In light of the recent news that a studio Madhouse employee was overworked to the point of risking their health, we contacted 25 anime production assistants to detail their experiences and how their problems manifest in very different ways than the animator struggles we often hear about. Despite being integral to any anime project, their working conditions are in some ways the worst anyone has to bear.
Every write-up about the sorry state of working conditions in the anime industry will tell you about what’s it like for the animators. There are many reasons why that happens and most of them are perfectly valid. After all, lower-ranking animators are the collective that’s paid the least, despite their indispensable role. And as it tends to happen, the ones bearing the brunt of it are the youngsters. Low income, massive workloads, and ineffective (or outright non-existent) training programs for new animators have led to short term suffering and sky-high attrition rates, while also contributing to longer term problems like the inability to form a family while working in this industry – not an easy thing to do when attaining self-sufficiency is already way too troublesome. Chances are that you’ve heard about all this, but it bears repeating because the situation isn’t improving.
The thing is, it’s not only animators who are suffering here. Though it’s not exactly a competition, it’s worth noting that they might not even hold the industry’s rock-bottom position; if that sent a shiver down your spine, good, it should.
Don’t take this as criticism of the term animator as a catch-all term to refer to everyone involved in making anime… though I suppose there’s a bit of that too, especially when it comes to serious reporting of news. It’s not right to refer to a waiter as a cook because they’re involved in getting you the steak you ordered, and you definitely shouldn’t call them a cow either. It doesn’t strike me as pedantic to ask for a bit more of precision – or better encompassing vagueness, “anime creator” is right there for you – when talking about events that are currently putting people’s health at risk.
The actually important point we’re here to talk about, though, is the existence of a group of professionals who don’t quite belong to the creative team, and yet are necessary to get anything made. While they’re systemically abused just like the artists they work with, their working conditions are entirely different and thus the issues manifest in other ways. To top it off, they’re also looked down on and dehumanized more harshly than anyone else, sometimes by their own coworkers. That’s what being a production assistant (制作進行) is like.
If you’re still wondering what an anime production assistant is, I wish I could tell you that the short answer is to watch Shirobako. Although the series does an admirable job at depicting the role when protagonist Aoi Miyamori acts the part during the first half, I can’t exactly recommend a 24 episode TV show just to understand what the role entails; that said, watch it anyway, it’s good stuff. Fortunately, the gist of the job is rather simple: production assistants are assigned an episode – or an opening/ending sequence, a chunk of a movie, etc – and then are entrusted with making sure that all materials required are finished before the deadlines, or as reasonably close as possible.
In practice, that’s a much more daunting task. Before the action even starts, these assistants are preoccupied with gathering the staff that the directors need to fulfill their vision, which isn’t easy when talent’s spread as thin as it is right now. In the end, due to most studios’ inability to handle work in-house, that means physically driving around town to coordinate the work of dozens of companies and countless freelancers for each department – animation, backgrounds, painting, CG, composite, and sound – since full digitization of assets is still a utopia, checking materials during each of the many steps, turning them in, and coming up with solutions to the problems that will inevitably arise. All with no time to spare.
Once they’re done, they simply move onto the next episode of the show they’ve been assigned. One that’ll likely be harsher on them due to the gradual decay of the production schedule throughout the broadcast.
And when an inherently stressful role meets a company that pushes its workers to the limit rather than trying to shield them from the industry-wide malaise, tragedy strikes. 5 years ago, A-1 Pictures were deemed guilty of the death of one of their production assistants, who committed suicide back in 2010 due to the inhuman working conditions he’d had to endure; incidentally, that was another case where the person was often mislabeled as an animator, which is neither respectful to the victim nor helpful to those who want to understand what truly happened.
As you might have heard, a similar situation – though one that’ll hopefully have a less grim ending – got a lot of traction online recently. A production assistant at studio Madhouse recently joined the Black Company Union, meant to assist workers exploited by abusive corporations. Their case, further detailed in exhaustive interviews and reports, is appalling. The production assistant clocked as much as 393 hours within a single month, which they weren’t even compensated for as the studio used a loophole they never explained to avoid paying all the overtime work. The massive workload destroyed their lifestyle, causing them to pass out and even sustain lasting neurological damage. Having suffered all that, the assistant’s goal now is nothing but demanding fair compensation and further changes to protect not just Madhouse employees but all workers in this industry.
— 坂倉昇平＠ブラック企業ユニオン・総合サポートユニオン (@magazine_posse) April 5, 2019
While there isn’t much that fans overseas can do about that, we felt it was important for everyone to at least understand the labor situation. And that’s why we contacted 25 anime production assistants and asked them to fill out a survey detailing their working conditions and how they feel about their job. Their workplaces and amount of experience are rather diverse, so while you shouldn’t take the data as fully representative of the industry due to the sample pool size (even the creator guild JANiCA struggles with statistically significant coverage) it illustrates the different problems assistants face when compared to animators and the likes.
The first point that stands out is the type of employment. As you’re likely aware, the vast majority of anime workers are freelancers; this goes up to 73.8% of young animators and similar levels for directors themselves. Despite the existence of binding and half-binding contracts giving some of them a “main” job for a while, that’s the reality of the industry… but not for everyone. Much like other management roles, production assistants are meant to anchor all those free agents to the studio, hence why their position is much more suited for long-term commitments. The responses we got illustrate that: almost half of the production assistants we contacted had permanent contracts, about as many held full-time positions for the span of entire projects, and only a single one was fully freelance.
That contrast isn’t mere trivia, but rather the root of the separation between their labor situations. If most problems animators face are extreme versions of freelancing woes, then production assistants and similar positions suffer from what can only be described as nasty corporate garbage. Overworked all the same, but assaulted by different worries. The situation when it comes to job security and social insurance is still far from ideal, but they’re not their most pressing concerns. Even money isn’t the source of their sorrows… to a degree, that is.
Although production assistants don’t struggle to make ends meet as drastically as some of their coworkers – easily racking in twice as much as newbie animators – they’re still not fairly compensated for their work whatsoever. Virtually everyone does overtime work beyond the standard 9 hour workday; the situation when it comes to days off varies a bunch, but the general consensus is that regardless of whether you’re officially supposed to be at the studio or not, you’re always supposed to be available without anyone outright telling you to go work. As one of the people we reached out put it, “you can never go on a vacation in case anything happens and you have to help out with other episodes too.”
That unhealthy level of commitment is supposed to be compensated with their wage – except when it’s not, which is often. Over 75% of the production assistants that took our survey said that they either occasionally or always were left with unpaid overtime work. Others went into more detail when it comes to their personal situation and the loopholes companies use to avoid paying them their due money. “In general there’s no overtime pay. I was curious as to how much I’m not being paid and calculating it myself, it came out to about 1 million yen for the last 6 months, or about 170,000 yen per month (the overtime pay would come out to about as much as my base salary). I’ve kept records of my own hours and saved the GPS trip data so I think I would have a case if I took it to court, but I owe them a debt of gratitude so the matter remains untouched.”
Another important point when it comes to compensation for production assistants is the travel allowance. Much of their work involves driving around to gather materials and meet creators, and that entails a cost that people barely above minimum wage shouldn’t have to sustain themselves. About one third of production assistants in our survey had their travel costs fully covered by the studio, while the majority were partly compensated for it – only a couple received no travel allowance, which is already a couple too many.
Partial compensation is admittedly a bit vague, so it’s worth noting that it includes both people who are assigned a fixed amount that won’t quite cover it – around 10,000 JPY appears to be common – and those that have a theoretical limit they never reach, so when it comes to it they’re as good as blank checks. As sad as it is to admit this, we expected even worse, so this is one of the few relatively positive conclusions from our survey.
However, for every small bit of hope there’s a truly nightmarish experience. The most chilling testimony we received goes as follows: “I’ve quit working at a studio not with just unpaid overtime pay, but with about 100,000 yen of my regular wages unpaid. There were also several cases of pushing a ton of work on newcomers until they completely burn out, and then suddenly firing them with no say in the matter… At the first studio I worked at, I hear there was a case of suicide before I joined. That studio used time cards that went up to 500 hours. We were told to choose between getting punched or kicked, and there were actually people who sustained injuries from being hit or strangled. I can only hope that things can improve as soon as possible.”
Leaving aside the literal wage theft and obscene overwork, this shows the nastiest face of a workplace abuse phenomenon that Japan refers to as power harassment; though that kind of harassment via abuse of authority isn’t uniquely Japanese, their society is so prone to it that they coined a specific term to describe it. Whether it’s physical abuse like that or emotional damage caused by superiors – sometimes those in the creative side like episode directors – this is a real problem that affects way too many people. Though cases as extreme as the one that we detailed in the previous paragraph are rare, over 75% of the production assistants in this survey confessed that they suffered psychological/physical abuse every now and then or even all the time.
If this is painting a grim picture of the situation it’s simply because things are that bad. And as usual, the worst of it is that they don’t have to be. The job of production assistant is inherently stressful, but given enough time and with more supportive studios, it’s possible to make it a fulfilling position as well. Even in the current chaos, some people blessed with above average conditions have managed to thrive. Every now and then we talk about production assistants who have a following as large within the industry as high-profile directors, since artists know that working with them is synonymous with creatively stimulating projects.
After making it clear that they fully empathized with all their coworkers who are currently suffering, the survey with the best working conditions we received ended with “[…] the topic of “overtime” comes up a lot but to be honest, the time that I spend working isn’t painful. So while the word can’t help but conjure up the associations it does, my experience doesn’t match that of others when they talk about overtime. Of course, I don’t think that people who value their time outside of work should be forced to work. It’s a matter of how you choose to live your life.”
When the circumstances allow for it, it is possible to lead a reasonably good life as a production assistant, just like how it’s possible for anyone else working in anime. And if there’s one thing that the professionals we contacted agreed about, it’s that we shouldn’t shut up until those cases go from rare exceptions to becoming the norm. Change is possible, if depressingly slow. Another production assistant confirmed that all this pressure has had an effect on the higher-ups at their studio, who’ve started giving days off to the management staff and working towards reducing overtime… though without the desired results yet. “[…] However, the anime production system itself has not changed, so when we get series without a good schedule, those days off inevitably go away and we end up having to work overtime every day. I’m in a situation where the studio itself has improved its policies, but the production process and how we actually make anime has yet to catch up.”
We’re nowhere near the goal, especially when it comes to reaching the systemic issues at the core of it all, but right about everyone in this industry is fed up with the situation and forcing things to change little by little. The least we could do for them is to stay up to date with their troubles and keep boosting their voices.