Japanese weekly business magazine Shukan Toyo Keizai (Weekly Oriental Economy) has given me a very nice Xmas present: They finally post some free content online! I was even more delighted to discover that one featured article discusses a topic that’s come up in a recent post: the “decline” of Japan’s animation industry. According to animation critic Ryota Fujitsu (who incidentally also is on the selection committee for the Nippon Otaku Awards) argues that rather than declining per se it’s “hollowing out” due to outsourcing of animators. I decided to translate it in full since it brings up some interesting issues. Let’s have a look:
Currently, Japan’s animation industry wouldn’t be viable without the presence of Korean and Chinese subcontracting companies. Why must the industry rely on foreign outsourcing? If you trace the causes of this dependence, you’ll find the answer lies in the low production costs. Normally, production costs of a 30-minute program amount to around 10 million yen apiece. However, it costs even more than that for a more elaborate project, and there are also many works that are produced for prices lower than 1 million yen. This situation has been going on for years, and you could say it has become entrenched. So as a result, the issue of low wages for animation staff, chiefly represented by the animators, has been repeated in the media. This is despite the facts that dozens of animated programs are shown every week, and animation has been proclaimed as “a subculture representative of Japan” by the media.
One third of animators make less than 1 million yen annually
The typical lifestyle of a contemporary animator was detailed in the 2005 study “Status of Activities and Lifestyles of Performing Artists” conducted by the Japan Council of Performers’ Organizations (tr: report available here in Japanese only).
According to this source, animators work an average of 10.2 hours a day, an estimated 250 hours per month. Despite this, 26.8% of the make less than 1 million yen per year, 38.2% earn an average annual income of between 1 million and 3 million yen annually. Meanwhile, 80% of in-between (douga) animators are paid by quantity, with per-cel prices averaging 186.9 yen. 73.7% had annual incomes of less than 1 million yen.
Thus, the fact that overseas outsourcing provides better cost performance even after companies have cut personnel costs to this extent is a major paradox facing Japan’s animation industry. It’s as if the industry is running on a shoestring to keep this paradox from being exposed.
Now, keep in mind that while there are animators and in-between animators who suffer from low wages, it is a fact that there are major players in the field that make upwards of 10 million yen per year. The latter are not very well known since they are not mentioned in the media, but there are, of course, many animators who are living a normal lifestyle. In other words, the concentration on the bottom is severe, but just like comedians, actors, and musicians, you can live like a normal person if you have a certain level of talent. The issue is actually that the animation industry may be losing the forward-minded strategic recruiting capacity since concentration at the bottom is too severe.
How much has digitization progressed?
So, what effects is the expansion of overseas outsourcing having on Japan’s animation industry?
Let’s consider this question by looking at the animation production process. First of all, the company decides on a project, the script is written, and then storyboards, the blueprint for an animated work, are drawn based on that script. Next comes the animation. This process is divided into key animation and in-between animation. Animators who draw the key cels (key animators) draw the key images of character movements following the instructions of the storyboards. Animators who draw in-between cels (in-between animators) draw images that fill in the spaces between the key cels and clean up all the key cels. People who seek to become animators start their careers as in-between animators. There are pursue careers as in-between veterans, but most people build up experience and become key animators.
Then, the completed cels are scanned and colored on a computer. In the past, the drawings were copied onto actual acetate cels, onto which colors were painted, but presently almost all animation in Japan has been digitized from the coloring step onward. Similarly, filming of the cels was once done with a camera, but cameras have been replaced with computer compositing.
The demerits of overseas outsourcing
The areas of the above process that are being entrusted to foreign contracting companies are mainly the process from key or in-between animation and filming. Whether the scope of outsourcing includes just the key/in-between animation, from the in-between animation to the coloring, or also includes background art depends on the piece and the number of episodes. However, it very rarely includes storyboards except in the case of a joint production.
The first demerit of overseas outsourcing is that number of ground-floor positions for aspiring animators will be reduced as less in-between animation work is done domestically. Novice animators always start off on in-between cels. The fact that there are few openings to accept the applicants means that we are letting talent slip away, which could put a damper on the industry later on. Ultimately, low wages and overseas outsourcing constitute the biggest issues affecting the securing of talent. They are also two sides of the same coin.
However, there are problems beyond that, namely the fact that animation production, which should be a team effort by the production staff, has become divided into a relationship between the planning/development/design stage (production including planning, script, and storyboards), and production that takes place in a factory (animation onward). Of course, that trend exists domestically as well, but the problem has been taken to an extreme with overseas outsourcing. When that becomes the status quo, that makes it even worse.
Creativity lies sleeping at the bottom
This division of planning/development/design and production would be natural in a normal manufacturing industry. But it does not apply to animation. That’s because animation is a type of cinematic art and won’t work under the premise that it’s all right as long as things are done according to the manual. The expressiveness unique to a production is still found somewhere in between both the “creative” work and the “simple labor” that follows the blueprints. Both are at the core of the production. For example, even with in-between animation, which is often misunderstood as simple labor, it is possible to inject creativity into the work. Take Ichiro Sakano, who is an animator well-known for drawing unparalleled battle scenes. He reportedly expressed himself by considering how to draw each cut from the time he was an in-between animator.
However, the industry cannot count on that creativity manifesting itself in the bottom-level staff when it comes to overseas outsourcing. This will result in more factory-style operations and, in cases where , simple images that have been given movement.
I am not simply saying that overseas workers’ skills are low. Quite the contrary, environmental issues play a major role, such as the existence of geographical and linquistic barriers that make communication impossible, and, even more important, the fact that they will not see the broadcasts. At any rate, the fact that “segregation” in which communications, which should be critical, is being tossed out, while operations that are seen as a type of simple labor are (or are forced to be) outsourced, is called for is a problem in the Japanese animation industry that is behind the move toward overseas outsourcing.
In other words, this is an issue that strikes at the root of creativity, which won’t develop as the production base is shifting to overseas. It is easy to see that the reason Ghibli Studio produced “Princess Mononoke” using only domestic staff as a general rule was a form of resistance to this situation.
A future vision for Japanese animation
So, based on the above situation, let’s predict what will happen to Japan’s animation industry from here on out. The problems facing the industry probably won’t change much in the future (Effects from radical changes in the broadcast environment such as TV and the Internet are likely in the future, but I won’t go into detail since they have nothing to do with this article). That is, as long as creators keep putting out hit works with a certain level of appeal, the companies will definitely be able to secure a certain number of applicants.
Meanwhile, it is sufficiently likely that master animators will start popping up in Korea and China, where workers are presently accumulating experience from outsourcing. A talented animator is a precious thing indeed. When these talents come on the scene, the issue is whether an environment can be created in which they can communicate with Japanese staff and raise the quality of animation.
What I would like to propose as a long-term idea is the creation of an “East Asian Anime Sphere” that would make possible the production of animation spanning the borders of Japan, Korea, and China. The concept is to change the relationship between hollowing out and outsourcing into collaboration. If this environment is successfully created, talent from a broad scope can gather at the production bases of each country and simultaneouly secure sufficient scale as a market.
Of course, the realization of this idea faces many hurdles, mainly political. However, with the creation of this “East Asian Anime Sphere” the problems of low wages and hollowing out that are facing the animation industry should be resolved for the first time.