Japan’s animation industry hollowing out?

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:

The Hollowing Out of Japan’s Animation Industry Continues

(2006/12/19)

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.

27 thoughts on “Japan’s animation industry hollowing out?

  1. I don’t think that this is as big a deal as people have been making it out to be. Just think of the example of “The Simpsons”. That show has been animated in Korea for ages now, but it is hard to deny that it is still a classic bit of Americana. The important thing, in my mind, is the quality of the writing, storyboards, etc. As long as the “idea part” of anime is still thriving in Japan (which it likely will because of connections with manga at the very least) things are looking up. “Battle scenes won’t look as good” and points like that are the main complaints about outsourcing but that could end up to be a positive – less focus on looks and more focus on themes and ideas would be a good thing for anime. The potential for ambitious co-production and “transnational” anime is also very exciting.

  2. Well, in the short term there’s no shortage of people who want to become animators in Japan, so in that sense it’s not a big deal. The low wages situation seems like it could be self-correcting in time.

    But since Japanese investment has trained a generation of animators in Korea and China, Japan’s animation companies might start missing out on the top talent as the countries start developing vibrant animation industries of their own. So if you think about it, an “East Asian Anime Sphere” makes a lot of sense: Include the good animators and creative types by giving them access to the big capital and infrastructure in Japan and voila you can exploit low wages with no subsequent talent crisis.

  3. Thanks for translating this.

    One thing that also holds up the idea of an “East Asian Anime Sphere” is that the creators of Japanese anime hardly ever consider foreign markets at the planning/production phase. Sure, they gladly license the works for abroad, but it’s a damn rare anime that seems made with anything but the Japanese market in mind. This is true of Miyazaki, art houses like Gainax, and the vast majority of anime: otaku moe shows.

    This is a double-edged sword—the stubbornly Japanese aspects of anime are some of the things we like about anime—the Japanese humor, imagery, and general weirdness. On the other hand, that stuff can turn off audiences outside of Japan, especially when we’re talking about moe, which is basically made for a very small niche of hardcore Japanese otaku and undigestible to anyone else.

    So basically, until the Japanese anime studios start considering foreign audiences in Asia and the West, we won’t see an East Asian Anime Sphere. That may be a bad thing, as we value the Japanese aspects of anime, but looking at the last 10 years of anime, could things really get any worse?

  4. Thank you for the translation! It’s hard to find information about the circumstances of modern anime production in English, and this is very helpful.

    Ryota Fujitsu says in the article that “this is an issue that strikes at the root of creativity” (an odd choice of words*, given that the animators make their contribution to the production maybe halfway through the process), but I worry that what affects animators today may also have long-term consequenses for the industry in terms of grooming future high-level creative staff. In doing research on Satoshi Kon’s films, I’ve noticed that the career progression that starts with being an in-betweener doesn’t necessarily end with being a key animator: an individual may continue on to do art direction, storyboarding, direction, etc. Fujitsu indicates there’s a large enough talent pool to sustain the studios at the most basic level (the “severe concetration at the bottom” he mentions), but I wonder if the wage situation may not only cost us great (Japanese) animators of the future, but also great directors and the like. That could have an even greater impact on the overall quality of anime than a decline in the animation itself. Not to snub the animators’ contribution—they play a role as (potentially) creative as seiyuu, in my opinion—but as M-Bone points out above, the pre-animation planning phase is key. A loss of talent here could really be a blow to the anime industry.

    That’s worst case scenario, of course, and I wouldn’t try to make predictions based on what limited knowledge I have. Anyway, thanks again, Adamu.

    • Not calling your translation into question, by the way, just in case there was any confusion.
  5. Thanks for the translation. I wonder what it would do in terms of screenwriting and if the Japanese Animation Industry will start to outsource as well. If so, I do hope, North America will be one to collaborate.

  6. “M-Bone points out above, the pre-animation planning phase is key.”

    I think that this is a good time to note that Oshii Mamoru, probably the second most distinguished director in Japanese animation history, can’t really draw to save his life. His co-conspirator, Ito Kazunori, has also been an idea man for ages. As long as Japan continues to produce individuals like this (and a glance at a Kinema Junpo magazine top 10 of film list or some recent anime or narrative video games shows that it still does) I think that the anime industry will be safe. Let’s also consider the fact that manga is booming. There is plenty of new talent and a rich body of classics that are being re-released. Some mangaka like Uchida Shungiku are even crossing the line between manga and serious literature with amazing ease. This type of material will continue to provide excellent source material for anime.

    Japanese animators are also the best in the world at getting thigns done on the cheap without sacrificing quality. Does anyone remember the minute long Asuka / Rei elevator scene in Evangelion? Genius. I also think that the last two episodes of the TV series are highpoints for Japanese animation – almost no animation to speak of, but a few good ideas go a long way.

  7. Hmmm. I went to googled a currency conversion site – 1,000,000 yen sounds
    like a lot and I had no idea at all how much or little that was – turns out that it is
    roughly $8,400.00 a year. I mean – do you have any idea how expensive it is
    to live in Tokyo?

    Who knows. I’ve read stuff that says that manga and anime are post peak in Japan – but I also read stuff about how (just a few minutes before reading this!) that
    manga is growing in India. While searching for info on one particular anime (Elfen Lied) I found forums on it in Ireland and New Zealand – Russia and Brazil. And a net comic based upon it has been translated into 11 languages. So…I wouldn’t worry about Japan having to consider other markets outside of itself when creating new anime – just the way it is anime is growing by leaps and bounds worldwide.

    And hey – starving artist has been a cliche for over a century for a reason – yet there are always a few artists/musicians/comedians/actors who transcend the mass and have fame and fortune – while the bottom rung needs food stamps.

    Or (yeah, I’ll pipe down soon!) TLC sold millions of records – went bankrupt – and then T-Boz got upset ‘cuz the assistant to one of the record execs was driving a Benz while she was going bankrupt!

  8. I’ve been watching anime for about five years now, and I believe that what Fujitsu-san has written is largely correct. No matter where you go or what style of hand-drawn animation is being done (by the American model, the Japanese model, or something else), it is absolutely essential for new talent to flow “from the bottom up” and fill the ranks when older animators retire. Furthermore, those who have done in-betweening / clean-up know far, far more about the animation craft than someone who goes straight from being an illustrator or having attended animation school to doing key animation.

    I’m to start an internship at Studio Madhouse in February with a focus on one day becoming a storyman (staff writer, original screenplays, project development, show creator, and maybe even director). Before I was accepted for the internship, I had the opportunity to tour Madhouse’s production office in Tokyo. While I was there, I saw the challenging but rewarding environment the animators work in. But, one thing I noticed is that, while there are a lot of young animators (Madhouse is currently trying to develop new talent), they were not doing in-betweening. This work is mostly being outsourced, either to other Japanese companies which are still small, or to Korea. Now, Madhouse has an excellent relationship with one Korean company in particular, D.R. Movie, and on all their films (and their highest-quality TV series), you will see D.R. Movie credited. If all my ambitions come true and I end up working for Madhouse and pitching an idea to them, I wouldn’t even dream of doing it without D.R. Movie. In that company are some of the best unsung animators in the world, and judging from their impressive list of works, I have no qualms about rating them equal to Ghibli, Madhouse, or even Disney in terms of their technical skill. So, in instances like this, the Korean collaboration works very well.

    But as for the lack of involvement between the story people and the animators… yes, this is a major problem that is only confounded by the distance issue outsourcing provides. Furthermore, many of the Korean studios are not in the situation of D.R. Movie, and low pay for animators both there and in Japan is a serious, serious problem that must be fixed. Furthermore, unlike many of the people who have posted thusfar, I do think that the ‘hollowing out’ is going to affect the overall quality of animation in Japan down the road. What is my evidence for this? Well, for starters, I have the word of many high level people in the industry, including Isao Takahata (co-founder of Ghibli), Masao Murayama (founder of Madhouse), Akihiko Yamashita (‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ character designer, ‘The Cat Returns’ assistant animation director, ‘Gedo Senki’ assistant director), and Mahiro Maeda (longtime Gonzo staff director, director of ‘Blue Submarine 06,’ ‘Gankutsuou,’ segments of ‘The Animatrix’), all of whom have said as much when asked at Anime Expo and other conventions. Second, I have the example of Disney here in America. When Disney began the process of outsourcing (first to Japan ironically enough, and then to Korea when it became too expensive), the quality immediately began to suffer. Eventually, almost all of their TV work was done elsewhere, while only Feature Animation remained open in the U.S. Then, finally, Disney shut down its 2D department, and now almost every single Disney animation that is not CG is done in Asia somewhere (although that may change now that the 2D department is set to be revived in a few years). If you need any proof that outsourcing hurts in the long run, look at any of Disney’s direct-to-video stuff. Finally, I have examples of Korea’s extremely high quality original animation, such as ‘Wonderful Days’ (which, even if the story wasn’t the best, still visually outdoes almost all anime), which has obviously been created by artists and animators who were weaned working on American and Japanese projects (check the crew list if you need further proof). Anime in Japan is threatened by a slow, painful stagnation (and possibly even death) if this major problem is not soon resolved. And, this is not merely my own opinion. I’ve been hearing it for years from people within the industry, who are getting older and are worried that there will not be new talent to replace them.

    That all said, there have been some excellent collaborations that make me want to see more. Consider Gonzo teaming with G&G Entertainment for ‘Kaleido Star,’ and Madhouse (as well as Ghibli occasionally) working with D.R. Movie. Or look at ‘Gundam SEED,’ which featured animators in Japan, Korea, and China all working hard on the same episodes? In fact, the ‘Gundam’ example might be best for international collaboration, as the same company (Studio Dove) opperates offices in all three countries and supplied supporting animation to Sunrise (the main production studio). However, on ‘Gundam SEED,’ you could really tell a difference in the animation quality when certain key animators (like character designer Hisashi Hirai) stepped in to do work. It still does come down to a few special individuals, who do all steps of the animation process themselves. They include people like Hirai, Hisashi Abe of Madhouse (his credits include animating ‘Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust’ and the ‘X’ TV series), the late great Yoshifumi Kondo of Ghibli (‘Whisper of the Heart’ director, ‘Princess Mononoke’ supervising animation director), Nobuteru Yuuki (character designer and animation director for the ‘X’ and ‘Escaflowne’ movies), Rintaro (director of ‘Metropolis,’ ‘Galaxy Express 999,’ ‘X’ movie), Yoshiaki Kawajiri (director of ‘Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust,’ ‘X’ TV series, ‘Ninja Scroll’), and of course Hayao Miyazaki (who needs no introduction). It’s in developing more people like this that the anime business as a whole in Japan must really work at. Needless to say, many of the people on this list are over 60, and one of them has sadly passed on. The rest won’t be around for ever, but if anime is going to be, equally great talents must take their place sometime. The other thing that must happen is that the animators have to start having more input into how scenes are done. Now, I’m not saying I want them to re-write the scripts (as if they did that, I would have no future job), but I do think that having them be involved in how scenes are staged and ‘acted’ (drawn) is a must. This has happened on many of the greatest anime, such as ‘Evangelion’ (remember that scene with Shinji on a train talking to ‘himself?’ it wasn’t in the original script!), and it will no doubt continue to happen on future top-caliber productions. The future holds a lot of promise for new talents to emerge, but unless Japan starts training more animators (and thus future creators) from the ground up, or develops the ideal utopia that Fujitsu-san suggests with his “East Asian Anime Sphere,” I worry for the industry’s (and my own) future.

  9. LainEverliving – Good to hear an animator’s perspective but I still have to disagree with part of your argument. What you are talking about seems to be “animation quality” not “the quality of Japanese animation”. As I mention above, while the actual visuals may decline (and that is by no means a negative, some older works with limited animation like Galaxy Express 999 are head and shoulders above some work coming out now) the ideas behind Japanese animation would not. I will always take powerful storytelling and important themes over visual quality and I think that this is the strength of Japanese animation and that it does not rely on talent from the animator ranks. “Wonderful Days” looked great, but isn’t it something of a joke among film fans? Animation like that, no matter how good it looks, is not going to do much unless the character / theme / plot is there. I think that in some ways, advances in animation quality can HURT Japanese animation and that a few back to basics steps back are needed. I think that Appleseed, Advent Children, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust all suck (quite frankly) as films, despite having animation that Japanese talent could only have dreamed about 20 years ago. An anime shakeup is coming but if the idea people remain strong, cheap labor in Asia continues to be tapped, etc. things should be fine, right? Takahata at Ghibli has been arguing this very point for close to a decade now – he sees the strength of Japanese animation as being in the ideas and the connection of those ideas to Japanese culture (giving them a network of symbols to draw upon, etc.).

    Would anyone really argue that the outsourcing of CG jobs to Asia destroys Hollywood creativity? I don’t think so. The ideas, the powerful direction, the actors, etc. would still be concentrated in the United States. Same with Japanese animation.

    As for the opinions of people in the industry, they have been wrong before. Miyazaki predicted in an Animage interview in 1984 that Japanese animation would be all but dead by 2000. Oshii, Miyazaki, Satoshi Kon, Rin Taro, Otomo, etc. all express confusion when asked about why their works are popular overseas. Oshii and Miyazaki in particular, argued that Japanese animation would never be able to compete with overseas product several times in the 1980s.

    Are you Japanese, BTW? If not, I guess that you are living proof that overseas talent can be incorporated into the Japanese industry, it does not need to replace it.

  10. Can’t say I’m a keen recent anime watcher and I belong to ‘J-anime is declining ’ school.but I don’t think the East Asian Anime Sphere is emerging in near future nor Japan’s place in this genre will be threatened by the neighbors.

    Japan > S.Korea
    1)The number of TV station: Japan>South Korea
    Japan has more nearly tenTV stations that produces anime.while in SK there are only three.(we aren’t counting cable stations here)Despite the rise of internet,It is still the pillar of producing ,showing,and marchandising anime.Movie will not be the best media to spread anime among kids compare to everyweek-shown-programs.
    2)The copyrights :
    Strictly protected in J ,and sell and rental softs themsleves have market.Not so in SK , where you can see almost anything on the net.This also makes defference when merchandisig the related goods
    3)The draft to the military:
    Non existant in J,More than 2 years in SK.The early 20’s are the best age for youth culture creators.Imagine a popular manga artist and gotta stop his weekly manga one day and the fan can only expect the sequel in 2years.This is one of the reason I think the manga market of SK is dominated by J-manga despite the effort of spreading home grown K-manhwa

    Japan>China
    1)Piracy!
    2)censorship
    3)trying to raise industry through government support,big mistake in this case.

  11. To M-Bone – Ah, good to see I’ve generated a response!

    Just to clarify, I am not an animator, but rather a writer interested in working in the overall artform of Japanese animation. And also, I am not Japanese, but rather am American (not of Asian heritage), so as you say, if I manage to have a career in anime, I will be proof that overseas talent can indeed be integrated. So, I for one am happy that the emphasis thusfar in Japan has (and hopefully will continue to be) placed on the story.

    However, I do feel that outsourcing is ‘hollowing out’ future storytellers, as well as animators. After all, while there are many creators who are not themselves expert animators or artists, the majority still continue to be well-trained in the art. If they are not given the opportunity to rise through the ranks as has traditionally been done, less of them will reach the high level required to pitch ideas and be heard. After all, there would be no ‘Evangelion’ had Hideaki Anno not first created Gainax with his friends from college, animated no less than 3,000 drawings himself for the Daikon 1 anime short, been an in-between and key animator on dozens of other people’s works, provided his skills as a directing animator on ‘The Wings of Honneamise,’ and finally graduated to series director on ‘Top O Narae!’ There is a long, long progression to becoming a director, and sucking out the basic, foundation-level steps deals a great disservice in that not only fewer people are given the chance to create, but the ones who do get the opportunity are less well equiped to know all the steps of production first hand. If the actual process of animation, the process of ‘doing’ it, is something located far away in another country, how well can the show creator, writer, or director really understand what he or she is asking of the staff? How well can the unique visual side of anime be crafted by the creative talent? And also, if the animation itself is down-graded to a mere factory-level of focus, how ‘alive’ will it be? I’m very, very serious when I say this, but having a great story is not the only thing to make a great anime. You absolutely have to have good animators too, even if they are working with a limitted budget and a choice few frames. Even high frame-count, modern Disney animation is often completely soulless, if it is drawn by someone who doesn’t understand ‘why’ the character is doing what he or she is doing. Again, look at ‘Evangelion.’ There isn’t a frame where Rei isn’t being ‘completely’ Rei. You can always tell her state of mind, her motivation, and yes even her emotion by looking at her, because the people who were drawing her truly understood her. Just like a voice actor has to ‘become’ the character, so too does an animator ‘become’ who he or she is drawing. And trust me, that’s a lot easier when the writer, the director, and all of the other creative people are right there next to you, in the same room, explaining to you first hand why the character is that way. It’s even easier still when the character designer or director bends right over and draws a correction for you. If you are working in that kind of environment, the character ceases to be a drawing on a flat scrap of paper, but rather is truly alive.

    Now, consider if that scene were outsourced to Korea. An order comes in, along with a deadline, and every animator is assigned a certain number of drawings they have to complete. As with all Japanese animation, there is no voice track to go along with for inspiration, and whatever parts of the script you do get will be incomplete. You will have no chance whatsoever to deal with the creator and ask what his / her opinion might be. The best you can hope for is talking to your supervisor, who might know more about the overall content of the show. Furthermore, unlike the animators in Japan, you will not have had the chance to see any of your completed work from last week’s episode on television, nor will you have any idea how well the scenes you drew went over. And worst of all, you won’t have a sense of what you are drawing existing as anything more than a drawing. It won’t be real for you, or at least, not as real as it would be had it been explained to you. That’s where the real problem lies, and until there is complete equality between the contract and main production studios and staff, that isn’t going to go away.

    Ollie Johnston, the last of Walt Disney’s ‘Nine Old Men of Animation,’ was once at an event I attended. The interviewer asked him what I would have, had questions from the audience been allowed. He asked: “Were the characters you drew real to you?” When he heard that question, Ollie immediately showed a look on his face like he was back at work at Disney’s, back in the 1940s. “Oh, of course they were alive. Just as alive as I am now,” is what he said. Now granted, that’s the kind of character animation emphasised in America, not in Japan. But still, the lesson is there. If this man truly believed that when he animated Bambi that Bambi was a real deer, then that is what you have to do in order to ‘do’ good animation. And this is exactly what the best animators in Japan do all the time. Miyazaki has in particular encouraged his artists to accomplish this. Personally, I think that’s why the Ghibli films have that extra, intangible something in them. So, unless that legendary sphere that has been suggested materializes, I see a major problem on the horizon that extends beyond the actual artistic quality of the animation. I see the potential for future anime that, despite having a good story, just feels lifeless. And that’s something that can’t be undone easily. While I understand that outsourcing is a reality of the business, I don’t think that allowing it to continue unabated with the singular comfort that quality will not be impacted because the genius creators are still Japanese is a viable way to face the future. That’s partly why I want to go to Japan, to work there, and to interact one-on-one with the animators. Since I cannot draw well myself, I have incredible respect for their talents, and I know that each of them is unique and cannot simply be replaced by a less-well-trained and less-expensive individual somewhere else. That’s like saying that the human element in ‘doing’ animation isn’t important, and that it could just as easily be done by machines if the machines did it cheaper. I want to go to Japan because animation is still being done by hand there, by people who draw in the same room the writers work in. I want to be able to impart my passion into them, and see what kinds of visual expressions they can give my words. And, for my part, I want to try and learn Korean so I can go to the contract studios and tell them too. Being there is what it’s all about. If animation is truly to soar as a medium, there can be no divide between those who create with typewriters and those who create with pencils. They have to be united, together, and working as one. And, unlike the live-action film business where there is a destinction between the crew and the creators, in animation, the crew ARE the creators. Even an in-betweener might contribute an idea that could redefine the whole project. That’s why I can say without hesitation or regret that Japan either needs to join as equals with the rest of the Asian animation world, or bring back the breeding grounds of new talent, new ideas, and new dreams that will keep this beautiful artform that we all love going as far into the future as we can wish for.

  12. Lain – Very interesting response. Once again, it is great to see the Japanese animation industry bringing in outside perspectives.

    I read the history of Japanese animation, and of Gainax, a bit differently than you do. For me, it is proof that mass education of lower level animators is NOT as necessary as many suggest. Anno and the others started doing it as a hobby and within a decade, were producing big ticket anime like Nadia and Eva a bit later. Nobody really “developed” Anno, he developed himself (with the amateur Daikon project and on the Nausicaa, etc.). He is living proof that as long as there are fans of anime (and manga) there will be very creative people raising themselves up in the industry in Japan. When you look at debates about contemporary Japanese young people, the word “freeta” is the one that keeps popping up. In other words, young people that “drop out” of the company system (or don’t even start) and do what they love. Many put their passion for whatever over money and security. I think that this group will make up a strong pool of talent for Japan’s “idea industries”. The last time I was in Japan, I noticed that Square-Enix (FF, Dragon Quest, etc.) was recruiting interns and offering to pay 800 yen an hour (just above konbini wages). They were flooded with applicants. While the anime situation may be somewhat different, I don’t see the grassroots of Japanese animation being scared away by low wages and hard work. If anything, the current social environment is more conductive to the “freeta” life pattern. I see a solid body of talented artists as well as the “idea people” continuing to exist in Japan for the foreseeable future.

  13. To M-Bone – True, true, but don’t forget that without the jobs the companies provide, the “freeta” won’t have an oportunity to develop their skills.

    Anno only got his animating gig for ‘Nausicaa’ because Ghibli (actually, Top Craft at the time) put out a call all across Japan for animators to come to them. Anno came, showed his stuff off proudly, and got the job. But he had already been animating for years prior to that. If he hadn’t gotten that early training, how likely is it that his art skills would have been up to Miyazaki’s standards (since it was Hayao himself who gave Anno the assignment)? It’s true that no one person or company developed Anno into who he became, but, he still had many oportunities to learn the ropes working on dozens of other projects in a lower-level capacity. He did indeed develop himself, but he had a means to do it (i.e., work). Now, I completely agree with you on the Square-Enix example, but keep in mind that they aren’t outsourcing yet. They still are doing all the art, the coding, and the writing in Japan (at least, to my knowlege). In the gaming world, there are lots of jobs open to the “freeta,” and thus lots of places they can go to try and develop their skills. The lack of substantial pay isn’t the issue… it’s more of the chance to get a firm grasp on how to do what they want to learn how to do. No one, for example, comes straight out of animation school as an expert. They have to work for years, maybe even decades, to get to be that good. Using Disney as an example again, even the ‘Nine Old Men’ worked as in-between animators and clean-up artists for years before they got to the big time. It tends to be that things ‘flow upwards’ from the bottom to the top, gathering experience and ideas along the way. Anno wouldn’t have made ‘Evangelion,’ for example, if he hadn’t first made ‘Top O Narae!’ and ‘Nadia.’

    I think a little bit of proof of this exists at Madhouse. Even though they do not have as many animators working for them as they once did, I noticed on their website that they still are looking to hire new talents to train and develop. The base pay is 140,000 yen a month (I believe, unless I misread the kanji, in which case it may be per week), which makes them higher than the average in the anime business. Also, Madhouse has made an effort to bring in animators from other companies and make them more permenant employees (for there still is a fair amount of ‘shuffling’ between jobs). The way they are doing this is trying to provide not only a more stable work environment, but also a more friendly work environment. I got the idea when I toured the studio that, while it is a very serious environment, it also is an environment where fun can be had. So, there is that dimension as well.

    Ultimately, I think that the disagreement between you and I lies more in where we think the creation point of anime’s quality is. You have been saying that, so long as there are good creators, directors, and storymen at work in Japan, it doesn’t matter as much where the animation is done as that the creative talents at the higher levels of production remain true to the ‘spirit’ of anime. They should do well to not forget the basics of storytelling, and the search for ever more advanced animation technique can sometimes serve as a distraction to what is really important: the story. My opinion is different in that I believe that, in order to get to the point that they can be creators, young people must work their way up through the ranks of production, building experience along the way. Furthermore, they should have strong interactions with the animators, and try to encorporate their best ideas in terms of the visual execution of the show into the final project. Finally, I said that if the so-called ‘creative’ aspects of the production are segregated from the actual physical work of ‘doing’ the animation (as is accomplished via outsourcing due to the distance and language factors), the overall project will be less ‘in-sync’ with itself, and will lose the authenticity of character that makes for good animation. Actually, I think that the difference arises more from me being exposed to the opinions of a lot of animators and from reading acounts of their works and lives than from anything else. Before I really, truly tried to understand the position of the animator, I had an opinion closer to the one you hold. Believe me, as a writer, I would like to think that I am the ultimate arbiter of authority on a production. But, I know all too well that, like all humans, I am bound to make mistakes. I want there to be a fine group of people around me, including those who are going to have to draw what I’ve written, to tell me if what I’ve created is good or bad. Now, I believe that anime as a whole will continue in the near future. I’ve seen enough good signs to indicate that. But, if you look far into the future, and you take as your crystal ball predictions what has happened in the United States to 2D animation, you’ll see why I am so worried. To call American animation today soulless is a compliment. I hate to say it, but it is true. Ever since Disney started outsourcing the thousands of bubbles of ‘The Little Mermaid’ to China, they’ve been slipping down the steep slope that eventually was one of the factors that doomed them. Now, before you say anything else, I know that perhaps the most important factor was the huge costs of making Disney animated films. Some cost more than $100 million. Wouldn’t that be cheaper with outsourcing, you might ask. Yes, it would. But would those movies be successful? Would they be good? Would they even be art? I don’t know. Look at outsourced Disney films (their direct-to-video stuff) and think about it. And, I know that I don’t want anime to follow that same path. I want it to remain art. So, the only way I know of to do that is to slow outsourcing, bring more people from around the world into the production, and increase the overall net that the anime business casts. In other words, I would like to see something beyond the ‘East Asian Anime Sphere.’ I would like to see a ‘Global Anime Sphere.’ Just think of the potential of that. Just think of what would happen if all the expert animators of America leant their talents to the next high-profile anime film. That’s the stuff dreams are made of. So, I’m not trying to be exclusionist, or someone who wants to keep anime ‘Japanese.’ I merely want to ensure that anime doesn’t suffer the same way classical American animation has. Of course, if a ‘Global Anime Sphere’ is to be created, it will mean an end of ‘anime’ as we know it. Anime is, after all, a uniquely Japanese creation. What it would be replaced by would be a sort of worldwide Global Animation, borrowing the best techniques from everywhere. The potential to make things that are really unique, that borrow from the stories of the whole world, is huge. The difficulties in creating such an environment are also huge. But, if outsourcing is to continue, that should be the goal. If, on the other hand, things are to remain mostly Japanese in origin (with only some minimal foreign assistance), I would expect to see more of the same of what we currently are getting. That might be a bad thing in the long run. Who is to say that Japan, if it does not consider the tastes of the rest of the world, might eventually run out of stories? Personally, I think that’s part of the reason why I’ve been offered an internship. But, again, the fact I’ve been brought in at the level I’ve been brought in means something. Madhouse is looking for creators from other nations, not animators. They are trying to expand the range of creativity at the top levels, not a pool on animators further down. As I’ve said before, I’m not being considered for my drawing abilities. So, my experience may be more in line with what I would like to see for the future: not outsourcing, but ‘bringing in’ new people. I think you would agree with those sentiments, based on your comments.

    What would ultimately be the best would be if we could find a solution where people all over the world were creating their own unique art, with assistance from others. The Koreans wouldn’t just be creating for others, but for themselves as well. And the Japanese would not just be making anime, but lending their expertise to foreign projects. As I’ve said before, the key to this is equality in the production. In other words, the foreign artists MUST BE REGARDED AS EQUALS to their Japanese counterparts. They must be given the same advantages, the same treatment, and the same ability to truly understand what they are doing and why. If that could be accomplished, new talent in Japan could be raised in the traditional way (along with the self-made “freeta” movement), and the quality of storytelling preserved (and possibly expanded by the inclusion of other people from around the world), then I think anime can have a strong, indisputable claim at a long and successful future.

  14. “Anno wouldn’t have made ‘Evangelion,’ for example, if he hadn’t first made ‘Top O Narae!’ and ‘Nadia.’” – True, but he made those for a company that he co-founded. Who is to say that, if the majors in Japan start outsourcing everything, that some young Japanese won’t respond by cutting out on their own? A similar thing happened with the Toei Doga crowd back in the 1960s and 1970s.

    In any case, as a reaction to globalization everywhere, there has been a backlash – more local production, more local content (in the UK, Canada, New Zealand, India, etc.). Because of Japan’s linguistic isolation, I can’t see outsourcing going on to the point of destroying connections in the industry.

    Elsewhere, I have argued that Japanese animation is doing just fine at present. I like the older stuff better but there are some good works being produced. Despite this, however, I think that a shakeup is needed. More new blood, a change in the way that projects are funded and supervised, etc. Outsourcing may force such changes. I’m all for directorial control and if outsourcing is the way, I think that Japan’s animators need to find a way to maintain that control – either by bringing talent in or by going outward themselves. In any event, at present, the quality of the best of Japanese animation – Satoshi Kon’s work, Ghibli, Oshii, etc. has not, in my eyes, been adversely impacted by what outsourcing that does happen. I don’t really care if Chibi Maruko-chan or Kochi-kame gets outsourced up to the eyes. I think that the “greats” of Japanese animation have continued to surround themselves with younger Japanese talent (even if they complain about the future of the industry – people have been predicting the death of Japanese animation since Tezuka tried those Cleopatra and 1001 Nights anime-rama things in the late 1960s).

    I tend to be an optimist –
    5 years ago people were predicting the death of the Japanese game industry. Now we have tens of millions of DS units sold and the Wii looks like a killer console.

    In 1985 people (like Miyazaki) were talking about how the flood of anime on Japanese TV would kill the industry but the 10 years after that produced some of the best shows and films ever.

    People said that challenging manga would not survive after Tezuka passed away.

    I think that the next 10 years of Japanese animation ends up looking as good as the last 10. The increasingly large global market, emerging potential killer markets in China and India, lots of great source material in manga and literature (just look how well NHK ni yokoso has done, there is a lot of talent in manga and popular fiction, I don’t see Japan running out of stories), Japanese young people being increasingly willing to eschew a “normal” career path, etc. Every time I set foot into an anime or stationary shop in Japan (even in regional cities) there are dozens of young people (mostly girls) buying art supplies – that’s the next generation of creators right there. I think that it will take more than just outsourcing to mess all of this up.

    How about this, if I’m wrong about this and outsourcing tears the bottom out of the anime business, I’ll track you down at Madhouse and give you 10,000 yen.

  15. To M-Bone – Hahah, deal!

    Oh, definately, the future is in all those cosplaying, bishie-luvin’ young women. Right now, the anime business (as a business) is a bit biased towards male creators, but I get the sense that is bound to change in the future. If even a tenth of them can draw, and only a tenth of that tenth can write, there’s an anime explosion just waiting to happen.

    Don’t get me wrong here, outsourcing won’t completely destroy anime. I’m just worried it will impact creativity, and suck the livliness out of the animation. People are always predicting that the end is coming, so they try to live for today and make their work the best it can be. But, the fact is, most of the best creators are getting older, and at the moment, their aren’t any comperable talents who’ve come on the scene to replace them. If less people are given the chance to work their way up to becoming creators, that number of potentials will shrink. That’s what I’m worried about. Heck, even if it is dull, American animation still continues to be made (in Korea) and people continue to watch it. However, the time between ‘golden periods’ in the artform usually last decades, and I’m not too eager to see what I think might be a potential decline gather any steam.

    As far as the game industry goes, the problem of the older creators retiring is still an issue that hasn’t been completely solved. But lots of new talent at the best companies has continued to work their way up through the ranks and succeed, so I don’t predict doom. Now, if they weren’t given that chance, maybe I’d change my tune, but as of now, I’m not fearful. And, so long as at least half of the in-betweening is done in Japan, I’m not going to be terribly distraught. On big movies especially, there are still enough jobs for young artists to work their way up. What worries me more are the TV productions, where only a few artists remain in Japan and the rest are elsewhere. That’s potentially worse. And also, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, I’m a bit of an equality pusher, so needless to say, I’m advocating that the Korean and Chinese animators are paid similarly to the Japanese and given as much creative input as they deserve. I don’t like seeing people’s talents used simply because they come cheaper than someone else’s. People should get jobs because they ARE talented, or because they are being built into talents. But, I’m rather against the whole business of outsourcing in all respects, so maybe it ties a bit into that.

    In terms of engineering a shakeup, absolutely, this is what is needed more than anything. A shakeup like you desire can come about through the hiring of new talent, the broadening of the net the studios cast (in terms of involving other people), and the direct mentoring of new future creators by the current masters. It cannot, however, come from sending more of the actual animation to overseas contractors. This doesn’t develop new talent in terms of what can shakeup the business (i.e., story people). Nor does it create any positions for the Japanese higher than technical directors (basically, glorified key animators). That won’t help the business in the way you want. Perhaps if the Japanese were encouraging Korean creators to come to the studio and pitch ideas, but thusfar, this hasn’t happened. That’s more of the real of the “Sphere.” But, that isn’t at all to say that it can’t happen.

    Lastly, in terms of the creators you’ve mentioned, Ghibli uses only a moderate amount of outsourcing, and only to companies they know well. Meanwhile, Kon-san works with Madhouse, so all of the Korean work that goes on takes place with D.R. Movie (or occasionally Kyung Kang ANIA). Both Miyazaki and Kon know that developing new talents is a must. Therefore, they both have consistently employed new animators on the Japanese end to aid them. Kon himself, after all, worked his way up in this fashion, as did Miyazaki. Now, outside the companies, there might be some independant creators (like Makoto Shinkai) who do their own animation. However, they lack the resources to continue the business entirely on their own. So, baring a new ‘fan studio’ like Gainax rising up, I don’t think they are entirely an answer. What makes the most sense is this: the best studios should continue to train new talent, raising them through the ranks bit by bit, and eventually giving them the chance to create. Meanwhile, on projects that would overwhelm them, they should give some of their animation to trusted contract studios (some of which will be overseas) so that other animators outside the company are given the chance to learn and work. And finally, in the long term, both of these groups (those within the studio, and those without) should be combined as part of a greater whole, and with this newfound unity, perhaps even greater heights can be reached.

    But maybe I’m just being an optimist, ne? At any rate, while I’ll eagerly await your 10,000 yen, I do indeed hope I’ll never have to collect it!

    _

  16. “It cannot, however, come from sending more of the actual animation to overseas contractors.”

    It could if it causes some Japanese companies to go belly up. It would force people to come up with more innovative product, or sink. This is a pattern in many sectors of the economy at present. You have to pay a Japanese or an American 20 times (or more) that of an unskilled Chinese laborer so you had better be damn sure that they are doing good work (usually idea work) for you. The Japanese auto industry, electronics, etc. have survived a lot of their production being moved offshore. Anime is different but any kind of crisis in the industry could be a kick in the pants for creativity. I’ve been waiting for the next Nadia for 15 years now….

    Ghibli and others continuing to foster Japanese talent is just what I have been thinking about – where is the crisis if people (Takahata especially, I think) have their proverbial $hit together?

    As for the collection of the 10,000 yen, if I do have to pay, you will probably be out of a job due to the veritable collapse of the industry, right? In any case, you are damn lucky to have a shot at working for Madhouse. Looking forward to seeing you become part of the next generation of talent (non-Japanese names are pretty easy to spot). Come to think of it, you should do an anime about the next generation of animators…. (just not like Genshiken or Otaku no Bideo).

    Happy New Year

  17. Hey, Happy New Year to you as well!

    Personally, I don’t want to see any companies go out of business. This may unfortunately happen if the industry does indeed suffer hard times, but in terms of shaking things up, I don’t think that’s the way. I know that there haven’t been a lot of ‘Nadia’ level shows lately, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that companies have to go belly up for some more to appear (although, ‘Nadia’ may not have been nearly as good had NHK not been riding Gainax into the ground during the worst days of the most recent Japanese recesssion…).

    Anyway though, while Ghibli may be doing what they should, most of the other companies are not. And, Ghibli is not enough to sustain the whole industry. Once you get trained at Ghibli, you’re not likely to leave (unlike most other companies, where people bounce around). So, it’ll be up to companies like Sunrise, Bones, Gainax, Madhouse, and Gonzo to do that as well. A few of them (Bones, Madhouse) have done a good job. Others have not. It isn’t so much that we’ve found our crisis mode now… it’s more like that the crisis is on the horizon, but is visible for those who are looking closely (maybe too closely, I’m sure you would say).

    Innovative product, as you call it, comes from new ideas running up against old techniques. Gainax proved that one again and again when the ‘otaku wave’ penetrated and somehow remade the market. Some say that Shinkai is doing that now, although I think it’s still too soon to say. Personally, I would like to hope that the next innovative shows will come from me… or people like me, at any rate, who’ve come to Japan because that is the only country in the world that will make ideas like mine. And actually, based on what I’ve heard from Madhouse, it seems that making shows based on more original ideas, not spawned from manga, and developed with an international audience in mind (and perhaps an international production staff) is what the future holds. So, I think if you keep watching, you might be surprised. You might even be pleasantly surprised. I do sincerely think that the anime business can be improved, even saved, by an influx of foreign talents who are firmly integrated (not segregated, mind you) from the production process and in particular the sphere of influence at the studio. And, I also think that seeing people who are currently involved in other types of creative experiment (graphic artists, doujinshi-ka, novel authors) cross over into the anime world will bring a lot of new ideas and excitement. Even with my worries about outsourcing, I’m expecting great things in that regard at least.

    As far as what kinds of shows I would like to make… I think you would be surprised (pleasantly, even) by the kinds of shakeups I would like to provide. Although, I hadn’t yet considered doing a show about the animators… that might be a good direction to take my writing next. If everything for me works out, please do look for my credit!

  18. Good luck and make sure that you drop by here from time to time and jump in on any anime topics (or anything else). Is it just me, or does this blog seem to attract some very well informed and thoughtful people?

  19. What goes around comes around. Back in the late sixties and early seventies the American animation industry started jobbing stuff out to Japan, and other points in the Far East. How much animation is produced in the States now? Only features and commercials are actually animated here, for the most part. “Hollowed out” is an apt description.

    Given that the Eastern animators sucked all the entry jobs out of American animation when the bottom line gained control of the medium, I can’t say I’ll shed that many tears for the same thing happening to them. Good luck, Young Japanese Animator Hopefuls of the world. Welcome to the same hell an American cartoonist like me grew up in.

    So will the Japanese animation industry follow the same path the American one did, twenty years ago? We’ll see. Maybe they’ll follow the path Canada has, of tax subsidies to domestic productions, enabling the continued creation of uniquely Japanese animation, by Japanese hands.

  20. I think you’ve come to the wrong thread, Egypt Urnash.
    Everyone is waiting for you at Fuck Zapan!

  21. I don’t think Egypt Urnash was being especially rude. (incidentally, if that’s your real name-awesome, you could be an anime character)

  22. Perhaps.
    I was actually thinking about Anime creditation scheme,the one that enables continued creation of uniquely Japanese animation,by REAL Japanese hands.
    But looks like you have influenced me to join the quality-first-nationality-second school.

    I Like your illustrations,Egypt Urnash.

  23. Hey, I’ve been watching anime since last year, so I still consider myself an anime newbie. Bt aside from that, I’m a keen petrolhead, that is, a car enthusiast.

    You see the same kind of things happening in the car industry today. You won’t be surprised anymore if you test drive a car, and then you go to another showroom to test drive another car of different brand and discover they share the same parts, the same engine, gearbox, dashboard etc. Cars today are no longer a display of man’s pride in building the greatest machine an average Joe like us can afford anymore. It has become a white good, like fridges, washing machines, microwave ovens and toasters. There’s no soul, no passion in making them because you want to make them great, but because you want to make money with it. And if any carmakers out there who don’t follow the rules, they’re pretty much as good as dead (think British cars, is MINI, Rolls Royce, Bentley, Land Rover, Rover still a British?) or in critical mode (think Alfa Romeo, they make beautiful bt unreliable cars), just waiting for them to declare themselves bankrupt.

    Now Toyota has just overtake General Motors (US carmaker currently suffering billions of loss) for the no.1 title of the best selling car in the world, bt just look at their cars. There’s hardly any trace of humanity in it, in stark contrast if you just take any random European car, particularly the Italians. I guess the saying “Too Much Pride Kills a Man” applies today.

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  25. Hi! I read your tranlslation. Infact i`m fan of anime. It`s really a serious problem going on there /Japanese animation idustry/.
    Outsourcing you meant that. But in my opinion the animes which made in Korea and China are not that good enough to watch. Including the quality and techniques, character design, story is not as good as Japanese animation. The fact that young animators are especially tend to outsource. Because they`re young they are not that good enough to be experienced and they don`t have their own style. When i watch the anime which made in China and Korea i can clearly feel the difference between Japanese anime. They don`t look that smooth and story is not good enough as Japanese, and although techniques and CG&3D are not that good enough. In one words they can`t beat Japanese anime. In conclusion the animes which made in abroad is just begining and it needs plenty of time to face up with Japanese anime. Japanese anime industry is much more complicated and more professional and more experienced. Which i mean to say that Japan is the Godfather of anime.

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