Pikachu’s thunderbolt struck America in 1998 and changed the lives of a generation.
The US anime craze started at the turn of the century with Sailor Moon’s middle-school magical girls out to save faraway planets; One Piece’s pirates, cyborgs, and fish people seeking a legendary treasure; and Pokémon’s Ash Ketchum on a noble quest to “catch ’em all.”
These classic shows and many others led the charge; between 2002 and 2017, the Japanese animation industry doubled in size to more than $19 billion annually. One of the most influential and renowned anime, Neon Genesis Evangelion, finally debuted on Netflix this month, marking the end of years of anticipation and a new pinnacle in anime’s global reach.
But anime’s outward success conceals a disturbing underlying economic reality: Many of the animators behind the onscreen magic are broke and face working conditions that can lead to burnout and even suicide.
The tension between a ruthless industry structure and anime’s artistic idealism forces animators to suffer exploitation for the sake of art, with no solution in sight.
Anime’s slave labor problem
Anime is almost entirely drawn by hand. It takes skill to create hand-drawn animation and experience to do it quickly.
Shingo Adachi, an animator and character designer for Sword Art Online, a popular anime TV series, said the talent shortage is a serious ongoing problem — with nearly 200 animated TV series alone made in Japan each year, there aren’t enough skilled animators to go around. Instead, studios rely on a large pool of essentially unpaid freelancers who are passionate about anime.
At the entry level are “in-between animators,” who are usually freelancers. They’re the ones who make all the individual drawings after the top-level directors come up with the storyboards and the middle-tier “key animators” draw the important frames in each scene.
In-between animators earn around 200 yen per drawing — less than $2. That wouldn’t be so bad if each artist could crank out 200 drawings a day, but a single drawing can take more than an hour. That’s not to mention anime’s meticulous attention to details that are by and large ignored by animation in the West, like food, architecture, and landscape, which can take four or five times longer than average to draw.
“Even if you move up the ladder and become a key-frame animator, you won’t earn much,” Adachi said. “And even if your title is a huge hit, like Attack on Titan, you won’t make any of it. … It’s a structural problem in the anime industry. There’s no dream [job as an animator].”
Working conditions are grim. Animators often fall asleep at their desks. Henry Thurlow, an American animator living and working in Japan, told BuzzFeed News he has been hospitalized multiple times due to illness brought on by exhaustion.
One studio, Madhouse, was recently accused of violating labor code: Employees were working nearly 400 hours per month and went 37 consecutive days without a single day off. A male animator’s 2014 suicide was classified as a work-related incident after investigators found he had worked more than 600 hours in the month leading up to his death.
Part of the reason studios use freelancers is so they don’t need to worry about the labor code. Since freelancers are independent contractors, companies can enforce grueling deadlines while saving money by not providing benefits.
“The problem with anime is that it just takes way too long to make,” Zakoani, an animator at Studio Yuraki and Douga Kobo, said. “It’s extremely meticulous. One cut — one scene — would have three to four animators working on it. I make the rough drawings, and then two other people would check it, a more senior animator and the director. Then it gets sent back to me and I clean it up. Then it gets sent to another person, the in-betweener, and they make the final drawings.”
According to the Japanese Animation Creators Association, an animator in Japan earns on average ¥1.1 million (~$10,000) per year in their 20s, ¥2.1 million (~$19,000) in their 30s, and a livable but still meager ¥3.5 million (~$31,000) in their 40s and 50s. The poverty line is Japan is ¥2.2 million.
Animators make ends meet any way they can. Terumi Nishii, a freelance animator and game designer, earns most of her income from video game animation because she has to take care of her parents. On an animator’s salary, she would have little chance of feeding herself.
“When I was young, I honestly suffered,” said C.K., an animator and character designer who didn’t wish to be named. “Luckily, my family is from Tokyo, so I could live with my parents and somehow get by. As an in-between animator, I was making ¥70,000 yen (~$650) a month.”
Anime’s structural iniquities stem back to Osamu Tezuka, the creator of Astro Boy and the “god of manga.” Tezuka was responsible for an endless catalog of innovations and precedents in manga, Japanese comics, and anime, onscreen animation. In the early 1960s, with networks unwilling to take the risk on an animated series, Tezuka massively undersold his show to get it on air.
“Basically, Tezuka and his company were going to take a loss for the actual show,” said Michael Crandol, an assistant professor of Japanese studies at Leiden University. “They planned to make up for the loss with Astro Boy toys and figures and merchandise, branded candy. … But because that particular scenario worked for Tezuka and the broadcasters, it became the status quo.”
Tezuka’s company made up the deficit and the show was a success, but he unknowingly set a dangerous precedent: making it impossible for those who followed in his footsteps to earn a living wage. Diane Wei Lewis points out in a recent study that women, who often worked on animation from home, were especially vulnerable to exploitation and paid even less.
Nowadays, when production committees set the budget for shows, there is a long-established precedent to keep costs low. The revenue is divided up among the television networks, manga publishers, and toy companies. “The parent companies make money from the merchandising tie-ins,” Crandol said, “but the budget for the rank-and-file animators is separate.”
“These prices are so ridiculous because they’re still based on what Tezuka came up with,” said Thurlow. “And back then, the drawings were very simple … you had a circle head and dot eyes, and maybe you can draw an in-between in 10 minutes. I could earn some money at that pace … but Japanese anime, [now] one drawing is so detailed. You’ve worked for an hour for two bucks.”
Thurlow added that there is an expectation that you quit when you get married. “Because if you’re married, you need to spend some time with your spouse. You can’t work all the time and earn nothing.”
The price of art
The artistic results do not disappoint. The 2016 anime film Your Name, a charming body-swap romance that became anime’s biggest box office success, features a catalog of gorgeously rendered landscapes worthy of an art gallery.
The depictions of the food alone are worthy of a “Top Ten Foods in Tokyo” listicle: oily ramen with pork and boiled egg; fluffy pancakes drizzled with syrup and generously topped with pineapple and peach; a handmade bento box full of neatly rolled sweet Japanese omelette, sausages, ripe cherry tomatoes, and pickled plum.
Crandol pointed out that you can identify every background in Your Name as an actual building or place in Tokyo.
Artistry is one appeal of anime. Ian Condry identifies several others in his book The Soul of Anime: adult themes, graphic content, innovative genreless fusion such as Samurai Champloo’s samurai-hip-hop remix, and anime’s democratic spirit, where fans participate in making art through fan subtitles, fan art, and fanfiction.
Historically, merchandising created more revenue than TV or movies, but as the popularity of anime has skyrocketed overseas, anime itself makes up a much larger portion of the revenue. Overseas video alone accounted for about half of global revenue in 2017. Yet the stingy budgets and unlivable wages remain.
When Western companies like Netflix enter the market, they get to pay the dirt-cheap, long-established Japanese prices. TV stations, merchandise companies, and foreign streaming services walk away with the profits, leaving not only individual animators struggling but entire studios scraping by on shoestring budgets.
The solution is not as simple as animators demanding higher salaries. A 2016 Teikoku Databank report revealed that revenue is down 40 percent over 10 years for 230 mainstay Japanese animation studios. “In order to achieve further development of the animation industry, there is an urgent need to improve the economic base of animators and radically reform the profit structure of the entire industry,” the report stated.
As the founder of a small studio, D’art Shtajio, Thurlow explained that mandating higher salaries without a greater change in industry structure would cause his and most other studios to go bankrupt due to budgetary constraints. The industry would consolidate into “Big Anime,” a world where a few mega-studios produce Hollywood-style hits, with mass marketing and generic content tailored to the lowest common denominator.
With low-level animators pushed out of work, the creative, passionate spirit of anime would rot away. After all, there is no reason to become an animator other than because you love it.
“It’s a passion,” Zakoani said. “Because there’s not any returns [from] working. It’s only because I really enjoy doing it. I just feel like I need to do it. Because when you see your show being broadcast, and you know you worked on it, it’s the greatest feeling ever.”
Thurlow dropped everything to come to Japan to draw the shows he loved. The experience proved a far cry from his life as an American animator, where he had worked on shows that lacked the same complexity in art, story, and themes: Dora the Explorer and Beavis and Butt-Head if he was lucky. “Artists are busting their ass for the dream,” he said.
Nishii spoke out on Twitter with a firm recommendation:
No matter how much you like anime, it is not advisable to come to Japan and participate in anime work. Because the animation industry is usually overworked— NISHII_terumi (@Nishiiterumi1) April 22, 2019
Adachi agreed. “Honestly, I would not recommend it … it’s a pyramid structure, where many at the bottom work to support a few at the top. I don’t see a bright future.”
The debate over the industry’s economics rages on, often on Twitter. A partial solution could be for international studios to buck the established cultural norm and provide anime studios the same budgets as Western studios. Another model could be allowing animators to retain the rights to their drawings and earn royalties.
One organization, New Anime Making System Project, raises money to provide a safety net and reduce burnout for up-and-coming animators. The project has provided affordable housing for animators who have gone on to direct parts of Naruto, Attack on Titan, and other top-of-the-line anime.
Jun Sugawara, the founder of the project, said he started the project as a graphic designer who wanted to support fellow artists. “It takes genius to create beautiful hand-drawn animation, and animators’ skills are not valued,” he said. The organization is expanding with the “Anime Grand Prix,” a contest for crowdfunded short anime films and music videos commissioned on a living wage.
Animators are bearing a nearly intolerable burden for the sake of beautifully hand-drawn television. For the sake of fluffy pancakes, lush sunset landscapes, and adventures across time, space, genre, and culture. For everything you watch and love, animators pay the price.
Yet they draw on.
C.K. spent a few years growing up in England due to his father’s job. With no English to speak of, he spent his days drawing manga, flipping the pages in his notebook between his forefinger and thumb, watching the drawings come alive.
“I could never forget that feeling,” he said. “When you animate a still character on a page, you can see them move, laugh, cry, get angry … that’s the charm of animation. When I see my hand-drawn work shared and seen not just in my country but around the world, I feel happiness.”
Eric Margolis is a freelance writer and translator from Japanese based in New York. You can follow his work on Twitter @EricMargolis1. And check out the animators who participated in this story and support their work: Shingo Adachi, Henry Thurlow, Terumi Nishii, and Zakoani.