The anime industry is so saturated with high-profile projects at the moment that studios have to fight tooth and nail to secure qualified animators—sometimes internally so. What could be a great excuse to offer workers more attractive conditions is failing across the board.
Anime right now might very well be the best it has ever been for the largest number of people, though unfortunately, that comes at the cost of it likely being at its worst for certain folks; which is to say, that mainstream hits are breaking records left and right, but that producers desperately chasing that level of success are siphoning talent away from any remotely niche project, and further stressing a workforce that was already exhausted and spread too thin. Overproduction and the polarization of the industry are issues we keep highlighting, but it’s one thing to understand chronic pains and another one to grasp exactly how they manifest. And at the moment, it turns out that even putting together a team can be a tremendous struggle.
For starters, it’s important to understand why there’s such a feeling of saturation in the industry. While it’s evident that an obscene amount of anime is made, from an outsider’s point of view it’s too easy to obsess over raw numbers that don’t tell the full story. After all, the number of TV anime clearly peaked in 2015, while 2006 still remains the year with the most minutes of TV animation produced on record. This latter set of data is the one that comes closest to illustrating the current situation, with a recent peak that also happens to overlap with the most theatrical animation ever produced—a direct consequence of the outrageous boom in glorified TV anime specials screened in cinemas, which is kneecapping the idea of theatrical animation as we knew it. Even then, though, numbers fail to capture the nuance; a high-profile 6 episodes action anime commissioned by a certain streaming platform might span 1/4 of your standard 2 cours anime from a decade ago, but in no world does it equate to a fraction of the workload. Numbers simply aren’t built to accommodate critical details like design work, scope, specialized skillsets required, and so on.
So, while there are corporations that openly target the idea of simply flooding the market to amass as much content under their brand’s portfolio as possible, the biggest issue right now is more specific: an unsustainable overlap of high-profile, demanding projects. Much like viewers—although more worrying in their case—non-studio producers have never really had the best grasp of feasibility, so they have a tendency to chase dreams that hands-on personnel would know to be absolutely unreasonable. Apply that to the current climate of workforce exhaustion and international knockout hits coming out at a scale and rate never seen before, and you have way too many projects that come together with the idea to match the shiny megahit du jour, whether that’s actually in their cards or not.
Mind you, explicitly targeting existing works during planning stages is a standard move that isn’t inherently bad, but we’re talking about the industry where the staff of run-of-the-mill TV shows were told to make something exactly like Your Name after its tremendous success. With the current craze for bombastically animated action shows, similarly unreasonable demands are being passed down to teams that know only so many people are ready to even attempt to put together something like that—hence the current bloodbath for highly qualified staff.
Even from the point of view of a casual viewer, some of you might have realized that we’re in the midst of a seemingly endless succession of grand showcases of animation that draw from the same pool of animation talent. We’re not that far removed from projects like FGO Camelot, with plenty of festival-like episodes that have gathered the cream of the crop of youthful animation talent—as recently as a few weeks ago. Rising stars are making major debuts left and right, while the protagonists of similarly spectacular outings are preparing their next major work on upcoming works. Most notoriously, Chainsaw Man and Mob Psycho 100 S3 loom on the 2022 horizon amassing as much Sakuga (作画): Technically drawing pictures but more specifically animation. Western fans have long since appropriated the word to refer to instances of particularly good animation, in the same way that a subset of Japanese fans do. Pretty integral to our sites' brand. fuel as humanly possible, and plenty of high-profile productions adjacent to these teams like Shingo Natsume’s recent works or Ousama Ranking have also been keeping the same aces busy. Although anime fully opening up to international artists has greatly widened that pool of talent, there are only so many people with the experience and expertise to carry major titles like these. And right now, the fights to secure them are fierce.
The saturation is such that these struggles to secure qualified personnel can become internal ones, when it comes to certain studios reckless enough to juggle many projects at a time themselves. Studios like Cloverworks defy the conception that concurrent projects are fine as long as there is a strict separation between pipelines, by giving their star animation producers multiple concurrent projects each. With barely enough time to recover from Wonder Egg Priority, Umehara’s team is currently producing Bisque Doll’s fancy adaptation, and yet they’re supposed to put together an adaptation for Bocchi the Rock this same year. Nothing embodies the situation better than WEP hero Kerorira currently drawing all merch illustrations for Bisque, while also preparing for his character design debut on Bocchi… and proving the pipeline insulation isn’t that strict, as he’s also shown up on Akebi-chan—produced by Yuichi Fukushima, who also has an immediately upcoming high-profile title in Spy Family. Meanwhile, the likes of MAPPA have bypassed such issues because they’ve rejected the idea of proper pipeline management in the first place, so staff is just juggled between the most desperate—and most lucrative—productions as needed.
While less cynically motivated, the more traditional theatrical animation space is similarly saturated; before completely succumbing to the Disney-fication of anime, producers have made a final push for creator-led theatrical animation, which would be a more exciting event if they weren’t at each other’s throats to secure the right personnel. The directors on regular release patterns such as Mamoru Hosoda and Makoto Shinkai have competed with “new” contenders to this post-Ghibli space like Masashi Ando’s The Deer King and Yoshiyuki Momose’s The Imaginary, and that’s without addressing the elephant in the room—Hayao Miyazaki’s new movie, which is nearing completion as we speak.
Add to that special projects that land in the middle of this theatrical space and TV animation, such as Mitsuo Iso’s The Orbital Children, and you can imagine how hard it has gotten to get the right animators to commit to your project for anything more than a cameo appearance. Although theatrical schedules in particular tend to be more accommodating, even those projects are finding it nightmarishly hard to secure the right team for the job given the level of competition. Can you imagine having to put together a sequel to Maquia, a movie that rode on the shoulders of Toshiyuki Inoue and the animators that he attracted, when he has been fully booked elsewhere? Certain folks haven’t had to imagine that.
Though this should be enough to help you understand how hard it is to assemble a team right now if your goals are at all ambitious, there’s a missing element still. We always like to explore how these creative and managerial issues intersect with labor ones, which begs the question: if gathering personnel has become so tricky, why don’t these projects with fancy aspirations simply offer more money to animators? Surely that would give them the edge over other offers, right? I wouldn’t blame anyone for cynically assuming that this wouldn’t happen, especially in an industry as dire as anime, but the truth is that higher rates are being offered more regularly… and that approach is failing pretty spectacularly in multiple instances.
To understand why these attempts are falling flat on their face, it’s important to grasp exactly how poorly animators are paid; both the sums, that tend to fall between 2~5k JPY per cut for the rough Layouts (レイアウト): The drawings where animation is actually born; they expand the usually simple visual ideas from the storyboard into the actual skeleton of animation, detailing both the work of the key animator and the background artists. as well as for the finished Key Animation (原画, genga): These artists draw the pivotal moments within the animation, basically defining the motion without actually completing the cut. The anime industry is known for allowing these individual artists lots of room to express their own style., and the fact that these mainly freelance artists are only paid according to how much work they’re able to turn in. Mind you, that pay-per-cut system doesn’t account in any way—unless previously arranged—that not all shots are created equal, so any animator expending extra time crafting a complex scene with many layers and nuanced movement is effectively wasting an effort that will not be rewarded. While some mechanisms to address that are becoming ever so slightly more common, such as binding fees that reward animators for their long time commitment to a project on top of those measly rates, maintaining the same fundamentally flawed system means that those aforementioned demanding projects pitching 2-3 times those usual rates in an act of desperation aren’t actually attractive destinations.
Specific projects and even certain studios that have momentarily raised their normally abysmal fees are watching the qualified animators they intended to target shrug off those half-hearted measures. When given the choice, they would rather follow the artists they admire to other projects even if those have more standard rates—at the end of the day, we’re talking about small enough sums that it doesn’t make that big of a difference, and securing a binding fee from producers you’re acquainted with can be a much better deal. And, if it’s money they’re after, anyone with the ability to be picky can choose projects such as music videos, commercials, and proper films where rates between 12~20k for each step are the norm. Those desperate titles with above-market rates do eventually fill up their rosters after many animators have passed on the offer, but in the process, the burden often tends to land on artists who might be plenty talented yet lack the experience and preparation to carry a demanding work on their shoulders. This has been and will continue to be a problem causing high-profile titles to collapse in ways that may appear incomprehensible from the outside.
Anime and its spokespeople are experts in convincing others that this is simply how things are. That an industry making obscene amounts of money simply can’t address the employment model that has become the rotten root to many of its issues. Surely, studios like Kyoto Animation exist, but their fully in-house model and more careful production pacing simply can’t be replicated by other companies, even those owned by megacorporations for whom the amounts of money we’re dealing with are negligible. And yet, the truth is apparent. The backbone of Ufotable titles like Kimetsu no Yaiba continues to be their trustworthy, perfectly coordinated in-house team. While small by design, Hosoda’s Studio Chizu now properly employs some of his greatest allies to ensure they’re always available by his side. And both of those teams have come to understand—in some cases the hard way—the level of output they can actually handle, which hasn’t stopped them from being tremendously successful. It can be done, and it is being done. Don’t let other companies tell you otherwise.
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