Culture | CULTURE SMASH

Foreign anime artists still face a long haul

by Roland Kelts

In an interview with Buzzfeed two years ago, American animator Henry Thurlow, who had moved to Tokyo from New York six years earlier, summed up his dilemma. “When I was working as an animator in New York, I could afford an apartment, buy stuff and had time to ‘live a life,'” he said. “Now (in Japan) everything about my life is utterly horrible, (but) the artist in me is completely satisfied.”

He’s still here. I tracked Thurlow down in a quiet corner of Nishi-Shinjuku, where he is now in what he calls “the inevitable next iteration” of his journey through the anime industry: his own studio.

After grueling stints at domestic veterans Nakamura Productions and Studio Pierrot, where his work went largely uncredited and his advice unheeded, the 32 year-old Thurlow and his creative and business partner, background artist Arthell Isom, 37, founded D’Art Shtajio, with support from Isom’s twin brother in California.

This month their studio, the first in the anime industry to be owned and operated by Americans in Japan, celebrates its one-year anniversary.

“I still stand by what I said two years ago,” Thurlow tells me at his office. “But things have changed. Back then I was drawing for ‘Gundam’ and ‘Pokemon,’ but my name was never mentioned and I was literally making $4 a day.”

Having moved to Japan and learned the language, honed his craft and earned a dream job, quitting was not an option. But Thurlow needed to find a way to become more directly involved in the work, and to be cited for it.

Isom, meanwhile, has spent most of his 12 years in Japan working alongside master artist Hiromasa Ogura, whose elaborately detailed backgrounds are featured in “Ghost in the Shell” and other anime classics. Isom studied art history in Italy and attended art schools in San Francisco and Osaka, becoming obsessed with the visual environments in anime — the colors, meticulous illustrations and use of light — more than its characters or storylines.

“I watched ‘Ghost in the Shell’ every day for a year,” he says. “I didn’t even know why I liked it until a teacher asked me to focus on that question. That’s when I discovered that I liked the backgrounds and the way the animation moved through them.”

The two make a complementary odd couple: Isom, the draftsman who can deliver artwork on demand to meet a project’s needs, and Thurlow, the animator who is drawn to anime’s darker, more adult-oriented storylines in series such as “Ninja Scroll” and “Berserk.”

“We’re very different, that’s true,” Thurlow says, “but there are important points of convergence. We’re really single-minded and driven, and we like to work very hard.”

That work ethic has resulted in their studio’s rising profile in the anime industry over the course of 2017: contributions to major series “Gintama,” for which they now receive mention, and two original pilot episodes, “Indigo Ignited,” based on an American manga and released in August, and “The Doll” (“Shojo no Piero”), out today. They now employee a team of 12, nine of whom were still working at their desks long after dark on a Friday evening.

As non-Japanese producing original anime in Japan, Isom and Thurlow remain outliers. According to Tadashi Sudo, the former CEO of Anime! Anime!, the industry’s primary information portal, one senior producer puts the number of non-Japanese working domestically at roughly 5 percent, though there are no formal statistics. But Sudo believes that those who are entering the business today are playing more important roles.

“The number of non-Japanese (in Japan) is increasing,” he says, “not only on production work, but also on anime planning, management as producers, and handling rights sales and public relations.”

Italian Francesco Prandoni, international relations director for Production I.G, to which Ogura and Isom contributed most of their background art, believes that younger generations of overseas anime enthusiasts are more willing to study Japanese, aided in part by technology. But regulations for working visas are an obstacle.

“Most natural talents I know don’t have any educational pedigree,” he says, “and in the case of a non-Japanese, this translates as a no-no when it comes to obtaining a work permit. There are many missed opportunities.”

The only non-Japanese to have directed a Japanese feature film in any genre is American Michael Arias, whose award-winning 2006 feature, “Tekkonkinkreet,” is considered a classic of 21st-century anime by many critics and fans. Arias moved to Japan 27 years ago, after successful jobs in Hollywood, and he plans to stay. The increase in non-Japanese artists in the industry, he says, is largely limited to CG (computer graphics) studios.

“In CG production, the bar is generally lower, the incentives greater and many more opportunities exist,” he says. “It takes many more years of study and practice to hone traditional animation skills, and there are relatively few venues worldwide in which to pursue the craft.”

Thurlow offers a checklist for non-Japanese seeking work in anime: learn the language, live in Japan on your own visa and expect to work weekends with no pay.

Last month, under the auspices of its four-year-old Cool Japan Fund, the government announced a plan to ease visa restrictions on non-Japanese creative people who may not have educational pedigrees. The same week, the IMD business school released its 2017 World Talent Ranking for Asian nations, rating the appeal of regional countries to foreign professionals. Japan came in last.

Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a 2017 Nieman fellow in journalism at Harvard University.