All is not well in Japan’s animation industry.

On the surface, things look better than ever. The anime industry pulls in over ¥2 trillion a year, new media companies such as Netflix are producing a slew of new titles, and an anime film, “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie — Mugen Train,” just set new box-office records with its incredible opening weekend, despite being released in the middle of the pandemic.

But a peek under the hood reveals some serious problems that threaten the existence of the industry itself. Chief among them are low wages and poor working conditions. Most animators are classified as freelance or self-employed, which means they’re not protected under labor laws that apply to full-time employees. Animation directors and character designers, whose work can determine whether an anime series or film becomes a hit, rarely receive royalties. And most rookie animators are paid only ¥200 to ¥300 per drawing, resulting in monthly wages that often don’t even cover rent.

As a result, many new animators don’t stick around long, and the industry, which produces hundreds of new projects a year, is facing a labor shortage. Producers scout replacement animators by trawling illustrator profiles on Twitter and Pixiv (an online community for artists), leading to quality issues or episode delays — there’s no guarantee, after all, that a good illustrator will be a good animator. Online, fans post screenshots of bizarre, off-model characters and shots that have made it to broadcast, referring to shows that have gone off the rails with the word “hōkai” — “collapse.”

This isn’t a new development. Despite increased awareness, industry-wide surveys have shown only marginal improvements over the last decade. And because finding work is largely based on word-of-mouth, those who complain are often frozen out.

Jun Sugawara, for one, has had enough.

Sugawara, 46, is the founder of a nonprofit organization called NPO Animator Supporters. A CGI animator by trade, he was inspired to start Animator Supporters in 2011 after witnessing the struggles of his friends working in traditional 2D animation. He started by providing rookie animators with a monthly stipend of ¥50,000, and in 2015 opened a dormitory in Suginami Ward — home to many of Tokyo’s animation studios — where young animators can reside for about ¥30,000 a month. Many of the dorm’s former residents have gone on to hold major creative roles on titles such as “Mobile Suit Gundam,” “Pokemon” and “Attack on Titan.”

Still, Sugawara says the dorm can feel like little more than a band-aid for the industry’s ills.

“We still haven’t seen a major change,” he says. “I thought it was time to take the next step.”

Pay your artists: Jun Sugawara founded the nonprofit organization Animator Supporters to find more sustainable ways to create anime. | MATT SCHLEY
Pay your artists: Jun Sugawara founded the nonprofit organization Animator Supporters to find more sustainable ways to create anime. | MATT SCHLEY

That next step is the New Anime Making System Project. Its goal is just that: to show the industry a new, more sustainable way to make anime.

Sugawara’s project involves founding a new studio that pays animators more fairly, using crowdfunding to bypass traditional sources of funding. Those drawing key frames will make from ¥10,000 to ¥20,000 per shot, depending on length, while those drawing in-between frames will make ¥500 per frame — rates that are at least two times the industry average, says Sugawara. Key frame animators will also receive an additional fee for participating in behind-the-scenes videos that show their process.

“I used to visit an anime studio where my friend worked. Getting a look behind the scenes was so fun,” says Sugawara. “I wanted to give everyone the same opportunity.”

Sugawara and his team chose to create an animated music video for the studio’s initial project. At three to four minutes, he says, a music video will cost far less than a 30-minute episode. It also gives the team a chance to collaborate with musicians from outside Japan, expanding the appeal of their crowdfunding effort.

“We figured combining Japanese animators with foreign musicians would help create buzz,” says Sugawara.

Sugawara’s connection to those musicians came about through a chance encounter at Liberty City Anime Con, an anime convention in New York City, which Sugawara visited to speak about industry conditions in 2018. During the convention’s autograph session, he happened to be seated next to composer Mason Lieberman, whose credits include anime-inspired series such as “RWBY” and “Beyblade Burst Evolution.”

“We got chatting, and I invited him to visit the dorm if he was ever in Tokyo,” says Sugawara. “Then, lo and behold, he actually did.”

Lieberman agreed to compose a song for the music video for free, then went about recruiting some of the top English-speaking vocalists and musicians in the anime world, including Dawn M. Bennett, Morgan Berry and Donna Burke, to join in.

“We asked a lot of people with the expectation that most of them would say no,” says Sugawara. “But all of them said yes.”

With his supergroup assembled, Sugawara launched a crowdfunding campaign for the project on Kickstarter on Sept. 24. Set to end Nov. 23, the project has already surpassed its ¥5 million goal, with over ¥6.5 million pledged as of publication.

“It shows that fans can really have an impact,” Sugawara says.

He plans to expand the crowdfunding effort to Japan-specific platforms such as Campfire, and for the video to be released in summer 2021.

From there, the plan is for the studio to continue creating music videos for the next two to three years, polishing up their production line and building support. If all goes well, they will eventually create an original short clocking in at about 25 minutes.

“We already have several manga creators who are willing to lend their stories to the project,” says Sugawara.

There are challenges ahead. Sugawara estimates a short of that length will cost about 10 times the budget of a music video. There’s a more immediate problem, too: He still isn’t sure how to actually get that ¥500 per frame to in-between animators. While Sugawara’s studio can pay key frame animators directly because they’re more established freelancers, in-between animators are another story. Most contract with and get paid through other studios. That means there’s no guarantee Sugawara’s more reasonable ¥500 fee will ever reach those animators.

Challenges aside, Sugawara believes his project will make ripples within the industry, serving as a case model of fairness and sustainability to other studios.

“People are finally talking about these problems. It’s a good time to do something about it.”

For more information about the New Anime Making System Project, visit twitter.com/animatorsupport.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.