Anime Futures

With Mark Schilling’s permission, I’m putting up the unexpurgated text of the interview he conducted with me six weeks ago for his article on Japanese animation futures in the South China Morning Post, in part to show how much work goes on behind the scenes to get a sound bite and an article.

the-wind-rises-creating-planes-clipMark Schilling: You mentioned recently that several well-known anime studios might soon go kaput, but without naming names. Is it mainly a problem of rising costs? Declining revenues? Stiffer competition from Hollywood and elsewhere? All of the above?

Jonathan Clements: Some of it is economics — we’ve lost several minor studios recently, and their rise and fall, or restructuring and rebirth as “New” incarnations of themselves has been a common factor of the industry for decades. Ghibli itself was at least partly formed from the ashes of Topcraft, for example. Japanese studios in the twentieth century were able to function as subcontractors for American animation. That’s sometimes still true, but so many elements of anime production is now off-shored to China or South Korea that anime studios are smaller, and leaner, and more flexible in their behaviours. As Gonzo showed in the late noughties, it’s possible for a company to go almost completely dark, to give up its studio space, to lay off its animators and just coast for a couple of years as little more than a filing cabinet in an accountant’s office, waiting for the foreign residuals to roll in. That’s good for robust business, but bad for an animator’s job security!

There’s a generational issue that many people have spotted in the case of the high-profile retirements at Ghibli, but which is also common to the anime industry. The vision of a single creator, or team of creators, can steer a company and give it a distinctive style or brand, but nobody is immortal. People retire. The anime industry went through something very similar in the 1990s, where a bunch of the first-wave producers cashed in their shares, took their pensions, and handed over their companies to others — it’s what led to some of the big corporate buy-outs like Bandai taking ownership of Sunrise. That was seen at the time almost as a hostile take-over, but for many of the staff it was a welcome hand-over, with one of Sunrise’s biggest and most trustworthy clients taking a direct interest in its output, and thereby preserving the jobs of the employees.

What we have now, and have had for the last few years, is the aging of the Astro Boy generation, not of fans, but of animators. In 1963, Tezuka quadrupled the size of the animation industry, both directly through hirings at Mushi and indirectly through the creation of competition in the market. Those fresh-faced graduates are now in their seventies. Many of them are the leading lights of specific studios and, you know, some of them want to go off and play golf.

frozenIs the enormous success of Frozen in Japan a one-shot — or a game changer? Will more Japanese studios switch to Hollywood-style 3D CG animation, following the lead of the new Doraemon film? Will Hollywood exploit the fading of Studio Ghibli and become the dominant player at the Japanese box office, especially the animated segment of it?

Hollywood has always been the dominant player at the Japanese box office. There have been occasional spikes in local interest for particular directors or franchises, but Japanese cinema is eternally fighting a rear-guard action to push local product ahead of flashy foreign imports. Until Miyazaki’s late twentieth century successes, Japanese animation flourished like a weed, only in the spaces that The Lion King and Aladdin didn’t grow. Even in the 1990s, only a tiny handful of players like Gainax and Ghibli gave Disney anything close to a run for its money on home video. I think it’s worth considering Disney’s acquisition of Ghibli titles in that light — when Disney (or their subsidiaries) put money directly into Spirited Away, they weren’t just investing in a Japanese talent, they were ensuring that they got a piece of the pie from their main competitor in the Japanese market.

Japan has been slow to take up 3D CG, because it involves massive reskilling and investment in software and hardware. It’s a return to the state of the industry in the 1950s, when Disney product, made at a substantially greater cost to Japanese competition, was swamping the market with a relentless onslaught of material.

I don’t see Hollywood filling any new niche in Japan. Hollywood, in the form of Disney/Pixar and DreamWorks, will keep releasing its big family films and rolling on as before. The likely competition to do what anime does, to compete at a more domestic, perhaps even consciously “Asian” level, is going to come from China. Miyazaki’s retirement merited a sixty-page feature on Japanese animation in one of China’s biggest news-stand magazines, Lifeweek, last October. The implication was clear that this was a business feature, identifying a new market opening, and asking if China had what it took to move in on it.

I’m not saying that China is the new Ghibli. Far from it, the Chinese animation business has a lot to learn, and much of its output is highly derivative. But it is generating an animation labour base bigger than Japan’s every year. Kung Fu Panda 3 is going to be a “Chinese” film for contractual purposes, so even DreamWorks is relying increasingly on Chinese labour. The Chinese already represent two-thirds of the labour pool for what we call “Japanese” animation. Granted, that’s all concentrated in the lower, less-”skilled” echelons, but that doesn’t bode well for the future when the upper ranks of Japanese animation companies are increasingly drawn from the ranks of marketers and managers. It means that there is a very palpable risk that Japanese animation won’t have any actual animators steering it.

wind-rises-main_0You’ve no doubt read the anonymously sourced story about Studio Ghibli stopping production and becoming a rights management company. Do this strike you as credible? Some of the claims in that piece, such as The Wind Rises still being in the red, seem rather far-fetched to me…

You can see the signs very easily. When Toshio Suzuki was sitting on data that told him that “Studio Ghibli” had a 43% trust rating with the Japanese public, but that the name “Miyazaki” had a 64.2% trust rating, what did he do? He got Miyazaki’s son to direct Tales from Earthsea! I think you can see Suzuki’s very canny, very sharp management insight steering much of the last decade. Even as he retires, he puts a former Disney Japan executive in charge of Ghibli. He builds the Ghibli Museum, which is a classy theme park that generates a movie’s worth of revenue every year. He tries the Goro Miyazaki bait-and-switch manoeuvre, and essentially dares the Japanese public to come and watch the car-crash for themselves. He hypes up this father-son tension in the media, but then gets the Miyazakis working together on Poppy Hill. In the case of The Wind Rises, I see it as another calculated move by the studio, to wring one last box office winner out of Hayao Miyazaki. I like to think of them going to his house and begging him to make one last film to keep the momentum going at the museum and on video, and telling him he can make ANYTHING he likes. Because the subject of that film is so personal, and indulgent, and risky, that I can’t imagine anyone else being allowed to get away with it.
My prediction: in a couple of years’ time Ghibli will go into production on a script “written by” Hayao Miyazaki, just to ring that bell again. He’s effectively given them a 50-title wish-list of children’s literature worth adapting. There is undoubtedly a faction at Ghibli who wants to pivot it towards doing World Masterpiece Theatre, and carrying Miyazaki’s legacy in a different direction, by copying his early TV successes adapting children’s books. That’s why they’re moving into TV with Ronia the Robber’s Daughter, but you can see the Ghibli is only co-producing it. The animation is actually being done by Polygon Pictures.

That The Wind Rises is still in the red sounds ludicrous to me. If it is, it’s only in the movie-accounting sense that Forrest Gump is still technically “in the red.” The Wind Rises did fine.

garden of wordsPeople have been talking about various “new Miyazakis” for years, but that we are truly in the post-Miyazaki era, who do you see as leading the industry, if not necessarily inheriting Miyazaki’s crown? If none of your names are from Studio Ghibli, why not?

It’s a cliche to talk about the “new Miyazaki.” Japanese animators hate the whole argument, because it usually implies nothing new at all, just a magical cloning of his unique skillset, and his unique, timely rise in the movie market, and with supporters like Takahata and Suzuki. Ghibli was a three-man success story, very much of its time, and you can’t have a new Miyazaki without having a new Takahata and a new Suzuki. It also requires some awareness of what we mean when we ask for a “new Miyazaki”. Because Makoto Shinkai has a lot of Miyazaki’s heart, but none of his “family” appeal. Shinkai has cornered a market in films for people who grew up watching Miyazaki movies, but he doesn’t make movies for tomorrow’s families. I guess that’s the problem, there. It’s not about who the new Miyazaki is, it’s about who the new audience is. It’s now easier in Japan to buy diapers for old people than for kids. The kids’ market is shrinking, and that further reduces your chances of making blockbuster money on a family film.

Studio Ghibli actually tried to grow the new Miyazaki themselves, in several abortive attempts to co-opt big-name talents like Mamoru Hosoda. The fact that Hosoda didn’t fit in at an increasingly management-oriented Ghibli is actually a sign of his true potential, far more than staying there would have been!

They also brought in a dozen promising animation assistants and put them to work directly with Miyazaki and Takahata to foster a new generation of talents. That was called the Higashi-Koganei Sonjoku scheme, and its graduates stand a good chance of making waves over the next ten years. People like Masayuki Miyaji, for example, Masashi Okumura and Kenji Itoso.

But ironically, Miyazaki’s own shadow looms so large that it’s difficult for someone to turn up at Ghibli with a distinctive voice and not have it shouted down by risk-averse managers. Goro Miyazaki’s films often look like a committee trying to recreate his father’s successes, and that should come as a surprise to nobody. Ghibli was lightning in a bottle, and rumours about its move into legacy management are only logical — I think what people forget was just how darn lucky Disney was that Pixar could show up at the right moment and completely revitalise its output with fresh ideas and fresh technology, and real talents. Ghibli doesn’t have that. Ghibli doesn’t have a powerful competitor that it can embrace and merge with.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History and Modern Japan: All That Matters.

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6 thoughts on “Anime Futures

  1. Miyazaki’s popularity is ludicrously out of proportion with the rest of cinema anime, and even the rest of Ghibli. He retires and suddenly the game has completely changed, a new era has dawned, the industry is in disarray, and a Chinese takeover looms on the horizon (as if the industry had consisted solely of him). He is so important that Ghibli had to start considering the possibility of quitting animation production, and indeed Marnie did not do so well at the box office because his name wasn’t attached. And if a new director makes a name for himself it must mean he’s “the next Miyazaki” (as if Shinkai didn’t have his own distinct style clearly different from Miyazaki’s). It can’t be denied that his movies are in a class of their own, but the cult of personality surrounding him is just too much.

    Something Schilling’s article completely neglects is the much more important television anime industry, where Miyazaki’s retirement ought to make no difference. Miyazaki’s importance actually highlights the relative unimportance of cinema anime; if it all revolves around one man, then what happens when that man is gone? Everything collapses? Then Miyazaki is important but the industry at large is not. Well, of course there is more to cinema anime than him or Ghibli, but you wouldn’t know it when you look at the reaction to his retirement.

    As for 3D animation, of course a company specializing in it is going to claim it’s on the rise. But I don’t think it is. The success of a 3D Doraemon movie tells us nothing because it’s already a very popular franchise. Frozen is an anomaly like Titanic and Avatar, something that just blows up and becomes hugely popular, and Disney has been popular anyway since the early or mid-20th century. America has been making special effects spectacles and 3D animation for a long time, and it’s only a few movies that become monstrously successful. In television anime, 3D shows are few and far between and completely eclipsed in popularity by 2D ones. Also, the 2009 3D movie Oblivion Island seemed to come and go almost unnoticed even though it was a really good movie.

    And I hope 3D never takes off, because it’s simply inferior to 2D animation. It doesn’t have the depth of artistic expression and craftsmanship that 2D does, and consequently the audience has no respect for it (which is even more the case with computer special effects). If it works, great, but nobody is impressed by computer graphics anymore unless it’s real-time (and even that has started to become less impressive).

    Finally: I don’t know if the Chinese will ever become significant players in animation (probably not though), but I know that they cannot ever replace anime. Anime is a confluence of many unique factors and circumstances that just can’t be replicated. In fact, anime today is just one part of a bigger whole.

    By the way, you said that 2/3 of anime’s labor pool is Chinese, but I’ve never noticed that when I’ve looked at credits. I frequently see many Korean names, but never Chinese ones. And with all the Japanese and Koreans already doing animation, how much room can there be left for Chinese animators? Is there something I’m missing?

  2. I have been spotting Chinese names on anime credits for the last 20 years. Blink and you’ll miss them sometimes, because a single studio in Beijing or Shanghai shows up as a single line on the credits roll, obscuring the contribution of dozens of inbetweeners or colourists. Nor is it just about the Koreans and the Chinese — Jan Scott Frazier set up a studio in Thailand on behalf of Noboru Ishiguro, and Toei’s biggest foreign subsidiary in the early days of digital was in the Philippines, delivering new frames by ISDN. There’s plenty of room for Chinese animators, as long as they are cheap — the new Unijapan film fund is quite happy if only the top five staff members on a production are Japanese. It will still pay out if everyone else on the production is a foreigner. My 2/3 quote isn’t mine, by the way, it’s quoting Ryosuke Takahashi.

    Television and cinema are certainly heavily co-dependent in Japan, much more so than in the English-speaking world. Ghibli’s main anime competitors at the box office all lean on the strength of long-running franchises to grow an audience. Miyazaki’s “popularity” aside, much of the conversation about his retirement has been driven by hard-nosed financial concerns, that he appears to be the sole factor that can carry a Ghibli film from a mild success of break-even to substantial profit. Films like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away carried a major part of the entire domestic box office in the years of their release — so regardless of whether Miyazaki is popular or not or a genius or not, movie *business* coverage is extremely interested in his departure.

    I don’t have my book Anime: A History to hand this morning, but I seem to recall that Mononoke, for example, was worth more at the box office in the year of its release than the next five anime films put together. So yes, sure, there’s “more to cinema anime” than just Miyazaki, but if you’re an accountant, as so many in the movie world really are, then his departure has an impact that is palpable and financial.

    For an anime film to break even at the box office, it needs to be in the top twenty Japanese movies that year, and earn over a billion yen. That’s a tall order for anything that doesn’t come with a franchise already attached. TV is important because a show with a 4% audience share like Naruto can deliver a million punters at the cinema box office. But Miyazaki was important because he didn’t need a TV show to get those numbers. He could do it repeatedly, from a standing start, when the only “brands” at work were his studio’s name and, as I say above, his own.

    Jonathan Clements

  3. Those are good points. I neglected to consider many of the business aspects of all this, and I also somehow forgot successful shows can be spun off into movies, so TV and cinema anime are not quite so separate. But does Miyazaki’s retirement matter outside of people who profit from anime/cinema on a general level, such as theatre owners? For example, would it make any difference for a movie released two years from now— perhaps one based on a late night anime—whether or not Miyazaki or Ghibli itself is still active? That is, does it make any difference for creators and consumers?

    I’m really skeptical of Takahashi’s claim, because it’s an unreasonable idea to me that 2/3 of the industry’s labor pool is so deeply obfuscated that I just have to take somebody’s word that it exists (on top of the many, many people and studios already credited on productions).

  4. That’s right, it doesn’t really make a difference to creators and consumers at the level of sitting in the audience and watching a movie. Although, the financial aspect *may* make a difference to the likelihood that, say, the cinema will actually be showing it at all if anime no longer demonstrates itself as a money spinner to theatre owners.

    I don’t see any reason to be skeptical of Takahashi’s claim. As I wrote in Anime: A History:

    “By 2007, the Asahi Shinbun was reporting that Sazae-san was the last anime to be made (Asahi Shinbun 2007) using the outmoded cel tradition, since only Sazae-san was still in production with staff too old to learn new techniques. The article implies not only that animators elsewhere have been forced to adapt or face the sack, but that Chinese outsourcing companies were also fully digital, and handling ‘20-30%’ of the workload of the ‘Japanese’ animation business. This assertion, however, cites a figure based on the number of processes handled offshore. In terms of actual manpower, vastly more labourers are employed in the lower echelons of colourists and inbetweeners than in the higher echelons of directors and key animators. As a result, in labour terms, the number of non-Japanese participants in the ‘Japanese’ animation industry is now more like 60-70% of the overall workforce (Takahashi 2012).”

  5. Well, it’s not like I have I have any hard facts to dispute his claim, but again I find it dubious that there could be such a vast number of people involved (on top of the masses of people credited on productions) who essentially don’t appear to exist. It doesn’t add up as far as I can see.

    Thanks for the responses.

  6. Pingback: The State of Anime, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Hate Aging Otaku | 4kYeah | Weekly Anime Review

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