By all outward appearances, Japan’s animation industry is thriving. A recent report by The Association for Japanese Animations indicates the industry’s worth as a whole topped over ¥2 trillion in 2017 — a new record. International streaming services like Netflix and Crunchyroll have begun producing their own anime. Director Mamoru Hosoda’s “Mirai” was nominated for best animated feature film at this year’s Academy Awards.
On the ground, however, the picture is decidedly more mixed. An April 22 interview by Bungei Shunju, detailing hundreds of hours of unpaid overtime and hospitalization from overwork of an employee at one studio, is just the latest example of an industry infamous for its long working hours and low pay.
In an attempt to document and improve working conditions in the anime industry, the nonprofit organization Japan Animation Creators Association (JAniCA) has conducted three industry-wide surveys since 2009. The results of its latest survey, released in February, show a fissure in the effects of the current anime boom. Industry veterans in their 30s, 40s and 50s appear to be seeing some benefit, but those same benefits do not yet appear to be trickling down to newcomers in any meaningful way.
Animators can be roughly broken down into two categories: those who draw genga, or key frames, and those who draw dōga, the frames that come between key frames to increase the fluidity of the animation. Dōga work is generally done by industry newcomers, and serves as a kind of on-the-job training: those who excel at dōga eventually go onto genga and other positions, such as character designer and animation director.
The majority of those in the industry are categorized as either freelance or self-employed — 69.6 percent, according to JAniCA — and are typically paid on a per-project basis. That’s partly why the current anime boom seems to be benefitting genga animators and those in positions above them, says JAniCA Representative Director Yasuhiro Irie, himself an anime director.
“Up till now, people had been getting work on an episode or series basis,” he says. “But the number of titles, and the number of studios, is increasing. Many production companies realize if they don’t put a ‘hold’ on animators, they won’t be able to complete their projects. As a result, animators are now getting offers for longer periods and getting paid through those periods.”
However, adds Irie: “there are also animators who continue to work on a per-project basis, and it could be that the difference in income between the two types is growing.”
That seems to be the case for dōga animators, who are typically paid just a few hundred yen per frame. As a result, the average monthly income for those aged 20 to 24 is just ¥128,800, according to the JAniCA report.
“The income and working environment for new, young animators isn’t showing much improvement. This is something to pay attention to,” says Daisuke Okeda, auditor and lawyer for JAniCA.
“We have to avoid people with talent quitting because they can’t survive,” adds Irie. “Production companies need to devote themselves to paying young animators properly as they improve. If they don’t, in some 10 or 15 years, there will really be no animators.”
Irie and Okeda say solving the problem requires a two-pronged approach. The first prong necessitates production companies being more proactive when negotiating with sponsors, demanding budgets that allow young animators to be compensated properly. Companies should also look outside Japan, to sponsors like Netflix or those in China, he adds.
It’s still too early to tell whether such nontraditional sponsors will truly make a difference, says Okeda, but he notes that since last year, when multiple animation companies began working with firms like Netflix and Amazon, “many titles with good budgets have emerged. In terms of A-tier titles, the average budget has increased by over 30 percent.”
The second prong should come, says Okeda, in the form of government assistance. Anime has benefits for Japan, he argues, adding that many other countries support their film and television industries financially.
“In Japan, it’s not totally nonexistent, but it’s very small,” he says. “The government should do more, either in terms of overall backing or incentives, to create a better environment.”
According to the JAniCA survey, over 75 percent of anime production currently takes place in Tokyo. Another potential solution may lie in more studios locating outside Tokyo to places with a lower cost of living. Two successful examples of such studios include Kyoto Animation in Kyoto and P.A.Works in Toyama. Both took many years to reach their current levels of success, Irie notes, but that “if new studios learn from such examples, they may be able to get a head start and improve more quickly.”
Another often-discussed option is for animators to form a labor union — for its part, JAniCA has sometimes faced criticism for organizing as a general incorporated association rather than a union.
“I do believe a labor union would have a certain effect,” says Irie, adding that JAniCA is set up so that members can continue their work in the industry while trying to improve conditions. Running a union, on the other hand, would be a full-time job.
“I want to continue making anime, so that would be a very difficult decision for me,” says the director.
Unions are often formed, adds Okeda, so that workers can negotiate with one major corporation. Anime production companies, on the other hand, are small, diffuse operations with no central governing body.
There is no magic bullet, and with stories of animators working in squalor frequently making headlines, real solutions can feel far off. But Irie believes current discussions on how to move forward are a positive step.
“Animators’ consciousness has definitely gone up in the past five years (since JAniCA’s previous survey). They are realizing that while animation is a profession they chose because it’s fun, they need to get paid properly, too. I believe that trend will continue and lead to new ways to do things. But it’s a must for animators and production companies to keep pushing forward in pursuing those solutions.”