Independent Japanese Animation & The Commercial Industry In 2020: Blurring The Lines

Independent Japanese Animation & The Commercial Industry In 2020: Blurring The Lines

While the world as a whole is in a pretty bad place, it’s been quite a strong season for independent animation creators. If you need some cheering up, we’ve highlighted a few fantastic artists & trends, and explained how the indie world intersects (or doesn’t) with the commercial anime industry nowadays.

The current boom of independent Japanese animation hardly qualifies as news. It’s worth noting that the country has always had a fascinating alternative scene in the first place. Some artists, like Koji Yamamura, are capable of carving out their name alongside the most recognized animation creators despite relying on little to no external support. However, as tends to be the case everywhere, accessibility and reach are an issue. For all but the most acclaimed individuals, having access to a reliable platform to promote their work was kind of a nightmare, the lack of archival capabilities meant that some excellent pieces were lost to time, and let’s not forget that the barrier of entry to create animation as an single person or even a small group was often prohibitive too.

While independent animation creation is still anything but an easy job, the truth is that most of those issues barely apply anymore. Social media has made it effortless to put your work out there, not guaranteeing anyone the attention their work deserves, but at least giving them a free chance they didn’t have before. Regardless of their success, archival in services like Youtube and Vimeo – still the preferred platforms for Japanese indies – means that both creators and audience don’t have to get lucky with temporary exhibits down the line to have a chance to connect. Even student graduation projects, which we were lucky to get a glimpse of before, flood the web now with the kind of wild creativity you see in artists who aren’t yet acquainted with animation canons, let alone conditioned by them.

And of course, the massive advances of digital animation have opened up the floodgates. Younger artists who didn’t have the means to create something by themselves with traditional tools can now put together short films that pack as strong of a punch as many professional works, making up for their lack of polish with sheer energy. This evolution in toolsets marked a genuine paradigm shift, a change in what’s possible that can’t be overstated… but at the same time, we can’t forget that a subset of independent creators has stuck to traditional techniques, not just with 2D animation but with the likes of stop motion or sand animation. After all, being able to raise your middle finger to draconian efficiency is one of the benefits of independent creation versus commercial production.

This is all to say that we live in a bit of a golden age of independent animation – something not limited to Japan, since these changes have also globalized the creation and consumption processes – meaning that we could be writing about these individual creators constantly, more than we already do. Last year, a group of up-and-coming artists in Kyoto organized under the name Gekigadan made a big splash with the public release of Aerial Battleship Atlantis, which you can still watch for free and with English subtitles on Youtube. This group of students had launched a crowdfunding campaign the prior year to be able to realize their dream, and that they did. Viewers all over the world immediately found their desire to become the new Gainax genuine, not just for their ability to pay homage to the studio’s iconic works without coming across as derivative, but also due to the similarities between a project like this and the Daicon opening animations that led to Gainax’s creation.

Although it didn’t catch on among western fans in the same way, there was another short film publicly released last year – and still streaming for free – that I felt embodied the potential of student animations, precisely because it was exceptional in aspects it shouldn’t be. Up-and-coming artists have boundless imagination and the boldness to put it to full use, but when working on personal projects like this, lack the resources and experience required to polish up their ideas. And yet, Memory of Blue showed more finesse in its animation than most commercial pieces I watched that year, without sacrificing the homely charm inherent to independent projects like this. Studio Himalaya (a collective of Tama Art University alumni Akane Hirai, Ryosuke Yagida, and Mai Yamaguchi) proved to be another group worth following; much like Gekigadan, exciting not just for what they’ve already put out, but for the potential they hold.

So, if we’ve been stuck in this blissful era of indie prosperity for a while, why write this piece now? For starters, because I felt like we could all do with some happiness in our feeds at the moment – guess who’s quarantined? – but also because the start of 2020 has been treating Japanese independent animation fans particularly well. Miraculously so, to be honest, considering that even a project like Kenji Iwaisawa’s On-gaku: Our Sound that tests the limits of independent production managed to safely be released, after a long production and a successful crowdfunding campaign. Its reception in theaters and film festivals can be distilled down to a wholehearted it was worth the seven years long animation process, so I’m dying to get an opportunity for a more in-depth look at the film.

Even if you’re limited to works distributed online, there’s been an exceptional crop this season, not just when it comes to releases but for teasers too. Shingo Tamagawa, an articulate acting specialist who was supported by the Animator Dormitory initiative, announced last month that he had finally finished the production of the independent work he’d been creating for a very long time, so we’re in for a treat whenever he figures out the best format to release it.

Among all the new works readily available, the one that stands out the most might be the music video for Loin’s Giant Killing, singlehandedly produced by Komugiko2000; the credits specify that he’s responsible for storyboarding, color design, and animation, but the truth is that he created all but a single shot entirely unassisted. Although his career is still in its early stages, you can look at that one-man-army approach as very representative of his philosophy. Mind you, this doesn’t mean that he’s not willing to accept help – far from that – but rather that his approach to the creative process is built upon the idea of always making what he wants to, which is more feasible when he’s singlehandedly producing animation. If he’s able to surround himself with similarly minded folks, though, he’ll be the first one to celebrate the chance to actually bring all his concepts to life. Perhaps one day Studio Komugiko won’t be a joke.

Regardless of all the pitches he comes up with and his small portfolio of fully fledged, finished works, Komugiko’s transparently honest approach to filmmaking means that his personal ideals are easy to isolate. Color design is the aspect of his work that he holds in the highest regard, and I don’t believe that to be misplaced confidence. Certain shades of blues and greens dominate both his larger works and social media clips, and yet they’re always accentuated with dashes of warmer colors, resulting in a bright and cheerful worldview even at the brink of catastrophe. That goes along well with the strong role that nature plays in his imagination: be it the abandoned countryside or a post-apocalyptic world, it’s no secret that he’s a fan of contrasting the ordinary modernity of schoolgirls with settings where wildlife has taken over. In a way, his work feels like a hint of what a current re-imagination of Future Boy Conan could be like.

In the end, I believe that Komugiko’s appeal comes down to how perfectly he embodies the spirit of independent creation, making exactly what he wants even if he has to cut corners or bury himself under a pile of work. It’s not just that his rough character art – reminiscent of Tsukimizu, albeit less blobby – seen in Giant Killing ends up being appealing, but also how it brings to mind that the entire thing was made by a young artists using nothing but an iPad. Although not even he can predict where he’ll end up, considering his attitude and the pride he takes in being able to maximize the scarce resources he’s got, I could see him staying in the indie space for a long time.

That brings us to a point that’s always worth reiterating: the dichotomy between commercial and independent animation isn’t actually real, or at least not as stark of a separation as it may seem. As handy as it’d be to divide Japan’s animation output into purely profit-driven commercial projects and independent works born out of love for the art, that’s simply not how things work. One of the most coveted positions as an independent creator is precisely making ads, as we know for a fact that it pays an order of magnitude better than standard rates, usually giving them a curious degree of freedom while essentially funding their more personal projects in the process. With how tight the situation in the commercial anime industry is, it’s no surprise that many high profile members are trending in this direction.

One of the more interesting recent cases is Takahiro Shikama, who played key roles in some of the biggest anime productions in recent years… only to announce that he was moving onto alternative formats, accepting requests for promotional videos and commercials in independent fashion. Curiously, his announcement was quickly removed and replaced by a newer version that specified the clip he posted was made for commercial studio David Production, with whom he appears to have established a symbiotic relationship since then.

Kerorira is one of the recurring stars on the highest-profile TV anime productions right now, and yet he hasn’t stopped putting out his independently made Nijisanji short clips – the last of which has a small contribution by Keito Oda, another promising industry youngster.

And that right about sums up these dynamics. No artist is fully tied to a faction, but rather flows between types of project as they see fit. Koudai Watanabe, arguably the biggest source of hope in the largest studio in the entire industry, has now gone independent and intends to focus on his personal project Piggy One, but to keep food on the table – and to assist acquaintances in the industry – iss still picking up commercial jobs on the side; a similar position as Naoki “yotube” Yoshibe, an old pal of his, has been in for years. And it goes both ways: long time indie darlings like Masanobu Hiraoka and Wataru Uekusa are no strangers to TV anime cameos, and for the likes of Yoko Kuno, it’s essentially become their main job. As if to make distinctions even more pointless, studios like Space Neko Company have flooded projects like Pop Team Epic with dozens upon dozens of independent artists.

Whether you were aware of it or not, this means that you were already experiencing the work of many independent artists. As daunting as the indie animation world may appear at first glance, it’s in many ways inseparable from the commercial productions that fans have no qualms consuming. Even if all you’ve got energy to follow standard anime, keeping an eye on all the fantastic artists adjacent to that scene is a smart thing to do – they’re likely to show up in commercial productions, and even if they don’t, their works are already worth the price of admission… especially since they tend to be available for free.

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1 year ago

Indie love is welcome. Another good example of industry animator doing indie work is Tanaka Masaaki whom you wrote about for that post about WIT Ibaraki. He released the first episode for a new indie series recently

1 year ago

can you confirm koudai left toei??

1 year ago

Still waiting for Shingo to finish Bullet Violetta, any year now… :’-( Been waiting since nearly a decade ago: For real now. As much as I like people having the opportunity to sufficiently provide for themselves achieving to work professionally on the animation industry —possibly without suffering too much in the process—, I can’t help but feel sad that those successful enough to do solo works (e.g. PV or MV) as contractors for ad agencies or music labels end all gobbled-up by them and their commissions to the point of a stifling their self-expression on more personal projects. And… Read more »

1 year ago

Only now just found time to read this, it’s always a lot of work even despite your friendly style of writing and plenty of examples and sources so that I’m not left wondering whad did they mean by that. I mean I still am since I don’t understand nuance and half of the used terms, but not that much. Kinda sad though when I try to google a bit of info about one of these and the first hits are just your Tweets. I realise it might be due to language differences, I learned a long time ago that to… Read more »