The Imperfect Storm

There was a time when the $17,000 budget for an episode of Getbackers was considered obscenely low. Now industry figures claim that allocations of anime budgets have sunk to a shocking $14,000. That’s less than ten thousand pounds, divided among every sketch artist, colourist, animator and designer on an episode of TV anime. It means that there are some anime that cost less to make than this issue of NEO! Terrifyingly, it suggests that it can now cost more to dub certain anime into English than it does to make them in the first place. Unsurprisingly, some insiders are already questioning the figures, and asking if this is not perhaps an attempt by anime’s notoriously cunning accountants to squeeze taxpayers’ money to pay for the likes of Naruto, which, let’s face it, is hardly begging on the street corner with a tin cup and an eyepatch.

Meanwhile, of course, self-styled otaku prime minister Taro Aso (you’ll miss him when he’s gone!) wants a National Media Arts Centre in Tokyo Bay, a $120 million boondoggle where people can go and… well, nobody really knows yet. Watch anime. Read books. Look at someone’s colouring-in.

“If there really is money for this Centre,” notes Junichi Takagi, the producer of Red Garden, “I’d rather see it going to renewing the Japanese animation business and hence our national industry.” The pundits agree. Nobuyuki Tsugata, a noted historian of Japanese animation at Kyoto Seika University, is precisely the sort of person to benefit from a big boondoggle like the Centre, as it would sure to require talking heads, sign-writers, catalogue writers and speakers. But Tsugata isn’t in it for the money, he’s in it for anime, and he can see what’s happening.

“It is vital,” he told the Mainichi, “that we help medium- and small-scale anime productions.” Otherwise, there won’t be anything to look at, and after that I guess it’ll be nothing but cosplayers looking at each other.

Anime has been heading this way for 20 years. The demographic decline in juvenile audiences (who are, whatever way you cut it, still a big part of the revenue stream), and the aging otaku sector have created an industry that is increasingly self-referential. Aso’s white elephant isn’t even the first of its type; it is merely the largest. There is already an “Anime Centre” in Tokyo that offers visitors the chance to watch certain aspects of the production process. Anime’s publicity relies on the hoary cliché that it is taking the world by storm… and yet what kind of storm is it if it has to go cap in hand to the government? What kind of storm is it if the average monthly salary is $700? The public already subsidise anime by buying it in the first place, now we must pay to watch it getting made, merely so that it is made at all!?

Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, famous anime hyphenate, is having none of it. “Anime has the vitality of a weed. I want it to be left alone,” he told the Mainichi. “And with government support, I worry about potential restrictions being placed on freedom of expression.” Because nobody has yet asked if the Centre will be showing the Right Sort of anime. Or will Urotsukidoji be getting a subsidy, too…?

(This article first appeared in NEO Magazine #63, 2009)

10 thoughts on “The Imperfect Storm

  1. I read this earlier in the year, but reading it again now, surely is it not the same in many different sectors of the entertainment business? Of course, movies and TV stars tend to be paid fairly well, the American shows especially. But when you look at the Western videogame development scenes, the programmers, graphic artists etc are expected to work incredibly long hours for little wages, it’s more than what’s being described here, but it’s still a pittance in comparison to producers at the BBC for example.

    If the young market for anime is dwindling in Japan, then it needs to reinvent itself and start taking that market back. TV is always going to be around and with it becoming more and more integrated with the Internet and videogame consoles offering TV content on both mediums will surely increase the ad revenue and the younger market.

    I don’t know for certain, but a lot of the bigger anime titles in the past few years have ended up with Nintendo DS and other console tie-ins. Surely this duel element is pulling the kids into their programming by the masses, especially with the popularity of the DS in Japan?

  2. On the contrary, Ian, it would be a strange (and doomed) games company that didn’t try to attract the best talent with better wages. Games companies in Japan have even been hoovering up many of the best *animators* for the last ten years. (Actually, I should write something about that, sometime soon, too — I shall, thanks for reminding me). I’ve worked on several games productions as a scriptwriter, and I have been well compensated. In fact, it was the weeks I spent writing half of Halcyon Sun in 1999/2000 that made it possible to have a year “off” working on the first edition of the Anime Encyclopedia.

    I don’t see the games industry going cap-in-hand to the authorities and whining that the world will end unless the government subsidises Assassin’s Creed III, and yet that’s the kind of arguments we’re hearing from Japan over animation. Anime budgets have been cut and cut and cut right back to the bone. But signs of the recession have been hidden from the wider world because the bad debts were passed on to staff instead of consumers. If I were feeling really cynical, I might even suggest that the rise of the “visual novel” in Japan is actually a discreet spin on something else: the decline of anime budgets to the point where the “anime” isn’t even animated any more!

    Pound-for-pound in my experience, the best money for staffers is still in live-action TV and films. It’s because everything is needed *yesterday*, and because you have to drop everything and turn around top quality work in a wrecked weekend.

    As for game tie-ins, it’s true that there are many of them in the anime world. I would point out however, that in many, if not the majority of, cases since 1995, the game has come first, and an anime and/or manga has been tacked on to it, essentially as part of the advertising. If you think that makes anime sound like it’s often an afterthought… well, you’d be absolutely right.

    As I said in the original article, not *all* anime is in danger. Naruto is hardly in need of a subsidy. But there’s a lot of dead wood in the anime world, and a *lot* of people who base their income stream on pandering to an ever-dwindling sector of otaku. Many in the industry, as the article notes, were justifiably cynical about the suggestion that some sort of theme park or anime museum would do anything except line the pockets of consultants. And in the original argument, there was a fantastic aside from a Bandai representative, who pointed out that the whole anime spat was a storm in a teacup, and that the numbers being discussed were barely enough for a big-time entertainment company to build a single theme park ride.

    Incidentally. This has all happened before, several times. I’m working on something at the moment that may even provide conclusive proof that the entire animation business has been using unrealistic finance models since 1937 (!). When that’s all done, it’ll be sure to make an appearance on this blog.

  3. Is there a reason why the younger audiences are dwindling, other than puberty?

    Any time America remakes something, whether it be a horror film from the 80’s, a horror film from another country, a remake of an action film, a reboot of a franchise. People flock in droves, the usual response is that the original production is the superior version (maybe not so much with reboots, look at batman and star trek) In many cases the younger audiences see the remake first and that becomes their preferred film.

    Does anime incur the same kind of behaviour, are there people saying ‘not another Guyver series?’ are people questioning why Evangelion 1.0 was a shot for shot remake? Or do people look upon these as surefire sucessful anime based on the impact original version, compared to a new series, e.g character driven, like some gushy high school romance?

  4. It’s not so much that kids today are all about Tweets and mobile phones. It’s that there are simply less of them:

    The question of anime remakes requires a much more complicated answer, because the “24-month product cycle” has been a feature of children’s anime for decades. This holds that almost everything is a remake, because when churning out stuff for kids, you can get away with rolling out the same stuff every couple of years, just with a few cosmetic changes. There is a thesis waiting to be written, for example, on the writers of, say, Pokemon, and how many of them have been filing the serial numbers of scripts that they have previously sold to ten other franchises.

    Of course, as Chris has already noticed, this can be a comparison of apples and oranges. Ever since 1983, it has been possible for anime viewers to have a much longer memory, because they have been able to re-watch recordings of their favourite shows. Some companies have attempted to put a positive spin on remakes by claiming that they are playing to a nostalgia market. Sometimes, this is simply an excuse for having no imagination.

    In timid times, producers the world over are apt to consider a remake as a surer bet than trying something untried and untested. But it was ever thus.

  5. I can’t say I agree with you regarding the videogames market Jonathan, well, outside of Japan at the least.

    For example, Canada offers healthy tax benefits for videogame companies developing and even doing their PR in Canada. This caused huge issues with companies like Eidos, Ubisoft and to a lesser degree EA in the UK as the bosses in Japan, quite rightly, moved a lot of the operation across to Canada. Who wouldn’t? It’s certainly a different comparison, as they’re not cap in hand, but it’s a benefit of developing in Canada.

    However, in the past 12 months many of the UK developers have been “advising” the UK Government to do a similar style subsidiy to promote videogame development in the UK. Essentially going cap in hand for money.

    Although the average videogame developer’s wages in in the region of $70K USD, the majority of those wages are earned in the last few months of the videogame cycle during the “crunch” period. We’re talking 18 hour days and unfortunately if you’re salaried you don’t get overtime, unless you’re in CA in the US I believe. It leads to people leaving fairly quickly through exhaustion.

    Of course, I know where I’d rather be, simply because it would appear that they hours are the same but there’s a clear difference in wages. In both situations it’s not acceptable practise. In terms of writing staff, from my experience, they tend to be exempt from this “crunch” period which makes videogame development somewhat unappealing.

    I’ve seen an increase of videogames to anime in the past decade indeed, but I have to say that I’ve seen more anime to videogames in the past two years specifically. An anime which has been popular (Nodame Cantabile, Ouran High School, Higurashi came across to the DS after the anime [although I’m aware that it was originally based on a PS2 game], and even FMA) has ended up on the DS specifically. Cash cow maybe? Although the majority of the examples listed have had sequels so I guess it could be a way of keeping interest going…

    I’d be interested in seeing that payment model, it does sound like there’s a very dodgy payment method. Surely the model doesn’t adhere to Japanese minimum wage laws?

  6. Hmm, so many points here, so if you don’t mind I’ll just put my two pence worth in re dwindling audiences: I do tend to dally – no proof I’ve ever dillied! – a lot with Cosplayers, so it’s interesting to see where they are coming from as they seem to be a growing audience market sector.
    As has been mentioned otaku are getting old and thinning out, and the youngsters don’t seem to have anything left to watch at all. What I see (at Cons) are people who seem to have fallen into gameanime manga with a Mayfly-like attraction, that is to say they have an intense relationship with this pastime, but it lasts only a short time. As such I see a great deal of the same characters cycled around again and again as the “new” generation (generation = 2 years) “discovers” a character. But there is no doubting the growing interest in Cosplay- 4 years ago I was taking maybe 50 shots over a weekend, now it’s heading for 800 over two days. Very rarely do I see the same people in the following year, although I do see the same characters. If it’s trends you want, I’d say Games Cosplay appears to be growing in popularity. How this translates into actual sales I couldn’t say. Who knows, maybe just more people are watching bootleg these days?
    Getting back to the nub of the of this thread, the question I would pose is why don’t people stay with anime manga games? Throwing money, Government money, at something is not the answer unless you know the cause of the problem. If these things we love are in decline, then the why needs a thorough looking at first, rather than the current paring- to-the-bone triage of the Production companies. Still, I won’t be overly worried until Ghibli start making crap (commercial is OK too).

  7. JC – top work as always.

    PJ – you and I have had much discussion before about the inability of cosplayers to spend money on anything that isn’t cosplay-related – they watch their friend’s copies of things, or illegal versions. This is one reason why, during the period that ADV-I sponsored the Expo cosplay competition, we could give away box sets as prizes – I was startled at how pleased and thankful winners were, until I realised they spend their money on how they look, not on owning the inspirations. At least, until a company goes bust and the stock becomes bargain basement…. They’re not a sector to look to now for anything other than what shows/games/etc. are popular at the moment – although you’re dead on about the length of the cycle.

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