Image source: KING RECORDS on YouTube

Last week, Japanese public broadcaster NHK aired the latest episode of Close-Up Gendai+, a documentary program about current affairs in Japanese society. This time the topic was anime production—specifically tackling the issue of underpaid workers in the animation industry.

Anime News Network has already run a summary of the contents of the show, complete with screenshots. But let us look deeper into the problems themselves, and analyze the solutions that the show suggests.

The topic of low salaries for animators has been of particular concern to the English-language media in articles making the rounds in the last couple of weeks—following the backlash on how Ghibli’s hiring ad was showing some really low salary figures.

In a couple of recent articles, I mentioned the Ghibli ad and analyzed the importance of the call for new talent within the context of what that means for Ghibli specifically—since many of the veteran staff have moved on to other things after the disbandment of the animation department three years ago. Therefore, because it was not an issue specific to Ghibli, I did not really pay too much attention to the issue of the salary. In fact, I actually thought the figure was not low at all, relatively speaking, knowing that the average is about half of what they were offering.

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Satelight’s Thomas Romain, animation creator and designer, also tweeted something similar at the time.

However, the concern was certainly something of a surprise to many, it seems, and social media was ablaze with comments to the tone of shock at the idea that such a wholesome studio could be so cruel to its workers. But the truth is that this situation is nothing new.

Past data shows that over half of young animators either live with their parents or receive regular stipends from them to survive in Tokyo, where the vast majority of studios are based.

The Japan Animation Creators Association (JAnicA) released a study last year that painted a clear picture of the breakdown of salaries for each of the major positions in the animation production process.

Comparing these results with those from a similar study six years prior, it is clear that this status quo has remained unchallenged for a long time.

And yet, JAnicA vice-director Osamu Yamasaki’s blog attempts to calm the outrage of the doom-laden naysayers, by pointing out that it’s not that everybody in animation is making an unlivable wage. Some are positively well-off. The suggestion is that the sooner you move up the ranks from lowly in-betweener to keyframe animator, layout artist, animation director, etc., the quicker you will find your salary increases.   

While this is all true, it appears to misrepresent the focus of the argument. The criticism is not being directed at the animation industry as a whole due to overall low pay—it is specifically targeting the issue of the in-betweeners. The entire pyramid structure of the animation production process relies on a steady base of low-ranking laborers as it would in the manufacturing industry. The suggestion that every worker can become a director, manager or a leader of some sort is unrealistic, plus the path to get there places incredibly tough mental and physical stress to the extent that there are reports that people are sacrificing their health for the love of the craft.

A nourishing diet, regular exercise, and a mind free from anxiety are what are going to give people the endurance to meet the tough demands of the industry in terms of workload and deadlines, and hopefully move up in their career. But if they cannot afford those simple necessities, then they will drop out and give up on their dreams. It is not a coincidence that many studios are constantly looking for animators: Many quit very early on.

In this latest NHK program, they break down the reasons for these low wages, interviewing several people who survive on such low pay for the love of the craft, such as Tetsuya Akutsu, who, overworked and underpaid, appears to be surviving on fried rice and living in a tiny room. But he appears to have made his peace with this, commenting that in order for him to live out his dream, “something has to give.”

NHK emphasizes that, having broken the 2 trillion yen barrier this year, the anime industry is healthier than it has ever been in terms of revenue. So why the discrepancy?

They lay the blame on the “production committee” system, a “chip-in”-style approach to funding an anime media-mix project where the investors would be made up of various media companies, publishers, broadcasters, manufacturers, et cetera. In essence, this committee controls the copyrights on the anime work and thus licenses out the intellectual property to any third-party willing to produce an item or service featuring the characters, titles, or designs from it, receiving royalties and fees based on that. In contrast, the low-ranking animators are for the most part contracted (or sub-contracted) and earning 200 yen per drawing, which works out to just over 100,000 yen per month. For context, here is a fairly detailed breakdown of living costs in Tokyo. As you can see, it’s not much at all, and some may argue, barely survivable.

The show explores possible ways that this can be mitigated and the entire system improved, and perhaps restructured (by way of interviews with Shuzo Shiota, head of Polygon Pictures, and more). In particular, the program, by way of its panelists, suggested a couple of solutions to the issue.

The first is essentially just investing more money into productions, to take into account the animator salary. Of course, a precedent has already been set so it will take a major restructuring of the status quo to undo the orthodox low production cost. Also, it is not really detailed how this can be done—the show seems to be implying that the government’s “Cool Japan” fund should be employed in some way. However, in that case, there may be issues of control of expression and the studios would understandably be wary of this.

The second is incorporating computers and software in both management and production to streamline the entire way the studios are run. Increased efficiency is essential for maximizing cost-performance. Increasing the proliferation of 3DCG and in-betweening software as exemplified by Lu Over the Wall and Polygon Pictures’ productions (such as the new movie Blame!) are great examples of this as featured in the documentary.

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A lot of the differences in how these anime have been made are due to producers and managers having more international experience and willing to innovate and stray from the established business conventions of the domestic anime industry. The approach is highly commendable as it allows the production staff to free up their schedule and form a healthier work-life balance. However, this solution may also pose its own problems. Cutting back on employing actual in-between animators can be considered a threat to what is a major attraction of Japanese anime to many fans both within and outside Japan. The mechanization of labor is a cost-effective solution which remains controversial in particular within the manufacturing industries.

The program, perhaps due to time constraints, did not explain in depth that there are initiatives to mitigate the living expenses for young underpaid animators, such as the crowd-funded animators’ dormitory project. Remember Akatsu from earlier? He lives there now, and describes the dorm as being what allowed him to have made his career possible.

Of course, this is a case of treating the symptoms and not curing the disease, however. The issue of the underpaid workers remains endemic to the industry and is an affront to labor standards, no matter how it is spun. One potential spanner in the works, though, may come from outside Japan.

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One thing not addressed is the influx of foreign investors just in the last couple of years. Crunchyroll and Netflix are proving to be big spenders in Japan-produced content targeted to global audiences, and their role will no doubt expand in a major way in the future, so it remains to be seen how that will affect the distribution of funds. Also, co-productions with Chinese investors are on the increase, with large sums flowing inwards.

In any case, it seems that without a major shake-up and repudiation of the status quo within the Japanese animation industry, things may not only remain bleak for the individual workers themselves but, also, there is a bigger calamity when we look at things from the macro perspective. That is to say, this is slowly causing the deterioration of manpower, i.e., the foundation of the animation production process, with overworked studios and not enough people coming in to meet the demand for labor on new projects.

We can probably increase funds thanks to foreign money (and hope that trickles down to the lower ranks). Alternatively (or additionally), we can embrace software and expect to do away with in-betweeners altogether. Towards the end of the show, the host questions if it is not the fact that each frame is painstakingly hand-drawn that is the major charm in animation from Japan and has garnered it worldwide acclaim. The response he is given is that the viewers decide. At that point, though, we have to ask, what is Japanese animation at its core, then? That, unfortunately, is a topic for another day.

Overall, one good thing is that it is very rare that a TV show comes out and speaks about the inner turmoil of the industry in such a frank manner, as opposed to being just a PR piece. We can hope that this leads to increased awareness, and in so doing, prompt further discussion and brainstorming, eventually leading to a mutually beneficial solution for all, including those with dreams to be an animator.

Blame! is out now in theatres, and also available to stream on Netflix. Lu Over the Wall is currently on general release in theaters.

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