Two weeks in a row of this column meant to celebrate animation being used to clarify painful issues with the anime industry doesn’t exactly make me happy, but I think it’s worth it.
Let’s start by recapping the situation. Japanese fans noticed a young animator had spent months complaining about her apparently awful workplace on twitter. Looking back on those there were multiple mentions of Toyama, confirming that the studio had to be P.A. Works – which she once explicitly thanked with no context, as it turns out in a very sarcastic manner. Many isolated translations are floating around, but you can just check BDH’s post since that included pretty much everything that was relevant. The main points from all the bitter – justifiably so! – complaints were that the studio starts charging a fee to in-betweeners if they still can’t pass the key animation exam after three years, that she was forced to do random janitorial tasks, and that her wage was pretty damn poor. This led to all tweets being deleted and her leaving the company immediately, to which P.A. Works initially responded by swearing they neither fired her nor asked for information to be removed, all while making no references to the working conditions she mentioned and asking people to stop discussing her private life. Their move is so objectively awful on every possible level that I’m just going to skip it. Inhuman, dishonest, and an incredible PR disaster, but not actually interesting to talk about.
Let’s start with the main points the animator brought up instead. Particularly last one, because that’s the source of many misunderstandings. As you can see on her pay stubs, she didn’t exactly make much money – particularly on the first one, where she gets less actual cash than a child would for their allowance. People’s reaction to this, both within Japan and overseas, was to quickly change opinions on the studio and deem them the worst. With no intention to whitewash the awful things they did, it’s very important to point out that it’s not the case at all. As you can see on her second pay stub, the amount she’s earning is above the average pay for in-betweeners according to JAniCA’s data. Estimating when it comes to this role is always complicated, since sadly they still get paid per drawing pretty much everywhere and their output really depends on their projects; experienced animators went on to share their poor experiences as in-betweeners due to this incident, and some pointed out they had to draw even more in-betweens back then, but that it wasn’t really comparable since those entailed way less lines per frame.
But back to P.A. Works – their 220 JPY per drawing are comfortably above the industry average, and it seems even newbies can afford to draw enough to put them in a better position than many of their peers. Add to that how they provide them affordable facilities, and you see how the studio gets to promote itself as a nice company. Even some outsiders went on to say that people were very confused if they suddenly thought that it was the worst studio around; more than a few industry voices have mentioned that among their peers are relatively well perceived, and that if anything we’d be better off with more companies like them. Admittedly that made people do another complete reversal and start thinking they’re the best, since nuance isn’t a concept on the internet and anime fans are some of the worst offenders.
There’s more to the situation, though. The two main points I skipped at the beginning are linked in a way that you might not notice, and they’re a direct consequence of another systemic anime problem: in-betweeners aren’t seen as real members of the industry. They’re animator larvae. If you think that’s going too far, remember that their average wage is under 900 USD a month while doing ridiculous amount of work and for the most part living in a very expensive place. This case in question is particularly illustrative – pretty much all studios train their in-betweeners so that they can move up to key animation, and P.A. Works wants to treat them with (relative, let’s not forget this person complained about having to do annoying janitorial tasks) care… for a while. If you stay on that stage for too long – which this person didn’t by the way, she only found out that it was a company practice – then you become a failure not worth paying for, hence why they start getting charged to use their desk. This isn’t something P.A. Works alone do; as anonymous sources have pointed out, Production I.G. also has that fee, unsurprisingly as that’s where P.A.’s roots are. You won’t have much public information about this practice, but for the most part it seems like it’s done to freelancers staying in a studio to compensate a bit for the space they’re using. Doing so to your own animators as pretty much a bullying measure, though, is simply inexcusable.
This is actually what sparked the most animator discussions on twitter. People within the industry used social media to detail their personal struggles, whether in the past or recently depending on their experience. We got to see legends like Mitsuo Iso agreeing with new generations embodied by artists like Kodai Watanabe on something: the anime industry needs to realize that in-betweens and key animation are different fields. P.A. Works starts charging their own in-betweeners after 3 years because they consider them failed key animators, which is absolute nonsense. No one is going to start charging key animators if they don’t move up to animation direction. Animation directors if they aren’t promoted to character designers. Positions existing above yours are an option, not your inescapable future, especially if they entail a different set of skills. It’s true that in-betweening is treated as a training stage so that animators gain solid drawing fundamentals while working on other people’s cuts. And it’s also true that most are dying to move up, both to be able to be in charge of their own sequences and to escape the worst paying job. But doubling down on the situation is the exact opposite of what you should be doing. Instead, work towards turning in-betweening into a stable job that people can choose to remain at for decades if they’re not interested in the more creative tasks. In fact, have a lineup of animators with people who can do either job if wanted. That won’t only increase the quality of their output, it will be a healthier environment in general. Would that be hard to achieve? Of course, it doesn’t seem doable in the current industry. Is it impossible? I was actually just describing the way a certain studio in Kyoto operates, so no.
To sum this up and give some extra final thoughts, for the people confused by all this industry talk:
- P.A. Works are far from the worst studio in the industry, if anything they’re well above average when it comes to working conditions. Most of what you found offensive are systemic issues.
- The studio does some awful stuff, though; we found out their attitude towards in-betweeners borders on bullying, especially if they spend too much time on that stage. This paints them in a particularly poor light, since they try to sell the image of an almost idyllic rural studio that wants to build a family of creators. This is sadly in line with their half-assed committal to everything – they also love telling people they’re all about the in-house work, all while very heavily outsourcing their shows. Always take their positive PR with a truckload of salt.
- This problem in particular has a way wider scope than it seems. The industry in general has entirely delegitimized the role of in-betweening. Young artists join the industry and are expected to quickly learn during a hellish period where they’re treated poorly and barely remunerated. Everything about the situation encourages them to either quit or do their best to quickly move up the ladder. And yet animation as is produced at the moment can’t exist without in-betweeners. This isn’t sustainable at all, and even if it were it would still be disgusting.
Get it? ‘P.A. Works, But Not Really’ because the studio doesn’t really work, but also because this was about larger problems. Don’t let me write again. Anyway, I promise I’ll have something way more cheerful next week!