The anime industry’s structural issues are well-documented, but for fear of risking their jobs, staff members rarely point fingers at the individuals and companies that make the situation even worse. We reached out to a person very closely involved with Märchen Mädchen, the messiest TV project at the moment, and they wanted to relay a very detailed, scathing report of what happens behind the scenes in a production mess. Even if you’re not following the series, the team’s harsh experience is worth learning about.
The story of Märchen Mädchen is, to a degree, that of many anime nowadays: a TV series launching as part of a media mix strategy, but not given enough resources to put together something that can stand on its own. The idea that all anime is a promotional tool is misguided at best, but it’s definitely true that many producers dream of synergies between releases in different formats. However, at the same time, it is too often that they cannot bring themselves to invest enough in those very projects themselves to ensure they have ample schedules and decent funding for an anime. But while a conservative approach limits the scope of a project from the get-go, it’s not enough to outright kill it, as we’ve seen many cases. Most TV anime are very modest productions after all, often elevated by the skill of individual artists involved. That’s the case of even tremendously messy titles like this, as Märchen Mädchen has promoted interesting youngsters and saw the debut of a truly brilliant rookie with Kiyoki Rikuta aka kerorira, whose Tanaka-inspired sequences stood out the most in a series that even featured the man himself. Unfortunately, the isolated moments of attractive stylized animation became an exception rather than the norm, especially as the show descended into a genuine production horror.
Where did it all go wrong, then? Everyone is aware of anime’s systemic problems, but something must have happened in this case that led to nightmarish unpolished animation even after the series was forced to take an unplanned break for a couple weeks due to quality concerns. Although the general issues of Märchen Mädchen apply to many other titles, the truth is that we can trace back some very specific issues to its inception. The original plans to make it into an original TV anime at the core of a media mix effort date back to 2014, and they were meant to have popular illustrator Kantoku’s work supporting the scenario written by Tomohiro Matsu of Mayoi Neko Overrun! fame. Naturally, these ideas were put on hold in 2016, when Matsu tragically passed away from liver cancer, but the project returned a year later when they began publishing the light novels based off his drafts, with the assistance of StoryWorks, the writing company Matsu himself had founded. This was followed up with the anime announcement they had always planned, which also respects Matsu’s original idea to the point that he’s posthumously credited as co-series composer and scriptwriter for the first six episodes. With the blessing of all concerned parties, it seemed like a good way to pay tribute to Matsu’s work, but this troubled pre-production was a sign of things to come.
The issues the staff faced were never much of a secret, truth be told. From an early point in the broadcast, you would often see public complaints on social media, prevalent enough for fans to pick up on them. Grievances over production schedules falling apart have sadly become commonplace, but when those surface quickly and are accompanied by anger about the series’ utter failure to properly credit artists for their work, the situation manages to stand out; it’s very unusual to see an animation director rightfully complain about being burdened with the only supervision credit on a rough episode they barely touched, as is seeing scriptwriters credited for work they weren’t involved with. As bad as the public grievances were, I was personally aware that the situation was even worse, being acquainted with some regular staff who let out harsher remarks in private. Seeing as how the situation was about to reach new lows, with the broadcast of episode 9 showing nothing but abysmal animation despite the extra two weeks, I decided to reach out to them and ask about this tragic situation. While they were happy to have a platform to spread the nasty truth, please understand their desire to remain anonymous – in an industry dominated by freelancing and networks of acquaintances, public complaints can be very risky, which is why we rarely hear people speak out. All I can say is that we talked with a key staff member who’s fully aware of the ins and outs of this production, and while they can’t speak for the whole team, their remarks mirror the feelings of many of their peers.
Our source explained that the situation was chaotic ever since the start of production. “From the beginning up to now, four members of the production crew have quit, including the original production desk for the series and the settei manager.” The specifics about the situation boggle the mind, as episode 6 for example changed hands three times before its broadcast, and it wasn’t until the broadcast of episode 7 that they found a production assistant who could handle the management of #9. “None of the production assistants besides Kitamura, who had transferred in from 3hz, even had any experience in TV anime,” they added, which illustrates just how stacked the odds were against them; keep in mind that production assistants face perhaps the most stressful role in all of anime, so doing it for the first time on a show with no time whatsoever and lacking in manpower is simply suicidal. When asked about what led to such an extreme situation, they wanted to choose their words carefully while still pointing the finger at those who allegedly caused this massive mess. “While I wouldn’t say that (Masaru) Nagai [CEO of the studio, animation producer and planning member in the series] is the sole one to blame, the main problem lies with Hoods Entertainment” isn’t a statement open to interpretation, and they took that accusation further by adding that their decision to offer very low rates even by this industry’s standards might have been the final nail for a rushed, understaffed project.
After noting that it was quite hard to discuss these matters with Nagai to begin with, as it had become a regular occurrence for him to scream at others during meetings, they explained how the hands-on staff tried to remedy this: “By autumn 2017 we were already worried that the broadcast could be in danger, so Kitamura, as production assistant, came up with an outsourcing plan that was then rejected by the CEO for financial reasons. By late January, the CEO finally approved the subcontracting proposal, but at that point we were running so short on time that no studio was willing to take the offer. Even after that, the CEO planned to continue delivering unfinished episodes so as to make broadcast, but the distribution side [NBC Universal?] forced us to postpone it for two weeks.” The fact that they were granted a brief break might very well be the one positive development in their report, but of course even that had to go wrong: “By episodes 6-7, the burden on series director (Shigeru) Ueda was so strong he ended up stepping down after #8. On top of that, right before the delivery deadline for episode 8, we lost contact with the production desk, so in the end we spent those two weeks mostly sorting out the production situation for the episodes still remaining.” Perhaps now you can understand why, despite the best efforts by the staff, the break to improve the quality of the animation didn’t have the desired effect.
The consequences of all this on the creative team have been devastating as you might expect, to the point of the regulars having to risk their health to try to keep the project afloat. “The problems began from the very first episode, as the key animation from outside the studio turned out to require many complete retakes. The quality of the drawings for episode three was so low that the episode directors and supervisors had to correct essentially everything (this marked the start of the severe delays). Even the storyboards for that episode were late, as they had to be redrawn by (Hisashi) Saito, since the original director fell sick, and his replacement was an assistant without any experience in episode direction.” Even the mess regarding the credits has its roots in these production issues: “As the production grew more chaotic, episode 7 ended up being broadcast without consulting the studio members about the credits (the animators at the studio were so occupied with episodes 6 and 8 that no one was available to act as animation director, so they had to resort to falsely crediting someone for the episode). As a result, (Kiyoshi) Tateishi [the only supervisor credited for episode 7] only corrected about 20 cuts – everything else was either fixed by the key animators themselves, done uncredited, or went through entirely uncorrected.” In the end, they conclude that while lack of personnel and production funds were pointed out as issues, that hid the root of the problem: “Ultimately, many of the problems we faced could have been quickly resolved with action on the part of [animation producer and Hoods CEO] (Masaru) Nagai.” The structural problems affecting anime production are obvious, but in this case, the behavior of certain individuals can be faulted just as much. And that’s the kind of truth that tends to get silenced.
There are many reasons why this article came to be, even though we prefer to focus on the exceptional work anime manages to put together. For starters, it was a chance to act as a megaphone for hands-on animation staff, who continue to be mostly ignored, even as the community grows more interested in what creators have to say. Most formal anime interviews, as insightful as they can be, either involve producers or are sanctioned by them, and at this point you should be able to tell they might not always have the best intentions in mind. And beyond that, I also believe it’s important for fans to understand that within a fundamentally flawed system like the anime industry, there still can be individual culprits. Of course it’s important for everyone to be aware that the major issues are systemic and won’t be solved by getting rid of a couple of individuals, but we’ve gotten to the point where that acts as a shield against responsibility. Producers wield flimsy excuses like, “Sure, we screwed up the planning and left the staff with no time, but what can be done about it?” or, “Our major studio would love to pay better as others do, but we just can’t.” And too often, we see fans echo similar defenses themselves.
Back when we wrote about the production woes of Just Because!, we immediately got a reply from a highly-esteemed creative that confirmed our suspicions about the ambitious approach royally screwing up the production, which directly blamed series director Atsushi Kobayashi and his personality for it all. There’s no denying that all these situations have been made worse by the awful general climate, but the industry’s sad state doesn’t excuse personal mistakes, especially when it’s careless decisions from the production side hurting the people who actually make the show. While not many people are watching this particular series to begin with, the specific problems detailed here, as well as the more general sentiments, are well worth reflecting upon as fans of the medium.