The Anime Industry: What Stays and What Leaves

Namakura Gatana, a silent short anime film created in 1917, is regarded as the earliest piece of Japanese animation. It’s been over a century since it came out, and the anime industry has changed drastically since then because of technological developments, changes in the audience’s taste, and how people consume anime.

Entering the new century, anime is still booming. However, people also observe animators struggling in slave labor and complain about homogenization along with the lack of creativity in new animes. Considering these controversies, what are the potentials for the industry’s future?

Since anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Ghost in the Shell came into the global market’s sight in the 1990s, the word “anime” refers specifically to Japanese animation or a Japanese-disseminated animation style often characterized by “colorful graphics, vibrant characters and fantastical themes,” according to researcher Niharika Gupta’s “A Study on Anime History.”

People began to create anime before the era of television: the first electric television was invented in 1927. Consequently, the anime medium has witnessed the evolutionary trajectory of ever updating media technology and keeps up to follow the rapid shifts. We used to watch anime on television, as weekly programmes and sitting in front of the TV to wait for the new episode of our favorite anime is part of many anime-lovers’ collective memory. Entering the third decade of the new century, video networks have become so popular and we no longer need to wait for weekly programmes on TV – numbers of classic anime are available on video platforms, with popular anime titles like Attack on Titan, Haikyu!!, Death Note, etc. Many animation studios in Japan are also teaming up with streaming services to synchronously update new episodes online. Furthermore, some of the services are beginning to fund original anime. Netflix launched a scholarship program called the WIT Animator Academy in February, aiming to support young people interested in becoming animators. It’s not surprising that anime is becoming a significant genre for streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and anime-only platforms like Crunchyroll and Funimation. According to John Derderian, Netflix’s director of content – Japan & Anime,

“We’d been distributing anime for many many years from the DVD days. When we went streaming, it’s just such a core fanbase, we saw a lot of engagement when we put up something very old and non-exclusive. So that led us to, about five or six years ago, to start co-producing anime, where we would come in as a pre-buyer or early investor in the show, and get global rights.”

Co-production is becoming a common way of collaboration between streaming giants and media studios. Animation studios enjoy high freedom in creating content and an ample budget provides them with a loose schedule and enough labor forces to produce works of high quality.

“We take the resources we can from the money from our members, and allocate it towards what they want, and what we see that they want is more anime,” Derderian  says. “The numbers we can’t share with you specifically, but we’ve seen a significant growth year over year for the years we’ve been investing more into anime. So the more we have a compelling proposition in anime, we see more and more fans come to [the platform]. And we’re not seeing a peak in any way; we’re seeing growth.”

… new anime are losing creativity, lack variety in visual styles, and they adapt from generic manga and novels.

Derderian suggests that the audience’s demand for new anime is consistently growing, and streamers are investing more in the genre in response. Indeed, revenues of the anime industry have grown steadily in the past decade and reached a record $24.1 billion in 2019, an almost fivefold growth since 2009, according to the Association of Japanese Animations (AJA). Driven by streamings and the continuously expanding global market, the industry is widely considered a valuable and robust market. However, there are also voices of criticism coming from anime enthusiasts: some argue that new anime are losing creativity, lack variety in visual styles, and they adapt from generic manga and novels. In general, they believe that anime are no more attractive or of high quality than those that came out in the 1980s and 1990s, which are widely recognized as the golden age of anime. Statistics and investors of the industry are telling us that anime are thriving, not impacted by its move to digital in the 2000s or the current COVID-19  pandemic. But, why are we feeling them fade away?

Attack on Titan, whose final season is streaming, 12 years after its original manga’s release
Photo Credit: Attack on Titan: The Final Season key visual

The digital age opens a door to incredible convenience, but at the same time, numbs us from the joy that anime brings. Concerts, films, and cartoons are all available online, and the memory of sitting in front of a television to wait for your favorite anime to come out is no longer part of our daily lives. It’s far more convenient and efficient to watch anime through streaming platforms, but we are simultaneously losing the experience of waiting for or missing something. Animes are not as interesting as before, partly because one does not feel the same type of anticipation. When information is instant and convenience is regarded as a status instead of a target, it’s difficult to gain significant fulfillment from memories and experiences any more. The flood of digital media is irresistable, with something kept and something lost; we are left confused in the currents, unable to seize a chance to stop and choose from the overwhelming messages.

From the content producer’s angle, the anime industry is not a satisfying place for people who are fervently passionate about the culture. The slave labor problem in the industry is well-recognized but usually considered as part of the extreme working culture in Japan. People struggle with overworking and occupational stress: according to a government report in 2016, over 25% of companies demand 80 hours of overtime every month, usually unpaid. Even worse, the anime industry is characterized by harsh working conditions and underpay for animators. The Japan Animation Creators Association (JAniCA) published a study on working conditions, average income, and working hours of animators in the Japanese animation industry in 2015. 84% of the surveyed animators reported working more than 8 hours a day and 15.9% of them worked more than 350 hours per month.

The industry is expecting anime studios to see the injustice, realize the vulnerability of the working philosophy of diligence, and try to gradually fix the socially-constructed problem.

Scholar Jacqueline Ristola notes in her article “Exploitation of Labour in the Japanese Animation Industry” that, “in Japan, hobby-like labour triggers overwork, with the anime industry serving as a key example of this.” Animators’ self perception as “artists” disorients their focus on the harsh working condition and makes them fail to recognize the toxicity of such highly individualized, neoliberal notions of work. Such perceptions can lead cultural workers to accept pain and suffering as a necessary component of making good art. In his research “Popular music and the politics of work,” Matt Stahl suggests that the precarious labor condition is partly resolved by the laborers love for the anime culture: anime artists are regarded as “rebels and outside” of mainstream culture, which “mystifies the (exploitative) labour involved in artistic endeavours.” In 2019, Terumi Nishii, an experienced animation director who has worked on multiple big hits including One Piece, Pokémon, and JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure tweeted “no matter how much you like anime, it is not advisable to come to Japan and participate in anime work. Because the animation industry is usually overworked.” Labor exploitation is a persistent problem facing the industry in that it’s deeply rooted in Japanese culture. The industry is expecting anime studios to see the injustice, realize the vulnerability of the working philosophy of diligence, and try to gradually fix the socially-constructed problem. Institutional impediments articulating the harsh condition of animators are also helpful. For example, The Japanese Animation Creators Association (JAniCA), formed in 2007, is a non-profit aiming at revealing the exploitative environment and precarious employment, and building labour consciousness among animators. As animators build up normal expectations of material rewards and rights from their jobs, we can expect more anime enthusiasts to pursue their dream career as animators and expect a decent income with a sense of value. For now, scholarships like Netflix’s WIT Animator Academy can be a positive stimulation. 

Anime are attractive in their unconventional nature. Not only kids watch anime, and as the audience grows up, the anime themselves are advancing in storyline, technology, and visual representation. We touch on the different imaginative worlds and search for a resonant partial tone intertwining between the artists and the audience, and such experiences bring goodness, happiness, and life-lasting values to us. Looking into the industry’s boom and bust, we can revisit the journeys we’ve traveled, reexamine who pays the price for everything we enjoy and love, and look ahead to its potential future.

This article was written by Claire Gu currently based in Shanghai, China. Please send an email to sg6201@nyu.edu to get in touch.

Photo Credit: SHIROBAKO, P.A. Works

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