adaptation of was the first series I fired up. I hadn’t yet seen it, and it was only five short episodes long, so I figured it would be an easy way to get to mining material for this project. And come on, post-apocalypse, sad robots teaching us about humanity? I’ve seen all this before; that’ll be chill.

Less than an hour and a half later, I was sitting in a pool of my tears with no idea what to do with myself. Key still knows how to do it.
I like how it’s a departure from the rose-colored high school romances that have come to define Key‘s reputation, yet tonally, it is still a Key production through and through. And considering the VN’s original release date of 2004, it’s nice to see they were branching out a bit even in the middle of their blockbuster era.
Despite the sci-fi shift from their usual arenas, I’d say is the perfect sampler platter for Key if you’ve only heard about their stuff from 16bit Sensation or old guys reminiscing about how hurt them. This little tale of techno-tragedy has all the endearing character quirks distilled down into just one marketable anime girl. It uses that to demonstrate the personal, growing interactions that allow Key‘s writing to reach in and rip your guts out. Multiple cuts of the anime are available for streaming, and you can even play and read the original game on your Nintendo. It’s as accessible as anybody could ask for.

Just be sure to pack some extra tissues and settle in for a whole lot of high school if you are interested in their broader catalog.
On one hand, visual novels have never been more accessible, especially abroad. Official localizations abound; you can get them on various platforms, including your phone. On the other hand, it feels like the format doesn’t hold the same level of cultural influence it once had. Key, for instance, is still in business and still making new games, but I can’t imagine blowing up in the same way if it were released today.
We can almost properly quantify that concept. The 2016 anime adaptation of Key‘s VN hardly made a dent in the otaku-sphere, even with a fancy hour-long premiere that frontloaded the supernatural twists compared to their previous works. Light novels have replaced visual novels as the dominant adaptational choice. Even with Key putting out their dedicated shitpost series in 2021’s riffing on their entire output, it also serves to highlight how the likes of didn’t penetrate the pop-culture zeitgeist as much as Kanon.
I’m also thinking about how another VN studio, Type Moon, grew into even more of a goliath over the past decade by embracing the evil of gacha. Then again, Fate/Grand Order is also, by some measures, one of the most-played visual novels of all time, and some of its later chapters have word counts that rival actual standalone VNs. So it might not be that visual novels are dead so much as they’ve evolved and become integrated into other genres—unlike the progression bishoujo games saw in the ’90s.
Entertainment is, as a necessity, ever-evolving. Even visual novels persist more than you might give them credit for via integrating with their adventure game cousins. So we have rather recently talked about works like experimental medium master Kazutaka Kodaka‘s Master Detective Archives: Rain Code or the AI: The Somnium Files games. Granted, those don’t get meme’d on as much as , , or , but they’re hardly irrelevant.

That’s to say nothing of the more indie side of things, including Doki Doki Literature Club (whatever your opinion on it) or VA-11 Hall-A, which encompass the sort of fandom that was passing Misuzu macros around imageboards.
You also can’t overstate Key‘s ubiquity and influence in the space. Ryukishi07, for example, cites their work as a direct precursor to the Higurashi series and even structured his games similarly because Key‘s blueprint was just that effective. I’m much more a Higurashi guy than a Kanon guy, but knowing the connective tissue between them makes me appreciate both works all the more.
Those connections come full circle, with Key bringing Ryukishi07 on to contribute to the script for . As I said, that one hardly blew up the same way as the studio’s establishing output (and it’s not one I’ve finished in either game or anime form). However, it does up the interest due to that all-important experimentation factor.

As an aside, that’s hardly the only interesting Key collaboration connection. I’d love to get a chance to check out the (sadly not officially streaming anywhere) movie directed by none other than Osamu Dezaki!
Late-career Dezaki is wild. You’ve got a handful of movies, then and films. Nobody will ever do it like he did.

And while they might no longer have the juice that once meant I could not visit /a/ without seeing Sunohara’s mug at least twice, I’m glad Key is still out there doing their thing. Visual novels are a rich space that they helped codify, and that’s true whether or not you like what they codified. I’m also glad we have a show like 16bit airing that periscopes into the time and space that molded VNs as we know them. As a nerd writing for an anime website, I’m a little biased, but I love seeing how the past shaped the stuff I enjoy today.

Also, someone’s gotta teach teens these days what a floppy disc is. It might as well be the anime about porn games.

Readers, consider yourselves lucky we decided to springboard off of 16bit Sensation during the storyline where Konoha time-travels using Kanon instead of whenever she gets around to opening Rance.

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