Few who follow developments in the world of anime doubt that Japan’s animation industry is a global juggernaut—an enduring, profitable symbol of soft power—as popular beyond its borders as within. At the same time, it’s burdened with long-standing tensions and has a notorious reputation for poor working conditions. In May 2021, a Japanese freelance animator known as Mushiyo released a series of tweets (in Japanese, now deleted), explaining why they had left Studio MAPPA—one of the anime industry’s most prolific and high-profile production houses. They discussed how their strenuous work conditions were disproportionate to what they were getting paid and criticized the studio’s decision to create four shows at the same time. “As far as I can tell,” they wrote, “about 80% of the employees had similar complaints at the time.”
In response, the studio’s executives tried to reassure audiences and the public in general that it’s trying to remedy this situation. In July 2021, MAPPA announced the establishment of a new studio annex designed to “improve the artists’ moods.” Citing the increasing shortage of skilled animators and the diversion of such talent into China because of its supposedly better economic position, MAPPA’s announcement touted the ways in which it’s doing its part to be better. What it didn’t mention, however, were any specific measures aimed at improving pay rates and working conditions. Moreover, another veteran animator, Ippei Ichii, has claimed that MAPPA employees were being offered “bottom rates” on the production of a Netflix-commissioned show, saying that a producer on the project had “suggested to pay 3,800 yen (US $34) per cut.”
This has once again put the spotlight on the peculiar state of the anime industry, of which Studio MAPPA is only the most pronounced example. The industry’s problems are such an open secret that there are several videos discussing it online in English. Unsurprisingly, the topic has fuelled cynical remarks about the seemingly imminent downfall of anime, which—combined with western fans’ fears about censorship—have fostered a sense of near-defeatism.
But the truth is more complicated. The problems are only part of the story—they ignore the many opportunities modern anime has faced—and some of the criticisms are misleading. Nonetheless, the challenges faced by Japan’s cultural juggernaut are real, and the direction that the industry takes from here could have far-reaching consequences.
The Curse of Osamu and Working Conditions
One recurring theme in discussions of the industry’s problems is a legacy of the early years of anime—a phenomenon that Roland Kelts has called the Curse of Osamu. The phrase refers to the way in which famed auteur Osamu Tezuka captured the Japanese television market in the 1960s by “dumping, selling his episodes cheap to keep others out” through his studio. According to Michael Rose, however, Tezuka’s approach wasn’t the deceitful plot it has been portrayed as: he genuinely wanted to share his humanistic values with others by seeing to it that his work “was quickly bought up by companies who could broadcast it to the world” and, in the process, foster new talent. That said, regardless of Tezuka’s intentions, his efforts discouraged competitors, who didn’t follow his lead and engage in inexpensive “dumping,” but instead tried to keep up by producing a larger number of works at a reduced cost.
This dynamic was further reinforced in the 1980s, when studios began taking financial risks by entering into joint ventures with companies in other industries to support specialisation, investment and risk management. By the 1990s, the results of this trend, which became known as the Anime Production Committee system, had become entrenched. Among its first products were films such as Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (1988), one of the most expensive animated movies of its time, with an estimated budget of about 700,000 yen ($5.5 million). While this approach gave studios the resources and security they needed to get their anime out to the public, and allowed more works to be produced to meet demand, it also tended to result in the creators getting a flat fee in return, rather than a share of the profits, if not being short-changed outright—either because of red tape, legal pitfalls or a lack of financial savvy. For example, Your Name (2016) was a box office hit, but its writer-director, Makoto Shinkai, reportedly received only around 20 million yen ($200,000) (link in Japanese) for the work, demonstrating that even creators and staff on commercially successful products were at risk of being left with only scraps. In addition, beginning in the 1980s, the industry began outsourcing grunt work to South Korea and elsewhere to maximize production, and later began hiring foreign freelancers and volunteers through social media.
The combined result of all these developments is a system that is stacked against the interests of the animators and support staff who make the industry successful. A 2019 survey by the Japanese Animation Creators Association (JAniCA) (link in Japanese) found that animators had an average annual salary of 4.97 million yen ($44,370). However, average figures can present a distorted picture of individual experiences: salaries can vary wildly depending on the studio and on seniority. Around 40% of the survey respondents (mostly younger animators and support staff) reported earning less than 3 million yen ($28,000) annually. Moreover, animators, including producers, tend to work about 230 hours a month (11.5 hours a day, five days a week). Given the high cost of living, particularly in and around Tokyo, these low wages for long hours help explain the proliferation of commentary from animators who feel burdened by heavy workloads and bitter about getting so little for so much.
In light of these circumstances, the failure of MAPPA’s 6 July 2021 announcement to address pay rates or workload issues exemplifies the industry’s recklessness in continuing to produce too many shows in too short a time, while ignoring the impact of this practice on individuals’ workloads. The efforts of industry leaders to retain skilled staff appear focused mostly on trying to prevent Chinese companies from enticing disgruntled animators to work for them instead, and they tend to assume that they can make up for any staff shortages by hiring freelancers, who also may not get sufficient pay.
These and other problems have been attested to by a long list of gloomy articles over the last several decades. The industry’s long hours and low pay were thoroughly documented as early as 2004. In response, the Japanese Animation Creators Association was founded in 2007 to advocate for improved working conditions. But in 2010, a 28-year-old employee of A-1 Pictures, who had reported having worked “overtime at least 100 hours/month during several months just as he began suffering from depression,” committed suicide. As a result, in 2014, the company was nominated (link in Japanese) for the ignoble Burakku Kigyou award (burakku kigyou or “black company” is a Japanese term for a company with an abusive workplace). It is unlikely that this employee’s suicide was an isolated incident.
Censorship’s Long Shadow
Another challenge facing the industry is recurring calls for censorship. While anime and manga creators have not historically had to contend with widespread censorship—or consider whether to seek the seal of approval of something akin to the Comics Code Authority (a private nonprofit that became defunct in 2011), they have never been strangers to moral outrage directed at them from across the political spectrum.
For example, in 1989, there was a moral panic about anime after the arrest of serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki, whom the press called the “Otaku Murderer” because of his fascination with nerddom and explicit hentai pornography, and as a result, for a time, anime fans and amateur creators were depicted as embodying the antisocial degeneracy of Japanese youth. That sentiment was echoed in December 2010, when the then-governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, signed a bill prohibiting the depiction of “excessive sexual acts” in anime and manga, and regulating the sales of such works in the metropolis to fight child pornography and “help protect children under the age of 18.” The anime translator Dan Kanemitsu argued at the time that the bill, endorsed by more hardline and traditionalist elements of the right-wing, was even more restrictive than it purported to be: it not only expanded the definition of what constitutes harmful material, but also included clauses that, in Kanemitsu’s words, “unabashedly advocated thought control and altering public opinion.”
While that bill failed to cripple the industry, it was not the last effort at censorship. In October 2021, members of the Japanese Communist Party (link in Japanese) produced an electoral platform that equated manga, anime and video games, including sexually explicit ones, with “child pornography,” and sought to constrain freedom of expression in these media in the name of protecting women and children. Soon thereafter, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government produced a proposed revision to its “Comprehensive Plan for the Promotion of Gender Equality” (link in Japanese). According to the mangaka Ken Akamatsu (link in Japanese), its proposed new guidelines included the “freedom not to be exposed to offensive expressions in mass media and public spaces.” In effect, although the specifics were left vague, the proposal amounted to an attempt at broad-reaching restrictions on creative liberties, and wasn’t dissimilar to the measures some western activists have been pushing.
Another potential censorship threat emerged around the same time last year, when the publishing house Kadokawa announced that it had “decided to enter into a business alliance agreement with Tencent Group for the anime business” to the tune of 30 billion yen ($264 million), 7% of the value of the company’s stock. In light of long-standing concerns about that conglomerate’s actions, fears have emerged that this move could prompt anime companies to sell out by voluntarily submitting to censorship regulation of the kind seen in the People’s Republic of China.
Slow But Steady Progress
Despite the problems faced by the anime industry, and fans’ tendency to wish for a return to the good old days (known as the nostalgia filter), the sometimes hyperbolic gloom in current online discussions can give a misleading impression of the real state of the industry and of the general quality of its products. Slow progress has been happening, although it has often been downplayed or ignored.
A look at the Association of Japanese Animators’ 2020 report suggests that the much maligned pay gap isn’t produced only by “unanticipated” market growth (the market did grow that year in spite of COVID-19-related pipeline delays and reduced sales). Just as profits rose during the 2010s, so did unit production costs. These rising costs, coupled with the trend towards digitization and distribution online instead of to traditional TV networks, have prompted the industry (with some prodding from the Japanese government) to take reform more seriously, by reviewing working conditions and employment norms. In addition, postponements caused by the pandemic have resulted in studios scheduling more projects farther in advance, which may rein in overproduction and considerably reduce animators’ workloads.
Even before the pandemic, the 2019 survey by the Japanese Animation Creators Association (JAniCA) noted a positive development: data compiled by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development showed that animators’ average annual salaries were 10% higher than those of employees in other industries in the private sector. That’s a significant improvement over the animator salary levels that were reported in the 2009 JaniCA report, when animators in their thirties earned only an average of about 2.14 million yen (US $22,600) per year—below the norm for the Japanese private sector. (It’s worth noting that the 2009 figures coincided with the so-called anime crash in the west, when dwindling talent was even more of a concern, and studios couldn’t meet demand. That the industry was able to rebound from this difficult time is, alas, not often discussed.)
And although companies like MAPPA demonstrate what’s wrong in the industry, some studios and creators have been going the extra mile in pushing for positive change. Kyoto Animation, for instance, has gained renown and accolades for fostering an almost familial work philosophy and a dedicated training programme, which has not only cultivated a unique in-house production system, but has also contributed to the company’s persistent recovery, despite the loss of lives in a harrowing arson attack on one of its studios in July 2019. Ufotable, known for its adaptations of Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba (2019 onwards), has followed a similar path, founding its own school and providing alternative sources of funding for animators. Meanwhile, WIT Studio has been collaborating with Netflix on an initiative to help fledging animators flourish, while Cygames has opted to use profits from its video games (link in Japanese) to increase creators’ salaries and establish a fully-owned “anime fund” to support its independent animation ventures, without resorting to a conventional committee system. And CGI animator Jun Sugawara has launched a crowdfunded “Animation Dormitory” campaign to help struggling newcomers and advocate for further change.
Moreover, anime creators and studios have proved remarkably resistant to attempts to stifle them over the years. The calls for censorship described earlier were met with ridicule and opposition online, as being ludicrously broad and vague, as well as unconstitutional in light of established legal precedent. As I have written in a previous article for this magazine—in a piece comparing Japanese manga and western comics—when Kadokawa’s president, Takeshi Natsuno’s endorsed the idea of anime censorship, there was a popular backlash strong enough to elicit a retraction from him, reflecting the willingness of both the public and elements of the industry to uphold freedom of expression in anime.
A Complicated Mess
These constructive and promising developments don’t get as much attention as the negative aspects of the industry. The owner and editor of Sakuga Blog, Kevin “kViN” Cirugeda, posits that this is because production schedules, the wellbeing of creators and the quality of the creative products are deeply interconnected. The anime industry has so many moving parts that arguably, “no project really exists on its own.” As a result, it is tricky to implement blanket solutions. In addition, positive developments such as reduced workloads would bring trade-offs, including an increase in scheduling conflicts, logistical bottlenecks and the potential rise of more disreputable companies that would exploit legal loopholes to pay studios and animators less. Some studios, such as MAPPA, are powerful enough that they could avoid any attempts to alleviate problems. Meanwhile, studios like Kyoto Animation and Ufotable could push ahead with their reformist policies because of their high position within the production committee system. Not all creators have this luxury.
Those problems are not limited to particular companies or countries. For example, in the United States, animation freelancers in Dallas, Texas are lucky if they can earn $15 per hour, whereas those in New York City can rake in close to $100,000 per year. In the Philippines, to which many foreign companies, including Japanese anime studios, outsource work, creators may be paid less than $10 per scene and be given gruelling tasks by supervisors.
Because the industry is subject to such complicated dynamics, change can either happen so sporadically or so slowly (taking years to bear fruit) that it is not readily noticed. But despite the industry’s challenges, Japanese anime isn’t going away anytime soon. As the effects of the Curse of Osamu gradually fade and calls for change grow louder, will animators seize the opportunities before them? Stay tuned to find out.